Mediations of Japan: Japan’s Beat Generation

So, on and off for a few months I’d been toying with the notion of introducing one of the more intriguing, influential figures in Japanese popular culture: Takeshi Kitano — only to wake up last week and discover that Time had already Beat me to it (punch intended). Proving, I guess, that au courant minds act alike. Unless it verifies that those of us working the ReDot Beat are completely devoid of imagination.

As for Mr. Kitano: you know him. He’s the guy who also goes by the name “Beat Takeshi”; ReDotPop‘s answer to DaVinci (or at least Woody Allen): a comedian, actor, director, film producer, talk show host, writer, painter, social analyst, commercial spokesperson—taken together, he has become an institution, a one-man advertisement for the can-do, new-age Japan; the Nippon that can say “no” with attitude; a Japan that can be cool and edgy, affable and ballistic, jaded and optimistic, all at once. But then, having read Time, or seen Sonatine or Hana-bi or Brother, you know all of that. You know about the hard-luck kid from the murkier side of the tracks, the college drop-out with university professors for brothers, the hard-edged, hard-charging, irresponsible talent who wrecked a motorbike at forty-something, acquiring a slightly disfigured face, a host of nervous ticks and a more serious outlook on life. A man whose brush with death a half decade ago managed to peel back a few layers, liberating the more cerebral, sensitive, serious auteur within.

Knowing all that, what can I tell you about Beat that would entice you to read on? Well, how about if I explain his role as sign, his centrality in a society increasingly driven by popular culture, a realm increasingly decoding itself through the celebrity icons as its political, economic and social institutions disintegrate all around. What if I revealed why the generation Beat has spawning may be something for all of us ReDotwatchers to worry over—practitioners of a mind-set that might even be contributing to the demise we spy left and right.

You still with me?

Like all pop products Takeshi works as what semiologists call a “signifier”. He is a symbol loaded with meaning. Above all, what Beat communicates is difference, defiance, departure from convention. Takeshi signals challenge to authority. By merely materializing before a camera, Beat is akin to the nose thumbed in the face of the establishment. Not unlike a lot of ReDotPop figures -— like Glay, DownTown, or even Ichiro Suzuki; however, unlike these popular others, when Takeshi’s symbolic value is placed within the context of serious-minded, mainstream television shows -— a slew of which he regularly pops up in -— the audience has to take pause. The viewer is cued to the notion that the show’s content must be passed through an irreverent, if not ironic -— even downright skeptical -— filter. With Takeshi on board, complex, aberrant meaning is conveyed.

This can lead to a certain amount of mental double-taking, insofar as the majority of shows that Takeshi lends his imprimatur to take as their theme Japanese difference. In the academic literature on Japan, this theme goes by the name “Nihonjinron” -— the theory of Japanese uniqueness -— sometimes “Nihonbunkaron” -— the theory of Japanese cultural exceptionalism. And in the realm of ReDotPop, Nihonjinron is a cottage industry. Literally scores of books, articles and TV shows are churned out yearly on the subject. But with Takeshi present, the audience has to ask: is this show taking the typical turn of underscoring Japanese difference? Or, is it lampooning the fact that Japanese cling to the illusion of difference?

In fact, beyond mere intimation, coursing beneath many of Takeshi’s shows is the palpable message that Japanese take their presumed uniqueness far too seriously. In terms of their singular self-absorption and unflinching chavenism, Japanese aren’t very different from other peoples around the world. Beyond that though, as Takeshi’s shows so skillfully demonstrate, Japanese share a large number of other commonalities with an array of other cultures -— everything from youthful rebellion to rabid sexuality. Of course, there is a corollary to this theme: in those cases where Japan is different, that uniqueness may not be all too flattering. At least, according to Takeshi’s Tele-Vision.

