Aliens in This World

An ordinary Catholic and a science fiction and fantasy fan.

Friday, October 31, 2003

Prolegomena to the Influence of Japanese Film on America

First, a brief comment on other people's comments. Yes, there are samurai and martial arts films which are bloodier than Kill Bill, Volume One. Yes, the infamous tentacle anime Urotsukidoji is also more violent and bloody than Kill Bill. But then, those who've seen it say there are entire regions of Hell less violent, bloody, nastyminded and laaaaame than Urotsukidoji. (That's why it's infamous.) This kind of film is just porn with a veneer of science fiction/fantasy, and has nothing to do with samurai or martial arts flicks, much less action anime. Please keep your genres straight to avoid such non sequiturs.

Now, I could talk about the superficial things, like cartoon shows made in America to look like they're made in Japan. But that's entirely superficial. Instead, I'll begin with my thoughts on Japan's influence on me and my generation.

The year was 1978. I had first seen Star Wars a month ago in a drive-in with my parents. At 6:30 in the morning on a station a hundred miles away, the new weekday morning cartoons had begun. We'd missed the first day and had gotten up late again today, but there was still at least half of this episode left of whatever this new Star Blazers show might be. My brothers and I flipped on the television, chunked the VHF knob to "19"...and found ourselves on Mars next to a small crashed spacecraft, kneeling beside an alien princess who'd died to give Earth a chance to survive. By the end of the episode, we'd seen the battleship Yamato raised from the now-dry seabed, now a starship serving all the Earth and rechristened the Argo. And at the end of the ep, the narrator warned, "Hurry, Star Blazers! There are 364 days left until Earth is destroyed!"

You better believe we woke up early the next morning.

People know kids love life-and-death, honor-and-betrayal sagas like Star Wars. Yet American kids then were given a consistent diet of healthy pabulum and poorly-written shows (live-action or animated made no difference), with a few of the old Looney Toons and Tom and Jerry shows to give us a taste of what could be. I had never known that a TV show not a soap could have a plot which continued from episode to episode without a reset button, or that a show for kids could include the deaths of characters we cared about. More than that, I'd never seen a show where the bad guy (Desslok of Gamilon, suave aesthete and sometimes-astute military dictator, though blind to certain important issues and prone to sudden disastrous rages) could have a sense of honor, be troubled by his own actions, and ultimately redeem himself. I'd definitely never been presented with a good guy (Derek Wildstar) who blamed his brother's death on his commanding officer, alternated Achillean whining with suicidal bravery, couldn't figure out how to treat the woman he loved, and finally had to face reality and become a responsible leader. It was heady stuff, even without beautiful art and a stunning score. It was also a tad bit distorted, since the American scripters had turned a show with some rather troubling Japanese Nationalist leanings and a lot of up-the-skirt shots into a Star Trek-like multinational crew led by a captain who drank vast quantities of "Earth mineral water"instead of sake. (I found out later that he drank a lot only to dull the pain of terminal radiation sickness and cancer. This made a lot more sense when you found out it was sake....) Still, the alterations were small, the American dub actors skillful, and the discovery that Japan was a real place where people told cool stories was important. That was what stuck with me, especially when anti-Japan sentiment hit my GM-heavy hometown in the eighties. I knew Japan wasn't a perfect place, but I knew it wasn't the home of faceless robot people, either.

Star Blazers taught me the virtues and drawbacks of basic Japanese values before I ever learned their names. Bushido: the way of the honorable warrior, always doing your duty, always ready to die, always respecting the honor of the opponent, never giving up unless all is lost and maybe not then. (And sometimes doing some stupid thing that gets yourself killed for no good reason, just because it makes you feel better about your honor.) The heart, which will lead you truly (but must often be denied for duty's sake). The importance of family (which also places intolerable obligations on you). The importance of getting married and raising a family (whatever it does to the woman's career or life). The importance of appreciating beauty (though beauty can be a trap) and g impermanence (though it can lead to despair). But really, all these things were not so different from the values of Western civilization. It was the proportions that were different, not the feelings themselves.

