The blog of Tokyo based photographer and photojournalist, Damon Coulter

Babble

early picture of Rinko Kikuchi

I love this picture of Rinko Kikuchi from a polaroid sharing site that she obviously joined. It shows that even the famous, talented people in this world can relax and have fun and be ordinary human beings like the rest of us. Sort of what this post is about.  

Another talented person is David Alan Harvey, please, please visit his blog for a perfect example of what this sort of exercise should be about. I don’t think I have ever read such an inspiring collection of mini essays they are at every turn: personal yet professional; humorous, even when discussing the word “blog” which he hates and still profound; poetically erudite but never ungenerous to the reader so that we need to scratch our heads and wonder what he is on about. I have not been a regular reader because I have a few other blogs that I visit often enough to use up my limited free time but I aim to remedy that and put aside some quality time to read his enlightening musings; I know they will teach me something about photography and life in general. 

I am going to put him on the blogroll too so future readers and myself will be able to get to his site easier, I have shied away from doing it before because it felt a little like copying the other blogs I like and c’mon the man is a Magnum photographer I can’t pretend he’s a friend, mentor or even acquaintance, I’m almost certainly never going to meet him and he’ll probably never know I even exist. 

I have put a few biggish names on  there, ones that have motivated me to try new ideas and others that have moved me with their images but putting people like David Alan Harvey on that list to the right seemed a little like stating the obvious. He’s on everyone’s list after all. But his site is just so good that I want to put it where anyone whole stumbles across my thoughts and pictures here can find it quickly. So there it is have a look you won’t be disappointed. 

Blogs are a powerful medium for all manner of ideas nowadays but are still considered disposable in some ways. There are works of great worthiness out there in the blogosphere but that electronic pulse to the words we type gives most of the entries people post a cheaper feel almost as if they feel they don’t have to try so hard. Though we share our innermost thoughts with potentially billions of people we write for the most part as if it were just for us. A diary is personal and a “weB-LOG” is just that but nobody should write one nowadays as if the words were not to be shared, we all understand what we are doing even if we pretend it is personal and if you feel you have something to say it should be your duty to write it well and get it out there for the others to digest or keep it in a book and show it to no-one. 

In keeping with the theme of writing things that perhaps have some meaning to the wider world, and of course following the blogger tradition of private ranting I will tell you about what is going around my mind at the moment. 

It started a few weeks ago when I watched the movie Babel. Enthusing to some Japanese people about it afterwards, especially the awesome Rinko Kikuchi who is the real star of the movie, I was surprised to find that they all said it made them feel sick. 

Okay, hands up if you felt sick when watching Babel. No me neither. It appears this vomitous reaction to the movie is a peculiarly Japanese phenomena. Why that should be is a bit of a mystery but let us investigate.

Firstly we could assume that the Japanese stomach is more sensitive to the dizzying, trippy camera work of the Tokyo clubbing scene in question. Because as we all know the Japanese spend most of their time tranquilly inert, meditatively immersed in some Zen contemplation on the leaf’s attraction to the tree or where the wind goes or something like that. And of course Japanese movies and TV dramas are never prone to using unusual camera angles, or sound and lighting effects. In fact the whole of Japan is boringly still and monochromatic, earthquakes don’t happen and Tokyo Disneyland with it centrifugal roller coasters doesn’t exist. The food is stodgy and heavy and it is no wonder that such unusual pirouettes of visual excess had the Japanese reaching, en masse, for their sick-bags.   

Okay it was pretty trippy and most of the cinema goers that feel the sickness are middle-aged women for whom their first ecstasy trip, even vicariously, was always going to be a bad one. But that is not the point, the camera work was beautifully done, it put the scenes bang into context and that context is that Japanese youth are every bit as crazy, stupid, hedonistic and lonely as Americans or Europeans; or as the movie makes plain Mexicans and Moroccans too. And therein lays the problem if you ask me. The truth is that the same middle aged ladies that suffered so cruelly at the hands of the Mexican director’s story telling techniques are also easy fodder for opinion dispensing television hosts, who for their own agendas or just out of pure spite sometimes like to pass-off prejudice and back-scratching as journalism. 

