Movies for "salarymen"--Japan's beleaguered white-collar drones--aren't supposed to do well at the box office.

Anyone in the Japanese movie business can tell you why: Salarymen don't do cinema. They push paper. They drink sake and go to karaoke bars.

So what's with all the middle-aged guys in suits ducking into Ginza's Toei theater on weekday afternoons? For more than a month now, they've been slinking away from the office to cheer and jeer a film called "Jubaku: The Archipelago of Rotten Money."

"Jubaku," roughly translated, means "spell" or "curse." But thanks to the movie, it has come to suggest a slavish devotion to Japan's traditional corporate culture. The movie's story line is based on a 1997 government investigation that exposed corruption at one of Japan's most powerful banks. By Japanese standards, its message is outright subversive.

One key scene depicts a group of disillusioned young bank executives bemoaning the depravity of their superiors. They joke darkly about resigning from the scandal-stained employer and striking out on their own.

I've always wanted to be a gardener, says one. I'll be a Buddhist monk, says another. A third declares that his experiences as a banker have left him perfectly suited to run a whorehouse. When the laughter subsides, one banker speaks in earnest: "Okay, after we quit, we'll all be fine. So what do you say? Before we quit . . . let's take on the board of directors."

It's just a movie. But the almost fatalistic zeal for reform depicted in that sequence captures something real about the mood of many Japanese workers these days.

After seven years of economic stagnation and month after month of tawdry financial scandals, many here profess a new tolerance--even a yearning--for radical change.

Little by little, Japan's embattled corporate samurai seem to be losing faith in their old creed. Business practices and institutions once celebrated here as Japanese capitalism's redeeming virtues--group loyalty, deference to elders, shared rewards, cozy relations between business and government--are decidedly out of vogue. The talk among young workers lately is of ideals such as independence, competition, personal responsibility and individual risk.

Over the past six months, "there's been a dramatic shift in public attitudes," said Soichiro Tahara, host of a Sunday television program that has bolstered ratings by supplementing its usual focus on politics with more aggressive coverage of business and finance. "We are in a time of transition--a transition from subservience to self-reliance."

The new mood is a combustible mixture of frustration, fear and hope. But for those clever enough to tap it--filmmakers, writers, journalists, marketers and even cartoonists--the rewards can be substantial.

Just ask novelist Ryu Murakami. He's the author of a satirical picture book called "Bubble Fantasy: What Could That Money Have Bought?" It suggests 123 alternative uses for the nearly $600 billion that Japan's government has set aside to shore up teetering financial institutions.

For example, Murakami figures that just with the $6.6 billion it used to prop up Sakura Bank Ltd., Japan could have acquired The Washington Post Co., the Chicago Bulls and rights to Nike Inc.'s seven-year marketing contract with golfer Tiger Woods.

Money spent to bail out other lenders could have purchased personal computers for every Japanese public school, dug wells for 1 billion people in developing countries who lack access to clean water, financed the research and development budget for Viagra, and treated every Japanese man and woman over 65 to sushi dinner on Senior Citizens' Day, Murakami says.

The book, which has sold more than 200,000 copies since its publication in July, appears to have struck a chord with Japanese who blame banks for creating the financial bubble in the first place. At first people think it's funny, Murakami said. "But by the time they get to the end, they're just ticked off."

"Bubble Fantasy" can be found alongside a host of other titles that evoke the salaryman's aspirations and anxieties. Among the favorite dust-jacket buzzwords: risutora (restructuring), saisei (rebirth), ikinokori (survival) and akauntabiriti (accountability).

Bestsellers on the business shelf include upbeat titles such as Masaharu Shibata's "Somehow, Let's Change the Company." But gloomier works move briskly, too. For example: "Your Company--It's Also Sure to Go Bust!" or "Put Your Abilities to the Test (By Working for a Foreign Firm)."

The themes of rebirth and survival figure prominently in the plot lines of many business manga, the comic books that help weary salarymen endure those long commutes. Publishing giant Shuei-sha has found a surprise hit in "Shuhei Nozaki: Bank Auditor."

The series' hero is young and dashing and determined to root out corruption at troubled "Blue Sky Bank." Auditor Nozaki doesn't fly or have X-ray vision. Mostly, he wades through lending records, goes to meetings and drinks green tea. Still, his exploits, penned by a former bank official, have sold more than 60,000 copies.

Not that the Nozaki series is an endorsement of American-style market capitalism. Blue Sky Bank's president, a symbol of the old Japan, is portrayed as a greedy conniver with ties to gangsters and corrupt politicians.

But the executive leading the bank's restructuring effort is an equally unsavory character named Takeda, who sports a satanic beard and chomps greasy burgers while ordering bankwide dismissals.

Disdain for all markets shines through the work of Yuji Aoki, a 54-year-old former railroad worker who drifted through a series of dead-end jobs before becoming one of Japan's best-known cartoonists. Aoki came to fame in the early 1990s with a manga set in Osaka called "The Way of Naniwa Finance." That series traced the misadventures of one Tatsuyuki Haibara, a bankrupt printer forced to work for a loan-sharking operation to repay his own debts.

Aoki's vivid depictions of the seamy underside of Japan's financial system helped make his series a huge success when the nation's economic bubble burst. Publishers estimate sales of the Naniwa series at more than 10 million copies.

More recently, Aoki--who gleefully describes himself as a Marxist millionaire--has abandoned cartooning for political commentary. He now tars American and Japanese capitalism with the same broad brush. One recent work, the "Naniwa Manifesto," urges Japanese citizens to delay tax payments and keep what they have borrowed from the banks. This year he co-authored a book of essays entitled "Surviving in a Rotten Capitalist World."

In a bizarre example of art imitating life imitating art, Eisuke Arai, a finance company official arrested this month on harassment charges, has claimed that he learned how to strong-arm debtors by reading the Naniwa chronicles. Prosecutors allege that Arai attempted to force the guarantor of an unpaid loan to come up with cash by selling off a kidney.

The kidney case has dominated headlines here. Tahara, the Sunday talk-show host, contends that the kidney case has enraged the Japanese public because Arai's employer, Nichiei Finance, had been welcomed into Japan's financial establishment by bankers and bureaucrats who knew of its hardball tactics "but chose to look the other way."

Tahara should know. Nichiei was one of his program's biggest sponsors, until it was asked to end the relationship before the program aired a hard-hitting investigative segment questioning the company's collection methods.

The final frames of "Jubaku," the movie, compare the behavior of Japanese bankers during the bubble era to the arrogance of Roman emperors.

"I think 'Jubaku' is a sort of metaphor for the choice that all Japanese face of whether they are going to belong to the old world or not," said producer Masato Hara in a recent interview with the Japan Times.

"If you are going to break the spell of the old Japanese system, you have to become a fighter. You have to change your attitude and become more combative."

A Workplace Tragi-Comic

These scenes from the pages of "Shuhei Nozaki: Bank Auditor," a comic book for Japanese white-collar workers, take place at a dinner where a senior director -- a coldhearted leader of the restructuring effort at a distressed bank -- confronts a group of senior bank executives who've been dismissed:

"We've set aside 100 million yen, about $1 million for your retirement."

"One hundred million yen . . . ?"

"Think of it as your severance pay. From now on, you're on your own."

"If we were transferred to a subsidiary, we'd get much more than that . . . But to get that much in a single, lump sum isn't so bad. . . . After all, who knows what will happen to the bank itself."

"They can't be serious They're going to throw me out with a lousy 100 million yen??"

SOURCE: "Shuhei Nozaki: Bank Auditor"