Cool Hand Koizumi?

tjm Holden
Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Richard Gere.

Japan's PM, Junichiro Koizumi, is a master of those tricky steps in the political waltz.

What do movie remakes, reverse engineering, a Japanese parliamentary election, and the strategic uses of seduction have to do one another? A lot, if you care to read on. To get there, though, I have a little explaining to do . . . basically the etiology of this complex chemistry.

Some of you may know that since my last column, I have sunk a goodly amount of time working on the PopMatters Travelblog, Peripatetic Postcards. I hope you will find the urge to explore it, if you haven't already. For those of you that do, you will learn that during my final day on the previous trip to Vienna, I made reference to a couple of movies -- both of which have origins in Japan. The first, Lost in Translation, uses Tokyo as a backdrop for Americans Bill Murray and Scarlett Johannson to poignantly explore their essential estrangement from their own lives and, sadly, themselves. The second movie title arose in the context of a ballroom I happened into, and a rather unabashed tourist I happened to overhear, as she uttered the punchline (and title) of the hit flick "Shall We Dance?" This purloined phrase prompted me to think some about the twin cinematic productions that went by that name -- the Japanese incarnation, deft, subtle, quietly rending; the American remake, cloying, implausible, and ineffably inapt.

Taken together, the riffs on these two movies — installed in separate sections of a blog entry — logically pushed me to think about Hollywood, Japan, and remakes. Which set me thinking about . . . stuff . . . such that by the time I had finished disentangling all the intertwined threads — trying (as I am wont to do) to connect these strands to the nubs and buttonholes and craws of the world around me — what I unexpectedly found staring me in the face was this strange question: if one were to reengineer a Hollywood classic, taking an American movie to help tell the story of the Japanese election of September 11th, 2005, which one would it be? You game? Want to test your cinematic smarts, your cultural memory? Ready to peer a little behind the ReDot political curtain? Then have I got a few interesting minutes for you. It begins like this.

Starved for ideas, Hollywood has made a cottage industry (and occasionally a mint) out of retreading movies from other countries — notably France — adjusting, where absolutely necessary, certain cultural ideas or practices which would not necessarily play to an American audience. Although these films have only rarely been critical successes, this formula has often proven boffo at the box office (as, for instance, in the case of Three Men and a Baby [begat by 3 hommes et un couffin], Cousins [ne Cousin Cousine], The Birdcage [from La Cage Aux Folles], and The Assassin [once La Femme Nikita]). With the recent adaptations of a slew of Japanese hits — among them, The Ring (soon to come: The Ring 2), The Grudge (who can't wait for Grudge 2?), along with the aforementioned Shall we Dance — Hollywood has claimed its stake to intellectual property originating from climes even farther east than the home of UNESCO, Impressionism, and virulent anti-American sentiment. And with this geographical shift comes even greater problems associated with cultural translation. The question that arises is not so much "what will be lost in translation" — for that is inevitable — but rather "what can possibly be preserved?"

Such a project is no less (and more likely, much more) daunting than ripping off Franco-files for cinematic situations and solutions. One wonders: "how will meanings rooted in a highly particularized culture that arose in an especially historical moment in that society's lifecourse, translate across oceans (and epochs) when the movie is Ikiru?" A Japanese classic by director nonpareil, Akira Kurosawa, the attempt to pass Ikiru through a Southern California filter, circa 2005, has been adjudged by one on-line critic as "blasphemy" on the order of someone (from another country yet!) trying to remake Citizen Kane or Casablanca. Can you imagine a German or Chinese or Mexican director deigning to do that? Man, if Dubya caught wind of that cultural invasion. . . we'd have to hide the smart bombs or there'd be all manner of international incident.

