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Mediations of Japan: Brought to you by Public Transportation


ReDotPop -- Brought to you by Public Transportation.

ReDotPop has been on vacation for most of this month, but what my travels throughout Asia tell me is that ReDotPop never rests. Confused? Not if you take a gander at the plane that delivered me from Singapore back to Japan. As you can see, what was lacquered atop that steel body has everything to do with ReDotPop: the seamlessness of Japanese popular culture folding back on itself, blending the commercial with the popular, the political with the social, the cultural with the historical. ReDotPop confronts media consumers at every turn, challenging us to experience our mutating world — and thus, ourselves — in new ways.

To be honest, I didn't think all this when I first spied Pikachu — of Pokemon fame — plastered across the port side of the All Nippon Airways jet. Actually, I didn't think much more than that it was worthy of a snap for my ReDotPop-crazed kids. But then I got to Sendai — the city in Northern Honshu where I live — and I was assaulted by a legion of buses sporting all manner of Pikachu-like logos. Instead of the staid sea green with navy blue piping that I was accustomed to boarding, there was a red, white and blue one advertising Strawberry Cones (that's take-out pizza for those of you keeping score at home). There was a bus dressed up as dungarees on behalf of "Jeans Gallery". Another bus was peppered with cell phones — like so many arrows piercing the flesh of Saint Sebastian. That for the phone company spin-off DoCoMo. A fourth — a powder blue vehicle replete with jumping jumbo snapper — was selling fish cakes. It was more that a travel-logged, jet-lagged, chili-peppered brain could care to tussle with. Was this vehicle really public transportation home — or a private link to the closest fast food outlet?

While my adventurous soul took yet another chance (and clambered on the bus), my diminished mind worked at discerning a pattern. What it came up with is this: everything in this incessantly-integrating, ever-fluctuating world is being commercialized — right before our very eyes. Well, okay, I admit: that's not much in the way of big news, we all know that. I mean, we had some inkling of this light bulb of a discovery as far back as Rollerball nearly 30 years ago. And if not then, then certainly by the time Blade Runner laid its cool, dystopic vision on us. And, even if one is slow on the uptake (as I evidently am) we certainly could gather the gist about five years back when the "Pepto Bismol Seventh Inning Stretch" was introduced at the ballpark nearest you. Yeah, somewhere along the line as you exchange an Andrew Jackson for a bag of peanuts and a box of crackerjack and make the old knee joints go "creak creak" such that you are prompted to think: "hm, maybe I oughta mosey on down to the trans-national HMO tomorrow for a minor procedure," it becomes pretty clear that public life has surely been colonized.

Somehow, I suppose, we'd generally managed to overlook the fact that those coliseums and stadia, where we were creaking our kneecaps while our beloved public service gladiators duked it out, were all privately owned. We probably overlooked it, in part, because the combatants generally wore "Roma" and "Los Angeles" and "Auxerre" and "Tokyo" stapled across their chests — even though their backs often read "Sony" and "Samsung" and "Ford". In fact, once we ponder it for, oh, three seconds, we come to realize that these noble warriors are no different that the concessioneers, the parking attendants, the ushers, the organists, and the "public" address announcers working those venues. Together, they signify a world swirling around us that is almost entirely of private provision.

Okay, but what about all of that makes this topic part of ReDotPop? Well, over here, elements of popular culture are being lifted pell-mell from one domain — for instance, television or comics or movies or music — and are being used in the promotion of another, often in ways that manage to mix the public and private in the same fell swoop. Something on the order of Miffy-chan-an imported bunny who moved from a career in cartoons to one adorning thermoses, notebooks, shoes and T-shirts; and, now, to a life in which he/she/it serves as spokes-thing for Misawa, a Japanese home-builder. And because of this new tie-up, Sendai commuters spy Miffy-Misawa, the developer with the stout white body and wiry ears, plastered over city-owned buses that wend their way in and around public thoroughfares. Yeah, I think it's too cute for words, myself. I can barely contain the urge to run out and plunk down 65,000,000 yen for a new tract home like all my fellow Sendai-jins are busy doing as you read.

In the case of Miffy-chan the private makes its appearance under public auspices; however, in the realm of ReDotPop, the reverse is also true. Consider the case of Na-chan. Or is that Non-chan? Oy veh, here comes a guaranteed headache, even for those of you jet-lag clean.

Nachan is a commercial beverage that was popular a year or so ago. Its ad campaign featured an actress whose name had already (and conveniently) been shortened by her legion of fans to "Na-chan". In the ad, this actress, Na-chan, sups her drink Nachan, while watching — and, here's the involved part — a TV drama called "Na-chan". This world-within-the-world TV show is of particular interest in that it is an unmistakable take-off on the famous public television series of a few years back called "Non-chan". In the real-world serial, Non-chan was a courageous woman living in postwar Japan who had to go out into the world of work, provide for her family, keep her household running smoothly and her faltering family intact. In the commercial version, the "Na-chan" of the invented TV show apparently possesses the same qualities and must confront the same difficulties. In the advertisement, the ad's protagonist — Na-chan remember? the real-life actress — stares raptly at her TV screen as Na-chan — the fictitious character in the fictitious TV drama — takes a strong moral stand in front of her family and co-workers in their small family-owned noodle shop. To the saccharine swell of violins intended to signal the end of this day's (fiction-in-a-fiction) "installment", the ad's protagonist (the real life Na-chan) gushes: how strong that Na-chan is! Herself, the drama's heroine, the beverage — we ad viewers can't be exactly certain. Making it even less clear, Na-chan punctuates her commentary by quickly quaffing her canned drink, Nachan. The commercial closes by panning back from her apartment window. From this vantage point across the street the ad audience (that's us) purchases perspective on the young woman's spare, television-centered existence. A greater sense of "reality" is lent to the entire invented exercise.

At one level Nachan's world-within-a-world might all just be a pleasure — a thrill, a joke, a tease for the memory, a tussle with irony — as some writers on popular culture insist. At another level, though, such flights of invented give pause. In their effortless blending of the "real" public with the invented private, such products trivialize — even debase — aspects at the heart of everyday life. The original cultural text, Non-chan, was a public TV drama about women's struggle in postwar Japan. Yet, the commercial world co-opted it and rendered its messages more obscure. The wrapping of the "real fiction" within the "fictitious fiction" possesses the potential of reifying the virtuous heroine of the former as well as all she signifies (for instance, her travail, the original's nationalist message). It also could just as well work to devalue women's struggle — which was a major message of Nonchan — by associating it with the product for sale; not to mention a trendy pin-up idol.

Neither Nachan, nor the advertising stream of which it is a part, are the only cases of sector blending in contemporary Japan. Nor is it all about commerce, as much of this column has suggested. Above all, it is the promiscuous engineering of all kinds of content — cultural, political, moral, social as well as economic — that stands as one of the main currents of ReDotPop.

What of its effects? Perhaps too early to tell.

I DO know that all these public-private, domain-blending, context-shifting developments can be a bit discombobulating. Days after jet-lag stopped serving as a plausible excuse, I caught myself removing my pants on the Jeans Gallery bus, intent on a fitting. THAT drew more than the normal quota of "foreigners-are-to-be scrutinized" stares that is par for the course over here. Compounding my embarrassment, today, I actually made the mistake of approached the driver on the Strawberry Cones bus and ordered pepperoni, extra cheese, no eel and wasabi, to go.

I didn't get the pizza when I exited, but wouldn't you know it?: I did have to pay.

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