Incidentally most of the middle-aged ladies I’ve spoken to at my other job as an English teacher thought Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu was American and were quite shocked to discover the truth; the easy cheapening that calling the movie “a typically American image of Japan” could have to lend weight to their borrowed opinions had to be quickly re-evaluated in the light of this new information and, as a teacher, I was proud of the newly-vitriolic adjectives they come up with such as “Hollywooded” or even “Brad Pitty”  

Because the dilemma is the Japanese can’t come out and say directly the movie is bad, they are much too proud of Rinko Kikuchi and her Oscar nomination for that. She was robbed by the way and should have won. Also the movie has had almost universally good reviews and where is was pretty easy to attack Memoirs of a Geisha and The Last Samurai with their romanticised image of Japan, Babel is different, there is little to find fault with in the movie so instead it is being given a kind of unofficial public health warning.  

Actually The Last Samurai wasn’t attacked that much, the Japanese loved the fact that the dignity and beauty of the Japanese spirit was so lovingly portrayed. The movie is considered accurate because Tom Cruise learns a kind of Bushido form Ken Watanabe and though Tom is of course the hero because it was “Hollywooded”, to the Japanese, Mr Watanabe’s character’s noble sacrifice for the proud traditions of historical Japan struck many chords.  

To my mind the western envy of the Japanese abilty to do just that: to see the good in every situation, to strive with dignity, honour and patience for what you believe in was what Memoirs of a Geisha was about also. We are suckers for that shit in the west at the moment and Geisha was a celebration of nothing but perseverance. There is no word so over used in Japan as “Gambete.”  It means “don’t give up”, “hang in there”, “tough it out” and is an essential Japanese character trait. So what was not Gambete about Sayuri in that movie? She strived against amazing hardships, she hung in there even when all seemed hopeless and even her last desperate effort to win her man where we found her on her back with a fat slobbering American soldier molesting her (and this in an American movie!!) she had dignity by the bucket load.

Mostly it was the star, Zhang Ziyi`s Chineseness of course which made her unpopular and as un-Japanese as could be. But lets just admit, Rinko Kikuchi aside, there are precious few talented Japanese actresses that could have taken on that role and as for understanding the culture, I’m with AA Gill on this, if not much else: when a large percentage of your culture comes from China saying that a Chinese actress just doesn’t get the particulars of being Japanese is “a bit rich.”   

Anyway I wish I had a hundred yen for every time someone who has never even seen a Geisha tells me the movie wasn’t authentic. How do they know? The same is true of Babel because most middle ages ladies in Japan don’t pop pills and spin-out to techno in downtown Tokyo clubs. Neither do that many young people to tell the truth. But that movie was set in the present and if they wanted to they could find that life, it exists, just because you don’t want it to doesn’t make it false.

To a lesser degree, but one that caused more bile to be spilt than Babel was Lost in Translation’s take on the weirdness of Japan. There was not a thing in that movie: from the unusual antics of the TV host (is name is Matthew by the way and he and his show is the most original and funniest thing on television) to the porno manga comics was false and all can be easily experienced by anyone who is here even a short time. Pride is one thing, and people should have pride in their country but pretending the strange or embarrassing doesn’t exist is wrong. It’s not that Americans only see the bad bits of Japan it’s that the Japanese think these observations are bad things whereas in the west we think they are original and fun. To my mind the selfish, uptight Americans in that movie came off much much worse than the Japanese all of whom seemed to be having a good time with many friends. Scarlet Johansson and Bill Murrey were by contrast lonely and sad most of the time, realising too late that it was already too late to change much about their lives. The only fun they had was when they were out and about in Japan singing karaoke or eating. The rest of the time they sat in their western style hotel rooms looking out at western style skyscrapers with absolutely nothing to inspire them at all. 

Myopic imagining of the idea of Japan are a growing problem here, the inability to see the truth of the past or the present is going to cause big problems in the future. The current government seems keener than any before to sweep the malaise gripping this country under the tatami with nationalistic pronouncements and look the other way policies like Olympic bids, patriotic lessons in school and hyping the dangers of North Korea. The incumbent Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe has determined to build a beautiful Japan but so far his words are just that, the actions needed to achieve that are lost in jingoism as if that were enough.

But that`s another post I haven`t the energy for politics at the moment.

I will finish on another lexicographic note because  I love the word incumbent it seems so apt for Mr. Abe because it sounds so negative. It is not of course the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as: “1. Necessary for someone as a duty. 2. Currently holding office. 3. The holder of an office or post.” None of which are particularly positive either. But it sounds more like a word belonging to the stable of annoying situations like: incurable, inconvenient or inconsequential. That last one especially is so very Shinzo Abe. 

Anyway this was more about movies I like about a country I like so that`s it for now.

Damon  

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