A survey amongst the japanese would result in a lack of consensus. That is because the current template for an idol is not constrained to one sector of the entertainment industry. A successful idol releases music, photo-books, acts on TV dramas, sells gravure videos, appears on variety shows, endorses brands, blogs, writes books, promotes video games, stars in feature films and does voice acting.
It can be argued that the idol concept got distorted and abused as it gained popularity: who once were simply glamour models, became gravure idols. The pornographic business also grabbed the title, promoting their stars as Adult Video idols. Maid cafes evolved their waitresses into such status as well(1).
To understand the concept it is necessary to explore its beginnings.
Like a lot of mainstream waves, the idea for idols began as a counterculture. Unsatisfied by the male dominated Kabuki theater, Kobayashi Ichizo adventured into an all female entertainment enterprise in 1913. Just like Kabuki theater at the time, where all the roles, including female characters, were performed by men, Ichizoís vision consisted in women being the only talent admitted. Funding the Takarazuka Revue(2), Kobayashi created a phenomenon that up to this day is one of the fundaments of the japanese culture, projecting women as the forefront of the entertainment in Japan. The motto of the Takarazuka Music School became the commandments for idols: --Purity, Honesty, Beauty--(3).
However it was not until the 60ís when the term idol was first coined. During this era, on top of the concept receiving a name, its formula started to settle. Two main influences helped the idea acquire a form: Great Britain at the time was propelling the boy band format, leaded by The Monkeys but shaped by the not boy band: The Beatles. These concocted groups would patently establish a marketing concept, where the appeal of the boys was not only manufactured and hyped, but further monetized with films and the idealization of each member of the band.
France was hosting its own current: the Yť-yť. In 1963, Sylvie Vartan, amongst the most popular Yť-yť singers, starred in a film titled --Cherchez líidole--(4), translated as Search For The Idol, or in japanese: Idol Wo Sagase. The japanese quickly adopted the word for their own female celebrities. Ironically, Sylvie Vartan wouldnít become the prototype for the japanese idol. That role was for the most famous and controversial exponent of the Yť-yť: France Gall(5), also known back then as the french Lolita, who was suddenly expelled from the french mainstream after her song Les Sucettes (Lollipops, in english) was exposed as shameless innuendo for oral sex.
Still with the momentum of the Takarazuka movement, Japan implemented the boy band and the Yť-yť in its own way: the idol.
Although duets like The Peanuts and other solo efforts pioneered the idol scene, it took Candies(6), the group that decisively cemented what an idol group had to be, and the TV show Star Tanjou, Japanís American Idol of the 70ís, to make of the idol concept a proper industry. In 1976, Pink Lady arrived to the scene with Pepper Keibu, a single that would mark the trend for the following thirty years.
Pink Lady debuting its first single
Japanís music industry can definitely be marked as one of the best examples of the japaneseness. Arranged as agencies(7), private entities gather, nurture and promote its own talent. In a way, inherited by the Takarazuka model, where Kobayashi Ichizo had complete and exclusive control of its talent, agencies form their own pools of idols, lending them to TV and radio networks on their own terms and conditions. Collaborations between talent of two different agencies are rare, changing agencies is only accepted when the bigger one is on the benefitting end. The idols are, structurally, mere employees with an unimpressive fixed salary that can only be negotiated once a year. Even idols at their peak, with multiple deals for commercials and TV appearances, and regardless of record sales, cannot brag of making more than a senior programmer analyst.
In 1985, the idol concept would transcend imitation and become something truly unique. Born from Fuji TV, hosted by the powerful label Pony Canyon, and envisioned by Akimoto Yasushi, Onyanko Club stormed Japan.
Twenty girls dominating Japan: The Onyanko Club
With a total of 52 members in its history, it introduced the idea of graduations, where members would leave, allowing new faces in. It had its own variety show. With an abundance of girls, subunits were formed to maximize exposure and profit. It intensely promoted direct contact with fans and targeted heavily the male audience. The Onyanko Club had only two rules: no smoking (as it is illegal for anyone under twenty, in Japan) and no boyfriends, marking the birth of the stigma of the wota(8).
At the end, after only three years of existence, the Onyanko Club collapsed after a series of scandals and internal disputes.
Although Onyanko Club had changed, determinately, the paradigm of the idol groups, after its dawn, the whole idol scene took a bit of a rest, mainly because of one factor: the Shibuya-kei(9) had begun its rise. However, after the Shibuya-kei, briefly a counterculture, was assimilated, and with the fundaments already set by the Onyanko Club, the absolute peak was to come, thanks to two crucial factors: a mature industrialization of the media, with the CD and DVD revolution already settled in, granting easy access to releases, but with the TV still acting as the main source of news and events; and the insurrection of the internet, allowing unsuspected people access to never before seen entertainment, while no yet stealing the predominance of the TV networks. Within those circumstances Morning Musume was formed in 1997.
