Only In Japan

Friday, March 30, 2007

Japanese cinema

DISCLAIMER: I really love Japan. I have the utmost respect for Japanese culture.

However, I think Japanese cinema STINKS. Note that I'm not talking about Japanese animated movies, just regular films. Let me count the ways in which Japanese cinema is an insult to Japanese people's intelligence:

-No originality: except for some fringe movies, most Japanese films are one-patterned tear-jerkers. You know, the kind where noble characters are faced with overwhelming adversity, but keep displaying the same moving purity of heart whatever the circumstances. You know, the kind that would be in the "young adult" section of a bookshop...

The popular genres are some of the classics from Hollywood: romantic comedies, disaster movies, all kinds of cop stories, start-low-become-a-champion movies... Notably absent from the list are legal movies; but with a notoriously arbitrary judicial system and a 99% conviction rate, what interesting movies can you make?
Instead, Japan gives us the awkward families-in-the-storm genre, where Something Truly Terrible tests the unity of a happy family, pushing it to the edge of rupture until in some unlikely twist of fate, love triumphs and harmony is restored. Something like Ozu remixed by Disney, if you can picture that.

In Japanese cinema, the characters are also an exercise in predictable phoniness: a succession of trite archetypes, such as The Idealistic Little Kid With A Dream (typical line: "Don't worry Mummy, I'll win the Junior Whatever Championship to cheer up Daddy from his sickness"), The Loving Wife / Mother Who Always Gives Good Advice (typical line: "Just put all your heart into baking him a chocolate cake and he will love you forever in return"), The Gruff But Golden-Hearted Husband / Father (typical line: "I thought about you two every day. [5 minutes pause] Little Taro has grown into a real man, hasn't he?").

Note that the originality problem has only gotten worse since the Korean Drama wave hit Japan a few years ago. Producers then realized that schmaltzy sentimentality and Confucian values could sell heaps. A perfect opportunity not to take risks making original movies? Sign us in!, they quickly said.
Well, at least that stopped them for a while from "adapting" perfectly respectable Japanese books / manga and bastardazing them into bland borefests. Yeay.

--Terrible acting: not that the Japanese are naturally poor actors, but overacting is a tradition dating back hundreds of years to Kabuki (Japanese theatre/opera), where strongly expressed emotions are the norm. Also note that Akira Kurosawa, the legendary Japanese director, specifically instructed his actors to act in a restrained and natural way, because his main influence was American cinema. As a result, the acting in Kurosawa movies is very good, which proves (if need be) that the filmmakers are the problem, not the actors.

The problem is made worse by the incestuous nature of the entertainment world in Japan. Pop music, advertising, modelling, television and cinema are about as inbred as the Japanese Imperial Family, which should come as no surprise considering these industries are all controlled by the same small group of people. So if it gets decided that young model X needs more coverage to promote his/her budding singing career, he/she will be plopped into some random movie being made at the time, regardless of whether he/she can actually act or even just looks the part; and bingo! (Or not)

Example: the excellent novel "69" by Murakami Ryu was adapted to the big screen a few years ago. The main characters are two 17 year-old boys; so it made perfect sense to cast a 24 year-old and a 29 year-old in their roles... I personally think the 24 year-old should never had left the TV series he was playing in, but who cares about acting in Japanese cinema?

The thing is, it just doesn't really matter: the advertising campaign will be such that people will watch it anyway. The bottom line is that in the end TV recycles it all; they always need new faces to make up for the terrible lack of innovation in their programming. But that is another story.

--Absolute political correctness: the Japanese generally don't like to talk about the problems and issues of society (that would, you know, disrupt the group harmony), but Japanese cinema takes this attitude to the extreme. The focus on "normal and respectable" families helps to keep the illusion of a prefectly homogeneous society; the kind where for example racial problems, gender / homosexuality issues or mental disorders simply do not exist. Which has a lot in common with America in the 50's brainwashing itself into believing it was Heaven on Earth, and is just about as true.

The real problems of Japan - the lack of communication between genders, massive reality escapism, inability to accept the past, for example - are about as common in Japanese cinema as sodomy in Walt Disney animated movies; and even when these problems feature in a Japanese film (generally a rip-off of a popular manga), they are introduced in such a sanitized form that they lose all meaning. Densha Otoko ("Train Man" in English) is a prime example of this syndrome: the original story (in manga form) is very meaningful, but in the movie version the main issues get diluted in a schmaltzfest of everyone changing for the best and feeling happy about themselves. To save the people from thinking too much, I guess...

That said, there is some independant cinema in Japan, but it is very difficult for it to survive in a society where a small cartel of people have a near-monopoly on mass media. This state of affairs leads to independant filmmakers being known and respected abroad but completely ignored at home, a situation they have the bitter joy of sharing with independant musicians. And that's a real shame: considering how much creativity is expressed in the design, animation and manga fields for example, there is no reason to believe Japanese cinema (and music) couldn't be just as great. A sad waste of creativity indeed.

