AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Archive for the ‘Films’ Category

Ichigen koji (132)

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, August 7, 2012

一言居士
– A person who has something to say about everything

The people who look at the shuttered shops near the station and declare that the regional economy is in decline, and that regional cities are devasted, have only a superficial understanding. They do not understand the structual changes in regional economies. Using this idea alone to review films such as Saudade, which is based solely (on the above idea), shows that film critics in Japan know little of the world.

- Fujiwara Toshi

He is perhaps talking about reviews such as this:

I saw Saudade at Eurospace in Shibuya (a self-described “art house cinema”). It is a drama of a group of Japanese and foreigners that takes place on the stage of a declining regional city. The film is set in Kofu, but for me, who was born and reared in Otaru, a regional city that is truly in decline, the film was quite moving.

Or this.

Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Films, Popular culture, Quotations | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Steam rising in Sakurajima

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, August 23, 2011

AFTER enjoying a visit to Kagoshima City in the southern prefecture of Kagoshima shortly after I got married, I asked my wife (who didn’t go on the trip) what she thought about moving there. She wouldn’t hear of it, for a sensible reason. The active volcano of Sakurajima in Kagoshima Bay means that the residents have to live with the semi-constant presence of volcanic ash. As she put it, “It’s impossible to hang laundry outside.”

She wasn’t exaggerating, either.

The volcano erupted twice yesterday, bringing to 550 the number of eruptions so far this year. That’s already the second-highest total recorded since the Kagoshima Meteorological Observatory began keeping track in October 1955, when the volcano became more active. The record is 896 times set last year, when 550 eruptions were recorded by 20 June.

Kyoto University maintains the Sakurajima Volcano Research Center as part of its Disaster Prevention Research Institute. Said Prof. Iguchi Masato:

The ground deformation that accompanies the magma influx has been slight, but a large amount of magma has accumulated underneath the Aira caldera (where Sakurajima is located). We must closely monitor trends in the future.

Indeed they should. Sakurajima blew its top in 1914 after lying dormant for more than 100 years, and it was the largest volcanic eruption in the country in the 20th century. There was so much lava flow the island of Sakurajima became linked to the city by land, turning itself into the tip of a small peninsula. The number of fatalities was limited because several large earthquakes had preceded the eruption, and most Kagoshimanians deemed it best to go somewhere else for a while. Here’s a post-eruption photo that ran in the London Illustrated News.

The eruption was also the inspiration for The Wrath of the Gods, a silent movie made the same year with a young Sessue Hayakawa.

It will be more difficult now for the 600,000+ city residents to evacuate than it was almost a century ago, but the municipal government does hold evacuation drills and has built shelters.

One of the common themes of the books I read about Japan when I became interested in the country is that the Japanese have a more highly developed awareness of natural disasters than do people elsewhere. As we’ve seen already this year, there’s a good reason for that.

Afterwords:

The folks in Kagoshima prefer shochu to sake when they want to work up a head of steam, and people outside the prefecture associate the Shiranami brand with the area. It’s only anecdote and not data, but every time I’ve been to Kagoshima I’ve seen more people drinking a brand called Sakurajima. People who live in Japan and are capable of navigating in Japanese can order it online.

Here’s a Japanese TV report from three years ago on the volcano and the local attitude toward the eruptions. The two older women and the uniformed man in the interview say it doesn’t bother them a bit. They’re followed by a younger man who explains that people have been living with it for 50 years. He adds that roofs are built over graves to prevent the ash from falling on the gravestones. (Regular washing of gravestones is part of the culture.) There’s also an excerpt from a local weather report that includes the wind direction in the area near the volcano.

And here are excerpts from the film The Wrath of the Gods, demonstrating that Hollywood ain’t changed a whit from a century ago.

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Posted in Films, History, Science and technology | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Banned in Busan

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, January 13, 2010

COUNT ON the political class to be the last to take a stand on principled common sense, if ever. Their livelihoods depend on creating and hounding hobgoblins to keep the public aroused, as H.L. Mencken put it. In other words, they don’t want to get it because they believe it’s in their interest not to get it.

One who does get it is South Korean Minister of Culture, Sports, and Tourism Yu In-ch’on. In an interview with the Chosun Ilbo, he discussed his government’s continuing ban on terrestrial TV broadcasts of Japanese programs. Here’s what Mr. Yu had to say, as reported by Japan’s Kyodo news agency. (Keep in mind this is going from Korean to Japanese to English)

“Japan and China broadcast South Korean programs (on terrestrial TV), so why can’t Japanese programs be shown on South Korean terrestrial TV?…Instead of this compulsion, we must allow equal access (for this programming).”

After the period of Japanese colonization/annexation ended in 1945, the South Koreans prohibited the dissemination of Japanese popular culture in the country, including TV programs, movies, and music. Some watched and listened anyway, first through smuggled materials, and later by intercepting satellite broadcasts. Reader Aceface, who is employed in the Japanese broadcast media, pointed out that Koreans in the television industry used to take periodic trips to Busan in the southern part of the peninsula, where those broadcasts might be more easily picked up. In fact, as this previous post reports, there has long been an “underground Japan wave” of Japanese culture aficionados in South Korea. To cite one example, Japanese fiction outsold Korean fiction in the South Korean market in 2007 by a significant margin.

Yu In-ch'on

After the late Kim Dae-jung was elected president in 1998, he implemented a policy of lifting the ban in stages with the objective of improving bilateral relations. The prohibitions were rescinded in three steps and were supposed to have been removed entirely by the joint World Cup in 2002. In a too-typical burst of childish presumption, however, the government stopped the process in July 2001 to protest the content of Japanese history textbooks (used at that time by about 0.6% of the school population).

As conditions stand today, South Koreans can legally watch Japanese TV programming on cable and satellite TV, but not on terrestrial broadcasts. There is a sizable audience for this programming; last year’s screening of the Japanese program Hana yori Danshi (Men Rather than Flowers) was quite popular and garnered an audience share of more than 30%. The only dramas permitted on land-based TV, however, are Korean remakes of popular Japanese programs and joint productions.

Some still choose to downplay the popularity of Japanese entertainment. Kyodo quoted an unidentified South Korean TV executive:

“(Yu’s) statement was probably made with an awareness of relations with Japan, but I don’t think that programs in which all the actors are Japanese will be accepted by the viewers.”

That example of a non sequitur is good enough for a textbook. He seems to be saying that a unilateral law banning television programs from a single country—in other words, censorship—should stand because people won’t watch the programs even if the law were to be repealed. Except a lot of them already do, on cable.

Though it’s a good example of a non sequitur, it’s a poor example of how a country goes about inculcating respect for its laws. Kyodo also quotes a 32-year-old male public employee:

“I download Japanese programs from the Internet and watch them every day to study Japanese. The ban on terrestrial broadcasts is divorced from reality, and I hope they rescind it quickly.”

Of course it’s divorced from reality. People throughout the world can now download most of the programs, movies, or music they want from the Internet and either enjoy them from their computer or burn their own DVDs or CDs. If the authorities had their wits about them, they would realize that removing the ban would make money for Korean broadcasters through advertising revenue. As it stands now, they get nothing and the people watch the programs anyway.

The Japanese media is always restrained in its treatment of South Korea, and the Kyodo article attributes the Korean ban only to the continued reaction to the Japanese period of colonization/annexation. Were they inclined to discuss the subject more openly, they might also have cited the isolationist tendencies that seem endemic to the peninsula, both in the north and south. One reason for North Korea’s problems is their stubborn insistence that they alone are the torchbearers of Joseon cultural purity. Flashpoint South Korean mob hysteria over such issues as American beef imports is another illustrative example.

The isolationist tinge means this really isn’t just a Japanese-Korean issue—it extends to American movies as well. The South Korean show business industry led widely publicized demonstrations against the free trade agreement with the United States because the Americans demanded a reduction in the legal requirement for movie theaters to screen local product a specified number of days per year. That requirement was as high as 40%, or 146 days, from 1985 to 2006. A compromise was reached to reduce the total to 73 days a year, or about 20%, where it stands now.

As this English-language article from Yonhap shows, actors, directors, and movie execs were livid, calling the compromise a “crime against history”. Rather than recognizing that the agreement was a step toward cultural openness that would benefit everyone without a vested interest, they chose to describe the situation as a “cultural turf war”. If anyone used their common sense and protested that the quota limits the opportunities of Koreans to visit theaters to watch the movies they prefer and are willing to pay for, and the theater owners from making a reasonable profit by giving the customers what they want, Yonhap didn’t write about it.

Speaking of cultural turf wars, the part of the Yonhap article I liked best is the second photograph showing the banner under which the demonstrators spoke. The larger print on the left says “screen quota” transliterated directly from English into written Korean without translating it into the Korean language. The demonstrators had no problem with polluting the purity of the Korean language, but no one better dare mess with the guaranteed jobs of the filmmaking proletariat. (The following word, sasu, means to defend to the death; it’s shishu, or 死守, in Japanese.)

Those who support the quota throw up the usual protectionist arguments that would be dismissed in any university economics classroom in a matter of minutes, i.e., Hollywood would swallow the South Korean film industry whole. The same students in that economics classroom would have been able to predict that only 13 out of 112 Korean films made money in 2007–fewer than 12%–according to a K-pop site with a busted link. Local studios know they have a captive market, so they wind up filming lunchmeat to meet the screen quota.

In that sort of climate, Mr. Yu should be commended for speaking out. The Koreans have no compunction about savaging apostates; either the minister must believe his position is secure, or he’s become affluent enough that losing it wouldn’t bother him.

Much has been made of Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio’s vague dream of an East Asian entity, as well as the “friendlier” attitude of his government toward South Korea. If he’s serious about improving governmental ties (the grassroots ties are already there), removing South Korea’s ban on terrestrial TV broadcasts of Japanese programs should be near the top of the list on his bilateral agenda.

The website of South Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism boasts this slogan: A culture of sharing for a beautiful world.