Although Roger Ebert's review, cited above, reckons that Ikiru possesses a universal theme, I wonder how Kurosawa's bleak meditation on life, death, and (ultimately) the callow, petty world of mortal human beings is going to play to a post-Katrina, (hopefully) post-Iraq, (ultimately) post-Bush the II American audience. Will Americans warm to a story of a lifetime conformist, who, upon learning of his impending death, chooses to break the rules he has staunchly upheld for years for the sake of a few mothers who wish a playground for their small children? Possibly. But, how will Americans who are have been weaned on "big picture" heroes these past many years — now so dependant on images of avengers with extraordinary intellectual and physical powers overcoming larger-than-life supernatural ghouls and human monsters — accept an effete, unassuming, broken down protagonist? Is a tiny victory, predicated on the total repudiation of one's own character — a character ingrained and performed continuously without question or self-rebuke for nearly 60 years — going to be enough to satisfy American tastes? God I hope so, not only for the benefit it may do to the moral health of the viewing audience, but also because this is one movie — containing one eternal, mythic tale — that can't afford to be soiled or perverted. It is without dispute on the short list of greatest movies ever made; and, if you don't believe me — then you likely haven't seen it; and if that is the case, then please don't hesitate to get up from your chair or couch or bed and promptly run down to your movie rental shop; render Ikiru to your clutches and absorb it. NOW!

Okay. So, as you are doing all that, you might be wondering: how does any of this relate to the Japanese election? Well, before I explain that, perhaps we ought to review what this election was all about; because it turns out that this may very well end up being a rather significant moment in ReDot history. And how often are we able to point to a thing in our midst and say: "this was quite a thing! I lived through that!" So let me explain.

It all started when the current Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, began pushing for reform of the postal system, a move opposed by many of his brethren in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Why? Because in Japan, the postal system works very much like a bank — it is, in fact, the largest holder of privately-invested funds of any financial institution in the country (although it isn't one — not technically, at least. And, in fact, if it were a financial institution, it would be the largest in the world!) . . . holding what amounts to $3 trillion in savings and insurance. Three TRILLION dollars! Such an entity is a glorious thing to have on hand if you are a government official because — well, there it is! All that money! (Three trillion dollars). Under your own roof (so to speak); with no one outside the building really able to see who is visiting the bank, dipping into it at night, and how much is actually going out. In short, it is like having the equivalent of an unending supply of Oreos in the kitchen cupboard and no parents standing over you every time you reach in, saying: "Do you really think you should be eating that? Don't you think you've had enough?"

But then. . . how can anyone ever really ever get enough of Three TRILLION dollars?

Well, Koizumi was trying to find a way to create some oversight — or at least that is how the popular telling of this tale goes. He managed to cajole or otherwise coerce the lower legislative house into approving a bill that would privatize the postal savings system. However, when the upper house failed to follow suit — and with many in his own party refusing to vote for privatization — Koizumi did something that many believed suicidal (not to mention illogical): he dissolved the lower house (which had voted to support postal privatization) and called for a snap election. Parenthetically, it should be noted that the upper house (who Mr. Koizumi was really angry at) cannot be dissolved by law. So, too, it should be stated (as many LDP members have with surprise and dismay) that the next election required by law was set for two years hence.

This was not a simple case of "call my bluff". First of all there was the pain he was inflicting on legislators — in the sense that elections are very costly endeavors. Sure, some of that money can come from contributors (in the form of kickbacks and "consideration fees" endemic in the political economy). However, it is the Japanese social reality that politicians must also foot campaign costs themselves — sometimes taking loans out from banks to cover the prohibitive costs. What costs? Not just posters and buttons and stuffed envelopes. No, there are also the payments to would-be voters as well as local (district-level) pols, in exchange for their "understanding" and "consideration". These aren't bribes, you understand. It is the way things have been done for centuries in this culture: (unspoken, but required) gifts to express one's respect for the recipient, as well as gratitude for (presumed) past and (anticipated) future support. Viewed this way, one cannot say that electioneering is a simple matter of putting one's name on a ballot, showing up at a few rallies, and making a few speeches. Thus was it that the LDP recalcitrants received their desserts — just or otherwise — for opposing their PM. All things considered, Mr. Koizumi was sending a message rather loud and clear that he was an unhappy puppy . . . and someone was going to have to account for this noise.

