It’s never a good sign when a country comes down to inventing a phrase to describe “death from overwork.” So when Japan came up with karoshi, a term coined in 1978 to describe suddenly emerging cases of occupational fatalities, it should have been a wake-up call for the country to tackle the issue right away. According to the National Defence Council for Victims of Karoshi, it is estimated that death from overwork could be linked to the untimely passing of as many as 10,000 Japanese people since the 1980s. Among these tragic cases are deaths of employees who have just started the prime years of their careers — including the much-publicized 2017 case of a public broadcaster reporter who suffered fatal heart failure at the age of 31 after working 159 hours of overtime in a month with just two days off.
This unfortunate data points to one of the biggest societal problems in Japan: extreme lack of work-life balance. Every year, various statistics continue to state the obvious: Japanese people work excessively long hours, and most of them do not fully use their paid holidays. That is despite a series of governmental and public initiatives to prone them to, including encouraging public and private businesses to experiment with a shorter business work week, automatically shutting down computers at a certain hour in the evening, or through the creation of new holidays (such as Mountain Day in August), hoping it would motivate workers to rethink their work-life balance.
But where Japan failed, perhaps director Kan Eguchi will succeed with his 2019 movie The Fable, which ultimately carries the message that unless people learn to slow down occasionally, they might — literally — get a bullet through the eye.
The Fable stars Junichi Okada as the titular Fable, a legendary hitman capable of clearing out an entire house full of enemies with the relentless precision of a Terminator. Once he’s completed his mission, he emotionlessly disposes of his weapon and returns to meet his boss, as if the massacre was just another day at the office for him. But things are about to change. One day, Fable’s boss tells him that they’ve brought too much attention to themselves and that he must lie low in Osaka (central Japan) and live like a normal person for a year. If he takes any life during that time, he will be killed. Put in a perspective of a regular worker, Fable is, in other words, told to stay away from work or he’s dead. It’s at this point where it becomes clear that the movie’s primary theme is finding that elusive work-life balance.
So Fable, whose real name we never learn because he’s only known to us by a nickname obtained through work (because that’s all he got in life), is about to begin a new life as a “regular person” in Osaka under the very ordinary name Akira Sato, made up of one of the most common surnames and first names in the country. In the beginning, it all goes rather well. “Sato” finds a house in Osaka through an affiliated criminal organization and even gets an easy-going job in a small design office. He dedicates himself to finding some peace and quiet.
But while Fable takes his orders seriously and lives like a regular person, the Osaka criminal organization that helped him, now has to deal with the return of Kojima (Yuya Yagira), a mobster who’s spent eight years in jail. Kojima is an example of someone who has become so consumed by his “work” that it broke him, turning him into a cruel, psychopathic monster. In the end, his mentor in the organization (who, in scenes which clearly parallel those of Fable’s boss, was telling Kojima to take it slow and relax for a bit) realizes that his protégé will never change. So in a twisted act of “mercy,” he puts a bullet through his eye. It was ultimately Kojima’s refusal to take a break, however, that really killed him.
The Fable, despite being a dark and violent film in its roots, also takes a comedic approach — perhaps as a means to balance out the gravity of the film’s core theme. But that is the beauty of Kan Eguchi’s movie. It takes refuge in its own excess and uses that as a cover to sneak in a very relatable message about the need for moderation in your life. This is evident from Fable using his hitman skills during the movie’s explosive finale to rescue a coworker from his design office, stepping back into the life from which he was trying to take a break. But it’s alright because it doesn’t trigger anything inside him, compelling him to return to his former lifestyle. Ultimately, he stays in Osaka and we get to see him burning his tongue on barbequed fish just like at the beginning of the movie, telling us that he is still the same person.
Fable didn’t change his personality or completely abandoned the job/skills that he trained his entire life for. He just found another reason to get out of bed each day — and that’s the first step towards not letting the job kill him.
Cast: Junichi Okada, Fumino Kimura, Mizuki Yamamoto, Sota Fukushi, Yuya Yagira, Osamu Mukai
Director: Kan Eguchi
Text by Cezary Strusiewicz