Morning Musume performing its most successful song ever: Love Machine
Born already in fame, with Asayan, a talent search TV show, acting as its parent, what started as a five girl group quickly became eight, and eventually to a maximum of sixteen. At first, a collective of girls in their late teens and early twenties, quickly became territory for twelve year olds, while not disposing of its older members. It had as well its own variety show, and formed subunits to generate more merchandise.
While the Onyanko Club was more of a novelty and a fad, Morning Musume was the consecration of the industry that Kobayashi Ichizo had unknowingly started, and Pink Lady had established. Unlike Onyankoís ephemeral life, that was plagued by rumors, questionable events, sexual lyrics(10), and fights between the members. The approach by Up-Front, the agency behind Morning Musume, was more serene, relaxed and family friendly.
It has to be specified, then, another characteristic of the japanese music industry: the mainstream is composed of a few established players (Hamasaki Ayumi, Gackt, Koda Kumi and a small army of generic, harmless adult contemporary bands and solo acts) and standouts from niches. The idol industry, on its own, is a niche, actively embraced and exploited by the big agencies. Aside from the big acts of the idol music world, of which only a handful sell a meaningful amount of records, the rest are confined to selected corners of the japanese cities with their own faithful fans, only capable of enjoying massive crowds in the various idol festivals throughout the year.
At its peak, Morning Musume broke the barrier of a niche within the mainstream, and effectively became widely established pop culture, with the general populace able to remember their names without the need for a scandal to make them stand out. Ironically, it was the ďde-idolizationĒ of Morning Musume that allowed them to transcend. Through Utaban, a variety show where the hosts had a green light to assign nicknames, mock, tease, and even flirt with the guests, watching Morning Musume every week as guests became water cooler talk(11).
Another success was Up-Frontís elimination of the shadowy, cold figure of the agency: As Up-Front expanded with more idol groups, with MoMusu at the helm, instead of identifying all of their idol ensembles as Up-Front owned groups, they were collectively identified as the Hello! Project. If Morning Musume concerts were selling out, the promotion of an all star Hello! Project concert allowed for huge venues to be filled with ease.
The entire Hello! Project in 2005
Anime has spread the japanese culture, intensely, to every corner of the world. The Hello! Project, but mainly Morning Musume, thanks to the internet, has done so as well, creating a worldwide fandom and acceptation of the idol entertainment, from France to Peru, from Finland to Mexico, idols are spreading the japaneseness, globally.
AKB48, produced by Akimoto Yasushi, the very man behind Onyanku Club, entered the scene in very different circumstances than those Morning Musume and Onyanku Club enjoyed. AKB48 is confronting an ongoing korean craze; the japanese right now prefer korean dramas, korean music and korean books. With declining ratings for original japanese TV content, on top of sporting an overwhelming amount of members, circumstances have lead the AKB48 brand to only be recognized as a whole, seeing its fan base composed mostly of teenagers, both male and female. On the other hand, it is enjoying the benefits of the internet to its fullest extent, organizing its international fandom in an unprecedented scale. Yet, it has to be contrasted with the vastly more successful propagation that K-pop has seen worldwide(12), using a westernized approach, with lots of glamour and big production displays. On the contrary, J-Pop is still very japanese, with its subgenera still appealing dedicatedly to their own niche.
Twenty years after Onyanko Club: AKB48, Japan's musical face to the world
As Morning Musume wained around 2004 and AKB48 rose around 2007, the vacuum finalized a shift from what was traditionally known as idol music. A symbiotic relationship with anime was established, where idol music equaled anime opening music and anime opening music was only done by idols. Akihabara became the de facto center of the otaku, and inherently, of the wota. Hatsune Miku, a vocal synthesizer software, personified by a drawing of a blue haired girl, rocketed into the japanese culture, quickly acquiring virtual idol status, further expanding the term idol and what it could imply. Also, the long held motto of purity, honesty and beauty became obsolete as more gravure idols and adult video idols made it into the mainstream and the decaying music industry hesitated on introducing new groups to the market. While AKB48 is still at the helm of the idol world, further developments mark that the evolution of the concept still has a long way to go: Soft On Demand, a conglomerate of pornographic companies, launched the SOD National Idol Unit, composed only of prominent adult video idols(13).
Sono Shionís direct message to the japanese society, utilizes all sorts of idiosyncrasies and pop culture references to drive his unashamed critique of the nation.
It is, therefore, only appropriate for the focal satire of the film to be an idol group. Dessart, an ďengrishĒ play on words, where its katakana(14) pronunciation could easily be also read as Death Art, is an idol band made of tweens, the top act of the moment, in the filmís world.
