Friday, November 7, 2008


It's the extremes of society that I find less and less interesting. They are easy to seize upon, to highlight and put so much emphasis upon, but in fact do they have as much influence upon society as we assume? It is very easy to start viewing Japan in terms of extremes, the most common theme being the "clash" between the hyper-modern and the traditional. Now that I have started to settle in, I thought it would be interesting to watch Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation. I hadn't seen it in years and I remembered it dealing exactly with this idea of the often confusing "conflicts" of Japanese culture. The main character finds herself amidst loud gambling and video halls, karaoke cubes and is overwhelmed by the bright lights of Shibuya one day and the next day goes to Kyoto for her dose of the traditional, tranquil shrine. This us usually the way that Japan is portrayed, no shades of grey.

Last weekend, listening to a wailing Satsuma biwa performance in front of the Terakuni jinja (the main temple in downtown Kagoshima), I looked up into the hills behind us and couldn't avoid the Shiroyama Hotel. The Shiroyama is one of the fanciest hotels in probably all of the prefecture, and sitting prominantly on top of the hills overlooking the city it is a famous site for over the top weddings. For the Christmas season, all the trees on the hillside have been decked out in blinking Christmas lights, and as you can imagine a huge hillside of blinking lights doesn't mesh well with a religious musical performance that has it's roots in 17th century high court of southern Japan. But one gets very used to this, and I would argue that rather than have one's experience in Japan be defined by tradition and modernity exisiting in opposition to each other, they in many ways use and fuse into each other.
Whereas Scarlet Johansson's character feels constantly jarred by the "modern" Japan that a tourist staying in Shinjuku for a week is likely to get a taste of, nothing here has struck me quite in that way. But then, it hit me that her character is a total moron! What kind of jerk comes to Tokyo, stays in one of the raddest neighborhoods of Tokyo that is next to some of the other raddest neighborhoods and stays in her hotel room all day long? When I first saw the film in freshman year of college, I felt I really identified with her character (I think a lot of us did), but I realize now that the only thing I identify with is her sense of isolation and inability to connect with some of the characters who are closest to her. Except one tired, aging actor.

The problem exists that whenever you go somehwere new, even within your own country, but especially when you find yourself in another, that the easiest thing in the world is to begin to see society around you as essentially represented by contrasting forces. When I try to explain American politics to my students it is always easiest to say "well, there are the Democrats and the Republicans." Or, "well, there is the West Coast and the East Coast, and everything in the middle..." Most people in Japan understand the excitement around Obama's victory as mainly an issue between African American people and white people (I gave a lesson today about why I was so excited about Obama winning. "He is a symbol! It's about recognizing that the United States and other countries are made up of so many kinds of people, not just white people or the elite who we always elect. Oh, and he's just amazing.")
Anyway, I think that Sofia Coppola's film is beautiful and does a great job of portraying what it is probably like when you come to Tokyo for less than a week (and just realized that you are married to a douche bag) and are also going through a some life-questioning. I suppose it also shows you how easy it is to miss the point of a place when you are there only a couple days. While I am here, I am doing my best to open myself to those shades of grey, constantly in search of something more interesting, something more complicated.

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