The period of Japanese colonization/annexation lasted 35 years and ended 65 years ago. It’s time for the ministry to demonstrate that it really believes what it says.

Afterwords:

* It’s only speculation, and the Korean-American Wiki-warriors won’t talk about it, but perhaps one reason Kim Dae-jung started removing the restrictions on importing Japanese culture is that he may have felt some gratitude toward the Japanese for helping save his life. Kim was a long-time political dissident, and the South Korean government once kidnapped him from a Tokyo hotel with the intent of killing him. Both the Americans and the Japanese interceded on his behalf. The pretend reference sources on the Web, written by anyone who can operate a computer keyboard, give credit only to the Americans. Why do they bother? Even the Korea Times had no problem admitting the truth.

* The use of textbook content to suspend the process of lifting the ban in 2001 might have been just a convenient pretext. Before then, Japanese governments had generally adopted a peace-at-any-price policy in bilateral negotiations on a wide range of issues with Seoul. They gave in when the Koreans inevitably brought up historical circumstances and claimed, “You owe us.” The Koizumi administration, which took office just a few months before the South Koreans took the step, ended all that.

Posted in Arts, Films, International relations, South Korea | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

The multiple exposures of early Joseon films

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, July 15, 2009

THOSE FOLKS interested in the history of Japan, Korea, and international cinema have been delighted by the discovery and restoration during the past five years of the first movies filmed in Korea. Made during the period of Japanese colonization/merger, the films were assumed to have been lost. For that matter, most of Japan’s prewar movies also no longer exist, and the Korean finds are rarer still.

The content of the films themselves is intriguing, to say the least. Here’s a quick translation of an article that appeared in Monday’s edition of the Nishinippon Shimbun about a screening and symposium that will be held in Fukuoka City on Saturday. I’ve appended some more information that I found on Japanese-language websites. The word choice in the article follows that of the author, Prof. Shimokawa Masaharu of the Oita Prefectural College of Arts and Culture.

*****

Since 2004, films made on the Korean Peninsula during the latter part of the colonization period that were thought to have been lost have been discovered in the storage areas of the China Film Archives in Beijing and other locations. The Joseon films of the colonization period are referred to as the Dark Age in South Korea, and it’s not just because the country had become an Imperial vassal state. The films themselves were lost, which agonized those people interested in the field and who wanted to study the history of the medium’s development in South Korea. The work to find these films began after 2000, primarily at the Korean Film Archive in Seoul.

Scene from <em>The Crossroads of Youth</em>

Scene from The Crossroads of Youth

What was the truth of the Joseon colony? Was it plundered, or was it developed? That question is the focus of the historical conflict between the two countries, but one has the sense that emotions based on ethnicity have superseded an investigation of the facts. The realism and impact of the movie medium might well have the power to destroy stereotyped historical interpretations. The Joseon films that have been discovered seem to offer a new perspective for research into the colony during the war.

These movies include the oldest extant Joseon talkie, Mimong (迷夢 or Delusion, 1936, Yang Ju-nam, director); Homeless Angels, a story of urban street children, 1941; Volunteers, a story of wartime mobilization (1941, An Seo-yeong, director); and Korean Strait, 1944. They are sold in South Korea in a series of DVDs called The Excavated Past.

When I watched the DVD given to me in October 2007 by someone involved in the project, I was surprised by the unexpected scenes that unfolded before my eyes. Homeless Angels starts with a night scene of streetcars in the thriving downtown area of Jongno, Seoul. Then a barmaid, her patron, and the street children appear. In Springtime on the Peninsula (1941) modern Western buildings rise from within a traditional Korean residential district. All the movies unquestionably show a city in the midst of modernization.

Some scenes are difficult to understand. The female lead in Volunteers is Mun Ye-bong (N.B.: 文芸峰, an obvious stage name; the hanja mean artistic peak). After liberation she became an actress in North Korea. She was 24 at the time of the filming, and her beauty recalls Joseon white chinaware.

The last scene is puzzling. She is seeing off her fiancé, who has volunteered for military service. She picks up a Japanese flag that has fallen in the street and regards it with a cynical smile. The camera moves in for a close-up of her face that continues until the movie ends. The meaning of this scene is not clear. (The scene drew the most attention when it was broadcast on NHK television in the program, Korean-Style Cinema: The remnants of opposition.)

The dialogue in the films was entirely in Japanese after 1944. Before then, the dialogue was a rough mixture of Japanese and Korean. Was the prohibition of the Korean language a policy that was due more to the war than to colonization? That question rises to the surface. The place name 京城 (Keijo) often appears in the movies’ subtitles, but the actors invariably say Seoul. The popular theory that the name Keijo was forced on the people while Seoul was forbidden seems to be false.

Heitai-san (Soldier/honorific, 1944, Bang Han-jun, director) will be shown at Kyushu University in Fukuoka City on the 18th. Its theme of the “prosecution of the holy war” is a continuation of the themes of Volunteers and Korean Strait. This will be the film’s first screening in Japan. Following the movie will be a symposium in which Prof. Choi Gil-sun of the University of East Asia will participate. He holds that these works, which had been dismissed as propaganda films, should be understood in the context of the period and for their policy intent as part of the research into the colony. Arima Manabu of the Research Center for Korean Studies will also participate. He says the rediscovered Joseon films will excite those who want to know more about the Korean colony and Japan in the modern era.

I hope this symposium with the participation of such distinguished researchers is successful.

*****

Prof. Shimokawa seems particularly interested in the films with a wartime text, which is understandable, but some Japanese are drawn to other aspects of the movies. One such focus of attention is the depiction of the emergence of a modern, urban consumer culture in Korea during this period.

One example is the 1934 silent film Crossroads of Youth. This was a major discovery for two reasons. First, it is the oldest known silent Korean film in existence, and it was made at the peak of the silent era on the peninsula. (The first talkie was made in 1935.) Second, it has been reproduced from an original print that had been in private hands since liberation. All the films found in other countries were copies of the originals.

joseon bus riders

The Crossroads of Youth looks at life in Seoul from the perspective of a man and his younger sister who move to the capital from their hometown. The opening scene depicts wealthy young businessmen playing golf.

Director An Jong-hua made 12 films from 1930 to 1960, but this is the first one to have turned up. Part of the film was unrecoverable and only 74 minutes remain. The restoration work was performed in Japan.

Another example is the film Mimong, or Delusion, which is the oldest surviving Korean talkie. Only 48 minutes remain of this remarkable movie.

Mimong tells the story of a middleclass housewife who lives in Seoul with her husband and daughter. Her husband grills her about the details of a visit she made to a downtown department store. Fed up with being treated like a “bird in a cage”, as she puts it, she abandons her family. She later meets another man and moves into a hotel room with him. Not long afterwards, however, her romantic interest shifts to a traditional dancer.

She then makes two discoveries. First, her live-in lover at the hotel is not a man of means, as she had thought. He is actually a delivery boy for a clothes cleaner. Second, she finds out that he has been breaking into other rooms at the hotel to steal the guests’ money and valuables, so she coolly reports him to the police.

After hearing that the dancer has left Seoul, she jumps into a taxicab and directs the driver to take her to Seoul Station. She urges the cabbie to step on it, but he gets reckless and runs over a pedestrian, who turns out to be the woman’s daughter. Shamed by her wicked ways, the woman takes poison at her daughter’s bedside.

Forget the plot line and consider this: Life in Seoul during the period of colonization/merger must not have been so harsh as to prevent the 1930s Joseon version of a Desperate Housewife from having enough money and leisure time to gad about in department stores and taxicabs and hop from bed to bed.

Granted, some of the Depression-era movies made at the same time in the United States depicted a lifestyle beyond the means of the theater patrons. Yet those lifestyles, and other more modest but comfortable lifestyles–in which young married women in the cities could afford to shop in department stores–existed nonetheless.

It’s possible that the heroine of Delusion was a patron of the Seoul branch of the upscale Japanese department store Mitsukoshi, which opened there in 1930. Private sector retail operations don’t expand overseas unless they expect to turn a profit. The woman might even have been one of those in the second illustration who chose to stand and hang on to the strap while riding the bus, rather than sit on an open bench–all the better to show off their new watches and rings.

But here’s the most important point: These films are being openly screened in Japan, available to the public free of charge, and discussed at symposiums by Koreans and Japanese together. Scenes are shown on Japan’s quasi-public television network. The work to restore some of them is being done in Japan. Nor are they subject to a ban in South Korea. Anyone with a DVD player can buy a set, take them home, and watch them.

And no one’s making a big fuss over it, though the Japanese are less prone to public self-congratulation than people in some other countries. The newspaper article ran on page nine, just above the fold on the left-hand side.

Posted in Arts, Films, History, Japanese-Korean amity, Popular culture, South Korea, World War II | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Wings of a man

Posted by ampontan on Friday, February 27, 2009

FOR THE PAST WEEK, I’ve been spending an hour a day at a local organization here in Saga reviewing their video assets to see what can be uploaded to the web and used for publicity. One of the videos I watched this week was the film Ningen no Tsubasa (Wings of a Man), which the organization was responsible for producing.

wom

Made in the mid-90s, the movie depicts a few years in the life of Ishimaru Shin’ichi, a native Sagan who was a star pitcher for the forerunner of the Chunichi Dragons in the early 1940s. He later became Japan’s only professional baseball player to die as a member of the kamikaze special attack squadron.

The movie was screened throughout Japan, particularly in schools, as it received the approval of the Education Ministry and the National Association of Parents and Teachers.

It was extremely well done for a low-budget, independent project. Not only is it worth watching on its own, it’s very educational for people with an interest in that period of Japanese history.

Some of the more noteworthy aspects include:

  • A home plate umpire forgetting that it was no longer acceptable to use the enemy word sutoraiku for a called strike, and quickly switching to yoshi! (The word hazure was used to call a ball.)
  • The baseball uniforms evolving into semi-military uniforms by mid-war
  • The baseball players enrolling in night school at university to avoid the draft, until that deferment was ended
  • The cruelty of some zealots in the Japanese military, both toward other soldiers and toward civilians
  • Officers pressuring their men to “volunteer” as kamikaze pilots because a failure to do so would disgrace the entire unit
  • Members of Ishimaru’s family and his fiancé’s family encouraging him to choose a path that would enable him to survive a war they realized Japan would lose.