The idea of a suicide club being possible stands on the same fundaments of why idols and boy bands are so pervasive amongst the japanese. That is, understanding the idol scene as a sea of generic, pre-manufactured concepts, that never deviate from what its fans do not want, and at the same time, sell them into things they never really desired.
Harshly, Sono Shion points to an apathetical lack of individualism, as the main factor for a void, meaningless act, such as an idol group, to become the symbol of hope, positiveness and even purpose of existence. It is the utter conformity, driven by fear and loneliness, that makes idols thrive.
The filmís point is only boosted by celebrity suicides like Okada Yukikoís death(15) and Matsumoto Hidetoís(16).
Although we have focused on the female side of the idol genre, leaving aside boy band idols, which are actually considerably more successful and recognized, with heavyweights like Arashi and SMAP; as a whole, there is an unescapable fact of the idol world: it is cheesy.
It is something hard to understand for the non-japanese. SMAP, for example: imagine the New Kids On The Block still being the best selling, most marketable group in America. Or the Backstreet Boys still storming the charts with each and every single, totally eclipsing new acts like the Jonas Brothers or Justin Bieber. Such is the musical industry paradigm of Japan.
...Well, within that cheesiness, Morning Musume was remarkably cheesy. In Pinch Runner, their second film, their characteristic cheesiness is more than apparent. While the movie was captured in film, the first take scenes are rather obvious, leading to some hilarious acting, the editing doesnít do the movie any favor, either: with a strange combination of formats, frame rate speeds, laughable attempts at visual effects, odd slow motions and basic audio effects, you wonder if the producers were just being cheap or hopelessly inept.
At some point in the film, one of the characters fakes a suicide attempt, using paint to simulate blood. One of the girls discovers the can with red paint, by accident, and spills it on the floor, then tries to walk away from the spill but slips, for real, and lands, hitting bluntly her face; obviously, the shot was kept and used, which is quite a bizarre decision, as the girl looks unmistakably dazzled, and leaves you wondering why filming wasnít immediately suspended after such a painful hit.
The climax of the film is a marathon. For some reason, the producers thought the best course of action was to have the girls of Morning Musume run a very real marathon. The odd decisions continue as the film starts to jump from a 24 frames per second, film format, for the dramatic scenes; to 30 frames per second, video, for the actual marathon. Bear in mind this was in 2000; Morning Musume were incredibly popular at the moment, nationwide, very close to their peak. Since the filming conditions for the marathon could not be controlled, as you see the girls running their cathartic race, you can also see the fans and the curious running alongside them, taking pictures and screaming in awe. Some shots of the Morning Musume suffering of side pain are included, as well, just because.
We wonít dig too much into television, in the Nihonjinron series, although it possesses enough peculiarities to deserve a dissection. What needs to be pointed out, though, is the nature of the japanese variety show: ad lib being its backbone. Surprising the guests and pushing them for improvisation is a constant, requiring of the TV personality a true capability of being spontaneously entertaining.
Momoiro Clover, in 2010, were still newcomers to the idol scene, albeit successful. They were told, by their management, they would be doing a piece for a variety show. The task for the girls was to go to a haunted place and ask a spirit to grant them the wish to appear at Kouhaku Uta Gassen.
Kouhaku is the ultimate musical show. It is held every year during new yearís eve. Appearing on it is the most explicit validation of the success of a singer or group.
The legend says if the wish is pure at heart, it is granted, if not, death arrives as punishment after seeing a pair of ghostly white eyes. The trick behind all of this was that, unknowingly, Momoiro Clover were filming the movie White Eyes, and not a clip for a variety show. This twist on the mockumentary concept wasnít done by a random person either, Koji Shiraishi, the director, is pretty much Japanís specialist on the found footage/mockumentary genre.
Sora Aoi, internationally known as a japanese pornstar, once said in an interview: ď...There was also a possibility of going into TV and other parts of the entertainment industry. If there was only the AV industry, I couldnít do it.Ē Her curriculum now features a vast history of appearances in mainstream shows, prominent roles in dramas and roles in serious films, like Yamasaki Yutakaís Torso(17).
Hoshino Aki, started like every bikini model, gradually appearing in more magazines and then releasing gravure DVDs. In no time, she became one of the top gravure idols and eventually an emblem of the gravure world. Now, she is a mainstream face and powerhouse of the entertainment industry(18).
Added to the previous examples, there is Mihiro, who upon her retirement from the pornographic industry, wrote an autobiographic book, that saw its film adaptation in Nude. Mihiroís story, and consequently the film, amongst all the morals and messages, delivered a patent note to the japanese society, as the gravure and the AV industries are more and more assimilated into the mainstream: the promise by scouters, of fame and success, stating erotic or pornographic jobs as a platform, is true in Japan.
