by Kaori Shoji
Three minutes into A Man, you already know that Rie (Sakura Ando), who is minding her mother’s stationery shop in rural Miyazaki prefecture, will be dating the guy (Masataka Kubota) who walks into her shop one depressingly rainy afternoon. Rie is a single mom, having divorced her husband some years ago and she’s living with her young son and widowed mother. You can tell Rie doesn’t have much joy in her life. You can tell that this guy – Daisuke – has even less joy, even emotionally stunted. Of course, they hit it off. Then it’s three years later and Daisuke and Rie are married, with a new baby in their family. Life seems to be going incredibly well for them until Daisuke is killed in an accident. At the one-year memorial, his estranged older brother turns up from Gunma prefecture, clear across on the other side of Japan. Rie shows him Daisuke’s photo and he immediately says: “Who is that? That’s not Daisuke at all. That’s a completely different man.”
Memo: Spoilers ahead. Read at your own peril but stay if you want insight into the greater themes of the book and movie.
An occurrence like this happens more often than you may think, even in a super-ordered and family-oriented society like Japan. According to the Metropolitan Police Agency, between 80,000 and 90,000 people disappear annually in Japan, and those are just the numbers based on reports filed by their families. Many of these missing persons end up as suicides or like Daisuke, goes off the radar to live a completely different life. Legally, if a person has gone missing for 7 years the spouses and families become eligible for their life insurance. This is why some people opt to disappear instead of committing suicide, the reasoning being that after seven years at least their families will get a substantial payout whereas most life insurance policies have a suicide clause.
The reasons for disappearing varies but in many cases, money is a key factor. Debt, bankruptcy or sheer poverty. In Japan, once a person slips up financially, the odds of resurfacing are dismally low. It’s often simpler to disappear, change your name and assume a new identity, which is what Daisuke seems to have done.
Based on the bestseller novel by Keiichiro Hirano and directed by Kei Ishikawa, A Man explores the world of identity scams, imposter syndrome and the ‘oyagacha phenomenon (the notion that one’s birth parents are like a box of chocolates; you just don’t know what you’re getting until it’s too late) that has become a reason and excuse for many of the ills of the Japanese existence. Failed in the university entrance exams? Failed in multiple relationships and can’t get married? Failed to land a high-paying job and now life is screwed? It all has do with oyagacha and how, if you don’t have the right lineage, you may as well give up and wallow in misery.
Daisuke suffers from oyagacha on turbo wheels. His past is revealed in tragic, harrowing increments by Kido (Satoshi Tsumabuki), a lawyer whom Rie hired to look into her late husband’s past. Understandably, she wants to know the real identity of the man she married and loved for the past three years. Intriguingly, Rie’s mother and son, now a teenager, doesn’t oppose her in this quest to dredge up what is effectively a pile of dirty laundry. In real life if something like this got out in a rural area, Rie’s son will be bullied relentlessly at school and her mother will be forced to close down the family stationery store out of shame. Yes, it’s that bad.
But in A Man, her family is actually supportive of Rie and by implication, the lawyer Kido. This is because Hirano is an advocate of the ‘bunjin’ or the ‘dividual,’ as opposed to the individual. Every one of Hirano’s books have dealt with the ‘bunjin’ in one or another, as a way to survive in modern Japan. The idea is to have multiple personalities, each specific to dealing with people and situations in the outer world. Instead of being locked into a restricting and uncompromising ‘me,’ multiple personalities enables the person to become more relaxed and fluid in their approach to life. Hirano has argued that the ‘bunjin’ method could be the only means to escape from ‘oyagacha.’ And by constantly updating the many bunjin in your mental stable, you can finally tell fate, destiny and parents to go f#ck themselves.
After Kido’s investigations, it turns out that Daisuke was a young boxer named Makoto Hara. Hara was his mother’s maiden name. Makoto/Daisuke grew up in an orphanage because his mother abandoned him after his father was arrested for a triple murder and put on death row. If anyone had the right to complain about oyagacha, it was Makoto/Daisuke, for his upbringing was nothing short of a horror show. He got into boxing because he wanted to batter himself to the point of becoming unrecognizable. In one scene, Makoto weeps that he wants to tear off his face because it resembles his father’s visage.
The more Kido digs into Makoto/Daisuke’s past, the more dirt he shovels up about the thriving identity business where desperate people buy and sell their birth names as a means to escape their lives. Initially Kido is mildly repelled by the identity scam game before getting becoming inordinately fascinated. That’s because Kido himself is a victim in the ‘oyagacha’ game – he’s a third generation ‘Zainichi (Japanese Korean resident)’ – and likely to be reminded of his ancestry more often than he’d like to admit. His in-laws for example, have no qualms about making racist remarks right in his presence, then following up with “but you’re third generation so of course you’re practically one of us.”
The ending scene is both poignant and abrasive. Kido has finally put Makoto/Daisuke’s case to rest but in the process, discovers that his own reality has become skewed and uncomfortable, like a once-beloved jacket that no longer fits. The story however, doesn’t leave Kido stranded. Now that Kido knows the ins and outs of the identity scam game, he too, can choose to disappear and become a completely different someone else. Before the ending credits roll, we see that the temptation is already there.