[24 September 2003]
So the last time you checked into this column I was telling you about my dread of SMAP. My fear not so irrational, you learned, if you worked through the piece that after introducing Japan’s most-sampled singing group, I would basically have nothing else ever again to discuss on the matter of ReDotPop. Writing myself right out of a job, seeing as how SMAP is the story of everything. And so, propelled by that fear, and perhaps a surfeit of naïve optimism that were I simply to steal away from Japan for even a week I might possibly discover some as-yet uncontemplated bonne bouche of Japanese ReDotPopabelia elsewhere, I boarded a plane bound for France. And within three hours of take-off somewhere over the Four Holy Peaks in upper Mongolia, or perhaps Novosibirsk in Russia what do you suppose flashes on the airplane screen? Well, Smapster Kusanagi, that’s who; starring in his first feature length movie, Yomigaeri. Presenting me with confirmation capable of choking off my quest to locate a “Smapless” ReDotPop.
Even worse (since I decided to begin this piece in this way) Kusanagi’s appearance saddled me with the hopeless task of trying to explain to you what his flick is about. Well, in a word: it’s too weird for words. But here goes. The title, “Yomigaeri”, means to return from the sleep of the dead, which basically is the core storyline of the movie. It begins with a four-year-old boy who walked out of the forest into which he’d ventured and vanished years before. Within a matter of days hundreds of folks long presumed dead begin to reappear. Although their families might think this a bit odd, they generally welcome the long-departed dead back into the web of their lives without so much as a slackened jaw, scratched forehead, or raised eyebrow. The boy sits mute on the tatami scribbling with crayons while the elders (his parents now aged to near demise, themselves) observe with quiet satisfaction. Their grief, long endured, never expunged, is now capable of dispatch.
The return of those who’ve been asleep does not go unnoticed, which leads us to Kusanagi-kun, an inspector from the Department of Public Welfare and Labor, whose job it is to try to account for why this is happening. (One might also imagine that in Japan, a society with a document for every action from the number of seconds every street light is calibrated for, to any unexcused absence from the morning group stretch at the local paper clip company the import of rewriting death certificates would not pass without someone’ assiduous attention). Fortunately for Kusanagi-kun, he’s not the schlub who has to white-out the names and dates of disappearance in the death certificates. He is, however, the dupe assigned to account for history’s sudden reversal.
To do this, he travels to the remote village where all this strangeness is taking place and sets about interviewing the returnees. In doing so Kusanagi falls under the spell of a manic, directionless, “girl-next-door” type who lost her boyfriend in a car crash. She keeps hoping that the lost lover will be among the next returnees, but despite her fervent efforts to will him back, he never reappears. Near the climax, Kusanagi’s character understands why: the young man had his organs removed at death and donated piecemeal to transplant recipients. More importantly, Kusanagi learns all too late that the woman with whom he is now smitten not only sat next to the boyfriend in the car crash, she died too, no less, though perhaps her state of being dead was for a shorter period of time. Kusanagi learns this because she and every other returnee are all-too-soon summoned to the other world. They are all at a precise moment: during a concert given by pop star “RUI” (in real life, actress Kou Shibasaki) who, it turns out, is one hell of a chanteuse.
The revelations do not end there. Working with a team of engineers and para-psychologists, Kusanagi finds that the cause for the victim’s original demise appears to be linked to a mysterious pit in the heart of the Kyushu forest: an enormous sump with a colossal agglomeration of energy. This mass grave appears to have grown in ergs and dynes with the addition of each new human contribution. By contrast, the victims who have returned seem sapped. They’re not only less energetic than in their past lives, but diminishingly so. Their visage occasionally fades; three even disappear entirely as they sit on a train (only to reappear again). In one scene a number of returnees (presumably all one thousand) collapse simultaneously, only to revive spontaneously seconds later.
With each passing day, the awakened become quieter, more pensive, withdrawn, less engaged in the activities of their surroundings. Though not quite zombies, they manifest a certain fatalism about the world around them and particularly their place in that world. They find it hard to warm to the fuss being made about their return. At the same time, they appear fascinated by the people they’ve left behind. Rather than bitterness at the inexorable march of life, they display curiosity at the ways in which wives and children and brothers and friends have tried to fashion continuation; to move beyond in their absence. Thus is it that when the returnees learn they will be called back to the afterworld, none appears particularly troubled. Resigned to their fate, their instructions to loved ones come in matter-of-fact utterances.
