Mr. Tonegawa: Middle Management Blues is kind of a delight, much more than it has any right to be.
Mr. Tonegawa: Middle Management Blues is kind of a delight, much more than it has any right to be. It’s a spinoff of the Nobuyuki Fukumoto manga-turned-anime Kaiji, which I’ve written about here before–it’s many things, but delightful is not one of them. Kaiji is the story of titular loser Kaiji and his ongoing struggle against debt, as shown through sadistic death games run by mad capitalists. It’s a bitter, angry show where the stakes are life and death and the best you can hope for is that you might live to fight another day, because the system oppressing you is so vast and powerful that it’s impossible for an individual to do any meaningful damage.
Tonegawa is one of the main villains of the first season of Kaiji–the second in command at Teiai Finance, the loan shark company running the games Kaiji finds himself trapped in. The Tonegawa we meet in Kaiji is intelligent, competent, levelheaded, and an absolute sociopath, who sees nothing wrong with pushing desperate people to their deaths for the entertainment of the elite. In a way, he’s more frightening than Teiai president Hyoudou, because at least Hyoudou is clearly a sadistic madman–Tonegawa is perfectly sane, just twisted by the system until he’s capable of doing unimaginably cruel things without batting an eye. He’s a formidable opponent that perfectly reflects the themes of Kaiji.
And on the other hand, we have Mr. Tonegawa: Middle Management Blues. It’s clear from the title alone that it’s something completely different–Tonegawa as a middle manager, stuck between his sadistic employer and his troublesome team. It applies the same over-the-top framing that characterizes Fukumoto’s work–whether it’s the grandiose narration, the florid metaphors, or the onscreen sound effects–except instead of the stakes being whether Kaiji can get out with his life, it’s whether Tonegawa can remember his employees’ names. It’s every bit as ridiculous as it sounds, and it works flawlessly. This style of framing was always a little absurd, and the only thing that keeps it from being a joke in Kaiji is the raw emotion poured into it–talk of climbing up from the depths of Hell to grasp victory carries a lot more weight when it’s delivered in angry sobs by a man who was just betrayed for the sake of money. So when that’s taken away and the same purple prose is used to describe Tonegawa’s struggle to run Teiai’s Twitter account, it’s just really, really funny.
Tonegawa is a charming character, too–portrayed as a long-suffering middle manager who’s just trying against all odds to get things done, who genuinely cares for his employees and gradually earns their respect and admiration, who tries his best to stay on the good side of his capricious, sadistic boss. Tonegawa is a good guy. Here lies the problem–this is still the very same Tonegawa of Kaiji, who sacrifices debtors to the whims of the wealthy without a second thought. In fact, he and his team spend much of the first season developing Limited Rock-Paper-Scissors–the first game Kaiji plays, designed to encourage distrust and backstabbing for the entertainment of the observers. Tonegawa has no qualms about this–only frustration trying to implement it.
It’s not as though the show is unaware of this contradiction. Callbacks to Kaiji are frequently used as gags, whether it’s Tonegawa unwittingly cooking steak on a certain infamous grill or the narrator being unable to describe the fatal Human Derby because of broadcast regulations. The horror and violence of Kaiji are repurposed for comedy in the same way as the melodramatic framing. And it definitely is funny–albeit in a much darker fashion. It’s just hard to know what to make of such a striking contrast.
There are a few ways to interpret the dichotomy of the coldly practical Tonegawa of Kaiji and the goofy, dad-like Tonegawa of Middle Management Blues. The first, simplest reading is that Fukumoto just wanted to write something silly and fun that played with the usual tropes of his work, and Tonegawa seemed like a good springboard for that. In fact, the second season of Mr. Tonegawa includes several episodes from the perspective of Ōtsuki–the foreman of the underground forced labor camp Kaiji was sent to–that have a surprisingly heavy focus on food and restaurants, which supports the idea that the series was just Fukumoto’s way of taking a break from the mind games to write about other things that interested him. This would be a perfectly fair thing for a creator to do–it just feels like something of a betrayal to what Kaiji stands for to use Tonegawa for it.
The other way to read Mr. Tonegawa is as a subtle reminder that even the worst people are still people–and by extension, that all of us are capable of committing atrocities if only put in the right position. Where his employees are concerned, Tonegawa is a good boss and a good guy, but he still considers anyone who has failed to succeed in the eyes of society to be worthless trash. He might be a put-upon middle manager who goes bowling with his team and plays the piano at his school reunion, but he still stands on the roof of a building and watches people fall to their deaths. He’s not just a cog in the system, but actively complicit in degrading, injuring, and even killing other human beings for the sake of the amusement of the bourgeois–yet he’s not a monster. He’s just another human, and that’s much more frightening.
It’s hard to know how much of this is intentional. Tonegawa is never presented as a villain, even when he most resembles the man from Kaiji–understandable, as it is from his perspective. There is one strange, jarring moment–after the aforementioned gag of the narrator not being able to describe the Human Derby, we see Tonegawa standing on the rooftop, quietly smoking as ambulance sirens wail in the background. “Money is more important than life,” he says. Had the show made that the final scene, it would have been chilling–a way of refusing to let us forget that as charming as Tonegawa is, he’s still the perpetrator of incredible systemic violence. Instead, the final scene is him joining in a flash dance mob at his employee’s wedding–a particularly cute example of his good side–leaving the reminder of his actions stranded awkwardly in the middle of an entirely different show.
Mr. Tonegawa: Middle Management Blues is fun, and watching it, it’s hard not to like Tonegawa. He’s incredibly likable. It’s just a little disquieting that someone who is the direct cause of so much suffering and the indirect cause of so much more should be this nice.