Expats can find their creative mojo in Japan's inspiration and isolation

Comparing attitudes in Britain and Hollywood, Marc Maron once told fellow comedian Simon Pegg, “It seems to me that if you pay your dues in the U.K. and you’re visible and you come up with a good idea, you’ll probably get your opportunity.”

I have no idea if this is true or not, because when I was in Britain I felt guilty for even having dreams. Of course, there are many driven and successful people back in the U.K., but I was always afraid to stick my neck out for fear the guillotine would come crashing down.

Many people ridicule “you can do anything you want”-type mantras and find some pride in being an everyman. Even though the cliche of the millennial generation is that we were all raised to think we were “that special little guy/girl,” my mother wanted me to fit in more with the faces in the crowd. I can remember a conversation with her where she said, “You’re no different to everyone else — you just try to be because you think it makes you more interesting.”

She was probably right. There is nothing wrong with being humbled and accepting that perhaps you’re not as unique as you thought you were — that’s a good thing. The problem is the low self-esteem that comes with believing you have nothing to offer the world, and the fear that if you strove for your dream, even your best efforts would end in depressing failures.

Moving to Japan changed my way of thinking. One reason for this was the comforting isolation of living abroad on an island that makes you feel special and unique. But there’s also the truth that if you are a driven creative otaku, you have found the perfect place. There are a lot of Japanese guys out here looking to feel some worth in their own endeavors, and for them, collaboration with a foreigner can lend some sense of authenticity and uniqueness to a project. Just as having a random Japanese member can make a Western band appear “cool,” the same works the other way around. I made mix CDs of my music in the U.K. and handed copies of them out to people I knew, most of whom never even commented. In contrast, within a few months of doing the same thing in Japan, I had formed a band.

The inflated sense of being special that Japan fosters among non-natives can be dangerous, because it can fool you into believing that you’re more interesting than you truly are. But that same emotion can also lead you to do things that might otherwise feel like symptoms of a mid-life crisis. I went as far as to start writing my own screenplay after reading Syd Field’s “How to Write a Screenplay” (the same book Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg used while writing “Shaun of the Dead”).

When I lived in the U.K., I considered myself unworthy to even entertain the thought of writing a screenplay, let alone admit to taking “inspiration” from a great contemporary movie. Even in Japan, the idea of the English teacher working on his screenplay in Starbucks is a mortifying mental image. I don’t want to be that guy. But why not? It’s better than being the critic who finds time to complain about everything but none to produce a work of their own. Without that double-kick of isolation and self-importance that comes with living in Japan, I wouldn’t have had the gall to give some of my dreams a try.

I was able to garner some interest for the screenplay and connected with a professional director to shoot it. The guy I was working with was willing to take two days off to work on it after getting no sleep the previous day. Although many things about living in Tokyo can be frustrating, the abundance of obsessive, passionate and creative guys available to collaborate with on projects is one of the things that keeps me stimulated here.

The movie we shot was a largely original story inspired by Kobo Abe’s novel “The Box Man.” My film, called simply “Box Man,” is about a salaryman who runs away into the forest with a mysterious man wearing a cardboard box on his head. Like a lot of people, I often dream of running away from everything myself; yet at the same time, by sticking around I have been able to achieve some of things I’ve always wanted to.

Although I am only working on a small scale, it has been immensely satisfying to see this passion project through to completion. The hard part about being creative without a fan base (or even much of an audience) is tuning out the voices that say you need to be validated by others for what you make. It’s also difficult to accept that before you can even begin to be good enough that somebody might like what you do, you first have to go through the stages of being terrible, bad and average.

One of my favorite films is the documentary “American Movie,” which follows a passionate and driven filmmaker struggling against his limitations to produce a low-budget horror movie. It’s an effective reminder that it’s important to maintain momentum when working on projects rather than worrying too much about whether they’re worthy endeavors or not. As an English-teaching Briton here with limited Japanese ability, I understand the cold reality that I will probably never “make it” in terms of gaining widespread recognition for my work, but to keep doing the things I enjoy is in some ways just as important.

In conclusion, although this “what I have is enough” attitude may be part of my British defeatism shining through, I believe that as long as you continue to do things you see value in, you have no reason to consider yourself a “loser.”

William Bradbury is a freelance writer and musician living in Tokyo. The trailer for “Box Man” can be seen at vimeo.com/117130454. Foreign Agenda offers a forum for opinion. Comments: community@japantimes.co.jp

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