It devastated a nation and left billions across the world speechless. Swallowing whole regions deep into the sea, the merciless waters claimed the lives of almost sixteen-thousand men, women, and children and some two-and-a-half thousand souls remain missing to this day. Livelihoods and relationships levelled, lost, and left to ruin. Adding insult to misery came the nuclear fallout, rendering farmlands, villages and whole towns uninhabitable, like the ending of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s ghostly “Pulse”; a haunting playground of homes, shops, offices, arcades. These scars are still felt to this day, etched into the faces of those survivors forced to carry on living, trying to find some sense of normality, of happiness. For the characters in Ryuichi Hiroki’s torturous odyssey “Side Job” (‘Kanojo no Jinsei wa Machigai Janai / Her Life Is Not At Fault’), trapped in-situ within their self-loathing, within their numb forlorn shells, the thought of moving on, or going back to before, is too painful a prospect. Lingering in the shadow of the Tohoku Earthquake, their bleak existence cries out for just one leap of faith.
Set five years after the disaster and based on Hiroki’s debut novel, ‘Side Job’ follows the lives of Miyuki, her father Osamu, and her co-worker Hayato as they struggle coming to terms with the tragedy and make peace with themselves and each other. Living with her ex-farmer layabout father Osamu in temporary accommodation, Miyuki works as a clerk at Fukushima City Hall during the week. Travelling to Tokyo via night bus, she spends her weekend working as a sensual masseuse for Cutie Mermaids, an escort company. Meanwhile, her father gambles their compensation away at a pachinko arcade, drinks, and teaches the neighbour boy Ryuhei baseball. Hayato, who assesses radiation levels before relaying them to the residents, lives alone with his younger brother and contends with the distrust and contempt his position attracts whilst wanting to do more to help. All three have lost someone or something as a result of the earthquake and its aftermath and are emotionally distant from everyone around them and themselves.
It is easy to spend the two hours stuck in the idea that nothing happens at all, to approach ‘Side Job’ as an exercise in overcoming such loss – but it is more than that. It is a (character) study on the impact of this loss, of this disaster. Miyuki (Kumi Takiuchi), in a bid to escape her own existence, drops her name’s first syllable and embarks on a life fulfilling the pleasures of men, slipping further into the depression which claims the lives of other workers; Osamu (an endearing performance from Ken Mitsuishi) escapes his former responsibilities much to the resentment of his daughter; Hayato (Tokio Emoto) cannot face talking of his own experiences, other than how it destroyed his family and his father’s livelihood. It’s not just limited to these three however: an elderly couple cannot properly relocate their familial grave due to contamination and Ryuhei lost his parents and never came outside until meeting Osamu. But perhaps more eye-opening is that of Osamu’s neighbours: looked upon as a criminal, the husband’s decontamination job takes a huge toll not just on his life but on the welfare of his lonely wife. Though it’s an all-too brief scene, the impact is just as heavy as the others, and makes abundantly clear the extent of the damage the Tohoku Earthquake still delivers.
Exactly as anyone could imagine, this dull purgatorial pain has taken its toll on these drifting hollow vessels. It is seen on every numb expression on their faces, in every word uttered from their mouths, in the empty space between any two characters. As painful to watch as it must be to live as a survivor, it makes their resurfacing – their rebirth if you will – even more heart-breaking to endure: Miyuki finally opening up about her side-profession to her obsessive ex-boyfriend; Osamu hurling his wife’s clothes in the sea to keep her warm; Hayato’s unfurling of the Memories Exhibition and his stepping-up to connect closer with his brother – these are all moving scenes of characters unburdening themselves from their pasts, their grief. Whilst Osamu’s transformation is perhaps the most reassuring (and arguably the one the films wants us to care more about) it is Miyuki’s tormented ordeal of humiliation and depression which strikes the bigger chord. Her pain is felt all too real and Kumi Takiuchi’s execution of the character is believably convincing. Although her resurfacing takes the longest, we cannot help but want her to move on, both in her life and from her titular side job – it is not until her boss Miura, who embodies Miyuki’s only emotional connection to the outside world, changes his own life, does she also embark on her own transformation. Altogether, however, it is the actors’ abilities to drag this pain out for so long which stands out and makes one wonder: “how is it possible to act out such misery for so long?”
Above the human tragedies, the natural implications of the disaster cannot be ignored, and ‘Side Job’ exhibits this at great lengths, maintaining a pseudo-critical stance on the relief effort. Panoramic shots of the emptiness of various locations in Fukushima – of fields and farmland, of beaches, of the streets of Iwaki, places beyond the exclusion zones – not only fill entire frames but always linger in the background as a subtle reminder that life does in fact endure here, haunting reminders of a previous existence. It is these subtleties where the crucial elements of the film dwell, within the dialogue for example, elements which can be missed within the blink of an eye. Vital is it to pay full attention to these in order to get a full grasp of the loose and unrestrained narrative; it is enough to drain the colour out of the faces of those whose eyes befall it. Perhaps it is within the Memories Exhibition – the only scene our principles characters are all under the same roof, where we find the greatest subtlety: the catalyst for change. Past lives cherished by the inhabitants return to them amidst ruinous displays of destruction. Capturing their attentions, this moving scene does more to instil new hope and older emotions within them than anything else.
It does not take long to realise Hiroki’s intentions. From its moody yet gorgeous opening shot nestled underneath its haunting score, he drags his audience by the hands – eyes wide open – into this world. Through long in-situ takes, we are forced to remain motionless as the events unfurl; we are hopeless in every situation, incapable of any action. We are, effectively, bystanders. The dreary cinematography, the raw immediate ambience, the silence – this is a sombre world, one where not even Tokyo can provide sanctuary from. At the end we emerge, exasperated, relieved, and free from its all-too-glacial pace; returning to the land of the living, to a world that seems to have moved on leaving this region in the rear-view mirror, requires adjusting, some form of colour to splash in our faces, something to warm us back into our environments. Everything works to keep us here until the end; it does not, however, make for a pleasant experience.
There have been many films made with the 2011 disaster serving at the centre, but few are as paralysing as Hiroki’s effort. Whilst every moment has been painstakingly constructed to amplify the lifelessness of his characters – and of the real life struggles still occurring – it makes for an excruciating watch, one which doesn’t fill the void it creates within the audience despite the film’s end. Instead, it imprints itself into our memory – footage of towns which will remain deserted for years to come will linger with us forever – reminding us that so much still needs to be done. As critical as it is torturous, ‘Side Job’ may not fill us with hope, but it forces us to endure what its characters endure. Throughout the film’s almost staggering running time – it feels longer than the two hours it actually runs – we are brought down to their level: we feel nothing but their pain, their loss, and are not allowed to feel anything else. It isn’t until the film’s closing moments are we allowed to smile and rest from this monumental ordeal.