Required Movies for American Japan Watchers

The following is slightly modified from a response to an e-mail I received requesting recommendations for good “films on Japan” such as Lost in Translation of The Last Samurai.

The recent double threat of Lost in Translation and Last Samurai (but not the dud Memoirs of a Geisha), like some other popular Japan-themed films, were all good, entertaining movies, but I never felt like any of them gave me much insight on my experiences in Japan. As an alternative, I present my picks, in descending order of how highly I recommend them, that weren’t necessarily the best-made or most purely entertaining, but nonetheless got me thinking about the US-Japan relationship or the experiences I had while I was (ostensibly) studying there:

Fog of War (2003) – Essentially a long interview with Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and WW2 vet who helped orchestrate the firebombing of Japan in 1945. The movie is great on so many other levels, but I recommend this to those studying Japan for the sections that talk about “proportionality in war” and the wholesale bombing of Japan. America destroyed a majority of most of Japan’s cities and capped it off with two atomic bombs. Consider this – the US visited upon Japan heretofore untold destruction and chaos. McNamara asks: was this proportional to US aims? Having watched this movie, it makes perfect sense to me why many Japanese seem to treat visiting Americans as if the GHQ were still around. The film serves as a good conversation starter and a challenge to the bland rationalizations that Americans learned in their US History classes in high school.

Seven Samurai (1954) – I am in no way a film buff (look at my other recommendations!), but this movie is one of the best action movies I’ve seen from any country. Seven guys, and they all get a chance to kick some ass. This film is all about being a man, so ladies should probably stay away- that is, if they can resist the mysterious allure of Toshiro Mifune.

Mr. Baseball (1992) – Tom Selleck plays an aging Yankee sent to play for Chunichi Dragons. Hates it, won’t listen to coach, but in the end learns to work within the system while teaching his stuffy coach a thing or two and, of course, sleeping with his daughter. All you male ALTs out there could only hope to be so lucky! Then again, none of you are Tom Selleck. For better or worse, this is considered to be a pretty well-done “American fish out of water in Japan” movie. Even though the plot is something of a gaijin fantasy, it’s a generally true-to-life portrayal of Japan that can at the very least serve as a heads-up to some of the more obvious culture shocks (squat toilets, low doors, weird guys screaming strange English at you).

Whispers of the Heart (1995) – This is a movie from Ghibli Studios (think Princess Mononoke) about a little girl who falls in love with a fiddle-playing wunderkind and finds mystical guidance from a magical German cat. Boring! Forget the story and take in the sights as she walks around a lovingly and painstakingly detailed animated depiction of suburban Japan. I’d recommend this more to returnees than newcomers, but this movie could come in especially handy during those inevitable “Japan-hating gaijin” periods. I mean, if the Miyazaki crew could find this much to love about Japan, then there’s got to be some good stuff left over for little old you, too. One thing that didn’t sit right with me about WOTH would have to be the “dealing with your own mediocrity” theme that is featured in this movie and common elsewhere in Japanese pop culture (See “Sekai ni Hitotsu Dake no Hana” by SMAP). Call me an idealist, but I’m not ready to give up that easily, and neither should young Shizuku!

BTW, this movie turned me into a John Denver fan, and if watching it doesn’t make you a convert, then you should at least understand why so many Japanese people like him.

MXC – Show on Spike TV that’s a (loose) dub of an older Japanese show featuring host Beat Takeshi as he presides over the painful experiences of contestants in a brutal obstacle course game show. I can imagine nothing more humiliating in life than being run over by an enormous, papier-mache boulder and then being fire hosed by a Power Rangers villain as punishment. This should serve as a great introduction to Japan’s culture of humiliation, pointless endurance, and unabashed gaudiness. Sadly, this type of stuff is no longer typical of Japanese TV (at least when I was there, lots of tame talk shows, eating shows, and dating shows – though it looks like pain TV seems to be making something of a comeback these days).

Gung Ho (1986) – Funniest scene in this movie is the corporate re-education camp in the beginning (ribbons of shame, anyone?). Michael Keaton plays a union leader in the Midwest who convinces a Japanese auto company to take over a shut down factory. The American workers, including George Wendt of “Cheers” fame, get uppity when the Japanese managers expect them to work with no sick time or human dignity, as Japanese supposedly do. Never mind that real managers at Japanese auto factories in the US never tried this in real life. The plot twists this way and that, but eventually the workers make a near-impossible promise to become as productive as any Japanese plant within a month – Can they do it? Yes, sort of. The message? If only American auto workers would give up their silly unions and work themselves to the bone, then the jobs would stay. The movie suffers from some annoying performances, one-dimensional characters, and bad writing in general, but it is still worth watching just to see how scary Japan was to the US back in 1986. We let go of those fears a bit too early, if GM’s fate is any indicator.

