director’s statement

My partner said, “I’ve met a Japanese man on the web who was sacked for refusing to do company callisthenics, he’s been protesting about it for 25 years.” I was immediately intrigued. Firing someone for refusing to do physical exercises seemed bizarre, protesting about it for more than a quarter of a century seemed even more so.

But of course, the story was much more complex.

a little history

Two years before his sacking Tanaka-san, the president of the company’s mandolin club, had supported 1350 workers who were made redundant. Following the dismissals, the company introduced mass callisthenics. According to Tanaka-san, employees were pressured to turn up early and perform the exercises before work in unpaid time. He refused to participate believing that they were a humiliating loyalty test to the company. But in order to show his criticism to his workmates and to the company he would turn up, sit and watch.

After he refused to do the callisthenics, Tanaka’s wages were cut and he was gradually ostracised by his fellow workers. Even the members of his mandolin club drifted away and new employees were too intimidated to join. Undaunted, he continued to make his criticisms of the company’s labour policies and stood against company-endorsed candidates in elections for the workplace union.

Finally, the company gave him a compulsory transfer order to a factory hundreds of kilometres away. He refused to sign it and was dismissed.

another world

When I journeyed to meet Tanaka I found myself drawn into another world, one very different from the usual images of Japan. Instead of geishas or cherry blossom or the ‘eccentrics’ of Harajuku, I met people like Nezu Kimiko a domestic science teacher suspended for refusing to stand and sing Kimigayo a hymn to the emperor sung by Japanese soldiers in WW2 that has recently become the official national anthem. Kimiko’s refusal to stand and sing or to make her students stand and sing may cost her her job, she has been suspended for months. She says, “No freedom of choice means no democracy, it is what you would expect in a dictatorship.”

how to beat a bully

Gradually the major threads of the film emerged, living an ethical life, being true to oneself, resisting bullying.
In fact resisting bullying is an important theme and plays out in many scenes. Tanaka teaches music for a living together with lessons on human rights and self-defence. Tomayo, a young boy who is too afraid to go to school comes to him to learn anti-bullying strategies and meditation in the hope that it will make him stronger and more able to defend himself.

This, of course, sounds very worthy. But tempering the tone of the film is Tanaka-san’s engaging personality and sense of humour. “Yes I am stubborn”, he admits “but Japanese people are not stubborn enough, they should be more stubborn.”

Another underlying thread in the film is the potential for cross-cultural misunderstanding when Australia meets Japan. Both myself and my partner Mark are implicated in much of the action that unfolds on screen from the tea ceremony where Mark forgets to wear socks to the climax of the film, Tanaka’s eviction from the company’s annual stockholders meeting. The various cross-cultural ‘misses’ that occur throughout the unfolding story hint at the idea that perhaps, the filmmaker, is not as all-knowing or authoritative as the film suggests.

callisthenics

It became very clear to me as shooting progressed that the callisthenics Tanaka had refused to do all those years earlier and which, in a way had precipitated his dismissal were a striking metaphor around which to discuss ideas of individualism, non-conformism and bullying. Group activities – like callisthenics, anthem singing, saluting flags – which become automatic and require little thought are regarded by sociologists as ‘the micro-gymnastics of power’.

Tanaka seems to have understood this intuitively.

In a time when in my own country and others acts of individualism or non-conformity find less and less approval, he seemed a perfect subject for a film.

Maree Delofski