Tag Archives: Japan

A study in disappointment: Tokyo Story (1953)

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Sake. Photo by cleber (Flickr)

It is our nature to disappoint ourselves, and each other; to fall short of expectations, over and over, until we accept our flaws and lower the bar. We cannot bank on others to be there when we need them; to act nobly and selflessly in times of trial. Likewise, we cannot hold ourselves up as paragons of humanity because in the end, we all have a limit at which we give up and go back to looking out for ourselves. Everyone has to go back to work eventually.

***

So, there were three guys sitting next to each other in the front row. Two of them knew each other, the third was a stranger. For the first half hour or so, the older guy of the two who knew each other kept murmuring comments to his friend, and eventually, the third guy shushed him loudly. The older guy stopped murmuring and stared at the third guy, the guy he didn’t know, in what I judged to be a mixture of disbelief and rage. I readied myself to jump the row of seats and wade into the fight, but he calmed down and went back to watching the movie, and he didn’t talk again.

***

The classic, knockout, heartbreaker exchange in Tokyo Story comes near the end, between the naive and good-natured youngest sister and the ceaselessly graceful and understanding sister-in-law, who is ultimately the core of the film.

“Isn’t life disappointing?” says the younger sister.
“Yes, it is,” says the sister-in-law with a smile.

I waited for the subtly momentous emotional release of these lines throughout the film. I looked forward to the encapsulation of the entire film in Setsuko Hara’s beatific smile. And when they arrived, about half the audience laughed, including the guy right next to me.

I suppose it is kind of amusing, in an absurd way. The total acceptance of the sister-in-law is so at odds with our base nature that it seems unbelievable. And there’s the culture clash between 1950s Japan and 2010s NZ, one concerned with long working hours and emotional reserve, the other with mental health days and instant gratification.

And I suppose it was fitting that my expectations for that scene were disappointed by the reaction of my fellow cinema patrons.

***

I first saw Tokyo Story when I was 19 and didn’t really get it, though I could acknowledge how formally magnificent it was; a perfect technical expression of an artist’s vision within the limits of the medium. I’m now 31 and have a lot more first-hand knowledge of the various disappointments we are destined to experience, and of my own inherently flawed nature. The film’s central premise is therefore closer to my grasp, and exquisitely expressed in the writing, and by the actors, who perform their roles with a rare mix of functionality and precision.

This is a great film in every way.

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THE TALE OF PRINCESS KAGUYA: My little princess

Kaguya-hime to sakura

(c) Hatake Jimusho – GNDHDDTK

THE TALE OF PRINCESS KAGUYA
Kaguya-hime no Monogatari
directed by Isao Takahata
Review: The Japan Times

A group of children, each aged somewhere between five and ten, call in unison to a toddler. They have just bestowed upon her the nickname ‘Takenoko’ (Li’l Bamboo) because of her freakishly rapid growth. “Takenoko! Takenoko!” they shout, and she starts wandering away from the front porch of the house where she lives and over to them, a grin on their face.

Her father notices her straying from home, so he calls after her with his own nickname: “Hime!” (Princess!)

She pauses halfway between the children and her father. The children shout louder. “Takenoko! Takenoko!”

“Himeee!”

“Takenokooo!”

It’s cute. There’s no danger; the kids, bred with the collectivist values of countryside life, pose no real threat to Kaguya. She is clearly not in any distress, just caught between two human forces eager for her attention.

The grin drops from her face as she looks from one group to the other in confusion. The calls grow and grow until they drown out the chatter of birds and rustle of nearby trees. The children point their heads to the sky and yell as loud as they can. Her father cranes his neck towards her and screams, his eyes closed and his cheeks red with effort. Finally, the smile returns and she starts toddling back to her father. The children give up and stop their bellowing.

You’d expect the father’s protective tension to dissipate, having won the vocal battle for his daughter’s affections. But it doesn’t. He yells even louder. He starts to cry. He can’t bear even to wait a few more seconds for his little princess to come to him, so he gets up from the porch and runs to her, taking her in his arms as tears stream down his face. It takes several seconds before the embrace starts to calm him down. His love consumes and overwhelms him to the point of delusion and toxicity, leading him — and her — into a mirage of happiness. It blinds him from the truth of his life.

