We Americans love Japan. Japan is the perfect foil for our own culture, as both cultures simultaneously amplify and distort one another. We can read into Japan the essentializing nature of not only a Techno-Orientalist future (Japan as robot), but also our Orientalist past (Japan as samurai). We love the unique Japanese use of English on their products and packaging. We love how Japanese cities are lit up like Times Square on amphetamines, causing us to make the ever-so-trite comparisons to Blade Runner to which we constantly cling as a point of reference.
But most of all, we love how we look when we’re in Japan. When we’re in Japan, we feel we’ve somehow become more worldly and debonair than we really are. It’s all about context you may be a nobody in your own country, but against the backdrop of Japan, you gain a je ne sais quoi that exudes a cosmopolitan cool. And of course our filmmaking industry has picked up on this trend.
In previous columns, I have examined how subcultures in the US have domesticated the popular culture of Japan to create a unique and robust hybrid culture. Most of my focus has been on material culture directly imported from Japan, such as anime and manga, and I have illustrated that our interest in such products has been increasing in recent years. One need only to go to a large book or media store to see the racks of DVDs and graphic novels clamoring for shelf space. In his article “Japan’s Gross National Cool” in the journal Foreign Policy (May/June 2002), Douglas McGray writes of Japan’s increasing cultural power on the global scene. Japan has always had a cachet of cool, but it was a type of subcultural cool that appealed only to certain tastes. This notion of cool has long been in vogue with readers of Beat Generation or cyberpunk literature. Now, however, Japan’s cultural cool is appealing to a wider base of media fans that are, of course, consumers who express their cultural desires monetarily.
It only makes sense that American films would want to appropriate this cool. Three major films dealing with Japan have been (or will be) released in 2003. Already playing are Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation and Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, with The Last Samurai, starring Tom Cruise, to be released in December. The marketing of these films is a shrewd move by the American film industry. Such films tie American cultural products into the rise of Japan as a player on the world cultural market, while simultaneously serving to control the potential threat of Japanese popular entertainment to the American media hegemony. In a single year, the release of three major American films that take place in Japan is an unprecedented cinematic move, attesting to the perceived desire of audiences to see films about Japan.
But can the films really be said to be “about Japan”? Of course not. Lost in Translation, Kill Bill, and The Last Samurai all feature American protagonists fighting their way, either figuratively or literally, across the landscape of Japan. While The Last Samurai is a historical drama, both Lost in Translation and Kill Bill are contemporary fictions and are thus germane to the discussion of representations of modern Japanese culture. (Also, any in-depth discussion of The Last Samurai would be premature, as the film does not open for another couple of months as of this writing.)
Of the two films that have already been released this year, Lost in Translation comes across as a more honest depiction of contemporary Japan than Kill Bill. Lost in Translation is really about the relationship that develops between two lost souls who chance to encounter each other in a swanky Tokyo hotel. Bob (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) are both Americans who find themselves overwhelmed by the confusing vastness of Tokyo. The story is about Bob and Charlotte. The few Japanese people they encounter are bit players, supporting actors on a stage that obviously belongs to the Americans. Sofia Coppola contrasts the beautifully vibrant shots of Tokyo and Kyoto (which have the feel at times of a lush documentary) with the inner lives of her characters that are trying to make some sort of connection. Note that this connection is only with one another. Never do these characters really try to connect with the places and people surrounding them.
Coppola is very successful at capturing the essence of being alone in a foreign place. This theme of loneliness requires an essentialization, a certain amount of distance from the subject and the people around the main American characters. Coppola creates beauty in the isolation of her characters, which is actually a rather Japanese aesthetic. However, Lost in Translation is the story of the two Americans more than anything. While the film takes care to not distort its representation, it is still following the trend of appropriating the images of Japan in U.S. cinema.
On the other end of the spectrum is Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. Never the most subtle of filmmakers, Tarantino throws a wide range of Japanese pop essentialism at the screen from samurai swords to anime. Unlike Lost in Translation, Kill Bill is unconcerned with the depiction of a “real” Japan the film is the fantasy of a pop culture otaku (devotee, or more commonly, geek). Seen through Tarantino’s eyes, Japan is a land of bloody combat and violent death.
The plot of Kill Bill follows the bride (Uma Thurman) as she takes revenge on her former associates who double-crossed her four years ago. In her quest for vengeance, she travels to Japan to obtain a skillfully-made sword with which she hopes to defeat the head of the Tokyo yakuza (Japan’s own syndicate of organized crime). When the bride first steps into the sword-lined attic of Hattori Hanzo (Sonny Chiba), Tarantino’s reverence for the Japanese weapons is palpable. It there is a moment of transcendence in the film, this is it. It could be said in Tarantino’s defense that he is simply showing his influences and paying homage to the ultraviolent Japanese films he has undoubtedly watched many times. While this is true, it does not negate the fact that Tarantino is carrying out his own brand of cinematic essentialism.
The American film industry may be trying to subsume the influence of its Japanese counterpart, but I am not sure that is necessarily a bad thing. It proves the rising power of Japanese popular entertainment in the US, and that makes the holders and arbiters of American cultural power worried about the future viability of their products. As I mentioned, the issue at hand is context. Japanese pop culture provides a way out from the US pop monoculture with which we are deluged every day. The Japanese influences, even in an American film, undermine this limiting mindset by promoting an alternate version of what the media may look like. Granted, it’s “only” entertainment, but at least it’s a start.