In addition to being an eye-opener for those who don’t know much about those days, the film might delight those people who appreciate Japanese dialects. All the dialog in the scenes taking place in Ishimaru’s hometown is performed in very broad Saga dialect.

Wayne Graczyk of The Japan Times gave the film a favorable review when it appeared, but his article doesn’t seem to be on-line. Here’s another review from the excellent Kamikaze Images website.

It’s a shame that the movie exists only on videocassette (and probably the original film, somewhere), because it was made before the DVD era. The organization doesn’t have the funds to produce a large volume of DVDs, though they might be able to handle a one-off. Those people in Japan who still have video decks and are interested in borrowing a copy can talk to Mrs. Yamashita at 0952-25-2295.

It’s been more than 10 years since I saw the film the first time, and watching it again this week reminded me of something.

Anyone who can get through this film without crying—or at least being on the verge of tears—has got a heart of stone.

Posted in Films, Sports, World War II | Tagged: , | 8 Comments »

Chin-don: The movie!

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, December 13, 2008

WORLD MUSIC MAVENS and street culture vultures will be thrilled to learn that the inspired good time goofiness and novel musicality of chin-don bands has at last made it to the silver screen.

Oooh la la!

Oooh la la!

Premiering at the Espace Culturel Bertin Poirée in Paris this week was the movie Tchindon, starring the Fukuoka City-based Adachi Sendensha, a chin-don troupe headed by Adachi Hideya; Frenchman Jean Christian Bouvier; a group of child actors; and a woman named Tomato.

Chin-don music combines Japanese percussion, bells, and shamisen with such Western instruments as accordions, trumpets, and clarinets. The performers are hired to dress in a comical exaggeration of Edo-period Japanese costumes and play just about any kind of music anyone could possibly want to hear to attract customers to commercial establishments. Long time friends know that we’re nuts about the stuff; inserting the onomatopoetic term “chin-don” into the site’s search engine on the left sidebar will turn up several posts with a cornucopia of links.

In keeping with this yeasty mélange, the movie Tchindon was shot in Fukuoka, directed by Shibata Yoichi, and has a largely Japanese cast, but is in French. Don’t ask me how that happened—I haven’t seen the movie yet, and nobody’s explained it.

The inspiration likely came from M. Bouvier. He has taught at Fukuoka universities for several years and is the organizer of the World CM (television commercial) Festival. The Japanese-language website for the film says it was produced to commemorate the 150th year of relations between Japan and France. M. Bouvier also says it is a tribute to the new age of Japonisme, which is probably a French phenomenon.

Several members of the production committee and two members of Adachi Sendensha, including Mr. Adachi himself, went to Paris on the 9th to attend the premiere. To promote the film, he and Higuchi Kazumi performed in costume on the streets of Paris on the 10th, which you can see from the accompanying photo. Mr. Adachi played accordion and Ms. Higuchi played the distinctive chin-don percussion instrument. (The percussionists in chin-don music are often women.)

One can only imagine what the Parisians thought when this apparition from Japan suddenly appeared on their streets, but then again, they did invent the word sang-froid for situations such as these. Some of the French offered tips of money to the musicians; others said they were intrigued by the combination of a street music performance with advertising. The best description came from the man who commented, “I have no idea what it all means, but it sure is a lot of fun.” That’s chin-don in a nutshell!

He might well have said that about the movie itself. An article in the Nishinippon Shimbun reported that the film was conceived in the French style to focus on the visual impact and the music. The reasons for that become apparent when one reads the plot summary on the movie website. Here it is in English:

One day, a young girl encounters a chin-don band. She is enchanted by the beauty of the sound, and follows the performers around. As she listens to their performance, the town becomes so beautiful it is as if she is seeing it in a daydream. That night, she has a dream in which a group of children meet, and then part from, a chindon band who use the street as their stage.
When she wakes up, she looks for the band throughout the town, but can’t find them…

It looks like what we have is a French vehicle to celebrate chin-don music and the often unseen corners of Japan. The movie itself was filmed in small towns in Fukuoka from February to September this year. One scene was shot in the Kaho Gekijo in Iizuka, a theater built in 1931 to resemble a kabuki playhouse from the Edo period. (The theater was partially destroyed during the Fukuoka earthquake three years ago and later restored.)

adachi-movie-poster

There are other surprises in addition to the combination of chin-don with the French language. One is the performance of a song by Saga Haruhiko, a throat singer in the Mongolian style who also plays the morin khuur, or horsehead fiddle. Throat singing involves the creation of two different sounds in the throat. In other words, it is a performance of polyphonic music by one person without a musical instrument.

Why is he in the movie? Well, it’s chin-don–why the heck not!

And long-time readers won’t be in the least surprised to find out that the Japanese society for throat singing has a website with an English page. Voila!

The Japan premiere of Tchindon will consist of three showings at the Ajibi Hall in Fukuoka City (at the Fukuoka Asian Museum of Art, also on the right sidebar) on Sunday the 21st. Curse the luck, but I’m going to be busy doing something else that day.

I searched around for a video clip on YouTube (or anywhere else), but couldn’t find one. Isn’t that odd for a movie promoted and produced by a man who has conducted a world TV commercial festival for the past 10 years?

I’ll guess we’ll just have to wait for the DVD!

Regardless of how it turns out, my congratulations go to Jean Christian Bouvier. He had a great idea, and he got it down on film forever.

Posted in Films, Music | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Still a smash in Japan

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, November 27, 2008

Within minutes, the city was aware that Godzilla was inside Tokyo Harbor. Among the people, there was a state of panic.
– From the international version of Godzilla

One rainy Saturday afternoon when I was about 11 years old, I went to the movies with the young savages who lived across the street. We weren’t interested in seeing that particular movie; we went because it was too wet to play baseball, the theater was within bike-riding distance, and the star of the show was a monster.

The feature was a re-release of the international version of Godzilla, an edited version of the original that included an American reporter who witnessed the monster destroy Tokyo. We thought it was one of the worst movies we had ever seen. Everything about it was cheap and hokey. Even a monster movie requires some suspension of belief to succeed, but Godzilla couldn’t even clear our grade-school threshold.

godzilla-the-peacenik

In another 10 years, those of us who became undergraduates might have appreciated the flick as camp and laughed at it, but at the time we thought it was just plain bad. So bad, in fact, that we sat in the front row of the nearly deserted theater and hooted our way through it. None of the ushers came around to tell us to be quiet. They probably thought the same thing and were off smoking cigarettes in the employee lounge to avoid having to watch it again.

Yet despite the movie’s cheesiness–or perhaps because of it—Godzilla has attracted academic interest over the past half-century as if it were flypaper for postmodern intellectuals. The reason is that the film’s inspiration was an event that occurred in the real world, not the reel world. The tuna fishing boat Daigo Fukuryu-maru from Yaitsu, Shizuoka, was exposed to radiation in 1954 when it sailed into an area where the U.S. was conducting an underwater nuclear test. One member later died from the exposure, and some contaminated tuna wound up on the Japanese market. In the movie, which was made the same year, the sleeping Godzilla is awakened by a hydrogen bomb test and is so enraged that it proceeds to wreck the Japanese capital–less than a decade after the real Tokyo was wrecked by American bombers.

Godzilla today

It’s understandable that the movie would have generated some interest at the time, even if people weren’t starved for entertainment. In 1954, cheap entertainment for the masses with an underlying message was not yet the cliché it was later to become. But why are people still treating it as if it were worthy of continuing study more than a half-century later?

Earlier this month, the Shizuoka University of Welfare in Yaitsu, Shizuoka (the same Yaitsu of the original incident), held the Godzilla Fan Convention – Godzilla Summit in conjunction with the annual university festival. It was a symposium for discussing the issues of peace and the environment based on Godzilla.

University President Kato Kazuo told the participants:

“Godzilla (was) the symbol of the dread of destruction caused by nuclear weapons, but has since become a guardian deity protecting global peace and the environment. We affirm the link between Godzilla and Yaizu, and will create peace rather than destruction.”

A member of the citizens’ group Bikini Citizens Net Yaizu said:

“We do not consider the Daigo Fukuryu-maru incident as just a negative inheritance. We will take it as a positive event that emphasizes peace.”

Somehow, without anyone else noticing, the academic alchemists have transmuted a movie monster that smashed a plywood set of a miniature Tokyo more than a half-century ago into a “guardian deity protecting global peace and the environment”.

Maybe we can find some way to lure it ashore on Wall Street instead of Tokyo.

Here’s an account from the UCLA Asia Institute of a lecture given by William A. Tsutsui of the University of Kansas. Professor Tsutsui is the author of Godzilla on My Mind: Fifty Years of the King of Monsters, which was published in 2004. He also degrees from Harvard, Oxford, and Princeton, and is an expert on Japanese banking policy, so perhaps my neighborhood buddies and I weren’t barbarians so much as Philistines.

The professor asserts that Godzilla is an extremely successful cultural export and a Japanese cultural icon. After all, the monster has been featured in a Rose Bowl parade and won an MTV lifetime achievement award. Mia Farrow declared it to be her favorite movie during an Oscar award ceremony.

Of course, that might also mean Mia Farrow and the sort of people who watch the Rose Bowl parade and the MTV lifetime achievement awards are airheads, are being facetious, or both. But who can contradict a man with degrees from three of the most famous universities in the world when he focuses that formidable intellect on a monster movie?

The article notes:

Only a handful of scholarly essays on Godzilla have appeared, and few “have attempted to contextualize the film historically.” In his talk, Tsutsui set out to correct that: “I would argue,” he declared, “. . . that the Godzilla films can provide us valuable insights into Japanese culture since World War II.”.

