Review: Along the Sea

Akio Fujimoto’s Along the Sea does a good job of describing Japan’s arcane technical intern training program without actually explicating its rules and procedures. As such, it also goes a considerable distance in providing an idea of Japan’s attitude toward immigration in general, though for those of us non-Japanese who live here it may feel insufficient given the rank hypocrisy at the heart of the country’s immigration policies. By now, everyone who has ever read about the technical trainee program knows that it is basically a cover for the provision of cheap overseas labor to Japanese businesses without any reciprocal protections for the laborers themselves. Cloaked by the meaningless and anodyne concept of development assistance, the program can’t help but create a kind of parallel universe of brokers and criminal agents who exploit the system for themselves, thus making its supposed beneficiares double victims.

Along the Sea focuses on three trainees, all young Vietnamese women (Vietnam provides approximately half the trainees) who came to Japan with the express aim of making money rather than “learning a skill,” which is the ostensible purpose of the program. When we first meet the women, Phuong (Hoang Phuong), Nhu (Quynh Nhu), and An (Huynh Tuyet Anh), they are already escaping from their assigned positions, where they work 15-hour days in a factory under horrible living conditions, including unpaid overtime. The underground nature of their escape, however, means they leave behind their documentation, which their “employers” withhold in order to keep them hostage, and are thus not only illegally resident in Japan, but unable to return properly to Vietnam.

Their escape is assisted by a broker who has already secured  employment for the women at a fish-packing factory in Aomori Prefecture. For a while the women are happy with their decision, mainly because the pay is better and more secure, which means they can easily send money back to their families in Vietnam; and they have more freedom of movement and actually seem less conspicuous in this sleepy seaside town. However, Phuong eventually falls ill and believes she may be pregnant, a development that puts all three women at risk. Because they have no documentation they cannot access public health care and Phuong turns to a Vietnamese fixer who exploits her situation more brutally than the Japanese authority, which can mostly hide behind bureaucratic layers of cyncism. Eventually, the general paranoia festers, destroying the women’s relationship. 

Fujimoto treats the story with  documentary precision, and thus the viewer may want more information, such as the availability of abortions in Japan (Phuong thinks the father is her boyfriend back home, and pregnant trainees are forbidden from entering Japan) and the distinction between brokers and fixers in terms of what kinds of underground networks they belong to. Such unanswered questions do not detract from the dramatic impetus of the movie, and while the overall production is purposely drab and as contrast-free at the overcast pallor of Aomori, the movie is thought-provoking in an immediate way, which is unusual for a recent Japanese narrative film.

In Vietnamese and Japanese. Now playing in Tokyo at Polepole Higashi Nakano (03-3371-0088).

Along the Sea home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2020 E.x.N K.K./ever rolling films

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