Bad News Bears Go to Japan (1978) – The always-annoying Bears go to Japan to play an exhibition game at the urging of a scheister TV producer, and literally everyone ends up getting ticked off in the process, especially the audience. Recoil in horror as a 13-year-old “bad boy” (signified by a peach-fuzz mustache IIRC) Bear creepily stalks and tries to force himself on an unsuspecting Japanese girl. It’s pure dreck, full of unapologetically racist and willfully ignorant sentiment, and almost unwatchable. Why do I recommend it, then? Because this is probably how your mom and dad see Japan. Redeeming quality: wrestling legend Antonio Inoki makes an appearance. Grunting, fuming Antonio Inoki, folks. His shtick hasn’t changed a bit in the almost 30 years since this movie was made.

19 thoughts on “Required Movies for American Japan Watchers”

  1. You should include a couple of my favorite Torisho Mifune American film oddities, “Hell in the Pacific” and “Red Sun” (a/k/a “Soleil Rouge”).
    I mean seriously, how could you resist Mifune paired with Lee Marvin or Charles Bronson?

  2. One that I liked was Kurosawa’s Rhapsody in August, which featured Richard Gere as a part-Japanese guy from Hawaii. The last quarter or so of the movie is about him visiting his family in Nagasaki, and it’s about as close as I’ve seen in film to the experience of being an exchange student here. The other 3/4 of the movie is really quirky and random, kind of like a Takeshi Kitano movie sans violence and thug-speak, and does an excellent job of showing off rural Japan and extended family dynamics.

  3. Seven Samurai is a hard movie to fuck up – get some badasses together and have them save some peasants (including a hot chick that the young guy can score with) that are under attack by pathetic losers. I’ll see it, especially if they can get Charles Bronson involved somehow. I’d like to see all those other movies you recommended too.

    As for bad movies on Japan, there are too many to count, but maybe I’ll tackle this issue in another, similarly definitive post. Two standouts: Gung-ho and the Bad News Bears Go to Japan. Man those movies sucked.

  4. I saw a guy with a Bronson t-shirt at the National Gallery of Art this weekend. The shirt had Chuck’s face and beneath it read: “I don’t need a weapon. I am one.” Badass. Next to the tool I saw back in January at the Guggenheim with a shirt that read: 日本人彼女募集中 it’s my favorite bit of unintentional art spotted in a museum.

  5. I saw one of those “ISO Japanese Girlfriend” shirts at a Puffy concert in Boston (Joe can verify this, he was there too!) Suddenly we knew we weren’t the dorkiest group in the club (even though I *did* wear my high school uniform to the event…)

  6. I also ran into a fat Asian guy wearing the ISO Japanese Girlfriend shirt at the Wendy’s in the student union in college. I complimented him because it was more humane than beating him up and stealing his lunch money…

  7. So glad you mentioned Fog of War. The Japan part of that film is only ten minutes long, but it’s one of the best moments in documentary film. We quickly dismiss any possibility that the bombing of Japan was anything but necessary — surely it saved US lives, that it had to be done to end the war, that it may have ultimately saved more Japanese lives in the end. Maybe. But it was a tragedy nonetheless.

  8. Tampopo is a great movie. Of course, so is The Seven Samurai, and the semi-remake, The Magnificent Seven, which was a western, is pretty amusing too. For a remake on a weirder level you can check out the anime series Samurai Seven, which tells the story in a much longer 26 episode anime format in a kind of Japanese feudal/futuristic setting with cyborg samurai and much more over the top action.

  9. I really enjoyed Yoji Yamada’s The Twilight Samurai. It tells the story of a low-ranking samurai in an average clan, trying to get by and bring up his daughter after the death of his wife. The parallels between his self-denying existence and the present-day salaryman are made very explicitly, and when samurai ideals of honour and sacrifice make an appearance, they’re presented without idealising them. One of the better views of the loneliness of the crowd. [Warning: the ending is a bit of a downer.]

  10. Good choices, I think. Tampopo was pretty good. But did these recommendations you list actually change your perspectives on Japan or just reinforce it or have little effect at all? Some of why I like the about 7 movies is because they marked or sparked something of a development in my view of Japan.

  11. Haha, man you made me think about all that gibberish-Japanese Connery was screaming in the beginning of that movie… and then he’s like “I had to show him he was my kohai” or some shit. Makes him sound like a fucking dog trainer.

  12. Tampopo was indeed good. It so psyched me in fact that the first thing I ever really said in Japan was, “Do you have ramen?!” I realized quite quickly I was at a curry shop.

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