Many people still think Japan is inscrutable. It’s a cliche reinforced on the Japanese side by another cliche that says Japan is “unique,” and which is further reinforced by the tendency to explain cultural aspects as if they were museum exhibits. Much of NHK’s English language content falls into this realm. Another common method of explication is using contrast. On the local NHK series “Japan Cool,” young people from various countries talk about specific aspects of Japan by comparing them to things in their own cultures, and since most people nowadays are brought up to respect “differences” they take things as they are rather than impose their values on them. That sounds like common courtesy, but only if you believe that your values aren’t universal.
During the last week of January, NHK ran a series on its BS-Hi channel called “Tokyo Modern” consisting of documentaries about Japan directed by non-Japanese filmmakers. Though there was little stylistic overlap among the films, each approached its subject from an inquisitive frame of mind. NHK, which helped fund the films, wanted Japanese viewers to see how foreigners see Japan, but they were less notable for explaining how Japan is different than they were for pointing out how everyone operates by the same set of life standards.
Sometimes the insight on display was the product of an attitude that embodies another cliche, that of the brash Westerner. Veteran BBC documentarian Sean McAllister’s “Japan: A Story of Love and Hate” (which NHK retitled with the milder “Naoki”) won two awards at the 2009 Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival. McAllister’s film is not set in Tokyo but rather in Yamagata, where he focuses on a 56-year-old former student activist and company owner who lost everything in the postbubble economic collapse and now barely makes a living as a part-time postal employee.
Naoki Sato is open, intelligent and speaks good English — he relishes using the f-word for effects he obviously can’t produce in Japanese. His iconoclasm is the only thing he’s got left, though it doesn’t seem to get him anywhere.
He lives with a girlfriend young enough to be his daughter but who nevertheless saved him from homelessness. Their relationship is often difficult to watch. Both drink and smoke way too much, and Sato’s admission that he’s no longer interested in sex suggests that the girlfriend, Yoshie, who works nights at a hostess bar, is sacrificing more than she is willing to admit by supporting him. McAllister wants to offer a representative example of Japan’s working poor, but it’s his determination to make Sato admit his own failings that makes the documentary compelling. The social conditions that led to Sato’s downfall may be specific to Japan, but his situation is of his own making.
Two filmmakers, Jill Coulon of France and Byamba Sakhya of Mongolia, also focus on a single person to shed light on something that tends to get the museum treatment: sumo. Unlike McAllister, the two women make a point of being nonintrusive. There’s no on-screen interaction with their subject and no narration. The French title, “Une Vie Normale,” sounds purposely ironic since the young Hokkaido man at the center of the film who enters the Oshima stable right out of high school is miserable because life isn’t normal. Actually, he finds it dull and frustrating. In this case the NHK-chosen title, “Shinbo” (patience), more accurately describes what the film imparts about the process of becoming a rikishi (professional sumo wrestler, literally “strong man.”)
The omniscient observer approach is also utilized by Finnish director Pirjo Honkasalo in “Ito” (Thread), her impressionistic film about Buddhism. The subject is a young priest who also runs a tiny Tokyo bar. The film gives the impression that the Japanese don’t really understand Buddhism and hardly think of it as a “religion” in the conventional sense. Inscrutability is built into the philosophical epigrams that pepper the priest’s voiceover, but when he deals with people — a woman in prison for killing her husband, a man who doesn’t find much comfort or meaning in the memorial service he’s going to hold for his late father — he’s as prosaic as a plumber. People seem to come to him for advice but all he can do is imply that life is a drag and then you die.
Honkasalo’s approach is as indistinct as her subject matter, which could have also been the case with “The Fragile Heart of Moe” except that the Indian director, Bharath Murthy, knows exactly what he’s looking for. Murthy is a fan of Japanese manga and uses the documentary to explore aspects of manga he doesn’t fully understand. Starting with the Comiket Convention, where independent manga artists peddle their wares, Murthy gradually gets more detailed in his investigation of “moe,” a word that describes the ineffable appeal of manga and anime. He concentrates on two female manga artists and asks them polite but revealing questions about sexual identity, which leads to a deeper exploration of “boys love” comics and the subculture of “fujoshi,” or women who have been “spoiled” by their fascination with homosexual men and 19th century European style.
“I had no idea what moe really meant,” Murthy’s Japanese cameraman comments at one point. He learned something that caused him to look at the world, and not just Japan, a little differently. That turns out to be the theme of the remaining documentary, German director Veit Helmer’s “Strangers in Tokyo,” a grab bag of portraits of individual foreigners who call Tokyo home. While the documentary shows how these people have adapted to Japanese life, the overall implication is that the changes they’ve undergone have less to do with Japan than with the larger experience of “learning something new every day,” as one subject puts it. And the main thing they’ve learned is that Japan, like any country, is a place you understand one person at a time.