Tokyo Uber Blues (2022): ride or die trying | Review

A fast moving bike shoots past a blurred city background.

A young graduate signs up as a bike courier during the coronavirus pandemic. Tokyo Uber Blues follows his dizzying ride into disaster.

Interest in passive income has rocketed over the past decade. What’s passive income? Modernity’s version of the philosopher’s stone: a way of making money with minimal effort.

Savings, investments and real estate are the big hitters, but digital downloads, stock photos and – of course – serving ads everywhere from billboards and blogs to the side of your car are commonly touted as side money spinners.

Now as it turns out, I’ve been writing about personal finance for a long time, and I remember the passive income mantra jumping from niche activity to internet obsession. But during that time, I’ve also noticed the strategy favours those who already have access to capital, or know how to play the game.

Whether coincidence or cross-over, consumer interest in passive income has mirrored the growth of companies like Uber, Airbnb and Lyft, brands synonymous with the so-called gig economy:

“a labour market characterised by the prevalence of short-term contracts or freelance work, as opposed to permanent jobs”.


The gig economy has been wildly successful … for those who own the capital. But many business models resemble vast passive income schemes. They leave individual workers sharing the financial burdens and risks of the services these companies are famous for.

In 2020, lockdown boosted demand for deliveries among remote workers stuck at home – just as other employees found their jobs placed on hold. Yet if this was exactly the scenario gig work was made for, some of those who heeded its call found the reality quite a different beast.

“What about Uber Eats?”

In March 2020, film graduate Taku Aoyagi found himself out of work and owing a cool $44,800 (USD equivalent) on his student loan. With Japan under lockdown, jobs in his home town of Kofu City had dried up; even the local supermarket had stopped hiring.

Then a film school friend said: “what about Uber Eats?” If you were over 18 and had 35 bucks for a brand-stamped, insulated backpack, it was a no-brainer. There were whispers of good money, steady work, and the freedom of self-employment.

Covid was the danger spot – infections and deaths were on the up – but as an Uber bike courier, you could expect to make $100-$200 a day delivering take-out. It was too tempting. In April, Taku set off for Tokyo in fitting style: he made the 60-odd mile journey by bicycle.

Tokyo Uber Blues is the story of that expedition, with shades of Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You (which also features in the film). It’s a smartly-told and moving narrative of labour exploitation, halfway between reality TV video diary and undercover investigation.

However, while much of it is spoken or recorded in the first-person, parts are more conventionally filmed (or, at least, by others). Is that important? Perhaps, because Taku’s documentary repeatedly circles back to the supposedly crushing isolation of his experiences. Sometimes, the storytelling seams are visible.

Nonetheless, the film lays bare issues we know to be widespread: young people have it rough … and the gig economy is wild, man.

Life on the streets

While the capital is at first eerily empty because of lockdown, it’s soon clear there’s no shortage of Uber riders and drivers in Tokyo. “It’s a rat race,” Taku notes.

At least the process is simple. You wait by your phone until you get an order, then pick up the food, drop it off and get paid. Well, you get paid eventually, which means weekly.

There’s a bubble in the plan, though. On the first day, Taku rides for 9 hours and 40 minutes but earns just $60. It’s not a great, but he’s determined to do better. At least he can crash with friends for the time being, saving on accommodation.

However, rather than getting into a steady groove, things quickly get sticky. For one thing, it rains – a lot. While bad weather sees a spike in orders, riding while drenched is tough going. The work is no picnic, either: gruelling shifts of nine, ten and even 15 hours rarely bring in more than day one.

Appallingly, some orders involve cycling long distances to deliver next to nothing; once it’s a single tapioca drink.

Taku feels like a cog. It gets harder to balance the physical demands of the job with living costs. He splurges on a budget hotel and, for his birthday, an X-rated ‘rental room’. Soon, he’s sleeping on the streets.

Who’s gaming whom?

If you want to compete, you have to play the game on its terms

It’s notoriously difficult to make it as an Uber driver, or any other kind of gig worker.

Although unions are pushing back, there’s typically no holiday pay or expenses, and few employment rights. Uber Eats Japan even previously classed riders as customers. Breaking your phone will stop you earning. Repairing a puncture can set you back to zero.

Zero hours jobs do work for some people. Sometimes you don’t have much say in it anyway. But there’s no elevation in gig work; it’s a hamster wheel that keeps you tied to a groove. That’s assuming luck is on your side: if not, it’s easy to fall into debt or depression, or get locked into living hand-to-mouth.

Tokyo Uber Blues begins as a very modern and even charming coming-of-age story, but descends into some quite unnerving places. Taku grows up fast on the road, but also seemingly grows a little mad along the way. Who wouldn’t?

Unsurprisingly, the gig fairytale relies on promises of easy money always just around the corner. For Taku, this means chasing “quests” that pays out bonus winnings if you hit leg-busting targets (70 deliveries in three days).

Luckily, there are hacks that can help, from trading up bikes to waiting in the best spots. If you want to compete, you have to play the game on its terms.

I’ll leave you to find out whether our guy gets the golden apple. Either way, that bad taste in your mouth is the sweat of cheap labour. Success may lie in learning to hack the rules but you have to wonder: who’s really gaming the system?

Tokyo Uber Blues | Tokyo jitensha bushi (2022), directed by Taku Aoyagi

This film screened at Sheffield DocFest 2023

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Picture credit: Max Bender