Gotō-san (Japan, 2020) [OAFF 2021]

Don’t be fooled by the light tone, Gotō-san is both dark and deep in its politics. It sees director Hiroshi Gokan using offbeat characters in a less-than-ordinary setting to smuggle through an expose of the faults in our current capitalist climate.

As travelers and the generally cash-strapped know, 24-hour internet cafes can be cheap and convenient places to stay. The best of them provide showers, a laundry service, comfortable private booths with computers, and the anonymity to live undisturbed for the price of a few thousand yen per stay. This is where our titular character Gotō-san (Hirofumi Suzuki) works as an assistant and also where he lives, having registered the café as his official address with city authorities.

Gotō-san seems to have it made when it comes to a slacker lifestyle, and, apart from the occasional difficult customer, the people in his world are as mellow as him. He even starts a romantic relationship with Riko (Tomomi Fukikoshi), a cute girl who also stays in the cafe. She pays her rent via sex work, which is how Gotō-san meets her and from where they begin a shy courtship.

Gokan ably melds some workplace comedy together with the playfulness in the dates that Gotō and Riko have as they embark on gloriously romantic all-night outings that end with the gentle rays of the dawn sun and a chaste kiss. We get a sense that these are two kids who can play around due to having few commitments and no concrete plans for the future. That the two don’t realise they live in the same place adds a new spin to the phrase “passing like ships in the night”. This sticking point forms some tension in the film as one expects a big reveal to threaten a budding love, but there are bigger clouds gathering on the horizon.

While the cafe seems to provide a safe cocoon for the characters, trips onto the streets of Tokyo show sights of construction all around. These signs of economic change suggest the uncaring, all-consuming forward movement of capitalism. As the story progresses, they are tinged with a sense of an ongoing social apocalypse due to some accompanying sights – members of a union protest poverty, casualization of work, corporate exploitation, overworked day laborers staying at Sunflower keel over or are high on drugs, and homeless people dot the landscape. The visions of people chewed up by the economy are subtly inserted but grow to become a counter-beat to the gentle romantic rhythm of Gotō and Riko’s courtship which begins to fall apart when it is revealed that the laidback Gotō-san must get another job since he can barely afford to pay for a couple of dates.

Just as a sense of impending doom is felt from these dire warning signs, a change in shooting style ensues The lighting becomes darker and the gliding camerawork amidst the forest of booths of the café starts to have a glint of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), especially when Gotō-san gets caught up in a psycho-sexual fever dream that reveals some anxieties.

The oddness of living in such a place really emanates from the screen. No longer a safe haven, it becomes like a trap that the protagonist has willingly put himself in. The cafe, a liminal space that is subject to economic instability, becomes a metaphor for Gotō-san’s anonymous and unstable position in society. His blithe attitude and insistence on living with no commitments, while looking like an ideal lifestyle, becomes untenable in the current economic climate. The anticipated disaster occurs when a virus pandemic hits, a reference to Covid-19, and it forces the cafe into tough times that jeopardize Gotō-san’s existence. His resulting fall is terrifying to watch especially as it rings true thanks to all of the social details drawn from reality.

The film works because its transition from light to dark is adroitly handled through subtle direction, writing, and performances from the entire cast who maintain a facade of stability until the rug is pulled out from under the story with its twist. Lead actor Suzuki exudes coolness that borders on the worryingly childish. He gradually builds towards a frantic performance that not only puts across anxiety and desperation but undercuts our perceptions. Likewise, Fukikoshi has a cute look, but she reveals the toughness, intelligence, and independence that enables Riko to trump Gotō-san by taking control of her fate.

Seeing Gotō-san wander around the empty streets of Shibuya during lockdown creates haunting scenes reminiscent of 28 Days Later (2002) while also driving home the unpredictable vicissitudes of life in the age of economic uncertainty. By the end, the cute tone has dropped and there is a feeling of despair that hits really hard in the midst of Covid-19-related job loss with the film playing out some astute observations of economic precariousness through Gotō-san’s fate.

Gotō-san was shown at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 9.