In the decade of the 80s the American public as well as the rest of the world who patronize Hollywood movies, was treated to a plethora of Japanese inspired movies. Movies like Black Rain on the other hand offers a deeper look at Japanese society and culture. These and more will be used to analyze the reaction of American moviemakers as to what they perceived in the 80s. Yet, even in the 21st century one can still see traces of conflicts in understanding Japanese culture as viewed from the American perspective.
In the movie Black Rain, Michael Douglas and Andy Garcia’s character were in pursuit of a criminal. The chase led him to the land of the samurai. In his adventure there, he was able to come face to face with the modern samurai warrior but this time with a criminal bent. There was nothing like the Yakuza or Japanese Mafia in the long experience of the veteran American cop Nick (Douglas) and his young counterpart Charlie (Garcia).
The cultural difference was played out in the necessity to adjust their American style of solving crimes. In the movie they have to make a lot of compromising with a lot of people to get the job done. At the same time the American were introduced into a more ruthless and bizarre criminal mindset.
The Rising Sun film starring Sean Connery and Wesley Snipes presented the nuances of the Japanese culture. And like the movie Black Rain it tells the audience that in order to get what you want in dealing with the Japanese one has to be acculturated first. This means understanding Japanese culture and to go deeper into comprehending why they behave in such a manner. Just like in Rising Sun, Sean Connery’s character was always reminding his protégé that when it comes to Japanese society, what one sees on the surface is not really what is happening deep down where it matters.
Japan in the 80s
The significant number of Japanese inspired films does not happen in a vacuum. This means that there was something in that decade that made film producers to go ahead with movies like “Die Hard” which was interesting enough to catapult Bruce Willis to superstardom.
The explanation for such interest in the Japanese way can be partially understood by way of economics. Banno Junji, in a well-researched work about Japanese society and politics made the following remarks, “It is a historical fact that by the 1980s, Japan had become an economic giant second only to the United States. Many predicted that this economic strength would continue in the 1990s and then […] Japan would surpass the USA in economic terms” (1997, p.2).
The screenplay for the “Rising Sun” film was adapted from a novel. The movie gave more emphasis on the crime scene investigation and the plot thickened into a political thriller. But the author of the novel from which the movie was based from gave significant space in warning about the consequence of Japan’s growing economic strength. The author predicted that with the extra money Japan had accumulated, this tiny country could gobble up prime U.S. real estate. This explains the increasing sense of alarm felt by the movers and shakers of America, which in turn explains the movies.
Everybody knows the numbing feeling of culture shock. This phenomenon does not require travelling far. Someone only has cross the bridge to a neighboring state in order to feel overwhelmed by that sinking feeling of being lost in an alien planet. But tourists who go abroad are the most susceptible to this experience. The reason is that not only does a tourist have to grapple with norms and other social rules but also when he goes abroad he has to deal with the language barrier.
In a later movie, entitled “Lost in Translation” the character of Billy Murray and Scarlet Johansen had that feeling of being lost and not just in terms of interpreting the language. The two protagonists have to deal with some major cultural differences. Moreover, Copola was able to contrast two cultures and then at the same time allow both to clash head on.
What Copola did to achieve contrast was to first show that the two protagonists were experiencing serious emotional and psychological problems. Then the director placed the two in a situation where the turmoil of the heart and mind was expressed more apparently. For instance the feeling of loneliness was exacerbated by the fact that it is not easy to strike a conversation with someone from the crowd.
Copola was able to show how Bill Murray tried so hard to solve the riddle of the Japanese language in a scene where the protagonist was shooting a TV ad for a whiskey. The director was telling him something but the interpreter was not able to give an English equivalent that could satisfy both the actor and director. The director of the TV commercial wanted so much to get through the actor, while the actor on the other hand wanted so badly to receive accurate instructions but in this case it was impossible.
Again, the language problem is just the tip of the iceberg since culture is not only about verbal communication but a whole range of beliefs, norms, and social values. When Bill Murray and Scarlet Johansson interacted with the people and their unique culture, the reaction was typical. The Westerners find the Japanese culture as a little bit quirky. The extreme politeness and hospitality came across as comical. And the word “extreme” used in the last statement is evidence that even the proponent of this study saw the movie using a Western filter – by the way it is a good example of cultural differences.
Another example of this quirkiness was shown in a scene where Bob the actor was with a host wearing a multicolor garb. The fashion statement was comical and was intended to project a stereotype. This is a proof that culture is not only about language but it is the totality of what is inside a society that enables it to function in a unique manner.