Beyond mere bullying, the Prime Minister had actually thought one or two steps down the retributive road. The most important step — and the part that the caught the media's imagination — was the slate of replacement candidates he recruited to oppose those in the party who had opposed him. In short, Mr. Koizumi played a high-stakes game of full-court press, political payback. And to ensure that he would gain maximum advantage — both in terms of inflicting short-term discomfort on his rivals, as well as increasing the chance of actually unseating them — Mr. Koizumi solicited the most (physically and/or emotionally) attractive, visible, public figures he could locate — headed, for instance, by a former TV anchorwoman (now Environmental Minister), a former Miss University of Tokyo (now a bureaucrat in the finance ministry), a celebrity cookbook author and TV host (sometimes called "the Martha Stewart of Japan"), and a billionaire Internet tycoon (covered on these pages in conjunction with last year's top stories from ReDotPopland. This line-up, of course, brought additional media attention to the election — particularly to the challengers, who the media took to labelling "Koizumi's assassins". Looming particularly large in the media's eye were the 10 female "assassins". Although some bristled at the term, no one could much dispute the intent: the PM was going for his opponent's jugulars. As it turns out, his blade was not as precise as he'd hoped: although 20 of his hand-picked candidates managed to gain seats, only 9 came at the expense of the targeted LDP rebels. Eleven assassins enter the legislature thanks to placing high in Japan's complicated proportional representation system.

This use of women to garner public attention and secure support for Machiavellian purpose, of course, is not a tactic exclusive to Japan. The strategic use of the female figure, voice, style, atmospherics, and "charms" is a staple in the annals of world history — from art to advertising, espionage (political and industrial), and business. And, as it turns out, the exploitation of women for organizational advantage is a practice with widespread historical precedent in Japan.

While much disparaging noise has been made in recent years about the "beautiful girl tactic" employed by North Korea — sending throngs of sirens on boats to South Korea and Japan, wooing natives with their beauty and devotion to their communist fatherland — the fact is that this is a time-worn battle tactic (number 31 out of 36) immortalized in Chinese military textbooks. In Japan, women were employed in similarly intentional ways just after the Pacific War (to placate randy, potentially disruptive, GIs), as well as during the boom era between the 1950s and 1970s (to loosen up foreign clients). In the case of the latter, international visitors were brought to the Mikado — called by one American "one giant glorious warehouse of sex", with over 1,000 hostesses on call at any one time — and the Copacabana — where an elite corps of bi-lingual, exquisitely groomed and garbed women occupied (and sometimes spied) on such luminaries as Richard Nixon, King Faisal and Indonesian President Sukarno (who would later wed one of these hostesses, making her the third of his nine wives. Following his death she returned to Japan where she became a television personality, author and international jet-setter).

The melding of nightclubs, women, sex, and business meant only one thing: organized crime could not be very far from the frame. And in fact, Tokyo's nightclubs all had the financial backing of the so-called "yakuza" (organized gangs) or else were being patronized by them. This made the fact that so much governmental and private business was transpiring around in the clubs (and around underworld figures) that much more intriguing. Do you know how to spell "quick business opportunity"? Indeed, the "turn a fast buck" angle was screaming out to anyone clever enough to orchestrate it. And, in point of fact, it wasn't all that difficult. Take chemically-impaired, sexually obsessed men, and put them together with sleek, gorgeous, intelligent, ambitious, money-hungry women. . . and what you get is a wealth of useful information being extracted at tables or during post-coital happy talk; information that could be of benefit either to the legitimate or shady elements in Japan's budding elite. Information that could assist in the crafting of more favorable contracts, be used for the purposes of blackmail, or be sold to competitors in search of a negotiating edge.

