Miracle in Kyushu, family disintegration

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「家族より音楽と世界を選んだ」“Before family I chose music and life”, a young divorced Japanese father tells his eldest son Koichi on the phone when the latter begs him to come back home. Each brother –they are also related in real life, Koki and Oshiro Maeda- lives with a different parent hundreds of miles away from each other, but somehow they struggle to keep their family-status relationship through constant telephone calls. Both have different personalities that seem to fit their respective custodian: Koichi, 12, lives with his mother and grandparents in Kagoshima and is mature, self-contained and laconic; Ryunosuke, in Fukuoka, 2 years his junior, is like the father, expansive, carefree and full of life.

Director and scriptwriter Hirokazu Koreda, a XXI century’s brilliant eyewitness of the traditional Japanese family’s disintegration, already shocked worldwide audiences in 2004 with a painful story of children abandonment, 誰も知らない Nobody knows, and only 2 years ago explained to us the role of Japanese women in society, with the allegorical 空気人形 Air doll. This time, in 奇跡 Kiseki (Miracle), without the gruesome details of his previous films, reflects mildly but consistently about both worlds of adults’ and children’s, their similarities, differences and their interrelations.

One of the many things that startles Westerners who start a life in Japan -I haven’t got used to it myself yet, even after 5 years- is the way mothers talk to their kids, simulating they are children themselves too, and creating an atmosphere of naïveté with quite strange results, which seem to promote more childish behavior in a spiral of mutual stupidity. I remember dating a few years ago a Japanese woman in her late twenties who used to talk to me that way too, maybe condescending my lack of Japanese proficiency or simply deducing that my condition of foreigner made me a child, unable to understand basic situations or implicit social rules; maybe she just wanted to look 優しい affectionate. The fact is that even at the time my Japanese was good enough to understand and notice her tone and always made me feel like an idiot, especially with people around. I wonder if Japanese kids feel the same way.

Related to this, I happen to be reading a book about Tanizaki Junichiro by American feminist scholar Margherita Long and she cites Tomiko Yoda, who confronts “claims that Japanese society promotes cozy mother-child dynamics such as intimacy, indulgence, and protection with claims that the same dynamics make Japanese society infantile, suffocating and pathological”. I also think that a society that promotes childish behavior even in teenagers fails to understand how mature and able to understand complex matters a 10 or 12-year old person can be, as the movie shows. In Kiseki, children’s behavior and conversations –even the superstitious thinking about the occurrence of miracles and coincidences- is not that far from the adults’. Male characters, the father, the teacher and the grandfather, seem to understand that and promote in the children independence and maturity, while the mother keeps on playing the game of having a 12-year-old baby at home.

My friend Luisa, Japanese-Brazilian third generation herself, came to Japan at 18 and now she has 2 kids of around Koichi and Ryunosuke’s age. She used to tell me how different Japanese children are compared to Brazilian ones due to the different upbringing, how her kids are completely naïve while the ones overseas are witty and resourceful; but she is fine with that: “children must be children, they don’t need to know too early about the bad things of life”. I disagree with her: the sooner they know about life, the less traumatic it will be later when they fully become part of society. It’s not necessary, though, to reach extremes like the dreadful lives of explored children from movies I’ve recently seen –Anjos do sol (Brazil), Holly (Cambodia)-, both from 2006, good films but not recommended for too sensitive people.

Sometimes the pattern is the opposite. In some cases, especially in Japan, with age there is a regression in terms of responsibility and maturity, like for example, when at the university. All the pressure is just to enter, to pass the entrance exams; once you are inside, you can go back to your good old days, dust your childhood and forget about life duties. And if you are lucky enough to enter a prestigious private university from elementary or middle school, then you can afford to play the child longer. A college student about to graduate told me the other day when having lunch together on campus: “The last time I studied hard, I was 10!”. I just couldn’t believe it.

Another interesting point in the movie is the clash of lifestyles and values between a traditional Japanese society based on a hierarchical family with tight and well-defined ways, roles and duties, and a more modern free-thinking one based on individuality and personal development; the former secures conventional values and social harmony, the latter aspires to happiness. And the young characters here, in spite of the respect they feel for their elders, seem to be willing to follow the second path.

