by Mizuko Ito
Here is another installment from my student essays from my Japanese popular culture class last year. This one is from Brendan Callum.
From time to time there are motifs and symbols that come to represent or signify a certain genre. In contemporary Japanese independent film, a series of common motifs and symbols are beginning to define a new kind of surrealist film genre. The films of this genre are not epic tales of heroism and might, nor are they incomprehensible jumbles of random images. The ‘trials and tribulations of everyday life’ is the starting point upon which they embellish, with the use of a kind of magical realism and anime or manga-style movement and framing. There are often moments of complete stillness where the viewer can pore over the detailed scenes before ‘turning the page’ to see what happens (as in one of the many scenes where the family drinks tea together as well as actual animated sequences. The movies in this genre frequently allude to and parody other movie genres and subcultures. They also seem to delight in subverting stereotypical images with their downright odd families, empowered and often physically violent women, and their exploration of homosocial and homophobic tensions. Simply put though, they attempt to give the viewer a sense of the magic in everyday life through a thoroughly enjoyable, dream-like film experience.
The movie Survive Style 5+ is probably the most wild and hectic of all three movies I’ll describe. Although the five interwoven storylines that give the movie its name are enough on their own to ensure that the movie is interesting and fast paced, all the scenes and characters are colorful and eccentric as well: a man who is repeatedly killing his reincarnating wife, a hit man with a translator who philosophically grills his targets before deciding to kill them, and a normal family whose father thinks he is a bird, to name a few. SS5+ also employs the greatest deal of magical realism (the murdered wife keeps coming back in different disturbing forms), the most graphic violence (a man spurting blood, manga-style, from a puncture wound to the neck), and some of the most vivid imagery all around (all costumes and backgrounds are brightly colored). In many ways it represents the extremes of this new genre. The movie takes what would normally be a rather uninteresting group of normal people and with the help of a good portion of surrealism, turns their lives into a fantastic tale that even seems to have a message.
As mentioned earlier, much of the movie revolves around the first storyline about a man (Tadanobu Asano) trying desperately to kill his wife who keeps coming back to life. After killing her and burying her body numerous times (he even hires the eccentric hit man from the fifth storyline at one point), she comes back for the final time on Christmas Eve. The man finally realizes how ridiculous his struggle has been and the two seem set for a ‘happily ever after’ ending. Instead, another person kills her unexpectedly. Leaving the issue of gender aside, one might say that this story is a parable about how the things one desires most in life turn out to be ultimately empty and meaningless once one achieves them. This ‘moral value hidden under a mix of eclectic and dream-like images’ is definitely an element of this genre.
Another interesting theme that plays a major role in the imagery of SS5+ is the domestication of the West. The movie references a wide range of Western images, from the easygoing hippy culture of the 1970’s (the VW van) of storyline four and the eclectic house of the first storyline) to the ideal family of the 1950’s (the rows of Western houses, the doting housewife, the working father, and the perfect children of storyline three). As almost no reference is made to these Western themes, it seems that these images are not used for their innate Western nature, but rather to add to the surreal quality of the movie. There is no sense of incongruity between the Japanese characters and their often distinctly Western settings. In fact, one of the hip young men of storyline four sports a Brett Favre jersey. Also, the name ‘Survive Style 5+,’ is in and of itself an interesting example of Western domestication. It is an English-inspired vocabulary item, like those frequently used in the Japanese advertising industry. The director, Sekiguchi Gen, has been a commercial creator and director before his film debut with SS5+ so this reference in the title is not without its reasoning and logic. From the rest of the subversive content of the film, one might come to the conclusion that this name is also an act of subversion; alluding to the hyper-active and often non-sensical world of advertising.
SS5+ does a rather good job of subverting traditional gender roles with its murdered wife character. When she comes back from the dead the first time, she surprises her husband who has just returned from burying her dead body. He is stunned at first but she pays no attention and instead begins to prepare a giant feast for him. She sits still across the table watching him until every last crumb is consumed and every drop drunk. At this point the viewer might be thinking the wife is disgustingly subservient, coming back from the dead to make a feast for the man who murdered her. However, after the husband lights his cigarette and sits back, she gets up on the table and proceeds to kick him clear across the room in the slow motion scene mentioned earlier. It is then clear that she not only has superhuman strength, but a death wish for the man who killed her. In short, she seems to represent physically empowered women who won’t tolerate masculine dominance. More evidence for the empowered women representation lies in the character of the commercial writer, who adamantly defends her created commercial in front of an all male executive board and later hires the foreign hit man to kill her fiancée.