The stories to go along with this description can be found in a remarkable book by Robert Whiting, called Tokyo Underworld, a scrupulously documented tale that reads fast (and fascinating) and which, for the casual outsider with an interest in fathoming the "true", hidden Japan, is quite eye-opening. One of the major points Whiting conveys — in ways both overt and subtle — is the enormous extent to which modern Japan was built by gangsters with the complicity of the United States' and Japanese governments. These gangsters were of two groups, in the main: Japanese and Japanese of Korean descent (which, early on, often battled one another for control of turf). The governmental link was both moral and financial, and often resulted in close coordination with the CIA whose aim was to suppress what was viewed at the time as a rather viable threat of communist party and union development. Support for yakuza activity also came from the LDP — a party which was propped up early on by yakuza henchmen and funds; a bond solidified by the groups' shared nationalist leanings and anti-communist ideology. Thus was it that an ironclad triumvirate of U.S. Government, gangsters and the Liberal Democratic Party arose to rule over contemporary Japan, fomenting a rapidly-congealing , conservative, business-friendly milieu.

Seeing the LDP link, one can appreciate the culture of corruption that its politicians were weaned on. The oldest pols among its ranks were not only socialized into the rigged logic, it is likely that the graft, kickbacks, and payoffs that were part and parcel of that ecology were nearly impossible to shun; were a noble politician to turn a cheek, refuse the tender, it was unlikely that he could expect his career to survive. As confirmation, perhaps, over the next two decades four Prime Ministers — Kakuei Tanaka, Ryutaro Hashimoto, Morihiro Hosokawa, and Yoshiro Mori — and one so-called "kingmaker" — Shin Kanemaru — would be tainted (to varying degrees) by an unending string of financial improprieties and/or corruption scandals.

Which brings us back to Mr. Koizumi's challenge. As the longest-serving Prime Minister in the last decade (at four years) — a PM who, when he first took office, was the eleventh office holder in thirteen years — his term of 1,460 unbroken days at the helm suggests he truly deserves the mantle: "Lion King". For, the leader with the mangy shock of graying hair rules this Far East political jungle with a uncanny dash of survivalist panache. Throughout, he has managed, unlike many of his predecessors, to avoid hint one of financial shenanigans. This, in turn, has endeared him to many in the public, who view him as a take-a-stand, speak-his-mind, no-nonsense, no kickback-kind-of-guy. Were this actually true, I would find hard to believe, given the political history recounted above.

But, okay, nothing has been proven; so, why not we move onto the last twist in this enterprise: the ReDotPop part. Say, we were going to make a movie of this great hubabub — the Koizumi election escapade, we might call it. The question is: "how would we do it?" Moreover, taking the lead from this piece's lead: "how would we reengineer it?" If we were to adapt a work that originated in another culture, if we were looking for a cinematic model from another market, which might we choose? If we were to tell the political tale unfolding in Japan today, which Hollywood movie would best match the scenario?

The initial temptation might be to cast this as a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington affair, with the protagonist taking on the corrupt bosses with their pork-barrel politics, slush funds, graft and backroom wink-and-turn-a-blind-eye, scratch-my-back-I'll scratch yor'n — form of doing things. The problem with that inclination is that Mr. Koizumi is no Jefferson Smith, riding in on the morning train from Farthest West Podunk; in fact, today's "Lion King" was certainly a fixture in the back-room cabal for years. His predecessor (and the leader of the LDP faction in which Junichiro cut his political teeth), Yoshiro Mori, was ensnared in the so-called "Recruit Scandal" of the 1980s. It is no exaggeration to say, then, that Koizumi only became prime minister — I'll rephrase that: no one becomes prime minister in Japan — unless they have sat amidst the smoke of the back room and shined the shoes and fired up the stogies of all the old fogies of the cabal. A kind of All the King's Men backdrop, then suggests itself — although there is little indication that Mr. Koizumi is anywhere close to the manipulative, unscrupulous, power-grubbing Willie Stark. For his part, the Prime Minister has vowed to stand down at the end of his term, one year from now. At this point, at least, thre are no intimations of instituting a Stark-like "imperial prime ministry".