This is just one scene from THE TALE OF PRINCESS KAGUYA, which is sad, contemplative, surprising, and indescribably beautiful. It’s also a bit longer than its thin story deserves, but that feels unfair in the face of such visual brilliance, which was a joy to behold from first minute to last. The animation resembles watercolours and charcoal drawings, and if ever there was a film from which you could print any frame and stick it on your wall, this is it.

I expected all that — just watch the trailer, for goodness’ sake — but I didn’t expect the story, and scenes like the one described above, to stay with me for so long afterwards. It touches on ecology, family relationships, parenting, and the folly of blindly following tradition. It reminds you to be true to yourself. A simple message, but one worth repeating — especially with such inspiration and beauty.

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PATEMA INVERTED: Bloody kids

Patema InvertedPATEMA INVERTED
directed by Yasuhiro Yoshiura
The Guardian: 3/5

What an idea! Two groups of people, one with their gravity inverted so they walk on the ceiling and have to construct their lives around not falling into the sky. The two groups live in adjacent cities with little awareness of one another, primarily because their respective leaders do everything they can to keep them separate. PATEMA INVERTED brings them into contact through Patema, a teen girl heroine from the underground city with a penchant for unauthorised exploration, and Eiji, a fish-out-of-water in the 1984-esque Earthbound society.

So much potential. So many possible paths to tread, and so many facets of a compelling idea to explore. But while he sustained my interest through the premise, Yoshiura lost me with his characters. Often, just as the world began to draw me in and get my mind turning over, he’d hone back in on Eiji and Patema, stereotypical anime teenagers, alternately sullen and earnest. Their connection begins unconvincingly with youthful stargazing and, once cemented, blinds them to almost anything else. At one point, they reach an incomprehensibly vast city that appears to be deserted, but their focus remains squarely on each other. I wouldn’t mind, but if you’re going to make your film about the characters, then they need to be more captivating than this pair.

The ending is one of PATEMA INVERTED’s more satisfying elements, as it fits the scenario into a wider context and inverts our previous understanding of the characters. But I still left feeling cheated. Why couldn’t they have applied that level of inspiration to the rest of it?

The film I really wanted to see from this scenario would’ve had Eiji and Patema have sex as soon as possible, then focus on their offspring. Would they be able to fly? Would they use their understanding of both societies to bring about peace? Would they be unloved outcasts wherever they went? That would have been really interesting.

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An email from my Japanese former student

I had a lot of crazy classes during my time working as an English conversation teacher in Japan, but without doubt the most rewarding and enjoyable was the one with steelworkers at a Toho Corporation office. Every Wednesday eight burly Japanese men would join me, resplendent in hard hats and overalls, in a nondescript company classroom for an hour of (possibly dreaded) English tuition.

One of these men, Kazu, has kept in touch with me by email in the time since, which is – gosh, more than three years now. In class he was the boisterous one, quick with jokes (in English as well as Japanese) and boasting an impressive vocabulary. On the page, he is decidedly less effusive. He continually expresses a lack of confidence in his English, no matter how much I tell him how good he is, and his short messages often include an apology for his poor grammar.

We have been in touch a little more frequently since the Tohoku earthquake of February. He lives in Kanagawa prefecture, south of Tokyo, so is not directly affected by the earthquake or nuclear fallout – at least, not yet. Yesterday, I received an email from Kazu that moved me deeply for various reasons. I asked him if I could reproduce it here, and – admittedly after some gentle coaxing – he agreed.

This may be meaningless to the rest of the world, but it is so meaningful to me. I am putting it here to give a sense of a regular Japanese guy’s outlook in the wake of the earthquake, and to just see if it resonates with anyone else.

Thanks, Kazu.

*

Dear Banz

Thank you for the mail and thinking of me.

About 7 months have passed since the earthquake and tsunami hit the northeastern coastal area in Japan.
There have been several facts reported about it. I was surprised to find out that the tsunami was estimated to have reached 38 meters in height.
This was the second biggest tsunami in history. The biggest one hit the same area in 1896.

Prime Minister of Japan announced his determination to reconstruct the devastated area into one of the most desirable places to live in the world.
I am very much interested in his plan, so I will follow it closely.

We still have many aftershocks every day. However, the life is getting back to normal in many ways,
although we worry about the effects of radioactive leaks in Fukushima Nuke Plants.

I wish everyone a safe and peaceful life.
Kazu

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NOW THAT YOU’RE GONE IT HIT US

I’m having to get this out slowly over a long period of time, as computers in India’s cyber cafes aren’t quite as cooperative as one might hope. Here’s what happened around the 24th of August.

