Jigoku-no-hanazono ~Office Royale~ (2021) review [Fantasia Film Festival]

Introduction

Bakarhythm, or Hidetomo Masuno, might be best known best for his work as solo comedian, but in recent years he also has proved to be good screenwriter. For the drama Kakuu OL Nikki (2017), for instance, he won the Galaxy Award as well as the Kuniko Mukoda Award. These successes, of course, gave him the opportunity to write screenplays for films. The latest screenplay he wrote is for Jigoku-no-hanazono ~Office Royale~, a narrative helmed by first-time director Seki Kazuaki.

Review

Naoko Tanaka (Mei Nagano) is a new hire at Mitsufuji, but little did know upon entering the company that a war is raging between different factions of office ladies. The Satake Faction, led by yankee Mad Dog Shiori (Rina Kawaei) of the sales department, has been trying to dominate the entire company, but has met violent opposition by the Ando Faction, led by biker Shuri The Demon (Nanao) of R&D. Yet, one day, Demon Shuri’s triumphs over Mad Dog Shiori, putting her yankee OL gang under her control. Yet, Demon Shuri must still beat the militant Kanda faction, led by Etsuko the beast (Miyuki Oshima), to get full control over the company. Yet, one day, after the decisive battle between Shuri and Etsuko has taken place a new contender appears, Ran Hojo (Alice Hirose). By mere chance, Naoko befriends her. But this friendship is not without its risks.  

Jigoku-no-hanazono ~Office Royale~ by Seki Kazuaki

Seki’s Battle Royale offers a wild mix of Yankee, Yakuza, martial-arts and superhero genre elements and a bunch of shonen manga-tropes into a highly improbable but pleasingly absurd narrative about the hidden side of the world of office ladies.

Seki’s narrative introduces the spectator to the two different sides of the OL-world, the side of harmonious co-existence and co-working and a yakuza-like violent side driven by a desire for control and power. The hidden side residing just under the harmonious one but is always ready to burst forth to make victims. The violent side is, furthermore, not only a structuring element in Mitsufuji, but in all companies. As a result, besides intra-corporate showdowns, there are also inter-corporate fights – fights for territory, supremacy, and the (phallic) title of the strongest OL. Seki’s narrative focuses more on the latter.  

Jigoku-no-hanazono ~Office Royale~ by Seki Kazuaki

By structuring the narrative around the contrast between a rather peaceful exterior (soto) and an interior of violence and fierce factional wars (uchi), Seki offers a playful and often comical take on a certain social dynamic that structures Japanese (as well as other) corporate systems. More specifically, within Japanese society, because there is a strong emphasis on ‘wa’ (harmony), subjects feel the need to hide his own frustrations and anger (uchi) behind an agreeable mask (soto) to supports the fiction of a peaceful corporate hierarchal harmony. With Office Royale, Bakarhythm does not only make this hidden web of inter-personal conflicts, unseen factional antagonisms, and inter-corporate rivalry explicit in a sensational and absurd way, but also satisfyingly visualizes the fantasies the violent urges of our own unconscious lead to (Narra-note 1). The pleasure of Kazuaki’s narrative for the spectator partially lies in this visualization of ‘socially forbidden’ violence because it allows the subject to satisfy, in a certain indirect way, the violence that resides in his unconscious.

Office Royale has a pleasantly structured narrative that has some surprising twists and unexpected revelations. These twists and turns do not only heighten the wild absurdity of the narrative, but also allows to express its thematical message. Without spoiling too much, one can say that Seki’s film, besides showing how easy it is to play one’s role in the fictional social space of safety, reveals that one can always be forced to blossom in the world of violence, that one can always be coerced to leave the safe world of fictional harmony to expression to the violence that normally remains repressed in one’s subject (Narra-note 2).

Jigoku-no-hanazono ~Office Royale~ by Seki Kazuaki.

Yet, with all that craziness and absurdity on the screen, Seki’s narrative is not able, in the end, to fully satisfy the spectator. While Seki delivers a pleasant ride with full of fun moments and great fighting, his film lacks something that would make this film truly amazing. What Office Royale lacks is a certain amount of emotionality, a kind of emotionality that would raise the personal stakes and thus make the action moments more engaging.    

The composition of Office Royale stands out due to its pleasing dynamism. To frame his absurd narrative, Seki does not only utilize a blend of tracking and spatial movement, but also applies a variety of more dramatic cinematographical decorations (slow-motion, zoom-outs and zoom-ins, visual effects to heighten the impact of the punches, …etc.). These decorations do not only support the dynamism of the composition and heighten the visual pleasure of the often-crazy fighting-sequences but also give the visuals, at times, a lighthearted manga-like feel. Moreover, music is utilized to empower the cool (introductory) moments of the narrative, moments ever framed with some slow-motion.

Jigoku-no-hanazono ~Office Royale~ by Seki Kazuaki

It should not surprise us that this ‘ridiculous’ narrative is supported by a decent amount of over-acting. By relying on over-acting to bring the yankee and the biker girls to life, Seki heightens the anime-like dimension of his narrative and polishes the stereotypical image the narrative already so beautifully visualizes via dress-codes and hairstyles. Yet not all characters in Office Royale are marked by over-acting. The ordinary girls in the narrative, the ladies, like Naoko, sincerely following the demand for ‘harmony’ in the workplace, are brought to life with a more ordinary acting-style.   

Jigoku-no-hanazono~Office Royale~ offers an improbable exploration of the hidden side of the world of Office Ladies. Seki blends all kinds of genre-elements (yakuza, gangs, superhero, … etc.) together to craft an absurd and crazy violent cocktail with lots of violence and funny twists and unexpected turns. But while he deliciously delivers the fights and the absurdity with his fluid composition, Seki forgets to add the necessary emotionality to raise the stakes and make the narrative as thrilling as it is absurd. Office Royale is, in short, a fun absurd film, but nothing more.     

Notes

Narra-note 1: Yet,because Bakarhythm focusing on inter-corporate rivalry, he misses the chance to critically explore the tension between the need to wear one’s social face (soto) and the imaginary face or ego (uchi) that hides behind it.  

Narra-note 2: There is also some romance present in Office Royale, yet it remains on the background. Naoko, in her idea of being a typical OL, desires a boyfriend and has become interested in Matsuura (-).

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