The film, though, doesnít let that message be delivered irresponsibly, since it underscores Mihiroís personal struggle against japanís society, where she is almost artificially repelled from a healthy social life: what started as casual (and even fun) bikini photo shoots, was forced by friends and family to be viewed as hideous, shameless acts, ending in self abhorrence.
As the world of casting is shown in its natural, heartless form, Nude depicts a sex entertainment industry that, once the job is obtained, enjoys a highly professional and relaxed ambient. The film leaves on the note that it wasnít Mihiroís beauty or branch of work that lead her to success, but her resilience that allowed her to keep on ascending, in a path where free fall was at each step; the actions of a properly strong woman.
It is, ultimately, primordial to understand Japanís kawaii (cute) culture(19). While this specific subject warrants its own essay, for this article, its should suffice to say that in Japan, cuteness is an ideal. Although, as a trend, it rose around the 60ís and 70ís (in synchrony with the idol industrialization,) the goal for cuteness goes beyond women: from Hello Kitty to Pikachu, from Comet-San(20) to Aibon(21) to the Tamagotchi. Everything has been motivated by cuteness: mannerisms, haircuts, nail designs, food adorners and even warning signs in places like subways and constructions sites(22). And while it is inescapable, the fact that the industry of the cute is in part fueled by lust and arousal; the big picture illustrates that it is a mentality and a way of life. That would explain why female idol groups amass a significative amount of fangirls(23), but mostly, girls themselves aspire to be the idols: a symbol of cuteness.
Society and culture are inherently intertwined, however they are not necessarily representative of each other. While customs and religious belief do affect social structure, and an education system derives in a certain way art is handled and promoted, the mere idea of counterculture --a concept paradoxical on itself, with these movements usually resulting in a new cultural paradigm or in assimilation-- exposes culture as more than a mere projection of society, sometimes serving as an idealistic escapade from the stiffness of the social conventions.
That is exactly why non japanese films about Japan tend to be extravagant circuses, since these part from a cultural perspective on Japan and only touch superficially the nuances of its society.
More often than not, Japanís culture is the extroverted side of its society. For every great artist it requires a person that rejects Japanís homogeneity.
Natural cultural center of the nation, Tokyo sets the pulse of Japan. For the vast array of japanese films set in Tokyo, there arenít many that are about Tokyo itself.
Adrift in Tokyo is not a romantic view of the city nor a critique of its status quo. It is a deconstruction through characters that obtain meaning through location. It is also a hilarious comedy. Most crucially, the film is profoundly japanese. Its dialogue, humour, music, acting, cinematography, all of it is something that could only be created in Tokyo, Japan.
Much like the Nihonjinron series did on society, we will focus only on the contemporary cultural paradigm of the Nippon world. More specifically, on the aspects that have propelled it to global transcendency; its immense entertainment industry.
Meet Tokyo through its architecture:
Having a sense of homogeneity, the japanese really consider themselves uniformly middle class. And while that was outstandingly true for many years, Japanís economy is distorting, while not exactly deteriorating.
As corporations became the backbone of the economy and financial derivatives an open casino, Japan has suffered what other countries have experienced more sharply. With the notion of outsourcing, a slow but steady abandonment of the notion of lifetime jobs, the disparity on the distribution of the wealth has left the middle class with lower living standards, with the very unlucky ones suddenly sinking to deep poverty and even homelessness.
This scenario was lucidly presented in a film that we have already introduced: Tokyo Sonata. Still, these harsh times are within the confines of a first world nation. This suffering middle class is one that can still vacation overseas, afford gadgets and own cars.
For the purpose of this series, poverty provides the perfect conclusion to Nihonjinron, focused on society.
The notion of an homogenous middle class, a form of ishin-denshin(1), acts as the japanese version of the american dream, perfectly encapsulating the pillars of the nihonjinron theory. Poverty acts as its antithesis.
Being poor means standing out, dragging down the group. It is the norm to try to hide poverty as best as possible, pretending a middle class living(2), all in the name of haji (shame and embarrassment,) working, through appearances, to avoid it.
Being poor means missing on the wonders of the japanese education system: school clubs, cram schools and other extracurricular activities become a burden to the wallet. Most importantly, the highly competitive nature of said system ends up excluding the poor from high school, making college impossible, and ensuring a multigenerational cycle of unescapable impoverishment.
The family is the most crucial victim of poverty, not only dividing it, but condemning its new structures: Within single parent families, more than half live in poorness in Japan(3).
Ryo is a sixteen year old boy. His father dumped him and his mother long time ago. He lives alone, since his mother has been hospitalized for a deathly disease. Living from the meager salary his job at a convenience store provides, he sees his situation worsen as his boss stops tolerating his stealing of food.
Surviving from a reserve stash, Ryo ends up dropping out from school. After her mother dies, he is asked to pay the hospital fees, to pay for the funeral expenses, all of that while the rent for his miserable home is late and he is cut out from electricity and water.