Exit polls suggest that many voters in this election were galvanized by either (or both): Mr. Koizumi's candor or (and) charm. In the case of the former, one might imagine a telling on the order of Bulworth, although, given the parameters of Japanese society, this is even more absurd than locating a true "tell-it-like-it-is" pol in the U.S. If a Japanese leader launched into a truth crusade, it would not be because of his impending assassination; it would be to cause his elimination! As for the charm question, well Mr. Koizumi may know how to look just rakish and unkempt enough to excite a woman into experiencing the urge to sweep him into her arms and straighten him out, but it is nonetheless hard to imagine a Japanese version of The American President getting made. From afar, Mr. Koizumi may seem romantic, but there you go; the key concept here is "afar" — as in emotional distance. The man, in fact, can be downright cold. By way of example, consider that when the PM divorced years ago he took custody of two of his sons (although they were raised by his sister as he made the long, grueling ascent up the party hierarchy). A third son, in his wife's womb at the time of their divorce, has never been acknowledged. As is traditional amongst some Japanese, Mr. Koizumi saw no reason to oversee the growth of a child that was not in the world at the time he cut his ties with the mother. No child in the world, no obligations. You may find this surprising, but some analysts suggest that the divorce and the single parenthood actually help soften Mr. Koizumi's image. Still, no intimations of Dave would seem in the offing.

Some voters in the September 11th election were either first-timers or else first-time LDP supporters. Desperate for reform, they are turning to the party that has been in power for nearly 50 uninterrupted years. It is hard to refrain from observing that this is tantamount to asking the jailers to freely enter the cell, close the door, and hand the keys over to those standing outside. Yet, there is a rending The Candidate-like naiveté in that plea. One may recall how well that turned out for an increasingly "handled" Bill McKay. Nonetheless, in the Japan of today, we can witness everyday folk reaching out, appealing for someone to ride forth on a white stallion and save this society. Sadly, the successful model for this sort of a movie doesn't really exist; not, at least, without dire consequences for the hard-charging savior.

And, indeed, although some have expressed optimism that the result of the PM's reign will be dramatic and long-lasting, that is far from a certainty. Viewing his political origins, as well as the culture in which he is operating, it is hard to imagine an unbroken chain of continuous success. More likely, it would be scripts from other movies that might serve as archetypes for the Koizumi story. Were it a Japanese flick it could easily be The Seven Samurai. There, as you may recall, four of the seven defenders did not make it to the closing credits. As for the remaining three — standing idly by, witnessing the self-congratulatory celebration of the villagers they had trained and defended — it was patent that the hired hands were no longer of utility. Whether neglected, underappreciated, an unnecessary accoutrement, or an embarrassing reminder of the other's prior weakness and need — the surviving samurai could see that their time in that village was now at an end.

American morality tales tend not to end with such a sobering coda. The High Noons of the American film universe prefer to draw stark distinctions between "black" and "white" in a manner that the murkier grays of Japanese society (well, of any society, for that matter) cannot easily obliterate, obscure or even harmonize with. Hollywood's preferred "holier-than-thou" resolutions that allow audiences to take sides (and benefit from the satisfying comeuppance delivered to those who have taken advantage of true, honorable folk) has little basis in reality — not in the Japan of today (or, indeed, of any day). Closer to the truth are those (fewer) contemporary tales such as Cool Hand Luke — stories about characters as cool as crisp cucumbers, who ride a hand full of nothing to resounding success; stories, though, that serve as allegories cautioning us mortals that even with success may come extreme sacrifice: pain . . . even death.

Thus, despite what initially appears to be a resounding positive resolution to Koizumi's electoral gambit, employing the logic and vernacular of Hollywood reengineering, one must wonder . . . "is there really any Japanese politician out there in the ReDot realm today — Mr. Koizumi included — who would wish to volunteer for the role of Luke?"

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