The success of this movie is based on the fact that, far from an easy happy ending, it chooses to face up to actual life accepting reality the way it is and teaching us to cope with that. After all, having divorced parents is not such a bad thing if we are properly taught to deal with it. And everybody has the right to choose music and life.

Andarushia, James Bond and The Vascongadas

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Japan has been successful imitating and even improving West technology, architecture, fashion, etc., but when it comes to commercial cinema, she needs to reconsider and start from the beginning again.

In アンダルシア、女神の報復 Andalucia, the Goddess’ Revenge, the last blockbuster for the national market, we have the obligatory car and motorcycle chase, breathtaking sceneries, fights hand to hand, shootings and a conspiracy with embassy secret agents, double secret agents and a beautiful female spy. But, in the end, in spite of an impeccable technical filming and production, it doesn’t convince. I think that the problem is in the script, every good story’s foundation. If there is not an original script with intelligent and sharp dialogues and a logical story line, the movie, as in this case, fails. Here we must attend long, slow and boring speeches explaining everything as if it were a foreign language grammar class. The scriptwriters -if there are any- should not underestimate the audience and leave some ambiguity shortening the dialogues; in the end, giving too many details creates more confusion and what is worse, tediousness. Besides, same as in literature: “Don’t tell it, show it”. They could learn a few lessons from Ocean’s eleven or even Memento.

In Andalucia it seems that someone wanted to film Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia and a few dramatic aerial images of Malaga’s Ronda, and adjusted the plot for the stills to fit in the movie; the G20 summit and the skiing resort are just concessions to become a 007-like film.

As for the acting, applause to the beautiful and expressive Meisa Kuroki, a Japanese young woman from Okinawa who happens to be one fourth Brazilian. Juji Oda, the main actor, is not too bad, although it’s not justified either to have him pose in front of the camera for such long shots as if he were Marlon Brando. His character is the epitome of self-control, paternalism, self-denial and unimpeachable morality, like a cliché of a modern day bushido-practitioner; and the opposite of his Western counterpart, my worshipped James Bond: a sarcastic, playful and dipsomaniac womanizer and gambler but still faithful to his principles. I got acquainted to the immortal British character through my father’s addiction to his adventures. In my teens, the living room at home looked like a James Bond’s museum with all Ian Fleming’s novels and 007 movies in any possible format. If one day my progenitor had brought a real-size wax doll of his hero and set it next to the TV, nobody would have been surprised. Now, I doubt anybody would be willing to set a replica of Kosaku Kuroda on his tatami room.

As for the Spaniards’ depiction, what can I say? Apart from the careless Interpol officer who makes sexual advances on the protected witness in front of a Japanese top diplomat, there is not even one Spanish character whose personality be even minimally shown. They are just wandering beings, full of impulses like the aggressive taxi driver, drinking and eating tapas in bars, dancing flamenco or training as bullfighters. If the director wanted to really show the “miserable irresponsibility” of our police forces, he could at least have created a mean and corrupt character in the line of Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant, and not a caricature of a neighborhood policeman with an English even crapper than that of the Japanese.

To top the lack of verisimilitude, a young Japanese man with a teenage-idol hairstyle becomes the Interpol agent in charge of the operation in Spain, without speaking a word of Spanish! At least, they didn’t make the female character do ぶりっ子 burikko (pretending to be stupid and/or childish), like in Princess Toyotomi.

To finish, a hilarious note: as Abel, my colleague and extra in the movie tells me, the map of Spain that they are using on their web page represents the Spanish regions with names from before democracy, i.e., the 70’s. Las Vascongadas, Castilla la Vieja and Castilla la Nueva! How tactless!

OKINAWA’S UTOPIA

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Okinawa is part of Japan without being really “Japanese”: six months of humid summer, an inscrutable dialect and a much more relaxed life-style, only shaken by political disturbances due to the American bases. スリーポイント Three points shows some of these issues with its Okinawan subtitled stories of a bare-handed giant crab hunter, cases of families coming from mainland and interviews to American soldiers and locals.