Ryo, homeless and without family, becomes a symbol for Kobayashi Masahiro, director of the film, harshly questioning the so called group mentality that the nihonjinron dictates. Ryoís existence becomes hopeless and useless; a forgotten. Forsaken by the cold bureaucracy of a system that apathetically failed its citizen.
Based on a true story, one that made waves internationally, although admittedly, by the film itself, manipulated to fit the intention of its director, shows us how poverty arrives in different ways, and as just exposed, stays hidden in plain sight.
I, the author, as principle have avoided relating in the first person throughout all these essays. Here, an exception has to be made: if for some reason you can or will watch only one japanese film in your entire life, this is the one. With a running time of 141 minutes, encompassing months of events in a slow paced style, Nobody Knows is a true epic of the real life. It is a character study, a social commentary, a heartfelt tale, a universal story that showcases, not only Japan and its japaneseness, within a Tokyo of the 80ís where kids could safely walk at midnight without a single worry, but also the human condition were hope dies last, when love lasts forever and also where humans find the easiest to be inhuman.
A Conclusion To The First Half: On Japanese Society
As obvious as it might be, it has to be remarked the polar nature of films. Even with the transparent japanese style, that appeals to real life, day to day stories, it is always the outstanding ones that appeal to writers and directors, therefore it is mostly the extremes what we can see of Japan, if using cinema as the sole insight.
Masatoshi Tominaga in his dissertation on the nihonjinron argues that, ultimately, the concept of japaneseness is artificial and imagined, pointing out that its peculiarities are exaggerated, ignoring the similarities. He argues that such dismissal makes of the japaneseness a fabrication that, nevertheless, is willingly maintained.
On the other hand, Cool Japan, a talk-show/documentary series transmitted on NHK World, gathers a panel of japanese and expatriates to discuss every single bit that makes the japanese different from other societies. Taking subjects that have been explored in this series, and many other more subjects, the show, stages a discussion, dissecting the little details that are considered uniquely japanese and inquire the expatriate guests to react to the exposed peculiarities.
In its website(4), NHK explains that Cool Japan is a show designed to clearly expose all the japanese aspects to the world, that are generating more and more interest to the international community, leaded by fashion, anime, architecture and cuisine.
Therefore, for the second half of Nihonjinron, we will dig beyond sociological characteristics, as we focus now on Japanís art, entertainment industry and folklore: on japanese culture.
Through its entertainment, Japan has put the school life on the forefront. Particularly through manga, and thereby, anime, where even its masterpieces cannot escape a healthy dose of scenes in schools. Mental images of the protagonists in school uniforms can be easily recalled; from Neon Genesis Evangelion, to the Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, to Boogiepop Phantom.
The fascination is such that it has transcended mere cosplay: designer school uniforms are sold, that are worn in schools that donít have such requirement, and as casual clothing for after school(1). Born in Japan, diffused by anime, but propelled by the internet, the trend is not exclusive to this nation; if you have ever wanted to dress yourself (or a special one) like a japanese high schooler, here(2) is your chance. The school days cause such nostalgia that there is even an Izakaya(3) concept where school lunches are served in rooms that are adorned like classrooms(4).
Although the reasons of why these years are so longed are not much different to those of the rest of the world, Japan, as a first world nation, has it peculiarities that add to a richer school life:
-Second Language: In third world nations, having a class for a second language already pushes (or is often outside) the schoolís budget. A current model in Japan uses the approach of having a teacher that is a native speaker (of the foreign language) and a japanese teacher, both working together, at the same time, for the same class.
-PE: Physical Education is taken seriously, it is competitive, organized and inclusive, with proper installations, that keep children close to sports and physical activities. A school without track and field premises or without volleyball/basketball court is considered lamentable.
-Cleanliness and Order: Students have to take care of their own school. They clean it, they attend their own ďcafeteria,Ē and they ďgradeĒ themselves(5).
-Clubs, Clubs, Clubs: Although, not as extraneous to developed countries, spending your after school time in school is the norm. Whether itís archery, judo, gardening, calligraphy... the japanese education system is enhanced by the culture of clubs. Students are encouraged to plan and organize the club themselves, to the point the participation of a teacher can be nil. Needless to say their importance in the social development of a kid, instilling concepts like the Senpai/Kohai relationship(6).
-Cram Schools: For those with the money, the school day elongates with cram school. These private schools tend to use more free form methods with a more relaxed atmosphere, although the ones specialized for entrance exams can be significantly stricter.
-Festivals: Sports and cultural festivals are a tradition. Halting studies to prepare for these festivals is intertwined with the club culture and the prominent role of P.E. in japanese education. Further extracurricular activities like marathons, parades and trips, assure that the life of a student contains as little idle time as possible.
Yet, japanese themselves could be quick to point out that not all is flowers and sunshine.
