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Salaryman review: An insightful documentary on Japanese culture of overworking, showing at Cambridge Film Festival at Home

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Sometimes it takes an outsider to shine a light on a culture of behaviour that has become ingrained.

First-time director Allegra Pacheco certainly succeeds in doing so in her insightful documentary Salaryman, which is showing via Cambridge Film Festival at Home.

Salaryman. Picture: Allegra Pacheco
Salaryman. Picture: Allegra Pacheco

It explores the lives of the overworked in Japan - in particular, the white collar office workers known as Salarymen, who are expected to work very long hours before going on drinking binges with their boss.

Allegra, a Costa Rican-born photographer and artist, was drawn to their stories after her own experience of burning out in New York, where she spent long hours in a photo retouching job. Scraping together some savings, she headed to Tokyo, where she was struck by the number of men in suits asleep on the pavement and at the entrances to closed subways.

She learned they often missed the last train back home, or were simply too drunk to manage the journey. They simply pass out on the street until it’s time to go back to work.

Salaryman. Picture: Allegra Pacheco
Salaryman. Picture: Allegra Pacheco

It’s an extraordinary sight - and completely ignored.

Allegra draws attention to it by drawing chalk outlines around these collapsed men, and taking their photos.

This central motif of the film is a master stroke. The results resemble a murder scene and we learn that some Salarymen - and indeed, overworked women - end up taking their own lives because they cannot see a way out of the drudgery.

Allegra traces the history of the phenomenon back to the post-war period, when Salarymen helped to build Japan into the global economic powerhouse it is today, and draws on Japanese culture to explain how the heroic sacrifice of the self for the greater good has helped to normalise this damaging working pattern - and enabled callous corporations to exploit their workers seemingly without regard for their wellbeing.

Salaryman: Allegra in Tokyo Picture: Allegra Pacheco
Salaryman: Allegra in Tokyo Picture: Allegra Pacheco

She studies the impact on family life and on women, often expected to sacrifice their own careers to run the household and barely seeing their husbands. One mother tells how her husband was at work while she was in labour, and only turned up when he’d finished at the office.

There are warnings of misogynistic inequality in the workplace, of the impact on mental health and interviews with Salarymen in which they question what has happened to their lives.

Yet there is also humour. Allegra talks to those who have found extraordinary escapes - from competing via ‘extreme commuting’ to giving it all up for art.

Salaryman. Picture: Allegra Pacheco
Salaryman. Picture: Allegra Pacheco

Combining verité documentation, interviews and animation, Salaryman is an eye-opening, engaging account of a workplace culture gone wrong.

Filmed over five years, it also touches on how the pandemic may reset some of these practices, by opening up the possibility of home-working.

It’s a documentary set entirely in Japan, but it’s impossible not to see echoes of our own lives as we watch the plight of the Salarymen. And that may be the biggest insight of all.

Salaryman. Picture: Allegra Pacheco
Salaryman. Picture: Allegra Pacheco

Rating: ****

Salaryman is available to view via Cambridge Film Festival At Home until December 5. Visit cambridgefilmfestival.org.uk for details.

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