Oh, and about Star Wars -- I found out it had been modeled on Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress, a samurai movie. This data immediately convinced me and millions of other kids that a) Kurosawa was blessed by God and b) samurai movies must be really cool. It was a proud moment of my college career when we showed The Seven Samurai and Kagemusha in the video room at our gaming convention. By then, of course, it was the early nineties. So we were showing unsubtitled Japanese tapes of the RPG-inspired fantasy Record of Lodoss War as well as Vampire Hunter D and other fine productions of the Japanese imagination alongside some fairly pitiful low budget American movies like Beastmaster. I like an extremely loose Andre Norton adaptation as much as the next fan, but the comparison was not kind.

Especially since the Japanese stuff almost always looked better. The budget might be low -- but look at that shot composition! Look at the blood on the snow -- like a woodcut! Look at the costumes -- like something out of a museum! Who cares if the animation itself has a low number of frames per minute, or the anime characters' eyes never blink? Look at the gorgeous backgrounds, and the poetic story, and the silent shot of flowers, and the drawing on that still frame that saves them thirty seconds of animation! "Cheap, gorgeous and smart" beats "expensive, ugly, and stupid" every time. And so we began to wonder -- why can't American movies be more like that?

Another area in which Japanese shows of the day were far superior was in the area of music. While nobody could complain about the quality of American film scores (except if you didn't like hearing huge orchestral marches or Boomer songs with everything), American TV shows were not all that well served. American animation music had fallen into the pit of despond, and its hugely fun opening theme songs were being turned into brief instrumentals so as to stuff in more commercials. By contrast, Japanese cartoon scores were used as showcases for every genre of music, and current Japanese pop bands did the usually-catchy opening and closing songs. Meanwhile, shows like the women-in-mecha-suits versus evil-megacorp epic Bubblegum Crisis (not to be confused with the pitiful remake Bubblegum Crisis 2040) integrated pretty good rock into the storyline by making one character a member of the band "Pris and the Replicants". Naturally this was all a cynical moneymaking scheme, but it made money because the music was good. (The vocal album was the first anime import album I ever bought, and I still play it often.) When you contrasted this with well-meaning but lame shows like Jem and Kidd Video, I think the reason for J-Pop influence is pretty clear.

(And yes, I know Jem had award-winning writers and I like many of them; and I loved Kidd
at the time because it was one of the few watchable shows in a very boring season. But I always resented that they were what they were, instead of being really interested in good music and storylines that made sense. When an sf show like Bubblegum Crisis seems more realistic than a "real life" show like Jem, there's a serious problem.)

Finally, there was the beauty and expressiveness of Japanese voice actors and singers, a thing which has not only challenged American voice actors to improve but showcased the Japanese language. Most anime fans can recognize certain expressions and kanji, though unfortunately most Japanese classes are oriented solely towards business language and thus make it difficult to bridge the gap between what you hear and what it all means. To be sure, many anime fans have a greater opinion of their language skills than is warranted and have thus irritated many teachers with their "fanboy/girl Japanese". But my generation couldn't expect others to understand us. The new generation is more numerous and thus has many friends who use their favorite Japanese expressions incessantly in email and speech. (Given the number of Japanese expressions picked up by the WWII generation, it may just be that Japanese has an inherent fascination for English speakers.) So Japanese slang, long heavily influenced by English, is now becoming part of American slang. Expect it from teenagers near you. (And so much for the idea that American kids don't want to learn foreign languages.)

But let's go back to back-in-the-day, before American anime distributors and Cartoon Network made anime
easy to obtain. Of course we fans were influenced. Of course we plotted how to get our hands on Chinese martial arts flicks like Terry Lawson was always recommending (he was our film critic in Dayton before he went to Detroit). Oriental movies were neat and original and had all kinds of cool cultural differences. They also had lame translations, unrealistic gushes of blood, and wire fu...But you know, there's something likeable about those things, too -- the charm of someone else's conventions and problems. But we also liked the low budget American movies, of course. So, given what we liked, and that the fusion of American and Japanese cinema had already produced classics like Star Wars, Buckaroo Banzai and Big Trouble in Little China, we all eagerly awaited the day when bigger and better fusion films would come to us from the directors of our generation.

