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   Now in our eleventh calendar year
    PCR #520  (Vol. 11, No. 11)  This edition is for the week of March 8--14, 2010.

"Green Zone"  by Mike Smith
Mystery Science Theater 3000: XVII  by ED Tucker
Travels to Japan on Film  by Jason Fetters
Coming Soon .... Final Oscar Thoughts .... Passing On .... .... .... .... .... .... Mike's Record Shelf by Mike Smith

Travels to Japan on Film

American travelers who journey to Japan come back with funny stories of an ancient culture vastly different to the Western eye. Hollywood and Indies films have tried to capture the experience of being in Japan numerous times at the movies. How close are any of these films to what it is really like?

Marlon Brando starred in Sayonara (1957) about an air force pilot who falls in love with a Japanese theater performer. Unfortunately I never saw Sayonara, however Brando was in the Kansai area so he did experience Japan first-hand as a traveler. Since Brando was a movie star he didn’t receive the average-person-going-to-Japan treatment. He was probably well taken care of and avoided some of the culture shock.

The first movie I remember seeing about being in Japan was in 1986 starring Michael Keaton as Hunt Stevenson in Gung Ho. Directed by Ron Howard, Gung Ho is about All-American Hunt Stevenson who tries to save the town of Hadleyville, PA as a Japanese company buys the auto plant that he manages. Cultural misunderstandings ensure as Japanese bosses bring unique Japanese business culture to Hadleyville.

During the opening sequence, Hunt travels to Japan to meet with Assan Motors. Here is where real Japan is only glimpsed. You see Keaton stumbling around his surroundings as he gets lost in Tokyo and ends up talking to a farmer in a rice field that he can’t understand. He babbles in English to a confused farmer. That does happen in Japan. I can remember my first time walking from Makino train station trying to find Kansai Gaidai University and winding up in a rice field talking to a farmer who had no idea what I was saying. Finally we both gave up trying to communicate and I shuffled off.

You also see Michael Keaton looking at all the weird plastic food models inside restaurant windows and he makes a grimace with his face as he sees a raw egg with seaweed over rice. The next scene shows Keaton eating an Egg McMuffin walking out of McDonald’s. That also really happens in Japan. I remember making a foolish vow to only eat Japanese food while in Japan. Two weeks later I was munching on a Big Mac. It just happens to you.

The best scene in Gung Ho is seeing Keaton’s future Japanese boss getting yelled at for poor performance. Keaton wanders in and asks the man doing the screaming the most gaijin question of all, “Is this Assan Motors? 'Cause I am really lost.”

The lost traveler is such a common occurrence in Japan that you take it for granted and expect to get asked directions. Some travelers get irate and shout, others stumble angrily along without asking, and then there are those who have it together and happily accept being lost. The later group has the best time being in Japan. You have to make the best of it, no matter what.

The rest of Gung Ho was just a standard '80’s comedy about Japanese bosses and doing company exercises and the two different nationalities not getting along at work. I thought Gung Ho fell apart just after the beginning.

The next movie, and the one that did the best job presenting Japan to the West, was Mr. Baseball (1992) that starred Tom Selleck as Jack Elliot, an aging Baseball player whose poor performance causes him to get traded to a Japanese baseball team. Elliot travels to Nagoya to begin training. There are a lot of incidents in the movie that are real.

In the opening, the Japanese interpreter assigned to Jack tells him that there are places to go and people to see and Jack says, “arriving drunk and tired.” That is indeed accurate after an 18-hour flight. I was once on a flight that took 24 hours exactly, including layover time, and I didn’t get much sleep at all. Still at the airport, the Japanese press asks Jack Elliot, “What do you think of Japan?”

Jack says, “there are a lot of short people walking very fast.”

In Japan, Americans have a bad reputation for being sarcastic at the expense of others and this doesn’t go over well with the Japanese. It is just this type of sarcasm that causes some films to do so poorly in Japan (like 2003's Lost in Translation, which I'll get to in a minute).

There are several scenes with Jack losing his temper, which is the worst thing a traveler in Japan can do. Finally he learns to control his anger and he matures enough to get along.

When you travel to Japan, everyone goes through different stages of culture shock from How Great It Is To Be Here, in the beginning, to Get Me the Hell Out of Here, at the end. Mr. Baseball shows each stage of culture shock and how Jack Elliot reacts and copes.

The worst film for the traveling experience is Lost in Translation. Bill Murray starts out OK by accepting criticism from a typical Japanese director then he ends up getting rude and sarcastic to a Sushi chef. This paints a bad example of Westerners and it is no surprise that Lost in Translation didn’t do well at all. Murray plays an aging actor who is typical of some American travelers who go to Japan, get bored by not venturing out to see the country, and confine themselves to the hotel and the hotel bar getting drunk. That is like saying, “I’m here in Japan but I don’t want to go out and do anything.”

Tarantino did a better job as The Bride, Uma Thurman, travels to Okinawa to meet sword smith and Sushi chef, Hattori Hanzo in Kill Bill (2003.) In Kill Bill, the exchange between Sonny Chiba as Hattori Hanzo and The Bride is very real. The chef asking what words do you know in Japanese and Uma saying a few basic words. This is met with the usual, “You say arigato just like a Japanese.” While not true at all, this is the Japanese person’s way to encourage Westerners to keep studying.

These are just a few examples of travels to Japan on film. Some are forgotten and will become lost over time but some are actually entertaining and accurate with respect to the Japanese. The best example is still Mr. Baseball. Spring is almost here and Baseball season will start up soon. It is the perfect time to watch Mr. Baseball on DVD.

With that, sayonara.

"The Asian Aperture" is ©2010 by Jason Fetters.  Webpage design and all graphics herein (except where otherwise noted) are creations of Nolan B. Canova.  All contents of Nolan's Pop Culture Review are ©2010 by Nolan B. Canova.