Bullying is, evidently, global, or more precisely, human. Attempts to fix it, or the pursue of its eradication, as it is the current vogue, remarks the distance between adults, specifically parents and teachers, and the kids and adolescents. A distance from both victims and perpetrators. The problem is that being bullied in not the disease, but a symptom, just like being a bully goes beyond the act of abusing a classmate.
In All About Lily Chou-Chou, Hasumi Youichi is a high school boy that leads a pathetic life, devoid of character and impulse; his quietness ask loudly to be dismissed, abused and used. Kuno Youko, beautiful, talented, serene and smart, sparks jealousy and repudiation amongst her classmates, by just being guilty of being herself. Hoshino Shusuke, as a new student in the school, finds himself on the verge of being outcasted, however he rejects that path and casts himself in by joining the bullies, deforming himself, ending as the meanest, most sadistic of them all.
Three teenagers with different backgrounds, managing peer pressure in different ways, facing bullying with contrasting mindsets.
Such a shame to live the secondary/high school days like that. Without retorting to the ďbest time of our livesĒ phrase, these years are the twilight, the horizon, where kids act like adults, where youngsters get their first tastes of the adult world. Still far away from worries like debts, unemployment, jail time, taxes, prostate checks and one week only vacations.
The school becomes like some sort of self contained mini world. Smaller in size, therefore bigger impact. Every crush, every friend, every enemy, every embarrassing moment feels like it could be your demise and end your life.
The film, a heartfelt, respectful, transparent, but most importantly, lucid depiction of these years, takes us back in time, and at the same time, opens a window to the events, that ring utterly real, of otherís people life during high school. Subtly, everything is present: from the incoherent fights between friends, to awkward declarations of love, to forced interactions with the teachers, to the girl that hooks up with twenty-something year old guys, and public transport commuting with your group of friends, as well. All so nostalgic and magical.
Things quickly escalate to a point where consequences are more than mere visits to the principalís office or three weeks without TV. On the verge of joining college, the rest of the life can be decided.
Enter Asahi High, a dropout factory (see Waiting for Superman,) where options are limited: repeat senior year indefinitely, join the yakuza, stab a classmate and go to jail, die by stabbing before graduating, or actually graduate without hope of ever joining any university.
After eighteen or so years of being forced to be constantly around other thirty or so persons every weekday, all that time in clubs and cram schools, suddenly, things loosen up. Everyone starts to go their own way, with their own job, own family, own home.
Part 3: Family Constellations(1) in Cinema ÔŅľ
The family is the most basic (and important) unit that composes society. It maintains or breaks the status quo, eradicates or creates traditions.
Japan, in that aspect, is under change.
The traditional concept of a family, in Japan, consists of Father (as patriarch,) Mother and children. Yet, the divorce rate is rising(2), and single parent families are becoming more common, but more crucial, marriage is decreasing, and the population is getting older(3) as births dwindle and single child families become the norm.
So, from all the facets of the Nihonjinron, this is the one that presents the clearest division between newer generations and the elder, since the traditional japanese way is not coming through the evolution in the family concept.
The current directors, still closer to the Nihonjinron, have vastly examined the subject of the family, to the point that it could be considered a whole genre in japanese cinema. When it comes to studying and reproducing the dynamics of the family, japanese filmmakers have perfected the process.
At the beginning of the 90s, Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld astonished the american audience with a groundbreaking sitcom. Classic episodes like the Chinese Restaurant and the Parking Garage, hyped the concept of a show about ‚Äúnothing,‚ÄĚ through its realtime, idle presentation.
Koreeda Hirokazu‚Äôs approach to family drama, floats closer to a Seinfeld episode than to usual storytelling dynamics. Still Walking is a film about a single day; a day for a family reunion to commemorate the death of the primogenital son.
As we see them arrive, eat, sleep, laugh, fight, bathe and leave, we observe the familiarity, and the bond. And precisely thanks to this, we see the distance, the tedium, the antagonism. Individuals that by kin or civil binds, are supposed to harmoniously interact and tie.
If Still Walking is a natural and transparent depiction of a family, Tokyo Sonata is a melodramatic one. Presented in a (bit) more conventional fashion, the movie is a story about a family of four.
Having talked in the previous article about haji, which is a preoccupation for appearances, in the sense of never losing face, by avoiding shame and embarrassment; in the patriarchal Japan, the leader of a family losing his job stands high in the ranking of shameful events in a father‚Äôs life.
Even in the current model of outsourcing, with Japan seeing the chinese and the south koreans as the culprits, the japanese corporate culture still dictates an expectation to work for a company, at least for a long time, ideally, for life.
An interface between marriage and work is formed, affecting each member of the family. Depending on the shape and state of the family and the reputation of the company the patriarch is working for, a grant for an apartment can be denied or conceded, the entrance to a private school can also depend on this, regardless of economic power.
