For Passage Of Life (2017), Akio Fujimoto was motivated by a real story he overheard while intermingling in Burmese community in Tokyo to frame the inhuman side of the Other of the Law – the immigration law. For his latest socially engaged narrative, he relied on the experiences of his Burmese wife, but also on the experiences migrant laborers who escaped their working place anonymously shared with him.
[Even though Along The Sea was screened at various festivals in 2020, we prefer to use 2021, the Japanese release date, as the date for the film.]
In the dead of the night, Phuong (Huang Phuong) and her two friends (Hyunh Tuyet Anh and Quynh Nhu) escape their current workplace. After taking a train and a ferry, they meet Mr. Dan (Dinh Do), who will, of course for a fee, introduce them to a new company, one that will pay them correctly. They next day, they start working at the fishing company, e.g. sorting fish, cleaning buoys, … etc. After their first workday, Phuong collapses and starts throwing up.
While Fujimoto does not offer a direct political statement with Along The Sea, by focusing on the act of escaping one’s workplace and the reasons for such an escape – “We had to work 15 hours a day”, he does confront the spectator with the fact that there is a dysfunctional element in Japan’s technical trainee program. He emphasizes, in fact, a rather well-known ugly truth of this program, that this program allows certain companies exploit or even attempt to enslave their East-Asian workers, their so-called trainees.
That companies have such kind of power – the power to exploit, control, and enslave its trainees – is function of two interrelated aspects, the fact that (most of) these companies keep the documents of its trainees and the fact that the legal status of the trainee is bound to the company as such. Escaping the company, escaping the position of an object to be exploited for profit, thus means giving up their legal status and flee into illegality – a insecure position easily taken advantage of by others (Narra-note 1).
Fujimoto also explores the reasons why these women work and make money in Japan. In this exploration, he succeeds in underlining that, for most Vietnamese people, the decision to work in Japan is not driven by a personal desire, but by a social/familial responsibility – for instance, one of the woman states that she came to Japan to clear the debt of their parents and to pay for the tuition fees of her brothers. It is this responsibility that causes many Vietnamese to accept, at least for a while, their position of an object to be exploited and temporarily bear the inhuman condition they are subjected too.
The beauty of Fujimoto’s narrative resides in the very conflict between the moments pregnant of the exploitative look of the Japanese Other, touching interactional moments – e.g. the touching interactions between our three women – and the moments that frame subjective turmoil and inter-subjective friction. It is this conflict, a conflict structuring the entire narrative and so beautifully visualized, that allows Fujimoto’s latest to be such an effective and touching piece of social realism.
The reliance on compositional dynamism and shaky framing gives Along The Sea a documentary-like quality. While the narrative might be fictional, the shakiness of the framing, in a certain way, echoes the fact that his narrative is grounded in societal reality – the reality of human exploitation. Another element that heightens the documentary-quality of the narrative is the beautiful naturalistic lighting. Director of Photography Kentaro Kishi, who directed The Sower (2017) and did the cinematography of Yusaku Matsumoto’s Noise (2017), proves once again his talent.
The acting performances by Huang Phuong, Hyunh Tuyet Anh, and Quynh Nhu are great. These performances, natural and nuanced, do not only ensure that the fictional narrative feels like a documentary, confronting, despite its fictional nature, the spectator with a real societal drama, but also that the narrative and its message moves the spectator. The message of Along the Sea, so subtle evoked in the subdued but powerful finale,is nothing other than the following: the need for money, a need driven by a sense of familial responsibility, does not only exposes the subject to an exploiting Other, but also forces the subject to temporarily give up his own subjective desire to become the tool of this hungry Other.
Along The Sea is an amazing and highly relevant narrative that succeeds in exposing the dark exploitative and de-subjectifying tendencies of Japanese society. Put more concretely, Fujimoto’s shows how the trainee program – a program in dire need for revamping – allows companies to treat subjects, these desiring subjects driven by a sense of familial responsibility, like objects to be exploited, but also that the position of exploitation as well as the position of illegality necessitates the subject to abandon his subjective desire. Japan might have found his own Ken Loach.
Narra-note 1: Being illegal means that one exists within the Other as someone who is Outside this Other – for the Other they do not have any existence anymore; they are inscribed in this Other as a vanished presence. It is therefore not surprising that Phuong tries, of course illegally, to gain, once more, access to this Other, to gain access to the benefits of being inscribed in the Other as a legal presence.