Tokyo ad-man Eburi drunkenly vows to a pair of magazine editors that he will write them a masterpiece. Once sober, Eburi commits himself to his promise, writing a novella using himself and his tenuous middle class life as a model. Based on Hitomi Yamaguchi’s original stories of the same title and employing the same essay-style, first-person narration, Okamoto creates a sociopolitical examination of the lingering scars of World War II within the framework of Toho’s popular “salaryman comedies”. Infused with audacious editing, animated sequences, and all manners of cinematic flourish, the result is a fast-paced, inventive and hilarious film that may be Okamoto’s finest work and the best example of the “Kihachi Touch”.
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In 1963, Okamoto ventured into Toho’s popular salariman comedy genre with The Elegant Life of Mr. Everyman, based on the popular magazine series by Hitomi Yamaguchi. Its main character, Eburi (a role that would define Kobayashi Keiju’s career), is an uninspired writer with a Tokyo ad agency who struggles to connect with his family and his co-workers. One night, unable to find any drinking companions at his office, Eburi meets a pair of editors for a women’s magazine and drunkenly boasts he will write for them a masterpiece they can publish. The pair of editors are taken with Eburi’s nonstop pontificating and hold him to his promise. Struggling with a topic, the salaryman ultimately decides to recount his own experiences as a Tokyo office worker, revealing the financial and personal burdens of providing for his family, the shame of his father’s wartime profiteering and his financial recklessness, his difficulties maintaining a happy marriage, and even his own mental and physical shortcomings. Eburi’s writing wins him the prestigious Naoki prize (a literary award that Yamaguchi won for the source material) and turns him into a minor celebrity amongst the press and with his colleagues, however Okamoto’s film ends on a bittersweet note, revealing Eburi to once again be perceived as a self-important bore to his co-workers and, more poignantly, as a man still burdened by his resentment with Japan’s previous generation and the sacrifice it made of its young people during World War II.
The Elegant Life of Mr. Everyman is largely told through Eburi’s first person narration. A film wherein an office worker recounts the drafting of his memoirs may not sound like entertaining cinema or the domain for inventive filmmaking, but have faith. Elegant Life is an extremely clever, very funny, and surprisingly insightful movie. Okamoto employs all manner of ingenious techniques to breathe life into one man’s struggles to maintain the facade of middle class existence and preserve some sense of hope in himself, his family, and his nation. Eburi’s description of the financial pressures that caused him and his wife to marry is represented through a montage of money being laid out and picked up, the ceremony and honeymoon told by a series of animated sequences, and the early days of his marriage represented by a special effects shot of his shoes being greeted at his doorstep by his wife’s sandals. A section reviewing Eburi’s father’s war-profiteering and his multiple reversals of fortune is portrayed using more animation and a three-wall set emulating the theatrical stage-style of early cinema. A sequence depicting Eburi and his colleague walking to work in various states of undress provides a funny image against the narrator’s catalogue of his wardrobe and his expressions of self-consciousness over trying to maintain a professional and respectable image.
The Elegant Life of Mr. Everyman is full of inventive and unexpected cinema, creating a film that manages to be whimsical and soul-searching at the same time. It probably best embodies the Kihachi Touch, but is almost entirely unknown in the West. Criterion is in a wonderful position to correct this by bringing what may be Okamoto’s best film to North American home media.
Credits: The above summary is adapted from Arsenal’s synopsis for Mubi on The Elegant Life of Mr. Everyman.