Office Royale (Kazuaki Seki, 2021) – Fantasia International Film Festival 2021

THE OL BATTLE ROYALE BEGINS!

AV_Inferno_DVD_.inddNaoko Tanaka (Mei Nagano) is a 26 year-old office lady – a secretarial and clerical worker in a large Japanese company. Her job at Mitsufuji is reliable, the atmosphere is laid-back, and she has some friendly colleagues, but the fires of war burn brightly beneath the veneer of the office’s calm banality. Cliques of office ladies fight for departmental supremacy like sneering gangsters and posturing delinquents. These warring clans battle daily until a new employee arrives, Ran Hojo (Alice Hirose), armed with the strength and charisma of a manga hero to become the company’s top office lady and unite its competing factions. An unlikely friendship between Naoko and Ran is found, but what will happen to them and their company when powerful OL gangs from other companies arrive to test their honor and resolve? Can Ran, Naoko, and the office ladies of Mitsufuji survive the onslaught?

Director Kazuaki Seki’s debut feature is a hilarious, uproarious, action-packed send-up of workplace pettiness and office territorialism, pitting mild-mannered, pink-collar workers in vicious duels over coffee breaks and alongside photocopiers, all under the oblivious noses of their male superiors. Comedian Bakarhythm’s screenplay riffs on the conventions of Japanese comics with a witty meta-commentary and a furiously paced series of fights. Setting superhero grandeur in an unremarkable context, Office Royale is a hysterically energetic satire and a grandiloquent action spectacle.

Special Edition Contents:

  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
  • Original DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio
  • Optional newly translated English subtitles on both films
  • Introduction by historian and critic Kim Newman
  • Yankees, Yakuza, and Making Copies, interview with director Kazuaki Seki
  • Heroic OL Diary, interview with screenwriter Bakarhythm
  • One-Punch Lady, interview with actress Mei Nagano
  • Ran’s House, interview with actress Alice Hirose
  • Press conference interviews with the cast
  • Behind-the-scenes footage
  • Deleted scenes
  • Theatrical trailers
  • Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Ian McEwan

“Office ladies” refers to female workers in Japanese companies usually responsible for clerical and secretarial work. These pink-collar workers operate under a low glass ceiling despite many being well-educated, some even holding college diplomas. The job connotes a passive and submissive role, catering to the needs of largely male superiors by making copies, serving tea, and staging meeting rooms as needed. OL positions provide few options for promotion and workers are expected to either accept their full-time position and its modest compensation, pivot into a different occupation, or, most likely, marry out of role and leave the workplace. Humble and unnoticed, the professional setting of the office lady is hardly the arena for blood feuds and brawling action spectacles, though Seki Kazuaki’s Office Royale takes great joy in imagining otherwise, transposing Mean Girl social hierarchies to female office work and describing it through a feature-length version of Anchorman’s news team rumbles.

Naoko Tanaka (Mei Nagano) is a soft-spoken wallflower working at Mitsufuji, a respectably sized Japanese company. The 26 year-old office lady is good at her job, has made a few friends among her fellow OLs, and keeps her head down, avoiding the violent departmental rifts that divide most of Mitsufuji’s office ladies into three rival factions. OLs in the company’s sales department are led by Shiori “Mad Dog” Satake (Rina Kawaei), a diminutive shit-talker with a fiercely held grudge against Shuri “The Demon” Ando (Nanao) and her cornrowed crew at research and development. Both have eyes on the company’s office lady OG, Etsuko “The Beast” Kanda (Miyuki Ohshima), the permed queen pin of Mitsufuji’s manufacturing section, though it is Shuri who eventually achieves dominance in this tripartite rivalry. The war over OL supremacy within Mitsufuji plays out in very un-OL fashion, having its modest office ladies dress and act with a tough guy bravado usually reserved for delinquents (“yankees”), biker gangs (“bōsōzoku”), or gangsters (“yakuza”). A new calm is achieved among Mitsufuji’s OLs with the arrival of Ran Hojo (Alice Hirose), an unbeatable fighter who is disinterested in power but unable to ignore the bullying egos of these office space ruffians. Challenged by Mitsufuji’s toughest OLs, Ran dispatches them with ease and becomes their unifying leader with Shiori, Shuri, and Etsuko at her right hand.

Despite Naoko purposefully shying away from the wild bombast of Mitsufuji’s OL gangs, she and Ran become unlikely friends through their shared love for a TV drama. The pair make for a perfect office odd couple: Naoko is unassuming personally and unimpeachable professionally, while Ran struggles with her office duties and leads Mitsufuji’s OLs with casual authority. A closet otaku, Naoko offers a humourous meta-commentary on Office Royale by her voiceover observations that contextualize the film in explicitly manga terms. She assess Ran to be a manga hero of the finest order and herself as merely the “comic book hero’s boring friend.” Office Royale’s Japanese title (Jigoku-no-hanazono) literally translates as Hell’s Garden, but its English title evokes associations to Kinji Fukasaku’s kill-or-be-killed classic Battle Royale (2000). In form, Office Royale resembles a shonen manga, comic books marketed toward teen males and which attend to its masculine heroes facing off against consecutive opponents and levelling up their abilities along the way. It doesn’t take long for the top dog OLs of other companies to start testing Ran’s mettle, interrupting the pair as they window shop or patronize cafes during their coffee breaks. Ran shuts down these threats with the ease of an OL version of One-Punch Man (“You need to die quickly before the stores close.”) and Naoko feels suitably awestruck and dimished as a result. Ran is eventually confronted by a dominant office lady faction led by Ryoko Akagi and her lieutenants (hilariously played in unconvincing drag by Ken’ichi Akagi, Masanobu Katsumura, Satoru Matsuo, and Tomomi Maruyama). Akagi and her cohorts kidnap Naoko and force Ran into running a gauntlet of OL bosses to save her. It is here that Office Royale pivots, leading both Ran and Naoko into unexpected roles and drawing them into an inevitable conflict with the toughest Office Lady of all, Reina Onimaru (Eiko Koike looking resplendent as a platinum blonde).

