by Mizuko Ito
The students in my Japanese Popular Culture class are trying to keep me up to date. My latest find, courtesy of Brendan Callum, is サムライチャンプルー. I know it is not exactly news to fans of Cowboy Bebop, but I am just now clueing in to what all the fuss is about.
What follows is an excerpt from Brendan's class essay that discusses the series.
A prime of example of popular culture that represents the compatibility of modern and traditional culture as well as the contrast created by domestication is an animated television series by the name of Samurai Champloo. The name itself is the first example of the cultural mixing present in the series. ‘Champloo’ is a fried dish with various different ingredients mixed in. Thus we can take the name to mean that ‘Samurai’ is the starting point or base for a mix of elements from past and present cultures. The story is nothing incredibly novel; two very different men are brought together by a promise to a girl, but the setting and over all style of the series are both fascinating. The series is very loosely set during the Edo period, Japan, probably around the late 1600’s to the early 1700’s. However, no strict time period is adhered to, and to quote from the front page of the official website, “This work of fiction is not an accurate historical portrayal…Now shut up and enjoy the show”. One of the most interesting aspects of the show, the use of anachronisms, draws from this acknowledged creative license taken with the time period. The viewer is bombarded with ‘modern’ and Western images (break-dancers, graffiti artists, bleached hair-styles) in an easily recognizable ‘pre-modern’ setting. However there is never any sense of incongruity, in fact the various elements work together like the ingredients in the dish from which the show takes its name. In the series Graffiti artists are portrayed as having a code of honor like samurai, dueling with their paintbrushes instead of swords, and there are charms dangling from one character’s sword that look like the charms you would see on a cell-phone or backpack today. The show seems to suggest that there does not have to be a binary relationship between traditional and modern and that elements from the two can co-exist.
Taking the analysis a step further, one could even say that what is represented by Samurai Champloo is an environment where both Western and Japanese culture have become exotic by contrast; a nebulous zone in which neither is the dominant paradigm. Thus the relevance of this representation lies in its opposition to the ‘modern’ versus ‘traditional’ image of Japan used by Orientalists and ‘save the dying Japanese culture’ supporters alike. It suggests that were the two opposites to coexist, ideologically, at least, the balance could be swung either way and either one could be made to seem exotic. With complex representations like this one as counterexamples, it becomes clear that the representation of Japan as a nation whose ‘traditional’ culture is being destroyed by ‘modernity’, has absolutely nothing to do with real cultural loss. While this is not entirely surprising in and of itself, some of the factors that have contributed to the popularity of this representation, namely Orientalism on the side of the West and latent nationalism from the Japanese, are quite interesting indeed. Delving into these various representations quickly gives one an idea of how this ‘modern’ versus ‘traditional’ representation could be useful to all parties concerned. The West has played no small part in perpetuating this representation. As Joseph Tobin writes, just as Westerners have often “played a key role” in deciding “what is authentically and importantly Japanese about Japan." In retrospect, this is part of a long-standing trend and should not really come as a surprise either, but the extent to which this trend is involved, even today, can catch one off guard. However it is possible that the younger generation of Japanese will be able to achieve some distance from this trend with their “newfound pride” in Japan’s increasingly international popular-culture. This popular-culture, with its complex representations of Japan and its ongoing process of domestication, may well prove to be a strong voice for change.
Posted by Mizuko Ito at 2005年03月31日 02:21