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Gogatsubyo: 3 Japanese movies to watch if you feel stuck in your work life

There’s always a light at the end of the tunnel.

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It happens every year in Japan. Golden Week (a series of national holidays from the end of April to early May) rolls around and suddenly people find themselves caught in the mysterious gogatsubyo, or “May sickness.” It’s that terrible feeling employees get when they have to go back to the drab office after having a long, relaxing vacation.

Gogatsubyo is widespread in Japan partly because of the nation’s rigid work culture: long work hours, short vacations, top-down bosses, a complicated hierarchical system among colleagues, extensive unpaid overtime work, neverending meetings … you get the picture. The movies listed below, although certainly slightly exaggerated, show us the dark side of working in Japan and explain the reason behind the prevailing gogatsubyo syndrome in the country.

However, in spite of the grim work circumstances performed on screen, all three films also show that that proverbial silver lining can still be found in the worst of workplaces. Have you also been having a really awful time at work lately? If yes, you’re not alone. But, before you decide to pack it all in and just quit, you may want to watch these three Japanese movies that may make you think otherwise.

1. To Each His Own (ちょっと今から仕事やめてくる), 2017

In this drama based on a novel of the same name written by Emi Kitagawa, rookie salesman Takahashi is fed up of working unpaid overtime and always apologizing to his screaming boss. The young man questions himself what the purpose of working is and whether it is to “live,” he wonders whether his current existence can be called an actual living. One night, a guardian angel saves him from being hit by an oncoming train. This guardian angel calls himself Yamamoto and claims to be Takahashi’s long lost friend from middle school.

Yamamoto confesses to Takahashi that he too was a disgruntled salaryman who decided to adopt a more relaxed attitude to his work life. Yamamoto then coaches Takahashi to develop a new life perspective which soon attracts the attention of one of his female co-workers. The contrast between flamboyant Yamamoto and depressed Takahashi drives home the point that no one should be miserable at work all the time.

Cast: Asuka Kudo, Fukushi Sota, Haru Kuroki
Director: Izuru Narushima

2. A Man on the Verge at a Black Company (ブラック会社に勤めてるんだが、もう俺は限界かもしれない), 2009

Based on a true story posted anonymously in a popular online forum, Masao, a NEET (Not in Education, Employment, or Training) and high school dropout must find a job when his mother dies. However, finding work as a recently qualified computer programmer with no experience during a recession is no small feat. The good news is that one small IT firm decides to hire him. The bad news is that the business turns out to be a “black company” — a company that uses and abuses its employees, often by breaking a series of labor regulations.

After being constantly belittled by his superiors and being forced to work ungodly hours, Masao suffers from a breakdown and collapses in the middle of a busy intersection. Does he eventually quit? You’ll have to watch the whole movie to find out for yourself. The drama has a strong cast that delivers solid performances and gives the viewer more than an eyeful into what really happens behind closed doors in Japanese black companies.

Cast: Teppei Koike, Maiko
Director: Sato Yuichi

3. Judge! (ジャッジ!), 2014

If you’re looking for a work-related comedy of errors, look no further than this gem written by Yoshimitsu Sawamoto. Newbie Kiichiro Ota is forced to take the place of his boss as a judge at the fictitious Santa Monica International Advertising Festival. His task? To help decide on the world’s best ad. The catch? Kiichiro has to guarantee that his company’s entry will win the festival’s top prize. What makes the situation even more complicated is that his co-worker, Hikari, who coincidentally shares his last name, must accompany him on the work trip as his wife.

Judge! features a diverse, international cast and is a funny, behind-the-scenes look at the global advertising industry. In fact, both screenwriter Sawamoto and director Akira Nagai (in his feature film directorial debut), drew on their own extensive experiences in the ad business to develop the ideas and vision of this movie.

Cast: Satoshi Tsumabuki, Keiko Kitagawa, Lily Franky, Kyoka Suzuki
Director: Nagai Akira

With these three movies, you’ll laugh and cry and put your own work situation in perspective — you might feel better or worse, but at the end of the day, remember: work is work, just one of the many things you’re juggling in life! Happy watching!

Text by: Suzanne Bhagan