Enter Kill Bill: bigger, better, and casting Uma as more than a pretty face. Tarantino uses music with skill and care to underline his points (and his critics think it's all kitsch and irony, when it's obviously serious love of music at work). He uses Japanese aesthetics and Chinese sword flicks' spouting blood. He integrates live-action and anime, Eastern and Western action, and demonstrates in every frame that he loves all sorts of film with a whole heart. He clearly shows that the protagonist is not doing the right thing, but that she has little hope of getting justice through conventional methods, either. He questions bushido and honor, and underlines its importance. Then he leaves us wondering what will happen in Volume Two. Is the last sentence of the movie a sign of hope and redemption for the Bride, or an omen that revenge will take even more from her than her enemies did? Myself, I can't wait to find out.

(And btw, it's a fundamental mistake to think Tarentino loves "kitsch". To the true fan, this is not even a category. There is only "good", "bad", "so bad it's good", and the other axis of "cool/lame". Tarentino loves cool things, whether good or so bad it's good, and he strives to make films which include those things he deems cool. He also loves genre conventions because he loves the many genres of film. He is a fan, he makes movies for other fans, and he uses his movies to invite new fans to explore the world of film. He is very simple to understand, really; only critics find it hard.)

The most important thing is that Tarantino's Kill Bill is telling the story our generation knows all too well. When it comes down to the interests of kids vs. adults, adults will ruthlessly do whatever they please and leave kids to pick up the pieces -- which leads to a repetition in adulthood of this behavior by the very kids who had it done to them. (I can only trust that Tarentino's blinder critics will finally get this point when Kill Bill, Volume Two enters the theaters.)

Which leads us back to the comment which inspired this article. There's a little Japanese film called Battle Royale which made the same point. It's more violent than Kill Bill -- far too violent for American filmgoers -- and I hope fervently never to see it. The idea is that a class of Japanese children is put in a remote area and told that they must battle each other to the death. If they do not fight, they will be killed anyway. Naturally a Lord of the Flies scenario ensues, but that's not the point. The point is that Japanese society is set up to make children use up their childhood in grinding study, so that they can compete in exams for a few college slots. Those who fail the exams often kill themselves. Those overcome by study do, too, since their parents give them the impression that they are only worthwhile if they can pass the tests. American film fans like the movie not so much for the teen-on-teen violence as for the more shocking point, which makes them wonder if American society does the same thing. And that is the real influence Japanese films and anime have on American culture; they let us look at ourselves from a foreign point of view that our fandom has made familiar and hard to dismiss.

I should mention at this point that I don't much want certain influences creeping in. We aren't Japanese and bathing together isn't part of our culture, so we probably don't need more scenes of nekkid people bathing in hot springs. Our society has a better attitude toward women, so we don't need "panty shots", female shower scenes which exactly fit the odd Japanese censorship rules, or submissive women who live to help their husband's careers and make their children's lives not worth living. We probably don't need pretty homosexual male romance comics aimed at teenage girls (though I'm sure we'll be getting them) or huge amounts of social bonding through drunken karaoke (we don't have as strong of status boundaries to break, so what's the point?). We certainly don't need to pander to prejudice, as with anime's general refusal to acknowledge even the existence of non-American Asian immigrants, Japanese of Korean descent, burakumin ("untouchables" descended from bad Buddhist karma professions, like gravedigging or slaughtering meat -- discrimination is illegal but still goes on), the unemployed, and those born mentally or physically disabled. (Except blind people. That's culturally acceptable for some reason.) Nor do we need racist (or at least ignorant) depictions of black people, or the odd touch of anti-everybody gaijin.

On these issues, we have something to teach the Japanese, or at least for them to learn something for themselves. The current popularity of anime outside Japan seems to have produced more consciousness of prejudice problems for anime producers. Also, the affection and understanding felt by foreigners for the very stories writers feel are most Japanese, most "in the family" -- and thus thought to be least likely to please outsiders -- has given anime professionals a good deal of pause. The Japanese tend to pride themselves on their unique aestheticism and sensitivity of heart. Discovering that non-Japanese share the same feelings, and may even appreciate some stories more because of their foreignness, has sometimes been a shock -- though a lucrative one for them. We'll have to wait and see what happens.

Same thing here. But in the end, it may be that Japanese influence on American culture is strongest
where it can least be seen. Big eyes don't make something anime, any more than gushing blood makes Kill Bill a surgery. But in subtle ways -- determination, aesthetics, international understanding, feelings of the heart -- there are an awful lot of gaijin who are a little bit Japanese.


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