But at least, the Wa (group harmony) is preserved.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Entertainers 2

First of all, sorry there was no post last week. I had to go to France for 10 days; and while I would love to tell you about it, I'm not good enough at sarcasm to accurately describe what a lovely country it is. Let's just say one thing: if I have to choose between flying Air France and Aeroflot in the future, I'll go with Aeroflot. I doubt the service will be any worse, but at least the flight attendants will probably be younger.

But I digress. Last post was about hostesses and geisha, but this one is about the lowest form of life in Japan: hosts. Hosts are attractive young men with very few inhibitions, who make a living by entertaining women in overpriced bars or clubs. Well, not all hosts are attractive, but they all certainly try very hard to be. In fact, you can recognize a host at a glance anywhere in Japan: they are all very sun-tanned, with longish hair dyed in flamboyant colours and arranged in elaborate hairdos. They wear extravagant dark suits with equally outlandish white shirts. Sunglasses are common even at 2 AM. They also follow fashion fanatically: if, for example, a men's fashion magazine announces leather neckties to be the next big hit, it will be no time until the hosts are all strutting around in leather neckties. Of course, regular joes quickly stop wearing leather neckties for fear of looking like lowlife street scum hosts, so the leather tie fashion ends up short-lived after all. By then though, the hosts will have already moved on to the next big thing.

From an evolutionary point of view, it is actually quite fascinating to see these young humans follow the way of the peacock: considering that their species' females prefer a certain narrow set of attributes (colourful tails for peahens, dark suits, neckties and white shirts for women), but confronted by the need to stand out among their peers, the males are locked in an evolutionary race to appear ever more flamboyant even though their choice of accessories is pretty limited. Of course, common sense and convenience are the first things to get the boot. That is true for hosts as it is for other men, but strong intra-group competition makes the changes occur faster and more visibly in the host population, while making them appear ever more different from men outside their group, i.e. regular joes. But women don't like men who look too outlandish... It is a difficult balance to find for the hosts. Poor things!

The life of a host is divided in 2 parts: evening and late night. In the evening, they cluster up in busy areas like shopping arcades or major train stations, and approach young women walking alone or in small groups with cheesy pick-up lines. If they are lucky, the girls will follow them to a bar, where they will be entertained and (generally) tricked into blowing their monthly salary in overpriced bottles of Champagne. Of course, most Japanese know what to expect from hosts and would never even acknowledge the vile creatures; but just like the spammers who fill your inbox with junk everyday, the hosts play the statistics. Sooner or later, some girl who will be lonely / desperate / naive enough to listen to their promises of good time. And given the concentration of people in Japanese cities and the loneliness inherent to urban life, the hosts know they just need to be patient and persistent.

Naturally, in a country where manners and a strong work ethic are paramount, that kind of shameless lifestyle is considered supremely disgraceful, and there is much contempt for hosts. Yet many people do enjoy the sort of controlled relationships money can buy, and it is not uncommon to see groups of women, married or not, young or not, buying an evening of laughter, booze and karaoke with handsome young men. That's gender equality for you! They are doing exactly the same thing as the men who visit hostesses. I personally think it's pretty cool Japanese women have such freedoms...

Anyway, that makes for the bulk of a host's evening, but the late nights are spent with another kind of customer: hostesses. As it turns out, after an evening of drinking and pampering older men, many hostesses want to finish the night drinking and being pampered by younger men. Actually, it makes good sense. Hostesses have a high level of disposable income, stressful job conditions, and few opportunities to party, considering they work most evenings. Besides, though their status is miles higher than the hosts', it is often quite difficult for a hostess to date regular people; so for most, the choice is between dating their customers or their fellow hosts. And since the hosts face much the same problems, it is really a marriage made in Heaven: compatible working hours, absence of professional prejudice, and generally rather similar profiles mean there is much going for such couples. I am not sure they make for very conventional relationships, but maybe that's just as well!

You might be wondering if I have ever considered trying that line of work, and I would answer honestly if my mother wasn't reading this column. So all I can say is: me, getting paid to chat and party with beautiful women? Why would I ever want to live such a life?

Tuesday, March 06, 2007


The place where I live and work, Shinsaibashi, is really great. Smack in the centre of the city, it is one of the best places in Osaka for shopping, eating out, having a drink, clubbing, and... Some other forms of entertainment too. Namely, host and hostess clubs by the dozen.

Now most foreigners think of hostesses as prostitutes, but that is a mistake. Since ancient times, the sex industry and the entertainment industry have been quite clearly separated in Japan. While prostitution has always been flourishing, it generally does not appeal to the same people who want to meet hosts, hostesses and geisha. Broadly speaking, hosts and hostesses work in clubs where they entertain members of the opposite sex, listen to their stories, make them drink and relax, and try to make them want to come back. Creating a strong personal relationship with a customer is financially rewarding, as a big part of the hosts and hostesses' salary comes from the bonus they get if they are succesful and popular. Close relationships with customers also open the door to invitations to the restaurant, lavish presents, and in general after some time suggestions to take things one level higher. It is a tight rope to walk for the entertainer who wants to get presents and money while protecting his or her private life, but there lies the true skill.