Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Random Memories #64 - things I wish I'd kept pt. 3 - Tokyo Pop (pt. 2)

This is a continuation of a post I started last Wednesday about the movie "Tokyo Pop". Part 1 is here.

Before I get to my continuation of my memories as sparked by watching this movie, there's something I'd like to say about the screen capture from the movie at the top of this post. Recently, I saw Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine" because I wanted to assess Cate Blanchett's Oscar-nominated performance. Both my husband and I thought the movie was pretty good, but my sister-in-law, who has lived in the Bay Area of California for her entire life, said that she felt it was horrible because the New York stereotypes that Allen had transplanted into San Francisco kept jarring her out of the story.

While I didn't have that experience with the movie, I empathized with where she was coming from. When I see scenes from Japan or that feature Japanese people that don't fit with my perception of the culture, I get annoyed and am taken out of the story. The picture above shows Carrie Hamilton's "Wendy" character with a transvestite (who I believe is British club singer, Marilyn, who was popular at that time). When I saw this, the first thing I thought was, "That giant crab is in Osaka and Wendy is supposed to be in Tokyo." It's things like things which you see and others who haven't lived in your skin don't see which changes your perceptions of the world around you. I identify with life in Japan (though not with being Japanese) much as my sister in law identifies with life in the Bay Area.

Getting back to the movie though...

Wendy's conversations with businessmen in rudimentary English in which they get excited about their exchange is pretty common. The foreigners in such situations generally have to show more enthusiasm for the situation than Wendy shows though. Anyone who was as lackluster as her would not last long or would at least get an enormous lecture until she changed. Also, note that her pay was docked for being a few minutes late and that the manager of the club she works in complains about how she is paid so much more than the Japanese girls. On both sides, this is common.

When I wanted a raise at my former company, the president used the fact that the Japanese office ladies were paid a lot less than me as an excuse. I was supposed to feel fortunate that I was paid less than office ladies rather than annoyed that I was paid less than my male coworker who was doing the same job as me. Though I was never late to my work, my husband was chastised during his first job in Japan for being one or two minutes late a few times when no students were scheduled in the first hour. To the Japanese staff, not being early, even when he had no appointments, was akin to being late. Back in those days, when he was still fighting back against the cultural norms, he used to come in early, but refuse to punch his time card until the clock registered one minute past the starting time as a way of tweaking them for what he viewed as extreme pettiness.

Turning back to the movie, note how Hiro is yelling in English and acting strange toward Wendy ("singing" the famous Jimi Hendrix solo) while apologizing and semi-bowing to the Japanese around him as he runs through Harajuku and chases Wndy down. If you paid close attention at the beginning of the movie when a young girl is performing for the same audience as Hiro's band, she speaks very politely and demurely to the man who is in charge (and who we can't see), then acts very crazy while she performs. The "weird Japan" stuff you tend to see on line is related to this sort of thing. To foreigners, the Japanese are very different than they are to each other. That crazed behavior is often confined to very specific settings and audiences, but it is focused upon in a manner which makes this atypical behavior seem typical.

When Wendy is with Hiro in the night club with the transvestite performer, she is waiting for the bathroom and says, "how you doin'?" to another foreigner who ignores her. Yeah, that happens, too. There's that weird territorial thing that you sometimes hear about.

You'll also note that Hiro meets Wendy in front of the statue of Hachiko before taking her to a shrine ("some place Japanese"). We're then treated to a little montage of them doing a bunch of supposedly "Japanese" things. When Hiro says, "this is the first time" for him to go to the area with all of the red gates, that also rings true. Many of my students, when I told them I'd gone to a particular area or done a very "Japanese" thing, they'd say they had never done that as it was something of low interest to them. I'm not sure, but the scene with the gates may also be one of those shots taken outside of Tokyo (possibly Fushimi Inari-taisha in Kyoto). Of course, if that is so, it is perfectly reasonable to assume Hiro took Wendy outside of Tokyo at this point in the movie.

When Hiro talks about being a rock and roll singer, the pronunciation of "Frank Sinatra" ("Sinotora"), the weird mixing of genres (Hendrix and Sinatra), and bowing while on the phone are also a part of the Japan experience. The way in which foreign folks have a strong sense of how Western pop culture fits into discrete eras is not present in Japan. The Japanese have that sense about their own pop culture, but ours is a jumble to them and that results in the confounding crazy quilt that I often experienced, including seeing Betty Boop and Felix the Cat all over the place in the 80's and early 90's.

Wendy and Hiro discuss his audition with a music promoter (called "Doda" here, a likely reference to "Udo Artists" - a large promoter in Japan, but I cannot be sure as it's not an area I'm very familiar with), he tells her that she can't understand Japan. While Wendy talks to other bands about trying to join them, they regard her as an alien in some cases and only want her as an accessory in others. They want to use her as a novelty. This is often the role of the single gaijin.