A typical example of this was last year’s one-off show, Why Do Japanese Like Manga? Set up as an “infotainment” -— a combination of documentary, comedy, talk show and debate so popular on Japanese TV -— Takeshi served as nominal presence, assisted by a facilitator whose canned questions kept the conversation from lagging. She directed her queries primarily at three guests -— two (male) manga writers and a female university professor, whose responses became the fodder for commentary by Takeshi and a couple cronies. An opening brief on the manga industry explained that Japan is the “world’s premier manga power”, printing over 5,480,000,000 comics per year and selling 4,560,000 a day. Next, Takeshi’s guests engaged in light discussion about comics: their likes and dislikes, their beliefs and use patterns. Then, following a commercial break (and without any forewarning)…fireworks. No different than a Kitano movie -— with its sudden eruptions of unanticipated, excessive, often gruesome pyrotechnics—the university professor was given the floor, and launched into a gory assault of one of the writer’s works. The manga in question, “Tale of Tokyo University”, has sold 16,000,000 copies over the past nine years. Its 27-volumes follow a boy and girl from the age of 5 through high school and into the prestigious national university, “Todai”—Japan’s equivalent to Oxford or Yale. One should not be misled by the setting: this series has nothing to with the pursuit of higher learning or even the preparation for an elite professional career—unless that career would be predicated on the mastery of sexual technique and exposure to the full range of carnal delight. The professor, Tajima-sensei, provided a fairly good feel for the entire series in the following interrogation of the writer, Egawa-san:

“Just look at that (the cover of Volume 26)!” Egawa offered uncomprehending innocence in return. “Why,” Tajima-sensei demanded, “is there such a slim body attached to such a heavy-looking upper carriage?”

“Breast can’t be helped” another guest interjected.

“Those (breasts) are MUCH TOO BIG!” Tajima-san raged. “And…why is the girl sitting in front of this luscious table-setting?” The camera zoomed in on the cover; a pixyish young woman with enormous breasts and discernibe nipples constrained by a sheer pink dress is seated on her haunches behind a low table sporting a sumptuous nine-course meal. No one responded, so Tajima-san continued:

“The message for men is this: that tasty food and tasty sex are the dream. That they go together.”

To the titter of the audience, Takeshi interjected: “It’s as you say, professor.”

“So,” the moderator offered the writer a chance to refute the charge, “what is the selling point of this manga?”

“The selling point? Is that Haruka-chan (the girl) is cute.”

“To men,” Tajima challenged.

“Not just to men,” Egawa-san replied defensively, “but to women as well.”

The inquisition proceeded with a bemused Takeshi doing nothing to intervene. Why should he?: this is vintage TakeshiTV; this kind of human conflagration is the heart and soul of the current Beat generation. And according to the physics of this new epoch, the conflict ought not abate; to Takeshi’s delight the author’s predicament only grew worse. Back-peddling, he admitted that his story is primarily about sex, though he tenaciously denied that it is a vision spied through male eyes. “This is the way of life of both men and women,” he insisted. Tajima-sensei’s derisive bray was followed by her critique that “the only thing about women we can see in this manga is what men think about women, the kind of women men want to meet.” She then went on to demonstrate that the manga is a caricature of women; there are but two kinds to be found: the goddess and the whore.

Despite the fact that Haruka-chan is bedded by a succession of male admirers, her role is clearly to serve as sacred object. Reflecting this, Tajima-san produced an image of a larger-than-life Haruka, shimmering in the heavens like a brilliant star, above the head of her eternal admirer, Murakami-kun. Underscoring her objective status as goddess, worthy of worship, Haruka-chan introduces herself to her college club by ticking off her height, weight, bust size, hip measurements, leg length, foot size, and time of her first period! As for this last datum, Haruka (or, that is, her pensmith, Egawa-san, troubles to provide the details of how she soiled her sheets with her first flow). By contrast, Tajima-sensei rightly observed, Murakami-kun provides no comparable information to his college club mates: nothing about height or weight -— at which point Takeshi -— ever the comedian on the prowl for the quick laugh or else the sudden KO -— observed that equity would surely have dictated the inclusion of information about the size of Murakami-kun’s testicles.

And so it goes. Like all of Beat’s shows, this one was transformed into a social forum; in this case a disquisition on gender inequality and sexism. Unleashed by Takeshi the troublemaker, Tajima-sensei blistered the manga artist with relentless salvos, backed up by her scrupulous analysis of his works. Pointing to scene after scene from “Tale of Tokyo University” she concluded: “this is why women are so conscious of their breast size, the length of their legs, their weight.” Manga like this “plant those seeds of inadequacy in (women’s) minds.” In short, Takeshi’s TV world tells us, manga may be a uniquely Japanese fixation, but the issues that it addresses and the problems it spawns are quite universal. Beat’s conclusion could easily be: what is so unique -— what is so great -— about this Japanese cultural contribution?