Turning to The Taste of Tea, one finds that the most obviously subverted image is that of the Japanese family. On the surface the father works and the mother is a housewife, but a closer look reveals that the mother is animator whose work is respected in the all male world of animation. The grandfather, instead of being stoic and traditional, is slightly crazy and likes to pretend fight with the children. There is no plot to speak of in TTT, rather we have something normally quite boring and mundane transformed into something quite odd and wonderful. The director, Katsuhito Ishii, and the production company, ‘Grasshoppa’, behind TTT have produced and directed many short films, some of them animated, so it is no surprise that this feature length film consists of various episodes strung loosely together. Yet at the end of the movie, it feels like one cohesive story with a message as well, something subtle like the taste of tea from which the movie gets its name.
Some scens in TTT involve cosplay and otaku. The movie jokes about anime otaku and their obsession, but ultimately portrays them in a very positive light. First we are shown a scene on the train where two men pose in their elaborate costumes for the benefit of a photographer. When they get off the train they are assaulted by a drunken yakuza who bumps into one cosplayers robot costume and hurts himself. The other cosplayer tries to stop the drunken man but ends up getting hurt instead. Later on those very same otaku end up saving the drunken man’s life. This could easily be seen as a moral message about how you can’t discriminate against a group of people just because they seem strange or different. Anno Hideaki, the director of the animated series, Evangelion, makes a cameo as an animator, solidifying the movie’s positive connection with otaku. The movie presents an image of otaku that strives to fight the fear and loathing sometimes present in the mainstream view.
Shimotsuma Monogatari deals with otaku culture, as well as consumerism, in the form of a young girl from Tokyo obsessed with frilly Western dresses and the lolita look. When she is forced to move out to the country, she travels all the way into Tokyo to buy her dresses whenever she can. However she is not just a mindless consumer, by the end of the movie she is actively involved in producing the very dresses she loves to buy and wear, subverting the image of females as purely consumers. SM has the most structure out of the three movies, climaxing with a big female biker gang fight. In a strange turn of events, the main character befriends a member of an all female biker gang who later gets caught up in the gang politics. The biker friend teaches the rather self centered and feminine main character how to be stronger, and at the end of the movie the main character rushes in to save her biker friend from being ‘disciplined’ by the other gang members. Once again empowered women play a major role in the plot.
Despite the almost mainstream plot of SM, the presence of the actress Tsuchiya Anna (from TTT), as well as the multiple parodies and references to other subcultures, place the film firmly in this new genre. Once again there are animated sequences (portraying the deeds of a legendary female bike gang leader), parodies (of yakuza and pachinko parlors to name a few), and the presence of the lolita otaku subculture (main character). The traditional family stereotypes are subverted as well, with the main character’s family consisting of a thug for a father, a crazy grandmother with a patch over one eye, an adulterous mother, and her own otaku self. SM is interesting on another level as well. It basically depicts a modern city girl with her love of Western dress and philosophy living in the traditional Japanese farmland. Her love for Western dresses is not destroying the traditional countryside; rather the modern and traditional exist alongside one another even if the relationship depicted is not always a harmonious one. In one scene the main character steps in cow dung on her way to the station.
As for the origins of this new genre and its relevance to Japanese society, there are many possibilities. One of the most interesting possibilities is an increased appreciation for the style of animation and manga in Japan as well as abroad. Because they reference so many styles, techniques, and subcultures from the anime and manga world, it is easy to see how these movies could be popular with those fans. These movies, while not incredibly successful in Japan or America, have received very high ratings (all around 8.0 out of 10.0) from a small base of users on the online film database website www.imdb.com. This hints towards another possibility, that there is a small but supportive fan base (i.e., the same fans that watch the animated films and shorts with the same actors and directors).
While the directors and producers for the three films are all different, there are a few shared actors: Tadanobu Asano is in both SS5+ and TTT, Tsuchiya Anna is in both SM and TTT, while Arakawa Yoshiyoshi is in SM and SS5+. These actors, especially Tadanobu, have come to represent the genre in the same way the other motifs do. Since these movies are very recent, the full reaction of the Western film community cannot quite be gauged. Nonetheless, movies like these three are testament to the international appeal of Japanese popular culture. For a well known British actor like Vinnie Jones to join the cast of an independent Japanese movie is an interesting development for the film industry and speaks once again to the increased international recognition of Japan’s popular culture. From the comments they receive on www.imdb.com to their billings for international film festivals across the West, one can see there is interest in the movies’ ability to reveal the magical qualities of everyday life. Hopefully, through the growing popularity of this genre, all international audiences will soon have the pleasure of experiencing these breathtakingly surreal worlds.
Posted by Mizuko Ito at 2006年07月11日 03:21