Tsutsui insists that the Godzilla movies have featured some consistent themes in the more than 50 years they’ve been made. These include anti-Americanism, Godzilla as a defender of Japan, the vulnerability of Japan, and an ambivalence towards science and technology. He also thinks the original was made just as much for adults as it was for pre-teen boys, and that later films in the series have tried to return to adult themes. No, that doesn’t include the one where the monster has a battle with King Kong.

But considering that chronological adults in the United States have conventions to hold discussions about which of the Star Trek TV series and movies they prefer, he might have a point.

Then again, Prof. Tsutusi also says that “Godzilla is never entirely friendly and protective — he always remains surprisingly hostile toward Japan — and he never, of course, can become truly Japanese.”

So, all in the same lecture, it turns out that the guardian deity flame-breathing monster who smashed Tokyo is an unfriendly defender of Japan who is never entirely protective and is really hostile toward the country. And who never can become truly Japanese.

There’s more:

“The first Godzilla film clearly had a strong anti-nuclear message. . . . Yet it becomes increasingly hard to conclude that the films have had a consistent message over time…The only constant about the Godzilla films is a deep ambivalence, a kind of moral and intellectual ambiguity, that precludes drawing any firm, unitary conclusions. The message of Godzilla. . . is complex and reflects . . . a fundamental ambivalence on the part of the Japanese when they look at issues like modernity, technology, science, nature, politics, and the world outside Japan.”

Well, the professor might have overlooked another possibility. Could it be that after the director and script writers shot their creative wad in the first film, they’ve mostly been just monster movies since then? It might be more educational (up to a point) to hear Prof. Tsutsui try to explain what he means by the fundamental Japanese ambivalence toward nature. Or how a nation that is a pioneer in the field of robotics and whose citizens snapped up cell phones from the day they appeared on the market would be ambivalent about science and technology. Or how Godzilla reflects the attitudes of 127 million Japanese towards modernity. Or how anybody anywhere other than religious zealots or cranky old guys who drink too much has any attitude about modernity at all.

Godzilla has the right idea

Godzilla has the right idea

There are some nuggets among all that gravel, however. The article contains information on the so-called Godzilla franchise over the years and some curious trivia. It turns out that the monster’s name (Gojira in Japanese), may have been the nickname of an overweight studio publicist created by combining the words for gorilla (gorira) and whale (kujira). The original Godzilla suit weighed 200 pounds. North Korea’s Kim Jong-il was so captivated by the film that he commissioned his own giant monster movie, Pulgasari, in 1985. Imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery. I’ve always suspected that the Dear Leader admires Japan more than he’s willing to let on.

There are also some annoyances. The author of the article needs to look up the word “voyeuristic” in the dictionary, and a phrase like “military porn” could only be used by someone who knows very little about either.

Here’s the professor’s conclusion:

Godzilla sends a mixed message: as both an enemy and a defender, both a force of nature and the product of high technology, as both an outsider and yet somehow truly Japanese…Godzilla, like the modern world, was both a curse and a blessing, both something alien and something Japanese.”

In other words, he could sit around for days on end talking about it without saying anything at all.

Godzilla the play

The article focuses on Godzilla the movie, so there is no mention of the stage play Godzilla, which was written by Ohashi Yasuhiko and created a minor stir when it was published in 1988. (I’m surprised he didn’t get busted for copyright infringement.) That play may well provide us with as many “valuable insights into Japanese culture since World War II” as the movie.

In the stage version, the character of Godzilla is played by an actor without costume who appears as a normal human being. The premise of the play is that a young woman brings Godzilla home to meet her parents because they intend to get married. The parents are concerned about their daughter’s choice in mates—they worry what the children will look like and whether Godzilla’s huge body will crush their flimsy Japanese dwelling. Godzilla is eager to please, however, lighting his future father-in-law’s cigarette with one breath.

That sounds like some of the gaijin who appear on Japanese television, doesn’t it? Perhaps Dr. Tsutsui is right after all when he says that Godzilla can never become truly Japanese.

It’s hard to miss the metaphor for international marriages in Japan. Mr. Ohashi had a great idea for a dramatization, but the play’s promising start dissipates by the second half, when Muthra and all the other Japanese movie monsters make appearances. It turned the play into a parody of itself, a fate shared by the movie series and Prof. Tsutsui’s exegesis.

Yet the continuing academic interest in Godzilla is still puzzling even after all the high-octane interpretation. It’s natural for the Japanese to make such a big deal over a local creation with so much international appeal that it deeply impresses Mia Farrow, Kim Jong-il, and the Rose Parade organizers. After all, they’re still thrilled (and justifiably so) about Sakamoto Kyu’s international hit, Ue o Mite Aruko, which became known as Sukiyaki in English. (It is still the only song sung entirely in Japanese to reach #1 on the Billboard charts in the U.S.)

But grade-school boys who watch the movie aren’t going to be thinking about the deeper meanings, and the adults of any nationality who could sit through it from start to finish are likely sold on the idea of Americans and their technology as Godzilla-like monsters to begin with. If anyone wants to understand what happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there are plenty of photographs and first-person accounts. What’s the point of an earnestly pretentious monster movie?

And does anyone really believe that business about a “guardian deity protecting global peace and the environment”?

The people who have their priorities in order were the local fishermen invited to open a concession stand that offered snacks at the university festival in Shizuoka. They sold fried pieces of kitefish shark cut up to look like the monster. They called them Godzillas.

Afterwords: The reporter in the “international version” of the movie was played by Raymond Burr, who later went on to television fame in the United States as Perry Mason and Ironside. Japanese audiences are familiar with Burr as the villain in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window.

I saw Rear Window for the first time on American television not very long after I saw Godzilla in the theater. The climactic scene at the end, when Burr confronts James Stewart in the latter’s apartment, scared the living daylights out of me. Unlike Godzilla.

And here’s a site for the serious Godzilla fan: Barry’s Temple of Godzilla.

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Posted in Films, Foreigners in Japan, Popular culture | Tagged: | 6 Comments »

Monsieur Morimoto

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, June 3, 2008

WOULD ANY ACTOR dare dream that his film debut would be screened at the Cannes Film Festival? And that when the house lights came up, he would be hailed by an audience calling out his name, which was also used as the film’s title? But that’s just what happened to Morimoto Ken’ichi this year, who must still be pinching himself in disbelief.

The best part of the story is that none of it was his dream to begin with—Morimoto is not an actor, and his performance in the movie Monsieur Morimoto was his first in any medium. In fact, he’s a retired postal worker from Mashiki-machi, Kumamoto, who left his family behind to go to Paris and pursue an entirely different dream. M. Morimoto wanted to become a painter.

As an article in today’s Nishinippon Shimbun reports, Morimoto ended his job at the post office in 2000 after 40 years of service when he reached the mandatory retirement age. He traveled to New York, Tahiti, and several places in Europe before deciding to relocate in Paris because it was “the most suitable for my creative environment”.

Sporting a beret and nattily trimmed white beard, the 68-year-old Morimoto drew the attention of passersby as he sketched on the city streets. He also drew the attention of director Nicola Sorgana when the latter encountered him in a Paris art gallery. Sorgana then conceived of a movie with Morimoto as the main character, though the story itself is fiction. (It follows the artist as he encounters some unusual people while wandering around the city looking for one of his paintings, which has disappeared.)

When asked about his acting technique, the postman/artist/actor replied that he just followed the instructions of director Sorgana as if he were a robot. He said the experience was exhausting because each scene required about 10 takes, and he didn’t understand the story very well to begin with.

The newspaper reports that when the movie was shown at Cannes, the audience erupted in applause at the end, with some of the viewers calling out “Morimoto!” He telephoned his wife—whom he left back home in Kumamoto—to tell her what had happened, and she replied, “You’re joking, right?”

Here’s a brief review from the American show biz trade paper Variety, which didn’t care for the film. They say it doesn’t have an international distributor and is unlikely to get one (though it will surely be shown in Japan at some point). Here’s another brief review from CineEuropa.

One has to wonder: Does Morimoto Ken’ichi get into bed every night and laugh himself to sleep?

Posted in Arts, Films, I couldn't make this up if I tried | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Yasukuni: The movie

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, March 15, 2008

HERE’S A CASE in which some politicians are getting it right, but for all the wrong reasons.

The case involves the incipient controversy over the documentary film Yasukuni, directed by Li Ying and slated for release on 12 April. The film has become controversial because to make it the producers received a 7.5 million yen subsidy (slightly less than $US 73,000) from the Japan Arts Council, an independent administrative body under the jurisdiction of the Agency for Cultural Affairs. One condition for receiving a JAC film subsidy is the absence of intent to deliver a political message. Some members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party think the movie fails to meet that condition, and the party’s Research Commission on Culture and Tradition plans to look into the subsidy system.

The movie, which was 10 years in production, focuses on a master swordsmith who made the so-called Yasukuni sword on the shrine grounds. The Japan Arts Council subsidy comes from a special fund that uses money provided by the Japanese government.

Politicians Object

An association of young LDP members, chaired by lower house representative Inada Tomomi, asked the Agency for Cultural Affairs whether the financial support was appropriate. This prompted the distributor, Argo Pictures, to hold a “special emergency screening” for members of both the ruling and opposition parties, and about 40 showed up to watch.

After the screening, the LDP association met at party headquarters with a different group of young LDP parliamentarians with a long and cumbersome name that doesn’t translate comfortably into English but clearly expresses their aim of encouraging politicians to visit the Yasukuni shrine.

They certainly didn’t like what they saw. Some who attended the meeting objected to the use in the film of statements by two plaintiffs in a suit against former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro for visiting the shrine. The plaintiffs charged in their suit that the prime minister’s visits were unconstitutional.

Further complicating matters is the additional condition that only Japanese films are eligible for subsidies. Upper house MP Nishida Shoji wondered whether the film met that condition because it was a joint production with a Chinese company.

Ms. Inada later commented:

“I don’t feel like critiquing the content of the film because the Constitution guarantees freedom of expression, but I have doubts that a government-affiliated organization should be providing subsidies to a film that deals with the political topic of the Yasukuni Shrine.”

