REVIEW: Salaryman (2021)

Comprised of interviews, animation and photographs, director Allegra Pacheco explores the concept of “Salarymen”. These are typically white-collar workers who work excessive hours, then go out late drinking or for meals with colleagues and bosses. The last train leaves at midnight and if they don’t make that train, they’re left to either find a bed for the night in the city or, far more commonly, just fall asleep on the pavement, their head lying on their briefcase.

Through interviews with historians, psychologists and with former and current Salarymen, past and present, Pacheco paints a picture of people being pushed to the brink. It’s interesting to hear the cultural and historical roots of Salarymen and while there’s some aspects that are distinctly Japanese – thinking of the collective rather than the individual – the implications of these long working hours and having to socialise after hours in order to help your career is something that can be seen in any capitalist society.

Likewise, it’s the Boomer generation that gained the most from this way of working. While they still lost time at home with their families, there was job security and the chance of progression and mentorship. Today the younger generation of office workers don’t have that, they are putting in long hours for little to no reward just because it’s the norm.

It’s not just men who are affected by this phenomenon. Women office workers also have long hours and the pressure to socialise with colleagues out of office hours, though there was no footage of women asleep on the street. And even if women aren’t living the life of a Salaryman, those who are married to a Salaryman are more like a single parent than in a relationship. Wives are put in a terrible position where they have no support at home, and children can grow up without their father being a conscious part of their lives.

One thing director Allegra Pacheco does is draw chalk outlines around sleeping men on the pavement, making it look like a crime scene and highlighting what is an anomaly to her (she says that being from Latin America she couldn’t imagine anyone sleeping on the street without being robbed or worse) but all other passers-by barely give them a second glance. While the chalk outline is supposed to show how these people are being worked to exhaustion or even death, it feels exploitative as she makes these men a part of her artwork without their knowledge or consent. While it ends up being striking images, it’s uncomfortable to watch.

Salaryman does get a bit repetitive in the middle, there’s only so many times you can hear about people’s dreadful work/life balance, but when it tackles topics of suicide it does so with care and sensitivity. Overall Salaryman works as a wakeup call to the extremes the workforce is pushed to and while there is no concrete solution to how to change this culture, there is a spark of hope coming from the most unlikely of places. 3/5.

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