The greenish and glittering images are shared with another Okinawa-related movie, ニライカナイからの手紙 Nirai Kanai kara no Tegami. The title refers to a legend about an utopian place in the ocean to the East, whose seabed is home to the Gods, who sometimes make a fortunate or unfortunate visit to mortals on the islands. This is a more commercial but achieved film with a convincing Aoi Yu as protagonist: a mother must abandon her small Okinawan island for Tokyo and leaves behind with her aging father a little girl, who emotionally survives through short but moving letters arriving every year on the day of her birthday. I must admit that I was deceived by an apparently gruesome story in the line of Takeshi Kitano’s 菊次郎の夏Kikujiro’s summer, or Hirokazu Koreeda’s 誰も知らない Nobody knows, and took me more than one hour to understand the similarities in the plot with My life without me by Spanish director Isabel Coixet. In general it’s an entertaining and technically spotless film, except for the last 10 minutes, which look more like a tear-jerking torture that a good conclusion to a well presented story.

The other 2 points from the former movie are Kyoto and Tokyo. Under the surface of a conservative and traditional city, another documentary-like filming shows the hip-hop scene’s underdogs with a seasoning of violence, drugs and even extortion. Japan’s capital is a city of slick office ladies, チンピラ chimpiras (punks, delinquent to be) and people with a past: by accident, two mentally unstable persons get emotionally involved in the game of incarnating one another’s relatives.

At ニライカナイ Tokyo represents a provincial girl’s dream of becoming a famous photographer. And eventually she does, but, to cite Israeli author Amos Oz, “all dreams end up in a letdown because any dream is spoiled the very first moment that it becomes true”; and Okinawa is, once again, the longed-for paradise.

Tokyo, idols and salary men

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The post- Meiji Restoration author Nagai Kafu (1879-1959) used to say that the women in the lower classes –sometimes even “indecent woman” like geishas, bar waitresses and prostitutes- had a better heart than those of the middle class. Well, the main female character at Lost Paradise in Tokyo seems to completely prove his assertion. Former オーエル office lady (Satoko Nishimura), mediocre idol consoling mediocre サラリーマン salary man (Fara) and call-girl by night (Marin); three names for the 3 faces of this complex character who becomes emotionally attached to a 2-member family (Mikio and Saneo) when she is hired to release the autistic elder brother’s sexual impulses.

No recent movie showing the world of Japanese salary man can avoid depicting them as XXI century slaves and this one is not an exception. Here, the real state company in question is leaded by a military-type subordinate-harassing self-confidence-destroyer man who can’t stop shouting to a young Mikio: “Kokoro kara warae!” “Smile from your heart!”. What a paradox (the psychological term would be cognitive dissonance): even though the sellers are under a very malignant pressure, they must not only smile but also feel happy inside. It’s then when the spectator understands the role of idols as an escape from a stressing, tedious and strict world to a more playful, even childish existence, free from the responsibilities and problems of the adult life.

Two more aspects of Japanese society are implicit in the story: one of them is the concept of 義理 giri (social, family obligation), much stronger than in any other culture. When the mother dies, the young office worker must take care of a mentally handicapped お兄ちゃんoniichan (elder brother). Instead of leaving him in the hands of the social services, he deals with him after work at the cost of his own mental health and eventually his physical integrity. The other aspect is voyeurism lato sensu. Apart from the dark side that most Japanese men hide and some of my J female friends often tell me about, in this case is just the desire to know about other people’s lives, especially the sordid and covert nooks. As a society where most emotions are secret but latent and nobody talks openly about personal matters, the need to peep is represented by documentary director (an alter ego of Kazuya Shiraishi, the own movie director, still in his thirties?) who pays a high amount of money to film a mixture of AV (adult video) and reality show with the former 3 characters as protagonists.

This is a story about altruism and about the search for emotional attachment and commitment in a hostile society for the individual. If on the way to happiness your survival costs you a turquoise-blue ocean island in Ireland, it doesn’t really matter. Maybe that is the price to expurgate your past sins and start a new life as a “decent woman”.

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