Management: While my opinion of the show is generally positive overall, this essay, by no means, is meant to serve as a comprehensive review, but rather, as an articulation and analysis of some of what I feel is this series’ most integral and interesting themes. This post mainly references ReLIFE Episode 11: “A Trip to the Past.”
Anime is already inundated by show after show of high school settings. It can get tiring after a while. I, therefore, couldn’t help but be intrigued by a 27 year old male protagonist looking for full-time work. Expectations were betrayed somewhat when, one contract and one pill later, he got enrolled for high school looking ten years younger. I enjoyed it though. The show has its combination of high school shenanigans and old man jokes. I graduated from university recently and my back sometimes hurts.
As a fellow recent graduate, I found the male protagonist’s career troubles in ReLIFE relatable. I’ve felt the pressure of finding and working a job that’s financially sustainable and spiritually rewarding. The job I had until recently satisfied neither of those qualities. It was long hours of grunt labor from a demanding boss for menial pay and the expectation that I’ll eventually work my way up. And in the brief time that I’ve been employed in this line of work, politics specifically, there’s no shortage of people from the other factional camps undermining each other, suspecting each other, gossiping about each other, saying mean things towards each other.
It’s the kind of pettiness and nastiness that you expect that people, having graduated from school and/or aged enough, would have grown up and out from. Depressingly, exhaustingly, and perhaps even maddeningly, that’s not necessarily the case in either political America and corporate Japan. Kaizaki learns that lesson very harshly. To shake him out of his funk and find steady employment, he re-lives his high school life one more time for some healing… except that, as it turns out, high school life can also get pretty petty and nasty. And so, from a less than original premise, we get a somewhat novel perspective: high school life from a struggling salaryman.
The ReLIFE program’s mission is to help young adults, whether they be part-timers or NEETs, find the confidence to find and retain full-time work. NEET stands for “Not in Education, Employment, or Training.” To lay out some cultural context, as Japanese society gets older, more productive young people are needed than ever to help support the country’s welfare system, to say nothing about its economic growth. However, in recent decades, the standard of full-time, lifetime employment for male professionals has eroded, as globalization has led to both the government deregulating labor standards and corporations downgrading worker positions in order for country and companies to stay competitive with increasingly globally interconnected markets. More insecure part-time and contract work took the place of full-time work, and more people than ever before became NEETs.
In response to tighter budgets due to shrinking income and shorter hours, and grander ambitions as a result of many women receiving university-grade educations, women have entered the workforce en mass. However, the institutional sexism of Japanese society, if not completely prevents, discourages, and often discourages actively, women from climbing up their career ladders. Even today, the vast majority of women in the work force in Japanese society are part-timers. Those women who choose to work in corporate career tracks tend to face unfriendly and even hostile work cultures. These toxic atmospheres fester on due to ambitious, jealous, entitled, and sexist male colleagues who believe that a woman’s place in society is a full-time wife, mother, and homemaker. And yet if they want to keep their jobs, let alone get promoted from them, women have to endure.
Advancement in corporate career tracks, in a nutshell, require of corporate employees both long hours and complete loyalty to the companies that hire them. In addition to being tired, they may be demanded to accept, put up with, and even commit or become complicit in promoting unethical corporate actions, environments, and philosophies. Enter Kaizaki, a former career track worker. He became so upset by how malicious his company’s culture seemingly led his female mentor to commit suicide, by how callously animated his mentor’s coworkers were in discussing should replace her as the company’s top employee, by how shamelessly calculating the company head acted in using her death as an excuse for the rest of his employees to work more diligently, that Kaizaki made the drastic and dramatic gesture of seemingly forcing his head to accept his resignation.
The head’s response was shameless, cruel, and went something like this:
Only upper-level management get to resign. Scrubs like you ‘give notice.’
You went to grad school, and you don’t know that?
We won’t even notice you’re gone.”