On Friday (the 23rd) I said goodbye to my landlords Tetsuko and Kotaro, the sweetest folks one could hope for. The other housemate cooked an incredible Mexican dinner and T & K gave me a Japanese-style bandana, which was a wonderful gesture. A wise person said that once you’ve gotten past the surface of Japanese people and spent enough time with them, they will do anything for you, like they’re investing something emotional in you that they so rarely do.

I was to see this on an even greater level the next day. Mika, fellow teacher mentioned a couple of posts earlier, had said she would come to the airport to see me off, so I thought we’d have lunch or something and then say our sad goodbyes… instead, the whole family turned up – Mika & her husband, Koji, her mother, sister and sister’s 4 kids (2 of which I taught). At this point I understood what people mean when they say ‘my Japanese family’, because really, I felt completely accepted as if I had the same blood.

As if that wasn’t enough, the kids handed me a stack of 6 envelopes and inside each was a letter from a student in the class with a special message for me. “Do your best in India and please come back to teach us again.” “Enjoy eating curry!” “Please write to me and tell me about India.” There were drawings, too, and some more photographs from the party, plus an incredible moving card from Mika. After I went off through security and out of sight, I thought about what had just happened and the cards that were now wedged in my bursting laptop bag, and shed a few tears in the immigration queue. I couldn’t have dreamed of a better send-off, a better final memory of a country I’d come to believe I no longer wanted to function in. I’ve still got my shit to say about Japan and I think it’s valid, but every moment of the experience was worth it just for those last minutes in the country.

One last remarkable thing was to happen. I had intended to call someone just before getting on the plane, and was literally striding towards a payphone and reaching for my wallet when my phone rang for the last time. It was her; she’d had no idea when my plane was leaving, nor obviously did she know that I was, at that moment, about to pick up the phone myself. An extraordinary coincidence. More than a coincidence. I stepped onto the plane confident that Japan had been good for me, I’d been good for Japan and that the universe was aligning especially for me.

I’m now in Bangalore, it’s been kind of an odyssey to get here, worth it for every moment. That’ll be the next post…

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I AIN’T GOT TIME FOR THE GAME

I’ve been in Japan for 14 and a half months now, and the longer I stay here, the less settled I feel. The concept of being ‘uchi’ (inside) or ‘soto’ (outside) is felt every single day in some way or another, whether it’s through furtive glances on the train, having the menu flipped for you in McDonald’s or the extra polite, nervous service gaijin often receive in department stores.

I suspect that it is still impossible for a foreigner to become uchi, what with the population being about 98.5% homogenous and still apathetically embracing traditional methods of conducting business and polite conversation. You can come pretty close if you try hard enough, though, and take on as many characteristics of your hosts as possible. Thing is, you have to want to, and I really don’t want to. In this situation, living somewhere but not wanting to become part of the current culture, you have two options: 1) leave the country, or 2) retain as much respect as you can for the country you live in, its people and customs; keep everyday frustrations to a minimum and accept things that frustrate you as part of the culture and something to be at ease with; and above keep your own sense of identity strong in a way that you’re comfortable with yourself without being aggressive about it, and comfortable with the way you’re received by the culture even if it isn’t how you’d have it ideally.

So, I’m leaving. Weren’t expecting that, were you? I’ve tried option 2 for a good while now, and if I’m honest, I could quite easily go on here for months, even years longer, but I’ve reached a point where I realize that the longer I stay, the more I have to suppress my natural self, and I can’t see how that’s healthy. It either means I’ll become something I’m not, or more likely, wrestle with myself on a daily basis knowing what I have to do in a given situation is quite different from what I want to do. As well as that, it’s a lot easier to survive in Japan if you think less – just do your job as you’re expected to and hang out with a regular group of friends, and your worries inevitable diminish – and until recently, I could feel my brain slowly shutting off, my mind consciously less stimulated, just coasting through my days giving very few things a second thought.

It’s my time. I’ve loved living here for so many reasons – the wonderful friends I’ve made, the beautiful kids I’ve taught, the incredible things I’ve seen… I’ve also learned more about myself and the world around me in this past year than the previous four combined, partly because of living in this foreign country, and partly through having my first serious relationship with a woman. I just have to go, though, and I have to go now. I have to go to a place which is different from this one, where I can focus on becoming more open and direct and not worry so much about keeping this safe and comfortable, which is such a big part of existence here.