Another interesting aspect cultural differences between the two cultures was shown in the Copola movie. This was the scene where Bill Murray was in a photo shoot with a Japanese photographer who knew halting English. The twist here is not only in the contrast between two cultures but also the fact that one culture tries to bridge the gap.
The Japanese photographer wanted to incorporate American culture into the print ad by telling the actor to pose like the character in the “Rat Pack” made famous by Frank Sinatra etc. The photographer tried so hard to bridge the gap and he started by finding what is common between the two. Both cultures were fond of the “Rat Pack”. It is also interesting to note that Bill Murray’s character did not spend more time on looking for commonality but was content only in finding differences.
Inazo Nitobe, in his book about the core values of the Japanese, made the following comments regarding the slighting remarks he often heard from Europeans regarding the elaborate discipline of politeness by the Japanese people:
It has been criticised as absorbing too much of our thought and in so far a folly to observe strict obedience to it. I admit that there may be unnecessary niceties in ceremonious etiquette, but whether it partakes as much of folly as the adherence to ever-changing fashions of the West, is a question not clear to my mind (1997, p. 52).
In other words the West may be laughing but they do not know that from another point of view they are the object of derision.
East vs. West
In the first few minutes into the “Rising Sun” film, Sean Connery’s character displayed a rigid sense of discipline and a deeper sense of sensitivity to the social structure. Then the camera shifted to Wesley Snipes’ character that mirrored the American perception and reaction to culture shock. Wesley Snipes’ alter ego resisted at first, then made fun of Japanese culture until he realized the futility of not conforming.
In “Lost in Translation” the main protagonist had to deal with a very enthusiastic masseuse, which elicited laughter from the audience. In another scene the protagonists had to deal with a bumbling interpreter and that too elicited laughter. Later on this stereotyping and making fun of Japanese culture is merely scratching the surface.
As mentioned earlier, Americans deal with culture shock in two main ways. The first one is projecting stereotypes of Japanese men and women. The second one is to make comic representations of these stereotypes highlighting the oddity perceived by the Westerners towards their Oriental counterparts.
It is not easy to see that Westerners in general and Americans in particular are not always looking down at the Japanese. Instead it could be argued that deep down many are in awe of Japanese culture. There are a significant number who felt the same way as Sean Connery’s character who fell in love with the Japanese sense of order – kohai and sempai both knew their place in the social matrix.
This is not easily detected by looking at the movie in a superficial manner but digging deeper one can see that the inspiration came from admiration. The discipline and dedication of the Yakuza perplexed the character of Michael Douglas. The passion and discipline of the modern Samurais made Sean Connery’s character a convert into Japanese ways.
Yet it is also true that those who could not understand the Japanese way resort to taunting and express that frustration by making stereotypes and caricatures. This frustration was explained in the book “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword”. The author implied that Westerners could not classify Japanese behavior and she wrote, “The Japanese are, to the highest degree, both aggressive and unaggressive, both militaristic and aesthetic, both insolent and polite, rigid and adaptable, submissive and resentful of being pushed around, loyal and treacherous…” (Benedict, 1946, p. 2).
Hollywood is presenting stereotypes of Japanese men and women. But these stereotypes are based on something that is not well conceived. This is because it is almost impossible for an American to understand the way of the Japanese. It would almost require a total immersion before a Westerner can fully appreciate what is going on in the mind and heart of the typical Japanese.
What the Westerners see as quirkiness and extreme display of proper conduct is actually a cultural difference that could be explained in the word “Bushido”. The Japanese mind is a product of their past, a history very different from America.
Japan on the other hand existed as a civilization centuries before the US became independent. In the book of Inazo Nitobe he was able to show that the Japanese was able to refine their ways. Nitobe summed it up as “Bushido: The Soul of Japan” and he wrote, “…it is a code unuttered and unwritten, possessing al the more the powerful sanction of veritable deed, and of a law written on the fleshly tablets of the heart…” (1997, p. 5).
Ruth Benedict was able to successfully offer a good illustration for the Japanese way of life, and she said that it is both a sword and beautiful chrysanthemum. To the Westerner’s mind it is a contradiction but for the Japanese there can be harmony in merging these contradictions. In other words their heart contains both swords and chrysanthemums.
Banno, J. (1997). The Political Economy of Japanese Society: The State or the Market?. New
York: Oxford University Press.
Benedict, R. (1946). The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture. Boston,
MA: Houghton Mifflin Company
Nitobe, I. (1969). Bushido: The Soul of Japan. Boston, MA:Tuttle Publishing.