Office Royale is sometimes criticized for a lack of progressiveness in its story and its construction, at least among some Western reviewers. This line of chiding can seemingly be traced back to some unfortunately worded promotion by the 23rd Far East Film Festival which described Office Royale as an “uproarious manifesto for contemporary girl power,” a claim that feels difficult to embrace when the movie explicitly links OL fighting ability to office duty prowess and partly resolves its story with a romantic coupling. For some, the choice to level up the film’s office lady threat with men in drag is another sour note against its assertion of feminine empowerment. This criticism omits Office Royale’s casting the majestic Eiko Koike as its ultimate big bad and also ignores the role that drag has played in the OL comedy of the film’s screenwriter, Bakarhythm. Popular Japanese comedian Bakarhythm solidified his celebrity in 2006 by appearing as a finalist on the R-1 Grand Prix comedy competition. that same year, he also started a fictional blog examining the mundane existence of a female bank clerk. The blog, Fictitious Girl’s Diary, developed a cult following for its gentle humour and eye for detail, and it led to a book, a 2017 television series (Fictitious OL Diary), and a 2020 movie (Fictitious OL Diary: The Movie). The drama is decidedly understated in Bakarhythm’s Fictitious works. The first episode of the TV series offers some brief glimpses of morning preparations, commutes, and end of the day shopping, while the primary story involves the breaking of a locker room heater and its replacement by one of the supporting OL characters. There is no drama over how the heater broke or who should replace it – it merely breaks to the office ladies’ dismay and is then replaced to their delight. If anything is remarkable about Fictional Girl’s Diary, it is that Bakarhythm himself plays the series’ main character Masuno Hidetomo. While his comedic characters have stirred up controversy (just look up his commercial for All Nippon Airways and the whiteface furor that followed), Bakarhythm’s drag role is rather unremarkable by its modesty – standing comparably amongst his fellow OLs at 5’5″ and not even changing his own hairstyle for the role. While Office Royale puts its drag to an arguably different use than that in Fictional Girl’s Diary, it is hardly something uncharacteristic to the work of Bakarhythm or his OL interests, and its appearance here should probably be balanced against its wider context of these other popular works.

While Office Royale doesn’t rewrite the ills of pink ghetto employment, it does perfectly embrace the realities of office politics as a setting for its amplified dissension. Departmental rivalries, personality conflicts, and professional territorialism are endemic in office spaces, but Bakarhythm and Kazuaki Seki do more than uproariously inflate this discord to MCU level clashes between near superhuman brawlers; they capture the inherent stratification of office life by the apparent cluelessness of (male) superiors to the OL rumbles going on in plain view. Work is always getting done at Mitsufuji, especially by the office ladies, and even Ran rising to the level of undisputed badass and accepted leader amongst her station of employees never absolves her of the responsibility to pull her own professional weight. It’s a hilarious juxtaposition seeing these ostentatiously styled women, sometimes bruised and bandaged, still copying and collating, tidying and cleaning as expected. And as long as the work gets done, office superiors can ignore the superhuman donnybrook going on in their office tower’s lobby. While they threaten and abuse each other, they revert to dutiful submissives in the presence of those employees they support by cleaning up spills and helping brew tea. Office Royale doesn’t reinvent the workplace to embrace the fearlessness and power of its office ladies. Its concluding romantic coupling is a pin in the balloon of its battling OLs, explicitly acknowledging the existence of these wars where they were previously ignored and disclaiming them as being ultimately meaningless. Office Royale doesn’t pretend to replace the reality of pink-collar office life with a fantasy of bare-knuckle empowerment. Rather, Office Royale explains a reality in fantastic terms. OLs might be warriors and heroes but the office will see what it wants, especially if the work keeps getting done in the meantime.

Office Royale PosterMMC! would love to see an Arrow Video edition of Office Royale even if the title is more likely to find a home on the Third Window Films label. The film was a favourite at this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival, taking home a Special Jury mention and taking a spot among MMC!’s favourite dozen features at the Festival. Kazuaki Seki’s debut feature boasts great performances across its cast, an impressive production design with a stylishly showy take on office uniforms, some outlandish fights sure to please Scott Pilgrim fans, and even a shout-out to Bakarhythm’s famous flip-board comedy skit. Absurdly savage and smartly silly, Office Royale is a one-two punch of Japanese weirdness waiting for the Arrow Video treatment.

Credits: We’re making this imagined edition up as we go along, presuming some interviews and some behind-the-scenes content from unsubtitled promotional content available on YouTube. Kim Newman is a friend to the label as well as the Fantasia jury foreman responsible for the Special Mention given to Office Royale, and so it seemed in keeping to have him provide an introduction to the movie. Ian MacEwan was tapped for a cover illustration for his regular work for both Arrow Video and Third Window Films.

This post owes particular thanks to Hayley Scanlon’s review for Windows on WorldsAnthony Kao’s review for Cinema Escapist, Panos Kotzathanasis’s review for Asian Movie Pulse, Brent Hankins’ review for The Lamplight Review, PVHaecke’s review for Psycho-cinematography, Dan Tabor’s review for Cinapse, Bryan Christopher’s review for Cinepunx, Genki Jason’s review for Genkinahito, and James Hadfield’s review of Fictitious Girl’s Diary: The Movie for The Japan Times. And once again, MMC! owes a big thank you to the Fantasia International Film Festival!

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