By contrast, imagine the powerful swell of emotions for the living. Their horror of learning they will once again be abandoned. Having rebuilt their lives absent these loved ones, they must do so once again. Having restocked the hole with the material once removed, they will be required to replenish again. Thus, we witness a brother playing a final round of catch with his younger brother, weeping ever-greater streams with each successive toss. A singer lies on her side absently caressing the arm of a lover as he plays his keyboard, knowing that she will not feel him play after this day. A husband asks the man who has replaced him in his family’s world, to care for his wife and child.
This is one of Yomigaeri‘s allures. The haunting message that emerges from these identical, but individuated moments of human connection. Under girding them all is the idea that one cannot dare take for granted the precious thing that each of us hold in our possession: life. While it is true that the suicide confesses to Kusanagi that he still can find no thrill in living, that it is torment to be forced to live again, for the most part all touched by return are struck by the value of second chance. Almost every family views this opportunity as a reprieve. It is a chance to reconnect with those who they had lost; to redouble the bonds that in a previous life were either neglected or perhaps were not as strong as they might have been. One is reminded of comments made in the wake of tragedy, where survivors or witnesses speak about discovering (often for the first time) the value of existence. John Ritter, for instance, who just passed recently, was quoted in 2001 as saying that he’d made an effort to reconnect with his older children from an earlier marriage because “the minutiae, the petty hurts are microscopic compared to the dangers our country faces. (In the wake of 9-11) the family becomes so precious now.”
Because Yomigaeri challenges us to think thus it qualifies as serious art. But it also stands as “good” art. Perhaps not on the scale of Michaelangelo’s “David” or Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four or the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” or Coppola’s Godfather, but not unlike such art in this respect: for all art, there is theme and then there’s execution. And sometimes the most mundane becomes transmogrified into the sublime precisely because of the manner of its presentation. Vermeer’s “Lacemaker” or U2’s “One” or Abbott and Costello’s Who’s on first? rush quickly, unbidden, to mind. And so is it, with Yomigaeri. It excels because of the touching portraits it paints out of material that coulsd be easily melodramatic or else simply banal: the daughter of a deaf mother lost during childbirth, who grows to become a teacher of sign language; a suitor suddenly displaced from the in-home restaurant in which he has become chef and the family to which he has become surrogate husband and father; a pair of misfit teenagers fervently exploring the uncharted world of first-love. Their last day together is spent in a park, holding hands, promising that they will be reunited some day in the future.
Where Yomigaeri ends is where it all began: thousands of souls returned to the forest, thousands of bodies leeched from the fabric of other’s daily lives. Existence expunged, heartbreak engaged. Kusanagi surges toward the fading image of his newfound love, Aoi-chan, seeking to clutch her in a firm embrace, and she simply dematerializes, leaving but a sprinkling of shimmering ash in her wake. Kusanagi stares at his fingertips in disbelief, as the stolid woman of a scant second past is rendered into de-structured, atomic matter.
Fruitful avenues for exploration are raised by the foregoing; such as the Japanese conception of death, the mystical place of nature in Japanese consciousness, the sophisticated melding of comedy, drama, music, and pathos in one communicative form. But where I’d prefer to go for the moment, and in closing, is how the movie’s denouement models ReDotPop‘s relationship to the physical world beyond its borders. Or better: how ReDotPop appears to the outward-bound Japanese traveler. For the sojourner, his popular culture plays Aoi to his bewildered Kusanagi. What was once so vivid and large before his eyes is transmuted almost instantaneously into a mere flickering in the mind’s eye.
Forget searching for evidence of a SMAPless Japanese culture in the EU; try finding a scintilla of J-pop in any shape or color over there. Sure, a handful of academics may congregate in Poland to celebrate Japanese Studies, producing a set of papers on Japanese food and manga and even the “cult of cute”; but step away from the staged convention (the artificially produced community) and what one finds is the forest sump, the mass grave, the energy pit. Signs of Japanese presence may flit around the margins of consciousness in the form of Toyotas careening down Poland’s highways and Japanese sushi-ya dappling Parisian rues but there is little sign of an active ReDot product in the tapestry of everyday EU life. Yeah, Pokemon may play on Spanish TV, but there are no Japanese artists in the Pompidou Center. And while Tomb Raider II is premiering on Saint Germain des Pres, Yomigaeri is not. John Grisham and Scott Turow can be had in Charles de Gaulle Airport, but not Abe Kobo or even Natsume Soseki. Much of the world it seems, is a zone devoid of ReDotPop.
