Netflixable? A Japanese generation looks back as it realizes “We Couldn’t Become Adults”

Generational ennui and existential angst is pretty much universal. But today’s Around the World with Netflix offering puts it in a uniquely Japanese context.

“We Couldn’t Become Adults” is based on a popular novel published in the island country, whose boom years are decades past and whose population is shrinking as marriage is delayed, suicide it up, immigration limited and calamities economic, cultural, seismic and nuclear buffet it. Japan, social observers tell us, is struggling with an existential crisis.

Yoshihiro Mori’s film of Moegara’s novel isn’t about narcissistic infantilism and economic stagnation, two glib labels flung at the phenomenon. It’s about one man’s journey from his teens to almost 50, a post-“salaryman” worker bee and his depression at becoming as “ordinary” as everybody else, when that was the country’s middle class goal for half a century.

In an opening scene, Sato (Mirai Miriam) trips and tumbles into a trash pile with a homeless man. The other man’s drunken fury suggests they have history, especially when the guy (Shinohara Atsushi) cries “I’ve got nothing! You’ve all left me behind!” (in dubbed English, or Japanese with subtitles).

Sato’s downcast look lets us know that this fellow isn’t far from the mark. He just doesn’t realize how little life has to offer a still-employed/not-homeless 45 year-old who never thought he’d end up this “ordinary.”

Sato’s a graphic designer who can afford one nice item of clothing — a trench coat — keep a decent apartment and buy all the cigarettes he dramatically smokes between glances at his latest cell phone.

But he has a question most everyone who hits 45 asks. Is this all there is? Is this as good as it gets?

The film takes us on a meandering journey through Sato’s past — 2015 to 1995, a tale told in chapters dated and titled, i.e. 1995, “Reach Out of the Dark.” That was the year he jumped from packing cakes for shipment to landing a job, with no skills or experience, working with Photoshop and the other tools of a modern computerized graphic designer’s trade.

New Millennium Eve in 1999 might have been the most pivotal of all. That’s when “she” (Ito Sairi) ditched him, with just a “I’ll bring the CDs next time!” as her parting words. Kaori was the One Who Got Away.

Mori’s film boils Sato’s life down into the workaholism that is the Japanese brand, revisiting the early days when his Great Love, met when they were teen pen pals, could yank him out of work for a day of rental car driving and sight-seeing.

The many points in time our hero revisits ensure that the story isn’t simplistic enough to suggest an abrupt day when it all went wrong. And Charles Dickens and Rod Serling covered that “job became more important than living life” ground long before this.

What we see instead are the waypoints to ennui, that “ordinary” and lonely life that Sato figured he wasn’t destined to lead. He wanted to be a novelist, but overwork and its steady soul-sucking impact on the psyche, after-hours karaoke and a vain effort to “settle down” with a woman (Yuko Oshima) who was never going to be The One Who Got Away defeated him.

The episodic structure shows the people Sato left behind at the dead end cake shipping job, and the devolution of a fellow idealist and boss (Higashide Masahiro) who once punched-out a bullying, cheapskate TV news director (Japanese TV news is big on animated graphic recreations of items in the day’s news) for barking, one time too many, to “take 30% off the bill!” By the end of his storyline, which is close to the film’s beginning, that boss has sold out, “started over” and become as ordinary as everybody else.

“I can’t laugh at other people’s misfortune any more,” another character says, capturing the resignation of middle age in a single sentence.

That episodic structure — bopping from 2011 to 1998, 2007 to 1995 and so on — makes the film hard to follow, although the sad drift from hope to shrugging, solitary despair is clear, first scene to last.

And if you miss the connections, Mori summarizes them all in the final sequences, another way “We Couldn’t Become Adults” tests the viewer’s patience.

The film’s depiction of tech hints at its role in crushing the life out of people. Love letters replaced by beepers replaced by the constant distraction of a cell phone. Progress.

I’ve seen the source novel’s title translated as “Not Everybody Gets to Grow Up,” which seems a fairer way to look at Sato’s journey. He attends corporate celebrations and retirement parties for firms because his company is doing the graphics that decorate these extravaganzas. A drunken mid-level manager bellows “Live each day like it’s your last!” and you get the feeling that Japan cuts loose and celebrates in a way that defies the practical low-risk savers (another reason people put off marriage) that is the national identity.

His live-in lover leans on Sato to marry in 2011, which he dismisses with a blend of fatalism and commitment phobia, wrapped up in his personal ethos.

“A lot of people are getting married after the (Tōhoku) earthquake,” tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster. “So ordinary.

The film takes so much in — gay bars and a workmate crush, first-time sex in a “Love Hotel” — that it tends to wander. The women in it are perpetually in the background, forever waiting for men to grow up, make things easier, make up their damned minds or move on. Sexist and patriarchal? Yes it is.

Even without that, “Adults” isn’t the easiest watch on Netflix.

But I’ll bet a lot of people can connect with the weary disappointment with life that Moriyama (“Love Strikes”) conveys with every head-shaking drag off a cigarette. We feel you, man.

Rating: TV-MA, sex, nudity, smoking, some violence

Cast: Mirai Moriyama, Ito Sairi, Higashide Masahiro, Yuko Oshima, Shinohara Atsushi

Credits: Directed by Yoshihiro Mori, scripted by Ryo Takada, based on a novel by Moegara. A Netflix release.

Running time: 2:04

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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