Techno-Culture, New Politics, and Philosophy in East Asia
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Saturday, Aug 6 2011 10:22 AM | asiascape-goats
A few days ago I had the pleasure of listening to Sten-Kristian Saluveer from the Department of Asian Studies at Estonian Institute of Humanities (Tallinn University/Tokyo University), who presented his Monbukagakusho research project titled "Contemporary Japanese film in distribution: between imagination, globalization and gaze".
In recent years, Sten argues, Japanese cinema has become an increasingly global phenomenon, not only in the sense that A-movies have gained international popularity, but also with respect to an increasing number of B-class movies produced specifically for the international market. Arguing that both tendencies are strongly connected to discourses of exoticism, techno-orientalism, Japanization, or Asianization, and lastly Americanization not only via content, but also on the level of distribution, he hopes to work out a vocabulary to analyze and understand the international distribution of Japanese cinema in the age of globalization—a field which, according to Sten, has been widely neglected in (Western) research on Japanese cinema. Sten's project sounds very interesting and I'm eager to read the findings. In the meanwhile, I'd like to write about some thoughts that came up in a discussion we had afterwards, mostly concerning the label "Sushi Typhoon" (Nikkatsu) and "Japaneseness", in hope this may trigger further discussion.
Sushi Typhoon is, according to Sten, a film label exclusively launched less than two years ago with the aim of creating "Japanese" films for the overseas market. With excessively violent and "Japanese" films like "Yakuza Weapon" ("Machine gun arm. Rocket launcher leg. And a bad attitude to match. [...]"), "Alien vs Ninja", "Helldriver" ("Ash from space has divided Japan into two halves, and a schoolgirl with an artificial heart and chainsaw sword must travel to the zombie-infected north... to kill her undead mother."), or "Karate-Robo Zaborgar" ("A modern-day update of the classic Japanese sci-fi television show!"), Sushi Typhoon is dedicated to trash of a very specific, “Japanese” kind.
But what exactly does that mean? Looking at these descriptions, what interests me most is why and with what exactly Sushi Typhoon might, as their trailer promises, “blow your mind wide open”—nice phrase, by the way.
[If you have a few seconds, please watch the trailer for yourself.]
The self-recognition of Sushi Typhoon reads: "Connoisseurs of dangerous and wild Japanese cinema need look no further to satisfy their hunger for comedy, action, horror, splatter and raucous cult entertainment: The Sushi Typhoon is headed for America’s shores, ready to fill your belly with the raw entertainment you’ve been craving!" (http://www.sushi-typhoon.com/about-sushi-typhoon, emphasis mine)
My initial reaction was to label this as yet another example of (successfully) selling "Japaneseness" (or "Orientalism")—notice by the way who is targeted here—which, as far as I am concerned, would to some extent mean that they use the idea that there is something called "Japan", and it might also imply that the images of this "Japan" re-presented by Sushi Typhoon are somehow "wrong". However, refusing to believe that fans identify these images with something like a "real" Japan per se—not only because I don't believe such thing exists—I would like to think about how the notion of "Japan" or the exotism behind it works here, what kind of "Japan" is sold and consumed.
A first observation from the website of Sushi Typhoon is that, while something vaguely recognizable as "Japanese" (Ninja, Yakuza, etc.) is present here, it is present in a strongly twisted form that seems to generate a fictional world fairly distant from "reality". This does, however, not imply that the idea of "Japan" has nothing to do with this fiction and the popularity these films, according to Sten, enjoy since the label was launched. Rather, I would argue that it has everything to do with it, in the sense that this "Japan" in Sushi Typhoon films is the password to an "imaginary space", here understood with Phillip Wegner (2002: xvi-xvii) as a space that is nowhere (utopian) "precisely to the degree that [it makes] somewhere possible, offering a mechanism by which people will invent anew the communities as well as the places they inhabit."
This imaginary space of "Japan" is a symbolic space, stretched out by the symbolic traces of various images of Japan but reaching beyond them, is produced by fans and directors and functions as a cross-genre label and a space of expectation and expressive possibility beyond existing categories. Undeniably, this is only possible because of these traces of a "Japaneseness" (as a specific "Otherness"). But my feeling is that for the fans, this Japaneseness has its meaning not in its "information value" (in the sense that they would expect insights into any "real" Japan), but rather in its function as a distancing device that exoticizes the imaginary space named "Japan" and thus equips it with a sense of alternativeness to their own everyday life (e.g., the films they are used to). A space that makes you expect the unexpected.
Although, at this point, a closer look at the contents of the films is required (they are out and running since last weekend in Tokyo's cinemas), this could suggest that this imaginary space of "Japanese" B-class films has a deconstructive political potential. If this imaginary "Japan" is, in any way, related to what is thought to be the "real" Japan, this relation would be a disruptive one in the sense that "Japan" hosts alternatives to the common images of Japan. "Ninja-robots" and "machinegun-arms" instead of "sushi" could (intentionally or not) be, in a sense, a pretty radical engagement with the idea of a "Japanese reality" itself, thus making the title "sushi typhoon" and the advertisement-like message about blowing minds a quite adequate description. On the other side, one could argue that the fans are not interested in establishing a connection to (Japanese) reality at all. Maybe the attractiveness of Sushi Typhoon films rather origins in the collective engagement with this space of "Japan" and its "Othering" itself.
Phillip Wegner (2002): Imaginary Communities. Berkley & Los Angeles: University of California Press.