Michael Koresky explains the word ‘flunky’ from the title of Naruse’s silent film as ‘a loose translation of koshiben, which denotes a low-wage earner who brings his lunch to work’. I think this is excellent translation to capture the essence of the film in a single word. To help us understand how an insurance agent Okabe would have lived back in 1931, I explore a little bit more.

Koshiben, short for Koshibento, literally means a Bento (lunchbox) strapped to one’s waist (or back). This is the image of a worker bringing his own lunch to the office. The word seems to have entered into Japanese vocabulary back in Edo era, first to describe lunchbox for travelers, then lower-class government clerks, who bring such lunchboxes to office. Throughout 19th century, office clerks and workers were called as such rather contemptuously (1). Since Tokugawa/Edo-era feudal system was based on hereditary social classes, these lower-class clerks and bureaucrats would stay as they were (and their ancestors had been) for all their lives. Then the Meiji Government tried to modernize the society through legislation and deregulation in the last half of 19th century. One of the most influential social transformation was brought by modern education systems, which was established in 1872. Education created the class of people who were not only able to read and write but also to engage in more “intellectual” labor. And of course, modernization of commerce and industry, especially through technologies from Europe, expanded the capital of the nation to invest in more modernization including armament. These nation-wide revolution resulted in radical shift in labor force. In 1850’s, more than 80% of population was farmers; by the time of Naruse’s FLANKY, WORK HARD, it was less than half (2). These educated people anticipated the higher income and better social status. Instead, most of them ended up being “Koshiben”, precisely because there were too many of them.

The emergence of “intellectual” workers and their struggle, especially after the market crash of late 1920’s, brought about the theme of contemporary ‘being’. People no longer fight against Nature (as farmers do) to survive, but juggle papers and numbers to bring food to the table. These lower-class white-collars were poignantly photographed in silent films of 1930’s, such as Okabe in FLANKY, Okajima in Ozu’s TOKYO CHORUS (1931) and the memorable Father in I WAS BORN, BUT…(1932). Their parents believed higher education would secure better paying jobs and social status, but the reality has bitten their hope hard. You would recall the quiet abandon in the conversation between the mother and her son in Ozu’s THE ONLY SON (1937).

I found it striking that Okabe in Naruse’s FLANKY is a life insurance salesman. The film was made during the darkest hour in the financial sector during the worldwide Depression and especially the Japanese insurance companies were hit hard (3). To patch up their losses, the companies drove their salesmen to ever-fierce nasty competition, which actually resulted in legislation to prevent excessive marketing and sales fraud (August 1931)(4). To the contemporary viewers, the feud between Okabe and his rival to win the contract must have been a familiar one, though exaggerated and hilarious. Another interesting point, I think, is that the concept of life insurance is diagonally related to Naruse’s own obsession – exchange between a man’s life (a woman’s life, rather) and money. He repeatedly worked on the variation of this kind, – parents forcing one’s daughter to marry a wealthy man, a family trying to separate two lovers based on their financial decisions, or a mistress searching for her soul only to be trapped in web of wealth. During thirties, this genre of poor women’s tale was popular, but Naruse emphasized this concept of exchange in a way nobody else did. He consciously photographs the persons in charge, – parents, a wealthy man etc. – manipulating a heroine’s circumstances so that they would be benefited financially. Life insurance is not about selling loved one’s life, but the fact that Okabe cunningly promoted the insurance to a wealthy woman when her son had gone missing is all the more discomfiting.

Since Okabe is employed by the insurance company, he must have some level of higher education. Okabe and his wife must have seen better times, as evidenced by their wedding photograph. However, their life is not what they envisioned. It is full of cliche for those who are living just below the poverty line. Dodging the landlord for overdue rent, not being able to afford their kid’s toy, mending a hole in a shoe. Okabe’s profession is all the more remarkable, since it has little to do with necessity of daily life, but with investing in the future. He is probably a man most far removed from the vision of future, just trying to make ends meet. This irony was still amusing in this film, but Naruse’s later films resonate with more somber tones, deeper in agony and abandonment. For those who are not born with prestige, affluence doesn’t come easy. It usually means putting price tags on their bodies, literally.

Flunky, Work Hard (腰弁頑張れ,1931)

Written and Directed by Mikio Naruse
Cinematography by Mitsuo Miura
Starring Isamu Yamaguchi, Tomoko Naniwa

(1) Shokyoku Shibata (1897-1966) has written an excellent essay on this class of white-collar workers and their portrait in modern literature (‘Meiji No Wadai’, Chikuma Gakugei Bunko, 2006). ‘Ukigumo’ (Teishimei Futaba), ‘Namiki’ (Touson Shimazaki) and ‘Mouri-Sensei’ (Ryunosuke Akutagawa) all describes the scene Koshiben workers going home, seemingly depressed. The street that runs over the Kanda Bridge was called ‘Koshiben Street’ (a part of Hongo Street today), because many clerks were working around the area.

(2) The figures are from “100 Modern Japan Cartoons” by Isao Shimizu. One of the selected cartoons in the book is called “The Hell of Salarymen”.

(3) Of the 33 insurance companies at the time, 28 of them were not able to pay the dividend.

(4) Japanese version of the law can be read here.

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