Incidentally, both the Japan Arts Council and the Agency for Cultural Affairs think they followed the proper procedures for the grant, though a spokesman said there were bound to be different views on the film because it was a documentary.

Of course their views can be dismissed out of hand: they’re trying to justify their decision regardless of the merits of the case because they have to justify their existence. If they don’t have any largesse to hand out for film-making, there’s no reason for them to have a job.

The Real Issue

It’s reasonable to assume that Ms. Inada and the other Diet members who object to the funding do so because they disagree with the opinions they saw expressed in the movie. But would they be as anxious to make this an issue if the people making comments on Yasukuni visits in the film were supporters of those visits?

The opinions–whatever they are–shouldn’t make any difference either way. Those who oppose the Yasukuni visits should also be at the front of the line objecting to any government subsidies for the movie. The failure to object on principle lowers the debate to the level of cheerleading for the home team, which misses the point.

It’s a shame that Ms. Inada didn’t take that thought about Constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression further, because that’s the crux of the matter.

The reason the government isn’t supposed to fund political opinions in a movie—or any medium at all—is because it violates the right of free speech and expression for any taxpayer who disagrees with that opinion.

The right of free speech includes more than the right to be able to stand up in a public place and say the government is wrong.

It also includes the right to keep one’s mouth shut and not express any opinion. Presumably, many of the people who would object to politicians visiting Yasukuni would also object to, say, the Tokyo Metropolitan District’s policy of having school teachers sing or play the national anthem. Some school teachers have been suing the TMD government because they think the policy deprives them of the opportunity to exercise their rights by forcing them to express what they don’t believe in.

Is it wrong to make a person sign a loyalty oath? If so, it’s just as wrong to force taxpayers to subsidize political opinions they dislike. After all, the taxpayers don’t have any choice in whether they have to pay the taxes, from which government agencies receive their funds, and the uses to which those agencies put those funds.

In this case, the government is forcing some people to pay for the expression of a political opinion with which they disagree. There are many things a government has no business doing, and that’s just one of them.

It’s unfortunate, but the most important argument in this debate is the one you’re least likely to hear.

Posted in Films, Government, Shrines and Temples | 28 Comments »

Time for the US to become Japanized?

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, October 9, 2007

A CULTURAL WAR HAS RAGED in the United States for decades, with no sign of either a negotiated settlement or an unconditional surrender by any of the combatants. Rather than human life, the real victim of this battle has been social cohesiveness.

Similar conflicts occur in Japan, but despite the growing trend toward individual expression in this country—which has paralleled the American cultural war—a long tradition of cooperation and group harmony seems to be a factor in resolving these conflicts before they cause serious harm to the society, become ridiculous, or both.

A case in point are the concerns over the promotional materials used for the recently released film, Sukiyaki Western: Django, directed by Takashi Miike. The Japanese work is based on the movie Django, a Spaghetti Western directed by Sergio Corbucci. Miike used that film as a device for retelling the story of the late 12th-century Taira-Minamoto war as recounted in the Tale of the Heike. In other words, it’s a samurai drama remade as a Western, with an all-Japanese cast speaking in English. (Here’s a previous Ampontan post about the film.)

Problems arose because one scene of the movie shows a man lynched Western-style hanging from the crossbars of a torii, the distinctive gateway to Shinto shrines. This image was used in the film’s publicity posters, television commercials, and trailers. (You can see both the poster and the trailer at the other post.)

Not everyone in Japan thought this was cutting edge and cool. The priests at four Shinto shrines e-mailed objections to the picture’s distributor, Sony Pictures Entertainment. (The company is also a member of the film’s production committee, the vehicle for financing most Japanese films.) The complaints said the use of the image was an “inappropriate (form of) expression” and “a desecration of the holy torii”.

The Association of Shinto Shrines, which has a nationwide membership of about 80,000 institutions, also made their objections known to Sony. But it is worth examining the way they expressed their objection in the original Japanese:

誰もが安心して気持ちよくご覧になれる映画の方がよろしいのではないか

It isn’t possible to express all the nuances of this in comfortable English, but to get literal about it, one might translate the sentence as, “Wouldn’t it be better to have a movie that anyone could watch in an enjoyable way, with peace of mind?” Even in that short sentence, there are several instances of honorific and polite language that cannot be adequately conveyed in English. Indeed, the association chose the form of the sentence itself as a way to soften the impact, yet still communicate its message.

An association spokesman told a reporter for the Asahi Shimbun:

表現の自由も大事だが、関係者がどう受け取るかも考える必要があるのではないか

“Freedom of expression is important, but won’t the people involved have to consider how (the scene) might be taken?”

What was the result of their objections? The production committee apologized:

不快感を与えたことは申し訳ない

“We have no excuse for causing a sense of discomfort.”

Sony also modified the posters, commercials, and flyers by deleting the scene. Yet they did not remove the scene from the movie itself. They said:

作品に興味を持った人が見るもので、作品全体を見れば、神社を冒涜するものではないと理解いただける

“People interested in the film will watch it, and if they see the whole film, they will (do us the honor of) understand(ing) that it is not a desecration of Shinto shrines.”

And with that the situation seems to have been resolved. In any event, the issue did not turn into a pitched battle, nor did the media go out of its way to be emotionally inflammatory.

One can well imagine what might have happened in a similar situation in the United States. One side in the dispute would have warned that the moral fabric of Western Civilization was fraying at the seams. Columnists and talk radio would have begun baying at the moon, which could have lasted as long as a whole week. There might well have been demonstrations outside of movie theaters.

The other side in the dispute would behave no less obnoxiously. They would assume a holier-than-thou posture and don the mantle of free speech and free expression to cloak the studio’s desire to turn a buck and the director’s desire to throw cinematic spitballs. They would make the hilariously inapt observation that great art has always seemed offensive to some at first. (Ignoring that most of the material people find offensive seldom rises to the level of mediocre art, much less greatness.) They would dismiss the people making the objections as philistines and fascists, and in general act as if the film were the artistic equivalent of Martin Luther whaling away on the door of the Wittenburg church.

In Japan, the problem was resolved painlessly and politely. Both sides showed some respect for the other, and both came away with what they wanted.

In the United States, however, a similar issue would have provided the would-be saints and sages on both sides of the aisle an opportunity to pound the pulpit and to receive a thrill from indulging their emotions–further widening the gulf separating the two sides.

Some Japanese complain that their country has become too Americanized. I’ll leave it to the Japanese to determine whether that’s true—while regretting that most Americans will never know the benefits to be obtained by becoming Japanized.

Posted in Arts, Films, Popular culture, Shrines and Temples | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Under the radar in Japan-Korean relations

Posted by ampontan on Monday, August 20, 2007

IT’S IMPORTANT TO REMEMBER that regardless of the impression one may get from the media, the relationship between Japan and South Korea is quite mature in most areas except for the political sector. Here’s another example: the recent announcement that Kyushu University in Fukuoka City and Busan National University in Busan, South Korea, will conduct a joint lecture course in the fall semester to be taught by the same group of professors using the same textbooks. The Japanese education ministry says this will probably be the first time one of the country’s national universities (as opposed to a private school) conducts a joint course with an overseas university.

The course will be called “Future-Oriented Perspectives on the Japan-South Korean Relationship”. (In Japan, anyway; I’m sure they’ll turn that last bit around in Busan.) Both schools will contribute seven professors, who will deliver their lectures at both campuses. (The plane trip between the cities takes just under an hour, and a high-speed jetfoil makes the trip by sea in three hours.)

The students will examine bilateral ties from several angles, including politics, economics, and law. Specific topics to be covered include “Japanese-South Korean Popular Culture and the Mass Media”, “East Asian Regionalism and Japan from the Korean Perspective”, and “Marriage and the Family in Japan and South Korea”. The content of the lectures will be the same at both universities, and they will be delivered in English.

Kyushu University plans to offer the course to third- and fourth-year students and graduate students, while Busan University will place no restrictions on enrollment. The two universities signed an academic exchange agreement in 1986, but have done little together until now. The impetus for the joint lectures came when prominent private-sector citizens from the two cities inaugurated the Fukuoka-Busan Forum last September, to which both universities sent representatives. They agreed during the forum to expand academic ties, and preparations for the course began then.

An official with Busan National University was quoted as saying he hoped students would be able to compare their reactions and their thinking in regard to all the subjects discussed, as well as exchange opinions, at least indirectly. Meanwhile, a Kyushu University official said he hoped the course would help foster a new generation in both countries that could create a bilateral relationship based on interdependence.

Ordinarily, most studies of popular culture at a university are good for little more than killing time, but that particular lecture has the potential to be educational if conducted honestly, with a frank examination of how the South Koreans borrowed from the Japanese during the years when Japanese pop culture was banned in the country. The ban was lifted in 1998 on magazines, comic books, non-age-restricted movies, award-winning animated films, TV documentaries, computer games, and non-Japanese language music recordings. The country later lifted the prohibition on live musical performances and music sales, though pirated versions and Internet MP3 files had been available.

From the opposite direction, of course, was the recent wave of Korean TV dramas and such singers as BoA. In fact, NHK radio subjected its audience to a BoA song just this morning.

As this BBC article noted in 2004:

Some say the ban on Japanese culture had degenerated over the decades into little more than trade protectionism.
“Unfortunately in the past Korean artists would rip off Japanese music because they thought no-one would notice,” says Bernie Cho of MTV.

That quibble aside, doesn’t this all go to show yet again that politicians are always the last to get it?

N.B.: This is taken from a Japanese-language report in the Nishinippon Shimbun written by their Korean correspondent. Links in Japanese newspapers disappear as quickly as ice cubes in August, so I haven’t provided one. This is a quick summary.

