Thursday, 9 August 2007

I Blame Kill Bill

It's funny. In the time since I first arrived in Japan (March 2003), Japanese culture has really undergone something of a transformation. Before I left there were some upper-middle-class types in London who ate sushi for lunch, and there were some teenagers who read manga - mostly boys who liked looking at demons having sex with nubile high-school students - and of course, Pikachu was always lurking in the backwaters of our cultural byways like a sinister rumour. But Japanese fiction, art, cinema, comics and music remained very much a fringe interest.

Now it's no exaggeration to say Japaneseness is so popular that literally anything Japanese has become the watchword for coolness. Men - ordinary men, who shop at Top Man and drink lots of beer - strut around in old baseball shirts with Hanshin Tigers and Seibu Lions logos. Teenagers - and not just the geeky ones - read manga and think it's actually good. J-pop starlets like Hamasaki Ayumi and Koda Kumi are listened to. Miyazaki Hayao's films are hailed as masterpieces. Hollywood remakes Japanese horror films and considers it de rigeur to write Japanese characters into scripts. Films about Westerners struggling to make sense of how "baffling" Tokyo supposedly is win Academy Awards for Best Screenplay, even though they're really boring. Watanabe Ken is now an A-lister. Mamiko works in "The Japanese shop" and sells origami cranes for 60p a pop even though it takes her about three seconds to make one. The world has gone Japanese-mad.

Thinking back, the thing which either lit the touchpaper, or perhaps was just the first thing to signify the trend, was Kill Bill vol. 1. I remember coming back to the UK in around October 2003 for a visit and that film was everywhere, and the vast majority of the comment on it was of the nature of "I don't know about the story, but boy is Japan a cool place!" I think it rather skewed perceptions of what Japan is really like, with the way it seemlessly interwove bloodthirsty anime, female rock 'n' roll three-pieces, mafioso-style yakuza and Okinawan swordmakers into its plot. Even I, who knew that none of those things are remotely indicative of what life in Japan is like, watched that film and thought to myself "Japan is really damn cool."

The most interesting thing for me is that ordinary Japanese people are usually bemused when they hear about their country's newfound popularity. See, most Japanese people don't read much manga now but did when they were in junior high school, dislike Beat Takeshi films, think novels by Murakami Haruki and Yoshimoto Banana are generally kind of silly and depressing, don't know anything about origami and tea ceremonies, and vaguely recall Pikachu as some character who was popular ages ago and now think of in the same way that British people look back on Bananaman or Thundercats. If you tell them that now, for example, it wouldn't be considered unusual if an average British teenager plucked off the street could tell you what Cowboy BeBop is, they'd probably look at you askance and say "What's Cowboy BeBop?"

Anyway, over the next few days, I thought I'd post a few Top-5 lists of Japanese things which I think are worth investigating if, like me, you aren't particularly into samurai, ninja, manga, androgyny, slasher pics, suicidal novelists, pop stars who sing gibberish, pink things, girls who make 'peace' signs all the time in photographs, and cartoon characters with grotesquely large eyes.

First up tomorrow: music.


zero_zero_one said...

I don't think that Tokyo was particularly baffling... And I liked "Lost In Translation" because really it wasn't about how baffling Tokyo is or isn't.

I don't think that it's a bad thing that Japanese popular culture is no longer a fringe interest, but I take the point that what people think Japanese popular culture is is probably heavily skewed. With translation time for so many things that's surely inevitable?

(for example, there were posters all over Akihibara last August for a new Ghost In The Shell movie, which is only just coming out over here in a few weeks' time)

And are you disputing the greatness of Studio Ghibli's output?

zero_zero_one said...

PS - can Mamiko get me a discount on a bulk buy of paper cranes? I've a lot of gifts/birthday presents to get for over the coming weeks, and I want to get people something cool...

noisms said...

Tokyo isn't baffling. That's why I said "supposedly".

Anyway, "Lost in Translation" wasn't 'about' how baffling Tokyo was, that's true, but that was a big part of the film. I don't think there was a single Japanese character in there who was portrayed as a normal person. They all behaved unusually, made cryptic comments, and the overall emphasis was on how weird and incomprehensible everything was.

And you can't put the fact that our idea of Japanese culture is skewed down to just how long it takes to translate something. That's a bit ridiculous. It's about what's being translated, not how long it takes. The things that normal Japanese people read, watch and listen to just aren't given any time in the West, because it doesn't really conform to the image of Japan that we're comfortable with. We like to think of Japan as being a bit weird and different - the inscrutable orient - and we like the weird and different things that are produced there, like manga and pokemon and so on. Actually Japanese people are pretty much the same as us and like pretty much the same things, but it would disappoint most people to find that out.

Some Studio Ghibli films are good. I like Totoro, and the one about the witch on the broomstick, and Mononoke no Hime is excellent. But the rest are pretty hit-and-miss, and recently they've been getting much worse.

zero_zero_one said...

Maybe we watched different edits of "Lost In Translation"... I don't remember the Japanese characters being particularly cryptic or unusual. We should make a podcast commentary of us arguing over the film's merits maybe.

Although I'm only really aware of trends in anime a little, and film perhaps a little more, I think that there is a shift away from simply importing media that conforms to previous impressions of "bizarre" Japanese culture. More could be done to expose us to more "normal" (and equally great) things from Japanese culture/pop-culture, I agree.

Maybe they could show re-runs of that show presented by the monkey?

zero_zero_one said...

PS - Nausicaa is pretty good too, and Castle In The Sky. Still not got around to watching Totoro...

mattiecore said...

Thundercats fucking rules; I don't care what anyone thinks.

And the only anime I've ever really enjoyed was Cowboy Bebop... *shrug*

Andrew Fry said...

Thunder, Thunder, THUNDERCATS!! are still relevant. Don't mess with my nostalgia.

Loved "Lost in Translation". I can see your point that the movie doesn't show many normal folks, but think about any movie about New York. They are constantly being decorated with out of the ordinary characters.

I made a list way back when of the things I wanted to do. One was make a thousand cranes. It is still big in Hawaii to make art out of them. It takes me about 2-3 minutes to make one.