India is my next destination. I’m not sure what’s going to happen there, but I know it will challenge me in so many ways and will be very, very difficult to cope with at times. But that’s good for me. It’s all about me, in case you didn’t notice. For once, I’m not that bothered about concentrating completely on my own development, and I’m very pleased about that.

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ALL YOUR MEMORIES ARE AS PRECIOUS AS GOLD

In February of this year, I was visiting my friends Mika & Koji in Chiba, which is about an hour and a half away east of Tokyo. The traditional Japanese way is for the family unit to remain very tight throughout the lifespan; it’s common for newly married couples to live with one set of parents for a good while, and for their respective families to spend a lot of time together as a unit. So, when I visit them, I also visit their parents, siblings, nieces, nephews and in-laws. It’s always a delight. They’re all such open, honest, loving people.

I was thinking to myself, why don’t I come here more often? Mika telepathically understood this, and suggested we start an informal English class for her two school-age nieces and their friends. Great idea, I said. The class would be held every Friday, but I would only teach every second week because it would be a bit expensive paying my costs all the time. And so it was, from March up until last Friday when we held our final class & party.

Now, the job I worked in until June was fine, but it was for a big corporation and that makes it harder to connect with students. I met a lot of really wonderful people there, and did forge some pretty good connections, but apart from rare cases I was always the ‘Teacher’ and they were always the ‘student’. These pre-defined roles were hard to get around for both them and I, so we didn’t put as much effort into actually genuinely caring as we could’ve. (Be warned, mashed , mushy bananas ahead.)

This Friday class (or classes, as we had two groups of six children), however, has been the highlight of my fortnight for just this reason. The kids were all brilliant (and impossibly cute), I was ‘Barnaby-sensei’ but as much their mate as their teacher, and Mika was a wonderful person to teach with and just generally be around. When it came to that farewell deal last week, I was really sad that it was ending. These kids, these people, really meant something to me and I would miss them. Still, it was rowdy fun like it always is – plenty of laughter and a good amount of craziness.

Most of their parents had turned up to see how I’d indoctrinated their precious little ones. Each one of the children stood up and did their little self-presentation, something they’d studied for pretty hard by the sounds, and they all nailed it as though it was second nature. Mika said they’d struggled the week before. Not this time. I couldn’t stop grinning, they did so well. Then we set up a table with food and drinks – typically unhealthy kids’ party fare, That’ll do would probably keel over at the sight of it – and Mika’s sister came over to us and gave us both a bag, saying ‘arigatou’.

We’d been doing it for our own pleasure (and, let’s be honest, a bit of money in my case), but gifts? Well, thank you, OK. Inside were the items I will treasure for my entire life: a t-shirt with all the kids’ hands stretched out into a circle, and a huge card with a photo of each class and a handwritten message from each child (in Japanese). “Thank you for teaching me English.” “It was a lot of fun.” “Please come to Japan and teach us again.” “You’re always cheerful.” I sat there for about five minutes looking at the pictures and their messages, and had a quiet moment of reflection: if this is where your life has led you, this point here, this feeling, then you are doing something right and everything has been worth it. This soon-to-end time in Japan (more on that soon) has been challenging in many ways, and I’ve done my fair share of bitching about the place to friends and family and basically anyone who’ll listen, but even if there was nothing else to be pleased about – which there is in spades – I’d have this, and it would all be worthwhile.

Then I realized I was being rude not talking to anyone, and played some games with the kids who had long since finished stuffing their faces with crisps and were tearing about like… well, like kids. One girl from the younger class came running up to me, hugged my legs tightly, looked up at me with a huge smile on her face and said, “Daisuki!” (“I love you.”) Usually I’d laugh such declarations of affection from children as either attention-seeking or just being playful, but at the age she was, I could see she was pure in the moment and genuinely meant it. There’s a wonderful lack of pretence about Japanese children up to the age of about 8 or 9, before they’re aware of themselves and how badly they need to be exactly the same as everybody else their age, immediately. They just do and say what they feel. Needless to say, I was touched.

When it was all over, I went and had sushi with the family, and played loads with M & K’s nephew who was too young to join the class. At the end of the day I made the long(ish) trip home, tired and very happy. Mika sent me a text saying she thought we’d had a good experience. I sent her back a slightly overdone essay about it being my best memory of Japan and a group of people I’ll never forget. Not unlike this, I suppose.

Thank you, everybody.

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