Insightful documentary on Japanese culture of overwork, presented at Cambridge Film Festival at Home


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Sometimes it takes an outsider to bring to light a culture of behavior that has taken hold.

First-time director Allegra Pacheco certainly achieves it in her insightful documentary salary, which is broadcast via the Cambridge Film Festival at Home.

Salary. Photo: Allegra Pacheco

He explores the lives of overworked people in Japan – specifically, the white-collar office workers known as Salarymen, who are expected to work extremely long hours before continuing to drink with their boss.

Allegra, a Costa Rican-born photographer and artist, was drawn to their stories after her own burnout experience in New York City, where she spent long hours in photo editing work. Gathering some savings, she headed for Tokyo, where she was struck by the number of men in suits asleep on the sidewalk and at the entrances of closed subways.

She learned that they often missed the last train home, or that they were just too drunk to handle the trip. They just pass out on the street until it’s time to get back to work.

Salary.  Photo: Allegra Pacheco
Salary. Photo: Allegra Pacheco

It’s an extraordinary sight – and completely ignored.

Allegra draws attention to herself by drawing outlines in chalk around these collapsed men and taking their photos.

This central motif of the film is a master stroke. The results look like a murder scene, and we learn that some Salarymen – and indeed, overworked women – end up committing suicide because they see no way out of the chore.

Allegra traces the history of the phenomenon back to the postwar period, when Salarymen helped make Japan the global economic power that it is today, and draws on Japanese culture to explain how the heroic self-sacrifice for the greater good has helped normalize this damaging model of work – and allowed insensitive companies to exploit their workers seemingly without concern for their well-being.

Salary: Allegra in Tokyo Photo: Allegra Pacheco
Salary: Allegra in Tokyo Photo: Allegra Pacheco

She studies the impact on family life and on women, who are often expected to sacrifice their own careers to take care of the household and barely see their husbands. A mother says her husband was at work while she was in labor and he didn’t show up until he was finished at the office.

There are warnings of misogynistic inequality in the workplace, the impact on mental health, and interviews with employees in which they question what has happened to their lives.

But there is also humor. Allegra is for those who have found extraordinary loopholes – from competition to “extreme shuttles” abandoned for art.

Salary.  Photo: Allegra Pacheco
Salary. Photo: Allegra Pacheco

Combining truth documentation, interviews and animation, salary is a revealing and engaging tale of a workplace culture gone awry.

Shot over five years, it also discusses how the pandemic can reset some of these practices, by opening up the possibility of working from home.

It’s a documentary set entirely in Japan, but it’s impossible not to see the echoes of our own lives as we watch the plight of the Salarymen. And this is perhaps the greatest insight of all.

Salary.  Photo: Allegra Pacheco
Salary. Photo: Allegra Pacheco

Evaluation: ****

salary is available to view via Cambridge Film Festival At Home until December 5. Visit cambridgefilmfestival.org.uk for details.

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