[Flixist community member dj-anon is starting a new series taking a look at movies about Japanese society and culture, called Nihonjinron. Check it out and let him know what you think!]
Part 1: Non-japanese Films about Japan
This will be a series of articles that will explore Japan. Or, as it is more suitable for this website, an exploration of Japan, its society and its culture, through its cinema.
Currently, just behind India, Nigeria (seriously) and the U.S.A., Japan is the country that produces the most films(1), in average, per year. Not only it doubles in quantity traditional filmmaking nations like France and Italy, but its range, diversity and versatility, creates experiences that can be cataloged as unmistakably Japanese, and as such, it creates an important anthropological window to the Japanese mindset.
However, these series won’t focus on its ancient culture; not even the pre-WWII or its immediate posterior years. Nihonjinron will centralize its attention on the contemporary Japan.
The series takes its name from a philosophical concept, applied to, and extracted from social behavior, called Nihonjinron, which is the study of the Japanese society and its uniqueness; a thing the proliferation of anime and the immediateness of the internet has let the world witness. That is why before dwelling into their cinema, we will look first at films about Japan, by non-japanese filmmakers, like an introduction in third person view.
Nihonjinron theory marks an intentional, even if subconscious, search for uniqueness. Naturally, the most radical and peculiar examples arrive to our news stations and social media(2). Cherry Blossoms, the best possible way to start this series, possesses the proper ingredients: a person with a fascination with Japan and a travel to Tokyo and mount Fuji.
After Rudi arrives to Tokyo, knowing no Japanese, he wanders around the imposing metropolis, and Doris Dorrie, writer and director of the film, wastes no time to assault our senses with exotic, depraved and sublime imagery.
When it comes to contemporary Japanese culture, western TV and films thrive on a morbid display of Tokyo, creating tabloid-worthy documentaries and reports of the city and its people. Almost all of these works fall for the –Tokyo consists of Akihabara and Roppongi– trope.
Akihabara(3) is the otaku capital of the world. All the supplies and hang outs, for those of this subculture, can be found in this district: maid cafes(4), idol shows, anime conventions, electronics stores, cosplay parties, arcades… It is a section of the city that has markedly seen the evolution of its culture, and technological development, even registering a tragedy in 2008 with the Akihabara Massacre(5).
Roppongi acts as the hub for expatriates; hoarding hotels, discos, bars, and “gentlemen” oriented businesses: whether you are looking for mere company, to watching naked bodies, to happy endings, Roppongi provides it.
There is a tint of irony, when the zone that is often flailed around as the showcase for Japanese extravagance is a place highly targeted to foreigners… although the real deal happens in Kabukichou(6).
Back to the film, Rudi experiences all of this first hand: he ogles a tentacle porn manga, stares confusedly at the street signs, advertising all sorts of establishments, the sounds of pachinko and arcade galleries and discos overwhelm him and ends up getting a soap bath by two Japanese women with atrociously crooked teeth. Then, the film proceeds by the book to showcase cherry blossom gardens, parks, traditional Japanese inns and pretty shots of mount Fuji.
The movie, ultimately, is an uneven product, with honest intentions. Its story about the disconnection between adults and their elderly parents, the importance of a companion in life, and the always present possibility of new experiences and meaningful connections, award the viewer with a sweet, emotional, life encompassing experience. Despite its Hollywood-esque portrayal of a distant culture, Cherry Blossoms is capable of creating a lasting impression through image and story.
Angela is bored with life, with her surroundings, with the day-to-day; so when she receives an invitation to Japan, she accepts automatically. She ends up as a hostess at a club in Roppongi, serving as a gorgeous companion for Japanese businessmen.
Unlike Cherry Blossoms, which was more of a slideshow of Japan, Stratosphere Girl allows the viewers to immerse themselves in the concrete jungle of Tokyo; and even if it limits itself to a sole certain zone of the city, the intricacies of the rhythm, flow and pace of Tokyo are shown with a lot more detail. From the maze like corridors the trains use within the city, to the small apartments, to the ever busy streets and relentless roads.
It successfully shows Tokyo as a city of humans, rather than one filled with Japanese. And it becomes a Japanese city by carefully showing the nuances that make Tokyo different from those of other cultures.
It also treads subtly around the psychology of Japanese men and the nature of their sexual entertainment, seamlessly introducing the concept of Japanese corporate culture(7). Plus, it hands us a backstage pass to the distinct Roppongi hostess underworld. Through the eyes of Angela, we experience the sudden change from a little anonymous town, to an incognito life in the largest city of the planet, feeling as lost, insignificant, and as marveled as the protagonist herself.
Two movies that will correctly set the mood, like a teaser of what is to come, as we dwell deeper. Rather than a top 10, or a best of, or just sparse reviews, Nihonjinron is a focused inspection of the aspects of the Nippon world, as we observe the Japanese through their food, their family construct, their approach to celebrities and their vision on fear and the avant-garde, each subject accompanied by fitting films that share a naked reality via the sensibilities and thoughts of their filmmakers.