Such hard-line critique is not an anomalous phenomenon. It emerges constantly in TV shows associated with Takeshi. Consider the flagship of his current TV armada, Koko ga hen dayo, Nihonjin! (This aspect here is strange, Japanese). In true Japanese fashion, the words are ambiguous: does the title mean that there is something about Japanese life or the Japanese people that is strange? Or is it that some aspect of the contemporary world is amiss and worthy of Japanese attention? Either way, the focus is clearly directed toward and revolves around Japanese experience -— the Nihonjinron phenomenon again. This past week offered a heavy dose of the “world amiss” theme, with separate stories on the sinking the Japanese trawler, the Ehime Maru, and the U.S. military’s often loutish—even criminal behavior—in “occupied” Okinawa. More often, however, the show takes on aspects of Japan’s contemporary existence and holds it up for critical inspection. Thus, for instance, the last installment also explored the recent death of a Korean exchange student who was killed when he tried to rescue a drunken Japanese salaryman who’d fallen in front of an on-coming train. A bit later on was an expose of a public bath in Hokkaido that refused to allow foreigners on the premises and even issued death threats to one foreigner who dared to sue them because of it.

Like this, Koko ga hen dayo, Nihonjin! most often takes the Japanese popular fascination with identity and turns it inside-out: parading every conceivable peccadillo by almost every extant fringe group in front of the camera. In such a way, everything under the rising ReDotPop sun that is even half-way controversial comes up for scrutiny. In the past year segments have featured:

Ø ganguro (the fashion whereby teen-age girls don micro mini skirts, incongruously towering platform shoes, tan or paint their faces chocolate brown with lips and eyelids frosted a chalky white);

Ø the surging subculture of street gangs;

Ø the increasingly popular practice of body piercing;

Ø an assessment of Japanese education; and

Ø the relative merits of allowing foreigners to live in Japan.

By so doing, Takeshi manages to transform the question of contemporary identity from a point of pride into a contest of self-justification, debate, derision and, possibly, mutual understanding.

How? In a word, by emphasizing debate; by creating open conflict. These two elements -— so antithetical to everyday (official) Japanese life -— are dragged out in front of Takeshi’s cameras. Verbalization of emotions, the emphasis on difference, the active articulation of disagreement—so unJapanese, yet so much a part of Takeshi’s world. The format of Koko ga hen dayo, Nihonjin” facilitates this public sparring, for representatives of the “strange aspect” in question are first invited on-stage to offer their perspective, then (just like the manga show described before) find themselves transformed into meat for ravenous critics. In this case, the attackers include a small panel of Japanese celebrities and a second, larger contingent, of foreigners working and/or studying in Japan. These two groups -— arrayed on opposite sides of the studio -— take turns debating with, berating and defending those brought before them. Just as often, they find themselves scrambling to protect themselves against fusillades from other panelists. Takeshi, for his part, is a study in minimalism, presiding over his own kangaroo court of everyday ReDot life; serving as impassive judge in his loud Hawaiian shirt and jester’s cap (or other suitably silly chapeau); generally speaking up only to determine who will speak next (calling out the foreigners by number rather than name); intervening only to curtail debate that has carried on too long or with waning purpose via the rap of his oversized rubber gavel. Though he occasionally summarizes and sporadically editorializes, Takeshi’s commentary is spare; he is generally content to observe the antagonists in the ring as they inexorably, relentlessly shred each other’s jugulars.

One imagines here the director Kitano regulating the comedian Beat. For, Koko ga hen dayo, Nihonjin! is nothing more than a Kitano movie absent guns and gore. Still, in the eruption of human passion, the inherent messiness of sudden, unpredictable, irrational, violent statement, we behold quintessential Takeshi. If Beat has any signature at all in his numerous cultural productions, it is how conflict liberates emotion. To understand Takeshi’s world one merely need imagine a festering sore suddenly split wide, now oozing infected goo. And if one watches enough TakeshiTV, one senses that it is the explosion—rather than any particular subject, itself–that is the goal. Yes, Beat’s programs may educate, they likely entertain, but those aspects are mere condiments spicing up main dish of discord.

