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Sunday, Nov. 21, 2010

MEDIA MIX

'Freeter' drama reflects Japan's income gap


The American media keeps wondering whether or not the United States will have to endure a "lost decade" of sluggish growth and stagnant employment like the one Japan suffered through after the real-estate bubble burst in the early 1990s. It seems unlikely. The American economy is dynamic while Japan's has always been passive and reactive. Nevertheless, the so-called American dream is likely a thing of the past. The gap between the rich and everyone else is growing by the minute, and in that sense Japan is an appropriate example.

That may sound strange since Japanese people have always maintained that they are a uniformly middle class society. The poor, of course, exist, but traditionally they were hidden away; and it was considered bad form for the rich to flaunt their wealth. The bubble era and the subsequent lost decade brought class distinctions out into the open. Rich people are now profiled on variety shows while the growing ranks of people living on the margins have become the subjects of searching, portentous NHK documentaries. In between, the middle class is wondering what happened to its bright future.

This idea provides the real-life ballast for Fuji TV's drama series "Freeter, Ie wo Kau" ("A Part-time Worker Buys a House"; Tues., 9 p.m.), which is based on a novel by Hiro Arikawa. Focusing on Seiji Take (Kazunari Ninomiya), a recent college graduate who heedlessly quits his full-time office job after only three months, the story taps into widespread anxiety over the current employment situation but the dramatic component has less to do with economic hardship than with the fragile bonds that hold a family together.

Seiji's home life appears to be stereotypically middle class and comfortable. His father, Seiichi (Naoto Takenaka), is an accountant at a medium-size company. His mother, Sumiko (Atsuko Asano), is a full-time homemaker. They live in a nice two-story house in a toney suburb. Seiji also has an older sister who has married very well.

But the Takes are not happy. The mother suffers from a debilitating depression, which her husband blames on Seiji's willfulness and failure to secure respectable employment, despite the fact that Seiji is the only family member who sees to his mother's special needs. Seiichi downplays his wife's condition as simply a "weak spirit," but Seiji eventually comes to realize that she is the victim of years of ostracism and even outright persecution by their neighbors. It turns out the Takes don't own that nice home. It is actually owned by Seiichi's company, which rents it out to him for ¥50,000 a month. When the family moved into the neighborhood, Seiichi even bragged about this arrangement, inviting resentment from his richer neighbors, who immediately saw the Takes as living above their station.

Seiji doesn't find this out until his mother has reached an almost catatonic state of self-hatred. A dissolute boy by nature who wears a different rock-band T-shirt every day and has never "had a dream," Seiji realizes he's been living a lie. He's not quite as middle class as he thought. When a psychiatrist informs him that the only real cure for his mother is a "change of environment," Seiji tells his father they have to move, but Seiichi refuses and the young man makes a resolution: He will buy a house for his mother.

This domestic melodrama is only half the story. The other half involves Seiji's position as a "freeter" — a part-time worker who flits from job to job. While trying to secure a regular full-time job through an employment service, he works for a public works subcontractor. At first he looks down on the job, believing he will soon find work worthy of his talents (which he later realizes he doesn't possess), but the satisfaction of accomplishing something with his hands and the practical attitudes of his coworkers turn him around.

Either of these two plot lines would make for a serviceable didactic drama, but the intersection of the two through the agency of home ownership brings up some potentially interesting possibilities. We're almost halfway through the 13-part series, but it's obvious from the title that Seiji will remain a part-time worker and will try to buy a house. His father has already dismissed the notion by telling him that no one is going to approve a loan for a freeter, and though his rant was included to emphasize what a killjoy Seiichi is (thus setting him up for maximum redemption when he changes his mind later, no doubt), he has a point. What bank would sign off on a mortgage for someone who, by definition, isn't guaranteed future income?

No doubt, Arikawa found some way around this problem in her novel, but the dramatic appeal of the story relies too much on hackneyed class distinctions. The salt of the earth with whom Seiji toils on the road construction crew are uncomplicated, while the middle class characters have become so twisted by the effort to hold their ground that they come off as monsters. This idea would be more compelling if the reasons for their behavior had to do with straitened economic circumstances, but they have no money worries. They've simply lost their souls.

Seiji won't become a monster because his reason for buying a house is pure. He wants to do it to save his mother. He's not out to join a club. If his desires were more selfish, the story would probably address the specific financial obstacles in his way more directly; but as it stands "Freeter" adheres to the fiction trope that anyone with pluck and determination can fulfill his dreams, and it's clear that it is Seiji's lack of a "dream" that has held him back so far, not external economic circumstances. In the universe of Japanese TV dramas, nobility of purpose always wins, but if Seiji buys that house the series will turn from a socially relevant soap opera into science fiction.



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