N.B. #2: The South Koreans have expended considerable energy over the years in banning Japanese culture, and recently there was a national debate over their FTA with the U.S. that required the liberalization of restrictions on screening Hollywood films. But that view is not only narrow-minded, it is also self-defeating. Tyler Cowen of George Mason University has argued for some time now that the globalization of culture is a very old phenomenon, it has resulted in the creation of art forms that we mistakenly think are pure and indigenous, and it in fact encourages rather than hinders local creativity.

He has also noted that French cuisine hasn’t died out in France, despite the highest per capita rate of McDonald’s outlets in Europe, nor has Hong Kong’s many outlets kept it from being the world’s capital for Chinese cuisine. Here is one of his articles, in .pdf, that summarizes his position. Of interest to those who would protect Korean cinema is this article, in which he uses a similar French quota on overseas films to argue that “Protection actually decreases an industry’s chance of competing successfully in world markets.”

Posted in Education, Films, International relations, Japanese-Korean amity, Popular culture, South Korea | Tagged: , , | 8 Comments »

Sukiyaki Western Django: For teenagers from 13 to 30

Posted by ampontan on Friday, June 29, 2007

LONG AGO AND FAR AWAY, some young Brits had such a yen for American musicians and their music they decided to imitate it for their countrymen’s entertainment. To everyone’s surprise–especially their own—the sensation they created caused other young people throughout the world to imitate them, even the Americans. How’s that for irony? Young Americans were playing music to mimic the young Englishmen they thought were cool, while the English were mimicking the Americans, whom they thought were the cool ones.

Rather than being isolated phenomena, artistic reverberations such as these are part of the creative process everywhere. At the same time as the British Invasion, modern African popular music was being fashioned by Africans imitating Cuban and other Caribbean music, which itself was a hybrid of traditional African music and that of several European countries.

django520px

Those precedents came to mind when I read this article about a new film from Japanese director Miike Takashi called Sukiyaki Western: Django. It’s loosely based on the movie Django, a so-called Spaghetti Western directed by Sergio Corbucci. Miike’s twist is to use that film as a vehicle for retelling the story of the late 12th-century Taira-Minamoto war as recounted in the Tale of the Heike.

At first glance, the idea seems to have the potential to stimulate some serious miscegenation and give birth to an entertaining flick. The similarities in the way Japanese mythologized their feudal past in cinema and television and the way Americans mythologized their 19th century frontier past have been discussed for years. Japanese director Akira Kurosawa was influenced by American director Frank Capra, and Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai was turned into The Magnificent Seven, making the Western an American remake of a samurai film by a Japanese director inspired by an American.

The Magnificent Seven also left some other cultural progeny in its wake. The main theme from Elmer Bernstein’s score was cut and pasted straight into television commercials for Marlboro cigarettes. In those days, the company was still reworking its former brand image as a ladies’ cigarette by using a rugged Western motif for TV ads and changing the spelling from Marlborough into something more butch. Listen carefully and you’ll also recognize Bernstein’s theme as part of the horn riff in Arthur Conley’s top 40 hit, Sweet Soul Music–the title of which also became the title of a book about 60s Southern soul by Peter Guralnick.

The Spaghetti Western rode into town a few years later when the Italians, most of whom wouldn’t know a stirrup from scaloppini, got hooked on the image and started making Westerns of their own, often with the theme music of Ennio Morricone. Those films turned out to be the career break for a down-on-his luck actor named Clint Eastwood, who had gone abroad to look for work. They were so successful Hollywood made its own Spaghetti Western starring Eastwood–The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly: Americans imitating Italians imitating Americans.

djangoset

Meanwhile, the Japanese were quick to spot the similarities between the Spaghetti Westerns and their own samurai movies, and incorporated aspects of those films into their own movie and television work, particularly the theme and incidental music. Some directors even incorporated Western motifs into movies about other subjects, such as Itami Juzo’s Tampopo, which was very loosely a story about a woman running a ramen shop.

Adding even more flavor to this international stew was Eastwood’s apparent incorporation of some licks from Japanese movies into his own films. I watched the fourth and last Dirty Harry movie in Japan with some Japanese friends, and when a backlit Eastwood appeared for the climactic scene at a closed amusement park at night, they all yelled “Yojimbo!” in unison. (And that was a Kurosawa movie inspired by Dashiell Hammett and remade by Sergio Leone.)

That’s the tradition Sukiyaki Western: Django, slated to premiere in September, could have updated. Peeling back the top layer, however, suggests a work that’s all surface with no underlying resonance–a project that seems be sinking under the weight of post-adolescent irony rather than soaring on the wings of post-modern meta-hipness.

One could also compare it to a Japanese pizza: By replacing the pepperoni with potato salad, they missed the point.

The American sense of fashionable irony is one aspect of the country’s culture that doesn’t translate very well in Japan. Many Japanese just don’t get it when Americans come across that way, and not that many like it when they do get it. (More power to the Japanese.) So it’s not surprising that Miike’s attempt to cop a feeling seems both off-key and heavy-handed:

Miike’s film, to put it mildly, does not worry about anachronisms. Set “a few hundred years” after the Gempei War’s decisive 1185 Battle of Dannoura, the movie features men with punkish hairdos who blow to bits bottles of liquor at a saloon. The film…is set during a gold rush in the dusty, barren village of “Utah” — which, in Japanese, means “field of hot water.”

Yes, a “field of hot water” is such a common expression in Japanese, not to mention English. How clever.

A gunman, played by Japanese star Hideaki Ito, arrives under the torii gate to delve into gangland score-settling.

And when Ito rides into town, a man has already been lynched and is hanging from the torii with a rope around his neck, dripping several quarts of WD40 irony.

Miike…shot the film entirely in English, forcing some of the Japanese cast members to head for a crash course. “I couldn’t speak English, so it was difficult,” Ito said of being presented with the script. Kaori Momoi, one of the film’s female leads who also appeared in Hollywood’s Memoirs of a Geisha, said she finds it more difficult to ad lib in English.
“If the way Japanese actors speak English comes to be accepted, then it will add to Japanese actors’ range,” she said.

She means it will add to their range of available employment without them having to do any work to earn it.

Miike said he told the actors to speak English as best they could. “For this movie, we used Japanese English, not the English perfectly spoken in the United States or in the UK,” he said. “If this is accepted, then Japanese English will come to be known as something very cool.”

Sure, podnuh, in the same way the Japanese English on t-shirts is already known worldwide as something very cool.

All your unbranded cattle are belong to us.

The cherry on top of this tongue-in-pierced-cheek sundae is a cameo appearance by director Quentin Tarentino playing a character called–what else?–Ringo.

Tarentino’s appearance in Sukiyaki Western: Django is a perfect fit because his own films have become so increasingly ironic and packed with obscure references that the last one (the two Kill Bills) is unwatchable for anyone other than really cool people into movies so bad they’re really cool.

I have no idea what Tarentino does in the movie, but if Miike wanted to carve some notches on his six-shooter, he’d have cast him as a masterless samurai in Utah, complete with topknot and speaking phonetic Japanese written out in the Roman alphabet.

“To be such a cool character, doing fast draws, wearing a cool costume, it just doesn’t get any better than that,” the Pulp Fiction director said. “There’s a childlike innocence to it. We could all be eight years old and doing this in our backyards and just having a whale of a time.”

I think Tarentino is selling the project short when he says it was like being eight years old. From what we know so far, I’d raise the age a bit–it seems to be much more down the alley of a high school renegade intellectual who spends too much time alone in his room.

For example, take a look at the trailer at YouTube. Give Miike credit for his visual sense, but the swordplay on the saloon staircase, the guy with the pearl in his pierced lip, the body hanging in a noose from the torii, and the machine gun suggest this is little more than a sardonic snickerfest for international otaku who grew up on video games and manga.

That would explain the English dialogue. The enjoyment of a video game doesn’t depend on good acting from the animated characters. Humans aren’t even necessary–a machine-generated voice will do.

The manga connection is a real one, by the way. The first of 10 installments of the serialized version of the movie came out earlier this month in Shogakukan’s Big Comic Superior.

But one has to wonder if Miike’s lariat fell short of roping a few strays. If he’s going to go this far, why not go all the way? We know from his stated intention of making Japanese English cool that fluent dialogue is not a priority. If the objective is to create a northeast Asian Spaghetti Western, why not have the actors deliver their lines in Italian and dub it into English, just like the originals? It’s going to have to be subtitled or dubbed in Japan anyway. (My money’s on the former. It’s more cool and ironic that way, and besides, the trailers are subtitled.)

clip.jpg

If he really wanted to play hipper-than-thou, he’d have released it domestically in Japanese English as is, suggesting to his audience that they’d still understand it, and if they couldn’t follow the dialogue, it wouldn’t make any difference. Then he could demonstrate that he does reside in a dimension of irony far beyond the rest of us.

And surely he could have come up with a better title. Telling people up front that it’s a Sukiyaki Western is like having to explain to someone that you were joking. If the joke were funny, no explanation would be needed.

That’s not to say that whatever Sukiyaki Western: Django turns out to be will be without merit. Some will enjoy it as entertainment, and entertainment is usually harmless. For millennia, people everywhere have been wearing silly costumes and outrageous makeup while playing pretend on stage, so it’s not going to herald the end of the world as we know it. It’ll just be the end of the Sukiyaki Western.

But that doesn’t mean we have to pretend it is what it isn’t: entertainment for adults. This simply isn’t grown up enough to be placed in the same company as Kurosawa, not to mention The Magnificent Seven, Sergio Leone, or even The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly at its best.

And if Miike were to try to convince us otherwise, then the irony would be on him–even if he recouped the investment because enough geeks rented the DVD some Friday night when they didn’t have anything else to do.

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Posted in Arts, Films, Popular culture, Social trends | Tagged: | 10 Comments »

Koreans wonder where the wave went

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, June 23, 2007

WHILE PACKING UP AT 10 DOWNING ST., British Prime Minister Tony Blair last week spoke about the difficulties of conducting governmental affairs in today’s media environment. Many observers in the U.S. as well as Great Britain noted with interest his description of the Independent as a “viewspaper, not a newspaper”.