Of course, Japan is not America -— weaned on a steady diet of contact sports, satanic rock acts and Jerry Springer insanity. In this country conflict has traditionally been suppressed -— and for good reason: there’s too little physical space constraining too many people for the statement of real thoughts, urges and feelings to be tolerated. Understand, then, that shows like Koko ga hen dayo, Nihonjin! push the envelope. And to the degree that they embody a philosophy they pose a challenge, if not an outright threat, to social life as it has been known and practiced on these shores for nearly a thousand years.

Which leads us to the last thing.

We have left to the side the question of what it is Takeshi thinks he is doing—and whether what he is doing will lead any place positive. Thinking about the man and his television oeuvre it is possible that he fancies himself an unflinching, unrepentant apostle for mainlined reality. Like it or not, for good or for ill, consequences be damned. In that way (and if so), then Beat might just be an irresponsible punk who delights in wreaking chaos on “the system”. Of course, it is possible that he is highly principled; that there may actually be ratiocination behind his madness, that he may be propelling Japan to an even higher plane of possibility. For, perhaps Beat is correct in his estimation that the Japanese aversion to confrontation is no longer serviceable in a modern, globalizing world; correct, too, that until Japanese develop the requisite confidence and moxy, they will forever be in a position of disadvantage and collective underachievement. Whatever the case, it is beyond question that Takeshi’s continual effort to denude the cultural myth that difference and social dysfunction don’t exist in consensual, pacific Japan, represents a serious challenge to conventional Japanese society. Whether it is a positive thing to have a voice so singularly centered on presenting Japan’s limitations to the Japanese audience (and have it so widely broadcast, so forcefully, and so enthusiastically received) — well, that is open to question.

For decades, media theorists have worried (with much sound and fury, but virtually no resolution) whether media produce effects. To many, that may seem like a no-brainer—after all, we don’t need to throw hundreds of thousands of dollars at sophisticated studies to know that after televised boxing matches, domestic violence increases. That’s as intuitive as knowing that adolescents mimic the dress and speech patterns of the latest rock video. Only, there are numerous studies — decades full of them — in which effect cannot conclusively be established. Al Gore spent millions of dollars on political advertising, after all, yet he didn’t succeed in swaying 50% (well, okay, 49.9%) of the Florida voters to go his way. So, media are not all-powerful. But, for some analysts, even this qualification is not sufficient. To these detractors, media are, at best, mirrors of what is already out there; they are information disseminators, entertainers, and possibly, long-term, diffuse (but relatively indiscernible) influences on cultural institutions and human behavior. All well and good for American elections and hip-hop posturings and the like; but don’t even for one brief nanosecond try hanging that bargain basement tag on TVTakeshi. For how can one deny that the heretical content that this Japanese Beat is steadily disseminating through the streams of ReDotPop could not amount to a super-potent force capable of altering social behavior? Whether the message is aimed at debunking the myth of Japanese inter-cultural difference or the insistence of intra-cultural similarity; whether such claims are actually true or merely blissfully imagined; whether they are formed to mirror or move society—as shadow or spur—to the legion of viewers within Beat’s orbit, these weekly pronouncements have a cumulative effect. The controversies they spotlight—the conflictual impulse they champion — carry a reifying, self-fulfilling quality. Japan may not actually be an immensely stratified, combative, unseemly place to live, but by continually parading aspects of life before the audience that make it appear so, lo and behold: Takeshi may be assisting Japan in actually becoming thus.

All of which means that Beat is a force to be reckoned with, a pop figure worthy of serious scrutiny. Most important for us ReDotPop-watchers is the prospect that the generation exposed to Takeshi’s drumbeat—the cohort coming to consciousness now — may very well become something different than its predecessors ever were. No longer quiescent, this group. No more Mr. Tepid; hail the end of Ms. Seen-But-Not-Heard. Beat and his minions may actually be working to transform Japan’s rep into that of the new, muscular, cantankerous kid on the global block.

And enjoying every jarring, contentious, in-your-face minute of it.