Kaizaki hadn’t been working long in that company before he resigned/was fired. Even without his former boss poisoning the employment chalice, companies offering full-time employment would hardly chance upon taking on a worker with an apparently unreliable and untrustworthy record. Individual feel-good gestures of “standing up for what’s right” means little and does little to change a system as structurally exploitative as the Japanese corporation. You also can’t eat your principles, let alone use them to pay for the roof over your head. Grunts are left with no leverage and little power.
Traumatized by his mentor’s apparent suicide, scarred by his former boss’s taunting, he gradually glued back the shattered pieces of his smashed ego. He tried desperately and incessantly to get another full-time job. Alas, his efforts to were to no avail. He gradually lost interest in continuing the job hunt. And then fatefully, he was approached with an offer. Become a high school student and go to high school for a year. If he obtained his confidence back through it, the ReLIFE program would guarantee him a referral for some full-time position.
And here, the same petty and nasty things he experienced at his workplace manifested in his school life, via a deceptively more innocent and less harmless veneer. Attitudes and habits adopted during the most formative years of a person’s life carry over and inform that person’s future thoughts and feelings. The wrong attitudes and habits may lead people to becoming NEETs. They may contribute tp people becoming suicidal. They may even encourage people to say and do otherwise nasty and petty things to each other out of ambition, jealousy, entitlement, or prejudice.
High school life provides people a protective social bubble, and high school students making mistakes make softer landings. However, making mistakes as a adult in the working world carries more serious consequences. For instance, a stolen school bag with your homework one day can be a stolen purse with all your personal information and assets.The surprise and betrayal at people doing petty and nasty things is one thing. It is another entirely when you’re expected to fend for yourself. You have no homeroom teacher to turn to for support. You may, in fact, have to endure that harassment if you want to keep your job… if you want the money to feed, clothe, and shelter yourself. Losing that job can be life or death situation, even disregarding the mental and emotional toll all that constant bullying can do to a person. Society looks down on fully grown individuals relying excessively on their parents’ financial teats to get by.
I can’t help but empathize. I was bullied in elementary school, so I know what relentless harassment can do to a person’s self-esteem. I am also deeply anxious about my current job security. The job that I have right now is part-time without benefits, with clauses stipulating that I could be let go at any time. I’ve had to hear dispiriting things about other people, and, more than once, I’ve had to turn my eye away from things that made my conscience prickle uncomfortably. My boss isn’t an easy person to relax to in general. However, I doubt I could relax enough in his presence given how much leverage, how much power he has over my future. In fact, without the help of colleagues supporting me and helping me negotiate a better working arrangement, I was dead set on quitting. And yet, I agonized over the thought of depending excessively on my parents. I was brought up on their words of perseverance and self-reliance, yet at the same time, I wanted to lock myself in my room.
So it may be a brave and foolish thing to do the right thing, but what decision do you think would cause more stress? ReLIFE doesn’t offer any revolutionary solutions to the problems of corporate Japanese culture. While making his annual trip to visit his mentor’s grave to pay res[ects, current employees from Kaizaki’s former workplace expressed their admiration for his decision to quit. While inspired by his example, at the same time, they confessed that they were afraid to follow their hearts. His abominable asshole of a boss still trumpets his dead mentor’s name while slandering his name for productivity and profit. Who, in fact, is really at fault for the so-called NEET epidemic, society or the individual? And if fault should be attributed more to the former, is there anything that can be really done about it that doesn’t mean people starving and shivering?
Does “growing up” mean that the respectable tasks NEETs are constantly scolded to do mean that they have to put up with this shit meekly? Or should they demand that the adult world be redefined?
If there is any answer ReLIFE provides to the problems of grown ups, of adults, from a failed salaryman to a high school student, it is one that is cultural. If, during the most formative period of their lives, Japan’s next generation learn to get along with each other, become friends with each other, become… empathetic towards others, compassionate even… perhaps they won’t just become productive citizens. They may also become the country’s future leaders and thinkers.
You know, Hishiro Chizuru’s pretty smart, isn’t she?