Face masks as a symbol of class division seems a very loaded image right now, but in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s 2013 short film, Beautiful New Bay Area Project, it shows the luxury of concern the bosses of a factory have compared to their workers who are all about to lose their jobs and be replaced by the titular construction project. The “second generation dummy boss” Amano (Tasuku Emoto) is told to stay away, apparently the workers have some unique new form of norovirus but after the first scene it’s never brought up again and as he becomes more and more obsessed with one worker in particular, Takako (Mao Mita), pathetically orbiting her, nothing comes of it; it seems to have never existed at all.
Maybe living and working in such affectless and sanitised spaces means they have to be more careful about their health, an intolerance has been built but not built without intent; cleanliness can be a kind of disgust, a way of pushing back the inherent messiness of the world, or, more-so in this case, a way of hiding from the damage they have done. Now that the idea of ‘care’ has integrated itself so deeply into capitalism—the most evil companies, whilst continuing business as usual, are expected to project some social and moral value—those working in managment and above are getting dangerously close to a self-awareness they can't bare to have. The only way to manage this precarious balance, to allow them to continue on blissfully, is to make it so that they literally can't get close to the workers, that it's only safe to look at them through binoculars or movie screens. Kurosawa isn’t delusional about his place in this, he’s a famous movie director, a literal boss, if not exactly at the top, that’s why the movie follows the less dynamic Amano. He believes that Takako has saved him in some kind of way and tries to get close to her, pulling her into his life—she rejects him, confused, just trying to work—bringing to mind Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), another film about men projecting their desires onto women, and an allegory for directing.
Beautiful’s strangest scene is a recognition of its distance from Takako: she stands in front of a slightly unconvincing green screen, looks straight into camera and tells us that she was born in the sea. This abstracted version of the natural world—where there is a “mutual understanding” and an “exchanged acceptance” of the strong eating weak, unlike the unseen but violent enforcement of our world—shows Kurosawa, like Amano who may well be imagining it, unable to grasp the details of her life and filling them with broad and exotic colours. Returning to his awful all-white office building inspires Amano, bringing him to another strange kind of realisation of how Takako might be living and struggling—conveyed brilliantly by a car driving in front of the frame and covering it for half a second, like the sudden flicker of a thought, then another comes and fills the frame for a bit longer and by the time it’s gone so has he, running off to her; the same visual conveying two so clearly delineated ideas is masterful work—he thinks he can save her by giving her a better life, one much more like his. It’s the kind of distorted sense of empathy that enforces conformity, a violent means of control that feels like charity; he wants to cleanse her and dress her in new clothes as Scottie did to Madeline.
The better places he wants to take her include downtown and a theme park, his imagination has been so totally limited by capitalism’s ability to be all consuming whilst posing as, consensual and natural; the free market as simply an expression of people’s needs. The plan for this project is just a bunch of white cardboard boxes on a table, there’s no sense of what it will be, only of what it will destroy; even the fantasies of capitalism feel compromised. Compare it to the feverish visions of one of the systems greatest ideologues and symbols, Walt Disney, who, but weeks away from death, in the truly delusional and maniacal EPCOT concept film, imagined a totally enclosed society where everyone would “live, work and play” within its walls. They’d take the centralised transport system—the “people movers”—from their high density apartments to their jobs in either the Disney parks, the Disney industrial zone, or the enclosed, climate controlled Disney city centre.
Now the idea of freedom must be more emphasised—whilst the film plays sentimental music over images of the workers (who Walt considered family before they unionised), it saves the most maudlin tunes for the man himself—as if de-centralising serves anything but a further atomisation, turning the idea of collective action foggy under the thick veil of individual choice. No one has to believe in a central myth anymore, we don’t need a symbol because the structures of capitalism are so deeply engrained, regardless of if they're accepted, that the system will run on its own. It doesn't matter hwo mcuh you want change if you can't iamgine anything different, all our imaginations are compromised enough that the pangs of Disney sentimentality, and therefore ideology, still linger deep in most of our hearts.
The only way out for Takako, whose name tag is taken by a bitterly rejected Amano—the symbolism of which doesn’t need much comment—is to fall into the fantastical and the genre. She goes to his office and fist fights her way up to him, a jarring shift highlighted sharply by the lack of music and flatly lit digital photography so hyperreal it comes back around to looking completely artificial. Kurosawa’s abstraction of Takako moves from reductionist to poignant, as fun as it is to see her so gratuitously destroy this wretched place, never missing an opportunity to throw a guy into a minimalist bookcase, everything must be so stacked in her favour, the whole film twisted into something new in order to find any kind of victory; genre pleasure becomes an escapism that's not thoughtless, but helpless. And even when Amano is left beaten on the ground, he looks up at Takako and can’t help but admire her beauty, she gets her name back but it’s only a symbol and this only a film, another product of capitalism more than comfortable integrating wishes for its destruction into itself. It helps to contain and control those instincts and after all, it doesn't matter; Takako will still lose her job and construction will continue on unabated.