An Ant Strikes Back (Japan, 2019) [Nippon Connection ONLINE]

Tsuchiya Tokachi’s latest documentary work begins with startling details: from 2006 to 2017, it relates in captions, the staggering figure of more than five thousand people died of karoshi, or death due to overwork, in Japan. But this figure is actually misleading since it refers to only those whose family members applied for compensation. Having established this fact-based framework and the implied larger one of lax labour regulations, Tsuchiya then shares what is driving the making of this film: the very personal story of his friend Yama-chan, one of the many whose work-centred struggles and suffering prompted him to ultimately commit suicide.

But the film is surprisingly not about what happened to Yama-chan. 

Rather, the film centers on a man named Nishimura and his case against a moving company, shot over a three-year period from the time that he teams with a union to achieving a settlement. In this company, Nishimura excels in each department/section in which he was placed, ultimately becoming its top salesperson. But it comes at a price: working overtime is a normal — even expected — occurrence, even without overtime pay. However, an on-the-job accident finds Nishimura being enforced to carry the weight of payment out of his own pocket and, when he takes a stand against such a company policy, subsequently becomes the subject of punitive action by the company through demotion and defamation/hate speech. Reduced to menial duties that eventually cause some health issues, Nishimura’s situation comes to gnaw at his physical and mental health to such a degree that he seeks help from a workers’ union. The Precariat union eventually mounts a class action lawsuit against Nishimura’s employer, for he is not the only employee who has been subjected to such unlawful company practices, past or present. Tsuchiya accompanies Nishimura and the Precariat Union in their steadfast fight against the company’s unlawful policies, in the process of which is also revealed their discriminatory hiring practices and common/frequent use of racial slurs by the company’s higher-ups with regards to whom they do not want as employees. As Nishimura’s father remarks at one point, the company’s name of Busy Ant brings shame to the species. As the title makes abundantly clear, however, the film reclaims the hardworking diligence and strength of ants for the exploited worker such as Nishimura.

In this regard, An Ant Strikes Back is a direct descendant of Tsuchiya’s debut documentary film made ten years before, A Normal Life, Please. The latter film chronicles truck driver Kaikura and his fight — after joining a workers’ union — against his employers’ exploitative policies and rather physical intimidation tactics to keep workers quiet and in line. While Nishimura, Tsuchiya, et. al. do not experience — following what is (not) shown in An Ant Strikes Back — the kind of physical bullying that Kaikura and the union members face in A Normal Life, Please, that Tsuchiya finds himself covering the same ground in both films separated by a decade is alarming with regards to labour regulations, or lack thereof.

At the same time, Tsuchiya is not covering the same ground. Presumably, between these two films, he met Yama-chan, became friends with him, and got to know what he was going through with his job that led to karoshi. In truth, Tsuchiya is very sparing in details about their friendship (e.g. how they came to know each other, what Yama-chan was like as a person) in the film, despite the very personal prologue with first-person voiceover narration (though performed by Kano Kotaro) that relates Yama-chan’s karoshi. In this regard, the intimate and expressive nature of this prologue clashes with the film’s principal form of a television exposé and expository documentary whose principal objective is to tell its case, cause, and story, above all else. From a formal perspective, admittedly, it is all but forgettable. From the perspective of story, however, it is engaging and compelling, anchored by Nishimura’s drive, the union’s organising, and Tsuchiya’s empathy and support for just and fair treatment in the face of a company force.

The emotional weight of Nishimura’s drive, the union’s organising, and Tsuchiya’s empathy and support is at its most palpable and raw when during Nishimura’s fight against his company, specifically a union meeting in perhaps one of the thorniest moments of the fight, Tsuchiya himself expresses on camera what happened to his friend Yama-chan while breaking into tears, to Nishimura, the union, and the viewer simultaneously. The film never arrogantly expresses the idea that making it with Nishimura is perhaps Tsuchiya’s way of making peace with the film that he never made with Yama-chan; that is simply not necessary. Tsuchiya is not trying to replace Yama-chan with Nishimura as some kind of personal redemption or making amends. If anything, it is to remember Yama-chan and his struggles, which unfortunately did not end with his death. Frankly, they continued with Nishimura’s own struggles. And while Nishimura’s case concludes with his life intact, he is but one solitary ant among many who have not been able to strike back.

An Ant Strikes Back is showing at Nippon Connection ONLINE from June 9-14.