Britain’s not the only country with a viewspaper problem–many newspapers in Western countries and Japan aren’t interested in making distinctions between a Page One news story and an editorial. I’m sure we all could offer our favorite candidates.

And after reading this recent article in The Hankyoreh about the Korean Wave of pop culture in Japan, the deadly viewspaper virus has wormed its way into the South Korean print media, too.

The article starts as a newspaper piece, offering more bad news for K-Wave fans and those whose taste runs to international soap operas:

  • The rise of “hallyu,” or the “Korean wave” of cultural products, was short-lived in Japan.
  • Cinemart Roppongi, a Tokyo theater devoted to showing Asian films, has screened 16 South Korean movies since late March, but has attracted only about 2,300 viewers during the entire festival.
  • When Cinemart Roppongi opened, Korean films accounted for almost 90 percent of its lineup, but now comprise about 60 percent.
  • Korean film distribution rights, even deeply discounted for the Japanese market, are getting too pricey for the amount of box office they pull in.
  • Just three or four Japanese companies import and distribute Korean films, a drop of more than 50 percent from their peak.
  • The average sale price of a film’s distribution rights in Japan is about 10 percent of what it once was.
  • “No matter how cheap they are, nobody wants to buy Korean movies,” said Lee Eun-gyeong of Kadogawa Pictures.
  • According to a survey performed by the Korean Broadcasting Institute (KBI), Japan’s import of Korean TV programs decreased by about 16 billion won (approximately US$17 million) in 2006 as compared to 2005.

Connect the dots, and it’s obvious they’re having a hard time giving Korean product away in Japan now, a mere three years after the country’s movies and TV programs had become so popular it led to the coining of the phrase “Korean Wave”.

Then The Hankyoreh inexplicably switches from newspaper to viewspaper mode. Take a look at the headline:

Is the ‘Korean wave’ dead in Japan? Don’t bet on it, say experts
Other cooperative projects grow out of surge in interest in Korean culture

The sage of Baltimore, H.L. Mencken, once wrote, “The most costly of all follies is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. It is the chief occupation of mankind.”

The Hankyoreh is curiously passionate about “the palpably not true”, despite the Korean Wave having gone flat and glassy. This isn’t new information; everyone involved, including the Koreans, knew it at the beginning of last year. Here’s a quick translation of excerpts from article that appeared in Japanese in the Nishinippon Shimbun almost a year ago (all subsequent emphasis mine):

The value of Korean film exports, the primary element in the so-called Korean Wave sweeping Japan, plunged by roughly half in the period from January to June this year (2006). The most important factor was the sharp decline in exports to Japan, which accounts for 70% of the export market. The Korean Film Society commented, ‘We cannot say this phenomenon is temporary. Rather, it is the result of the “export bubble” to Japan bursting.’
…The statistics for exports to Japan were particularly revealing. During the same period last year, 36 movies with an average export price of US$860,000 each were sent here, while this year the figure fell to just 15 films with an average value of US$580,000. In addition, the amount of money received from exports to Japan during the first six months of this year accounted for roughly half of all film export income, while it amounted to about 74% last year.

If the people of any country are in a position to understand Japanese behavior, it should be the Koreans. Apart from some small islands under Russian occupation, Korea is Japan’s closest neighbor, and interaction between the two—albeit at times antagonistic and involuntary—stretches back for millennia.

senko hanabi

Senko hanabi

Therefore, The Hankyoreh should already be aware of the tendency for Japanese interest to suddenly burst into flame, burn almost incandescently, and just as quickly die out. The Japanese themselves are the first to acknowledge this behavior; they use the expression senko hanabi—literally, incense fireworks—to describe this phenomenon. Senko hanabi are a traditional Japanese version of the American sparkler often seen at family gatherings in the summer. These backyard, child-safe fireworks have become a metaphor for transience, a favorite Japanese theme.

The popularity of Korean movies and TV in Japan had reached such a height in 2004 and 2005 that people were openly speculating when the inevitable collapse would come. As the Nishinippon Shimbun article excerpted above reports, that collapse came in the first half of 2006.

None of this should be a big deal. Trends wax and wane in countries everywhere, all the time. Yet The Hankyoreh seems desperate to come up with excuses to believe in the palpably not true.

Excuse #1

Bang Sang-won, a Korean executive of Samsung in Japan, said that he now has many new topics of conversation with his Japanese business partners since they are all watching the same Korean TV dramas.

I suspect Mr. Bang’s Japanese business partners are relieved to have finally found some subjects for casual conversation with him. Another common trait of the Japanese is to search for the least common denominator enabling them to initiate friendly communication with people. (That’s why they compliment newly arrived foreigners on their use of chopsticks or attempts to speak Japanese. That’s also why the Japanese think talking about the weather is an excellent way to start a conversation.)

If Mr. Bang has to struggle for topics of conversation with the Japanese, the fault lies either with his Japanese ability or his personality. What’s he going to do now that most of those dramas have disappeared?

That’s not to mention the most peculiar aspect of all: most of the Korean programs shown in Japan were made either for the women’s market or for a younger demographic. How often do Samsung executives talk about soap operas with their business partners, much less watch them?

Excuse #2

The next excuse raises so many red flags, it’s like a Moscow May Day parade from the Soviet era.

Yuka Anjako, a researcher at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University’s Korea Research Center, said that due to the exposure of Korean culture to Japan, “some kindergartens designated ‘Korea Day’ as a special event. When these children grow up, they will be able to overcome the painful past between Korea and Japan.”

Ritsumeikan APU is a unique educational institution: roughly half the faculty and the students are from overseas (70 countries in all). It’s not surprising an official from that school would find a way to put a positive spin on anything that improves international relations.

But there are other problems. First, I can’t find a “Korea Research Center” on their website. Is either The Hankyoreh or Ms. Anjako padding her qualifications? In fact, she’s not listed as a faculty member at all (either under that spelling, or Anzako).

Then there is her assertion that Japanese today need to “overcome the painful past between Korea and Japan”, and that a Korea Day at kindergartens will turn the bilateral relationship into one big smiley face.

I don’t know Ms. Anjako’s age (or nationality), but most Japanese—either the average citizen or those committed to improving bilateral ties—simply don’t talk or think that way. They don’t have anything to overcome.

In 1984, my first year in the country, a friend remarked to me that while his parents disliked Koreans, no one in his generation felt that way at all. He’s in his 50s now.

I’m also familiar with Japanese efforts to promote grassroots interaction between the two countries. I was involved in the planning of the first exchange event held locally with Korean university students nearly 20 years ago, in 1989. As chance would have it, the Emperor Showa (Hirohito) died on the same day it was to begin. The Koreans were worried that the Japanese would cancel, but it was never seriously considered.

Koreans and their culture were not an exotic novelty before some of their movies and TV dramas found an audience among middle-aged Japanese housewives. Nor do Japanese have any reticence about interacting with Koreans. I’ve seen too many Korean college students studying in Japan enjoy themselves too much during their time in this country to think that anybody has to overcome anything.

My experience, combined with her manner of expression, made me wonder if Ms. Anjako has a certain agenda, so to speak.

Well, what do you know! This item from the North Korean news agency turned up (7th from top):

South and Overseas Delegations here
Pyongyang, September 28 (KCNA) — The south side’s delegation headed by Jon Jae Jin, chairman of the Society for Probing the Truth behind the Sinking of Ship Ukishima by Explosion and the overseas delegation led by Hong Sang Jin, secretary general of the Central Headquarters of the Korean Side of the Fact-finding Group of the Forcible Drafting of Koreans arrived here on Sept. 27 to participate in the Pyongyang symposium for probing the truth behind the “Ukishima-Maru” incident. Also arriving was Japanese delegate Yuka Anjako.
They were greeted at the airport by Hong Son Ok, chairperson of the DPRK Measure Committee for Demanding Compensation to Comfort Women for the Japanese Army and Victims of Forcible Drafting, and other officials concerned.

I’m sure you can draw your own conclusions.

By the way, if, like me, you didn’t know about the Ukishima-maru incident—and want a good laugh–this will tell you all you need to know.

Immediately after the end of the Second World War, some 3,800 Korean expatriates in Japan were aboard the “Ukishima-Maru” a Japanese naval vessel, which had been supposed to arrive in Pusan, a southeastern port of Korea, bidding farewell to their slave-like lives in the Japanese Archipelagoes– a suzerain of Korea. The ship had left a pier in Maizuru Port on August 24, 1945, but the vessel suddenly sank inside Maizuru Bay, north of Kyoto, Japan, claiming the lives of approximately 550 passengers.

The DPRK has claimed that the ship was sunk intentionally by the explosives planted inside the ship went off according to a plan carefully worked out by the Japanese authorities.

Flatly denying that the “Ukishima-Maru” was bomb-exploded, the Japanese side has been saying that the ship sank when it hit a mine.

Once again, I’m sure you can draw your own conclusions. Especially about the Japanese going out of their way to sink their own ship in their own waters one month before the war ended.

This time, the lady from Ritsumeikan turns up as Yuka Anzako, but it’s probably the same person.

Once they decided to turn this article into fiction, The Hankyoreh’s journalists really got on a roll. Their next excuse is one of the silliest things I’ve ever seen in a newspaper:

Excuse #3

Kim Mi-deok, a Korean researcher at the strategic institute of Japan’s Mitsui Corp., said, “The fact (is) that Japan’s major enterprises have started to be moved along by the Korean wave. Since hallyu hit Japan, Japanese businesses have acknowledged the possibility of Korea, and have strategically used Korea to advance into the greater Asian community.”

There are two possibilities for this nonsense. One is that Mr. Kim figured that he might as well tell the reporters what they wanted to hear, because his bosses at Mitsui would never read what he said.

The other is that The Hankyoreh just made it up.