And thus was it in my trek beyond Japanese borders, that I was as if blind in the labyrinthine Kyushu forest. And it wasn’t until I disembarked in Narita, with my bottle of French brandy and Eiffel Tower mug and Polish soccer scarf and amber bracelet from the darkest Slavic forests, that I reentered the world of the living. Like smelling salts passed beneath the nose of consciousness, a hard slap across a wind-burned cheek, a plunge under an alpine waterfall, the images splattered across the national newspapers summoned me right back to life. They were pictures of a man in black pinstripes being tossed high in the air on a baseball diamond.
To an alien some visitor, say, from America or Brazil or Germany the image might have made as much sense as the Kubrick’s monolith did to the inquiring apes. But to the returnee, the somnambulant summoned from his slumber, this was news of staggering magnitude. The story of the day was a tale of a lifetime. It was that the Hanshin Tigers, Osaka’s most loved, but ineffectual baseball club. The Tigers had, after an 18-year drought, managed to clinch a division title. In the days that followed, the angles for this story were many and rich: from a local economy cashing in on Tiger’s goods (nearly $4 million extra, some accounts reported) to the 5,300 fans who jumped from Osaka’s Ebisu bridge into the polluted waters below (a plunge taken in commemoration of the original dip taken by fans celebrating Hanshin’s last pennant).
And then this story-line wafted over the wires: for just one day, all around the world (but particularly in the great cities of Europe), somnambulant ReDotPopsters awoke responding to calls from Osaka’s European staffers. And in a twist no stranger than the legions stumbling out of Yomigaeri‘s forest, these European-based faithful donned their Tiger’s jerseys and Hanshin hats and chanted the team anthem, “Rokko Oroshi”. In Paris they marched down the Champs Elysees joyously offering bottles of red wine to passersby, and embarked on sympathetic plunges off bridges into the Seine. In London, they chose the fountain next to Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square. And in New York where a bridge jumper was likely to end up in an inhospitable city jail (if not the morgue) inflatable wading pools became the preferred plunging platform. (It seems there are some limits on fanaticism, after all).
Or perhaps not. Because meanwhile, back in Osaka, as fans continued to congregate on the Ebisu bridge, an inebriated fan was pushed into the Dotonbori River as he strutted along the span. Tragically, he plunged to his death. It was the first such casualty of what had been a rather quaint local tradition, s tradition that included the chucking of Colonel Sanders into the river. That’s right, the good colonel, in a case that has since been labeled “The Curse of Colonel Sanders”. The story goes like this: when the Tigers won the Japan Series in 1985, their fans were calling out the names of members of the team and anyone with a passing resemblance to the player named had to dive into the river. When one caller shouted out “Randy Bass” the name of Hanshin’s formidable, bearded, stout home run king from America no one could be found with a close enough physiognomy to take the plunge. In time, thoughts turned to the life-sized icon of the Colonel which graces the entryways of most KFC outlets here in Japan. Interestingly, as large as such statues run, legend has it that it was never found. And, coincidentally or not, the Tigers hadn’t won a pennant since.
Viewing all this activity may strike the outsider as inexplicable, incongruous, impenetrable. An infinitely insular, hermetic, conversation conducted by Japanese about and with themselves. And perhaps that is so. But isn’t that what culture is? A local affair predicated on local understandings. For the native, every return home is like stepping back out of the forest, like escaping the sump pit, where all souls are held in suspension, feeling severed from consciousness. To reenter native culture is like stepping back into the tangible, the tactile, the phenomenal; it is to return from the slumber of the dead. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, though, to inhabit a world where no one slept, where no phenomena dwelled beyond the edge of understanding? In that case there might be less intolerance, fear, anxiety, loathing, slaughter. The reality, unfortunately, is that until bridges are built across cultures - and forbidding forests are transformed into welcoming, open fields - there will be spaces of cultural noise, inhabited by corps of the culturally mute, to whom opaque vision will more often dominate warm embrace. And “ReDotPop” may merely be a cool sounding buzzword, void of meaning and effect.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/holden030924/