In Tokyo Sonata, Sasaki Ryuuhei, is fired from the company he has been serving for a long time. Instead of sharing with his family the unfortunate news, he remains quiet, and pretends he is still employed. From here a decomposition of the whole family erupts.
Loosely, and irrevocably, bound by blood, each member of the family goes, individually, through their own cathartic arc. Yet, what makes of Tokyo Sonata an outstanding (even if not a remarkably good) film is the way the arc develops:
Taking Hollywood as the standard, since its the most watched cinema around the globe, the normal storytelling in movies is set by the Cinderella Arc(4), where a roller coaster leads the protagonists to a better state of life or a point of accomplishment.
In japanese cinema, or at the very least, most of the films that will be mentioned in the Nihonjinron series, follow either a truly ‚Äúarc-less‚ÄĚ story, as exemplified in Still Walking, attempting a pristine portrayal of real life, where incidents are minor and sparse and the evolution of the protagonists, if any, is subtle; or, interestingly, follow the Common Disaster Story Arc, where the characters, after a series of huge incidents, show little change, and most often, return to normality after the commotion ends.
When introducing this series, we talked about uniquely japanese experiences.
Sono Shion, in his 159 minute family drama, plays around concepts like suicide clubs and family rental services, presented in a style that evokes more a grindhouse film than the sorrowful play on the implosion of a family that got disconnected in every sense possible.
The movie borrows heavily from Coin Locker Babies, a novel written by literary reference Murakami Ryuu. It, cruelly and meticulously, examines the detachment between parents and children, between siblings, between husband and wife, father and daughter, mother and daughter, and how via this disconnection due to a lack of communication, each family member creates their own idea of the state of the family and the personality of the other members.
Family is not a sociological terÔŅľm, it is not a mere fragment of society, it is not something invented by religion or government. It is the ultimate and most reliable connection a person can hope for. When that connection is absent it rots the individual. But when it is there...
How to make a film about a happy family, then? Is it with shots of hugs and kisses? A dinner scene where everybody helps in its preparation? What is a happy family in the first place?
According to The Taste of Tea, it is when the circumstances allow each family member to focus on their individual problems, without worrying about home being a place of a sick atmosphere that inflames one‚Äôs own troubles, rather than being a source of comfort and advice.
In essence, there is no certain trait that evidently differentiates the japanese family from that of the rest of the world. Therefore an appeal is made to language, where customs are created early on, for children to adopt: with every itadakimasu(5), ittekimasu, itterashai, tadaima(6), that you'll be constantly hearing in nippon films and anime, it permeates "japaneseness," that by Nihonjinron reasoning, culture is maintained and proliferated through language.
Since this essay focuses on family, as a plus, this film is included. It is a movie about the family, apt for the whole family to watch. So, if you are watching the recommended films in these articles, this is one to keep discovering Japan, while bringing up an excellent excuse to spent some good corny time with your kids or little siblings.
Based on a true story, Koinu Dan ÔŅľtells the story of Mao, an elementary school student, that abruptly sees her world change.
With both of her parents working full time jobs, little Mao has become independent, self sufficient and strong since a very young age. Her father, having received a job offer in a distant city from their current home place, and her mother leading a very successful business, the family as a whole has become distant, to the point a divorce has been decided. When being offered the choice to live with either of them, Mao refuses to choose and instead decides to live at the grandparent‚Äôs house.
With an innate harsh personality, when she arrives to her grandparent‚Äôs town, in school, she makes enemies before friends.
Chika, Mao‚Äôs classmate, finds an abandoned puppy inside a box. Against her better judgement, she adopts the dog without telling her mother, or anyone at all, since pets are not allowed in her apartment community. Mao catches Chika stealing milk for the puppy, and offers to pay for the milk. When asking why she was trying to shoplift, Chika mentions Dan, as she named the dog, as the reason.
While feeding Dan the milk, they discover it is blind.
As shown in Koinu Dan no Monogatari, complementary to family, friends are important support and fundamental in the development of a kid. Since 99% of the children in Japan are enrolled in school(7), there is where a lot of the friendships surge; therefore, it is only appropriate for the next entry to tackle the life in japanese schools.
As a nation and as a society, the japanese consider themselves homogeneous, classless, prioritizing the group above the individual; and only as a collective, the real efforts for distinction and differentiation begin. The pre WWII discourse of the elite floated around the japanese customs, manners and tastes being the most sophisticated, the most polite, the most civilized; and so the philosophical banner for their asian domination ambition was set(1).
After failing, not only their original goals were missed, but the American occupation, preceded by two atomic bombs, left the nation with two huge tasks: the rethinking and rebuilding of its economic strategy and the reorganization of its political apparatus.