It didn’t take long to find the Japanese government’s figures on Japanese foreign investment broken down by country, as you can see from this website (Excel file). These statistics show that Japanese businesses “advanced into the greater Asian community” long ago–with the notable exception of South Korea (considering its proximity and population). Japan has invested substantially more in China than in South Korea over the years, as well in the NIES and in Thailand. Their investments have sporadically been greater in Singapore, and more frequently higher in Hong Kong, considered separately from China—and both of those are city-states.

The next step was a search for statistics from the Korean side, to either corroborate or amplify the Japanese information. Before I found any statistics, however, I found this editorial that ran in the Korea Times two years ago (.pdf file):

Foreign investment in South Korea has never been high. For decades, the government pursued policies that successfully impeded foreign investment…These policies were in part an understandable response to the country’s colonial history and fears that if the economy were opened widely to foreign investors, the country’s assets would be bought up wholesale by Japanese investors.

Oh.

Many are not doubt familiar with a proverb common to China, Japan, and Korea: “The frog at the bottom of the well knows nothing of the ocean”. I found myself wondering if the people who wrote The Hankyoreh article had the same perspective, but that frog’s not at the bottom of a well—it’s living in a roomful of mirrors.

Then the thought arose that they might be carrying a torch for all those Japanese consumers who deserted them. They could be going through the same sort of temporary denial that sometimes affects people when a lover decides to move on to greener pastures for a reason they don’t understand.

A more unfortunate possibility emerges the more one reads of that Korea Times editorial:

But what is more worrisome is that these specific manifestations may reflect xenophobia that is encouraged by the dominant institutions of Korean society….In 2002, pollsters from the Pew Survey on Global Attitudes interviewed more than 40,000 people in 46 countries around the world…One of the questions they asked was whether respondents agreed with the statement that “our people are not perfect, but our culture is superior to others”.

Here are the results:
France: 40% agreement
Russia, U.S.: 60% agreement
Japan: 75% agreement.
South Korea: 90% agreement, the highest score of any country in the world.

Yet:

Paradoxically, while an astonishing share of Koreans apparently feel culturally superior to the rest of the world, they also apparently lack confidence in that culture’s resilience—five out of six Koreans think it should be protected from foreign influence.

People describe the thinking of the inhabitants of island countries as “insular”, but that’s more insularity than I’ve seen in Japan in nearly a quarter of a century. Maybe that’s a “pan-insular” philosophy for the residents of a peninsula.

We’ve already heard from Tony Blair and H.L. Mencken, so let’s finish with a comment by former U.S. President Harry S Truman. He is reported to have said, “I feel sorry for my fellow citizens who read the newspaper every morning and thereby think they have an idea of what is happening in the world.”

The people I feel sorry for are the South Koreans who actually spend money to read The Hankyoreh.

Addendum: After all that, I don’t have the heart to translate this article from JanJan about the current Japan Wave of films in South Korea. One new Japanese movie opening every week…35 Japanese movies shown last year, attracting 1.2 million viewers, particularly women in their 20s…occurring during an overall downturn in the Korean movie industry…total audience down 17.3% during the first quarter, compared to the previous year…audience for Korean films down 41%…One person quoted said, “The time has come to learn from Japanese cinema”…

What the heck. Maybe JanJan is just a viewspaper, too. Maybe they took their cue from The Hankyoreh and made it all up.

Posted in Films, Mass media, Popular culture, South Korea | Tagged: , | 7 Comments »

Ave atque vale: Ueki Hitoshi, Japan’s premier comic actor (1927-2007)

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, March 28, 2007

SAD NEWS: The foremost Japanese comic actor of his–and perhaps any–generation, and my hands-down, all-time favorite Japanese show business personality, Ueki Hitoshi, died this morning in a Tokyo hospital of respiratory problems. He was 80.

ueki1

Ueki was a multitalented performer who started out singing in a band (called the Crazy Cats), turned to comedy with the other band members, and won respect as a serious actor later in life. If he is known abroad at all, it is for his appearance in Kurosawa Akira’s Ran in 1985. In 1993, he was awarded the Medal with Purple Ribbon for his contributions to culture, and in 1999 he received the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette.

But it was as the lead in the comedy Nippon Musekinin Jidai (Japan’s Irresponsible Age) in 1962 that he made his name. The movie was a huge success and morphed into a series of films throughout the 60s that used in their title the phrase Nippon no Ichiban — Otoko (Japan’s Most – Man). Both Ueki and the films had a brash, energetic, and positive quality that paralleled the developments in Japanese society at the time, as the country’s economy and confidence skyrocketed during the period of rapid growth. He became enormously popular, particularly among salarymen, both for his films and his comic songs. The title of one of those songs, Wakattchairu Kedo Yamerarenee (I know, but I still can’t stop) became a national catchphrase in its own right.

There was no one quite like him in Japan, and no one quite like his character in the West, either. He was brassy, exuberant, zany, slightly roguish, yet perpetually bright and cheerful, and audiences loved him. To describe him in Western terms, think of Bob Hope in the early Road movies with Bing Crosby, remove the cowardice, add an irrepressible cheerfulness, and that puts you in the ballpark.

There’s also never been anything quite like those movies he made during his peak years, either. They were comedies that appealed to a mass audience, but they also had a touch of the freewheeling and slightly surreal that was also a part of popular culture throughout the West in the first half of the 60s.

My favorite of his films was one of the last of the Nippon no Ichiban — Otoko movies: Nippon no Ichiban Uragiri no Otoko (Japan’s Biggest Backstabber). In retrospect, it’s hard to imagine that it got made at all, and it’s proof that the Japanese can make black comedy as well as anyone. In fact, the first scene is one of the most astonishing I’ve ever seen in any movie.

Here’s some quick background—there are two subjects in modern Japanese film and television that are always used to create the ultimate tragic mood. Those are the tokko butai pilots (kamikazes) and the Emperor Showa’s radio broadcast to the nation on August 15, 1945, announcing Japan’s surrender. No one would dream of parodying these two subjects.

Except Ueki, and he took on both in the movie’s first five minutes. He plays a kamikaze pilot about to leave on his last mission—this is a comedy, remember—and he and the other pilots are mustered to listen to the Emperor’s broadcast before they depart. But the reception of the radio broadcast is poor and filled with static, and they ask their commanding officer what the Emperor said. The officer answers that the Emperor asked them all to die for their country, so they climb into their planes and take off.

ueki-22

Ueki crashes his plane into an American battleship, but it doesn’t explode and he survives. The American sailors are curious about this Japanese pilot sitting on the deck of their ship, and they wonder if he’s going to commit harakiri. Ueki at first defiantly announces that he’ll go through with it, but keeps coming up with new conditions for the ceremony that prevent him from actually cutting open his belly. The helpful American sailors then find ways for him to satisfy those conditions. The pilot warns them it’ll be a bloody mess, so one of the sailors thoughtfully rolls some toilet paper in his direction. Finally, Ueki says tradition demands that ritual suicide requires the presence of a registered nurse.

And then the opening credits start.

He was probably the only actor in Japan who could get away with a scene like that, and he knew it, too. In a newspaper interview published 18 years ago, he remarked about the series in general, “I just made up my mind that I would be the only person in Japan capable (of performing that role), and I ran with it. In the end, no one’s been able to make anything like them.”

No one anywhere has been able to make anything like them because Ueki was a true Japanese original. Here’s how the newspaper interview concludes:

“I (the interviewer) suggested to him that he had an upright and steadfast character, but he became embarrassed and let out a loud, boisterous laugh—‘Iya, uhhihhii’. It was the same laugh that delighted so many people over the years.”

Anyone who has seen any of Ueki’s movies will recognize that laugh immediately and hear it in their mind’s ear.

We’ll all miss it.

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Posted in Arts, Films, Music, Popular culture | Tagged: | 4 Comments »

Eastwood’s Iwo Jima: A new view of the Japanese, or an exception to the rule?

Posted by ampontan on Monday, February 26, 2007

George Will’s latest column is ostensibly about Clint Eastwood’s film, Letters from Iwo Jima, which is one of the five nominees for Best Picture in the upcoming Academy Awards. (Here’s a trailer.)

Will spends more time, however, on American attitudes toward the Japanese, both during the war and after it.

…Attitudes about the Japanese were especially harsh during the war and have been less softened by time…In 1943, the Navy’s representative on the committee considering what should be done with a defeated Japan recommended genocide — “the almost total elimination of the Japanese as a race.”

Stephen Hunter, movie critic for The Washington Post, says that of the more than 600 English-language movies made about World War II since 1940, only four — most notably “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957) — “have even acknowledged the humanity” of Japanese soldiers.

Read any article about the Japanese today in any mass media newspaper or magazine, and it’s soon apparent that the approach of many in the West toward the Japanese nation and its people hasn’t changed a whit. The demonization is no longer overt, but it is still the baseline assumption. That most definitely includes Westerners who have lived and worked in Japan for years, from the garden variety English teacher to the people who staff the English-language newspapers in Japan. Their patronizing smugness is sometimes so thick you can cut it with a knife.

kuribayashi.jpg

Hunter can think of only four war movies that acknowledge the humanity of the Japanese. I’d be hard-pressed to think of very many more articles I’ve seen in the Western mass media that come close to giving Japan the even-handed respect any nation should receive. For those of you without direct experience of Japan, it is no exaggeration to say that anything you read about this country in the Western press contains–at a minimum–one severe distortion or error. Often the entire premise of the piece is skewed. And this is for a country whose behavior since the end of the war has been close to impeccable, particularly when compared to any other country you’d care to mention.

I’ve written about this before, particularly in the About page above, and it’s one of the reasons I have this site.

I’m glad George Will noticed, but it remains to be seen if there will be much of an improvement soon, even if Eastman’s movie does win the Best Picture Oscar.

Update and Endnote: Will describes the Japanese commander on Iwo Jima, Tadamichi Kuribayashi, as a “cosmopolitan warrior”.
Here’s a column by Hirokaki Sato in today’s Japan Times titled, Eastwood Didn’t Idealize Kuribayashi.

And the following is a reproduction of a post regarding another article about Kuribayashi I wrote last summer for another website:

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Films, World War II | 35 Comments »

 
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