When Wendy finally lands a gig and plays with the band in a live house to a dead audience, she sings a punk version of "Home on the Range." This is the same song that she sings at karaoke. I don't know if this is still true, but back in those days, Japanese people often sang the same English song over and over again in karaoke because it was what they felt comfortable with. In 1990, the song everyone knew and sang was "YMCA" by the Village People. They delighted in doing the gestures that the original band performed to spell out the letters while they sang the song.

The dead audience, incidentally, is probably also accurate because live houses are often attended by the band's friends. When a band sucks, as the punk band Wendy performs with does, the audience members are probably there out of obligation. The live house system generally works by making the band responsible for ticket sales. They make a profit only if they sell enough tickets and have to pay the house if they don't sell enough in most cases.

After joining Hiro's band, Wendy waltzes into Dota's office and he accepts her tape. I'm not sure that this would work, but it does reflect the idea that foreigners get further than Japanese people when it comes to advancing certain agendas. Part of it is that they are willing to simply gaijin smash their way through rather than follow Japanese protocols. While I don't think one could do that at a major music promoter's office, there is a lot foreign folks can get away with while thumbing their noses at protocols that Japanese people can't (or wouldn't even try).

Hiro's rigidity about how things are done is true to form. Things are done a certain way and that is the end of the argument. There is little room for flexibility or creativity. Ultimately, it's the equivalent of a "monkey moment" (unplanned in this case) that opens the door for the band, but many foreigners work this angle to find success in Japan. It's easy to be a big fish in a small pond when you are the equivalent of Blinky, the three-eyed mutant fish on the Simpsons. That is what Wendy is to the Japanese.

When Hiro talks to his grandfather, as they are fishing at the river, he asks if his grandfather ever told his grandmother that he loved her. He said that he did not. They didn't talk about such things. The only strange thing about that scene is that Hiro asks the question at all. Most Japanese people don't think about saying, "I love you." Many of my students said the same thing as Hiro's grandfather. Their love was understood and they did not express it because it would be embarrassing.

Hiro struggles to say  "I love you" to Wendy, but she easily says it back. I was never in a relationship with a Japanese person, but this rings true based one what students told me. I think a Japanese person who was in love with a foreigner would be far more likely to openly say such things because such a person would be fundamentally different than the average Japanese person. Also, they may feel it was expected, and Japanese people tend to be good at getting themselves to do what is "expected."

Wendy meets up at a reggae bar with some foreigners. She's famous all over Japan and the man from Los Angeles has never heard of her. She also talks about how she doesn't know any of the music that is currently popular back home. A sleaze-bag, Minoru, tries to convince her to model and tells her that she can't sing forever and that she can model for awhile. He's spot-on about the short-lived nature of most foreigners when it comes to fame. They're fads. Japanese bands and singers can last, but foreigners are for novelty. Hiro's band confirms this when he argues with them about whether just any foreigner will do or if it's important that it be Wendy. The band is probably right. Foreigners are interchangeable objects.

In the scene that follows, Wendy sits on the steps of a shrine while a priest performs a ritual on a car. This illustrates something which happens a lot in Japan. There's this odd mix of the very old with the new. It's incongruence is something foreigners often marvel at, but it's a pretty mundane occurrence in Japan and makes perfect sense to them. The montage that follows has Wendy realizing how hollow her fame is. She has a conversation with Hiro which pretty much sums up how foreigners are regarded superficially.

In the end, Hiro performs one of his own songs in Japanese with bits of interspersed English. I can't tell you how many times we'd be walking around a store and a song would play that was exactly like this. In his song, the words are romantic and make sense. Usually, the words are silly and just tossed in for effect. They may be translations of the Japanese, but they're tossed in there mainly for color, not for meaning.

The only part of the movie which didn't resonate with me was Hiro's family, particularly his mother. I never lived with a Japanese family, but I did live next to one and the mother was in no way as self-involved as Hiro's mother. I still have a hard time believing a Japanese woman would serve her family KFC, put make-up on at the table while the family eats, and prioritize going to an aerobics class. I'm not saying it doesn't happen, it just didn't feel "right" to me based on the women I knew. The absent father, however, very much sounded correct. At that time, it was common for men to spend very little time at home, especially on weekdays.

You can see how this movie resonates with me. The people who wrote it really knew and understood what it is like to be a foreigner in Tokyo, especially a fair-haired female (which is what I am). It does show a great deal of what is true about life in Japan, though it is rather dated in terms of the look and feel of the movie.

It's a small movie and I don't even know if it is a "good" movie. I can only say that there are a lot of truths about life in Japan for foreigners as well as Japanese in it and that's why it'll be something I'll never forget. If you're thinking of living in Japan, watching it and really attending to some of the experiences and feelings that are there is a good way to prepare yourself for life in Japan after the honeymoon is over.


  1. I've been reading your blog for some time now and I really enjoy your observations and perspective on things. I look forward to your future posts.

    As an FYI on this post, though - the Giant Crab sign you talked about at the beginning is actually in Tokyo. It's one of several, in fact. I believe they are all from the same chain of restaurants as the one you are thinking of in Osaka.

    1. Thanks for the clarification, Fripp! I appreciate that!


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