Without a sovereign emperor, source of pride and uniqueness, Japan lost its identity. It is during this era that the Nihonjinron evolved closer to sociology than to intellectual discourse, as the related writings became more about reaffirming and sustaining the japanese mentality, rather than just explaining it.
It has been proposed that the value of uniqueness has become intertwined with, if not solely about a pursue of separation and dismissal of American values(2), for the post war japanese society; a thing that has collided with globalization.
In Iwaki, Fukushima, in 1965, the small town, sustained by a coal mine, found itself in trouble as the company in charge planned to close the mine permanently. In its place, an ambitious project was defined: in a land know for chilly winters, a place for permanent summer was to be erected, and so a hawaiian concept was set.
The project not only involved indoor pools and a heating system, but also a hula dancing group to serve as entertainment. In theory the plan was simple: to recruit local women that were to be taught by an experienced dancer from Tokyo. However, reluctance was quick; hula dancing was seen as foreign and sleazy, and as an abnormal hobby, and not something that could be a job.
Only a few were not scared away, and through them, the reinvigoration of a whole town was triggered. Not only reimagining its identity, but moving it forward with diversity: of jobs, cultures and people(3).
Hula Girls, as a film, although indeed a traditional success story, transcends as an unashamed depiction of the retrograde mentality, depicting how the rural is dragged by the evolution in the moral and ethical status quo of the city.
Yet, within the city, the progressive mentality lead is mostly superficial; psychological, rather than practical, where respective boundaries exist, accommodated to the lineaments of the city life. Social responsibilities and confinements are set, where scholar grades act as the earliest burden, and the possible deviations from social correctness increase with age and their consequences become more damning.
The premise for One Million Yen Girl is as straight forward as complex: after the bureaucracy of the system curses a harmless girl with a criminal record, the stains of its consequences spread all around her: risking her little brother‚Äôs academical chances, inundating her home with an unbearable unease, becoming the center of a relentless bashing through gossip and bullying.
In a culture where the edges are defined by embarrassment and shame(4), reputation is a thing that is protected with pride and panic. And when the reputation is lost, a particular desire emerges: to escape, to get lost, to become anonymous and unknown. This is exactly what Suzuko, the protagonist, does; triggering a journey around Japan.
It is a paradox: the society of the group, in practice, can easily make the slightly outcast an utter outcast. As shown in its most radical examples:
Rather than rehabilitate and reinstate, it is easier to simply expel.
In Bashing, not only we find the most curious, most radical, incomprehensible display of the Nihonjinron; it is in fact, the film that gave birth to the idea behind this series.
Iraq, 2004, five japanese were abducted and held hostages by local militants.
This triggered an uncommon reaction in the japanese population: A serious, proactive questioning and critique of the government emerged, where a common sentiment of rejection of any involvement in the US invasion to Iraq revived, after the government got Japan involved despite the initial refusal of the people.
Then, with the government in an uncomfortable position, a plot was conceived to alleviate the outcry of the citizens. The strategy: to reverse the roles of victim and irresponsible, by appealing to the Nihonjinron.
‚ÄúWhen you get back, no matter what, just be sure to apologize‚ÄĚ was the advice given to the now rescued japanese. Days prior to their return, a campaign aided by the media, had already been launched. The berating consisted in signaling the former hostages as irresponsible citizens for disobeying official caution concerning the dangers of traveling to Iraq.
The government proudly announced they would bill the rescued japanese for the airplane tickets. At the airport, hate messages on handwritten signs, greeted them(5). Tabloids even dismissed them as attention seekers, speculating the hostage situation was a hoax. A nation wide bashing was unloaded on the former hostages, leading them to hide from society, and withstand, while simultaneously apologizing, the rejection and disapproval of the media, the government and the japanese people(6). They thought, ‚Äúselfishly,‚ÄĚ to do something greater than the rest, the normal people; but ultimately, embarrassingly, put the entire nation in the worldwide spotlight. They dared to stand out in the middle of reckless circumstances.
Deru kui wa utareru: The stake that sticks out gets hammered down(7).
Three films, ÔŅľthat stand as intimate, naked insights; each increasing the severity of the critique; denotative of a self awareness, where contemporary filmmakers and writers question the current social paradigm, like artistic dissertations.
As spectators, conclusions have to be drawn carefully. While Hula Girls could be easily (but wrongly) dismissed as a corny comedy, One Million Yen Girl and Bashing cannot be discarded as flamboyant dramas.
Stereotypes of the japanese appear to be systematically embraced, and with pride, by the japanese themselves; and their filmmakers seem to be on a mission to constantly depict the idiosyncrasy and reality lived in Japan with a transparency that bares flaws and wonders(8), indiscriminately.
The analysis of a society, though, lends itself to generalizations that turn harsh when sourced from a critique. Therefore, the next view, rather than on the society as a whole, will be on its most basic unit: the family.