Monday, June 13, 2016

A Walk Through the Shoddy Lands: My Thoughts on Shohei Imamura's The Pornographers

I've been talking about a lot of, what I perceive to be, social ills on here as of late. Quite frankly it's tiring being pissed off all the time and it's been a while since I reviewed or talked about a piece of media or art that wasn't some offensive news story or video. Anyway, now I'm going to write about a Japanese film I watched.     

The other day I finally got around to watching Shohei Imamura's The Pornographers a.k.a. "Erogotoshitachi" yori Jinruigaku nyĆ«mon  an influential piece of cinema from Japan's golden age of experimental film, a.k.a. the 1960's, You can tell it's influential because Criterion bothered to add it to their illustrious collection. Originally I was supposed to have seen it in my Japanese Cinema class back in University, however, I was sick that day and missed out.

On the surface, the story is about a nice, penniless youngish guy, Subuyan Ogata, who ends up falling in love with a matronly widow and hairdresser, Haru Matsuda, who he's renting a room from. He eventually becomes a sort of father figure in the household as he supports the family financially and morally. Seems like a nice happy time, only that Ogata is a pornographer in the Showa period of Japanese history (1926-1989) a time when pornography was pretty illegal, and by pretty, I mean totally (literature too!). He also works as a go-between for prostitutes and their customers -- shady business to be sure. Things start off decent enough, as Ogata seems like a stand-up dude who just ended up on the wrong side of the poverty line and is simply exploiting a market that would have existed anyway, trying to make ends meet. However, as the story continues you begin to see that he's just another hypocrite as he chastises other characters for consuming the products he produces and ends up in a relationship with his lover's teenage daughter, herself a person with very few redeeming qualities who repeatedly gets into trouble via poor life choices.

The Pornographers pornographing.
In fact as the movie carries on, you begin realize that all the characters are pretty loathsome people in one way or another. Matsuda, the widow, while being a decent business woman, I guess, is a superstitious git who keeps a carp in her room (in a tank of course) which she believes is the reincarnation of her deceased husband, because it showed up on the day her husband died (she lives in front of a canal by the way). She apparently promised her husband on his deathbed to never get involved with another man for the rest of her life, which obviously didn't pan out, and every time the carp jumps in the tank she interprets it as the discontent of her late husband's spirit. At one point she aborts her and Ogata's would-be baby, without consulting him, because of it's jumping. This doesn't stop her from having sex with Ogata right in front of it, multiple times, however. She eventually catches one of those Asian movie contrivance sicknesses (you know, those ones that are never diagnosed but have a wide range of symptoms) and goes insane and tells Ogata that she should raise her daughter and marry her when she's old enough after she herself dies. Later you find out that she may have had some deep-seated resentment towards her own daughter, because, she's young or something. She eventually bites it and I found it hard to feel sorry for her cause she was quite a frustrating character.

Ogata attends a reform school meeting with his Matsuda's daughter, Keiko. 
Matsuda's son is a pretty shitty dude as well. For much of the film he comes across as a snarky, layabout, loser sponging money off  Ogata and Matsuda to pay for, whatever it is he does when he's off-screen. He eventually fails to get into a bunch of colleges, moves out and get's married, it is implied, to a prostitute. It's also heavily implied as well, that he has an Oedipus complex and is just a little too physical with mummy dearest if you ask me. He sucks, though is more of supporting character.

Ogata's production assistant in the porn industry is also not exactly an endearing force either as he comes across as an odd, sort of perverse type, with a personal mantra that appears to be "who needs a woman when I have my right hand". A real card ladies and gents.

These shitty characters live out the plot in what looks to be a slummy portion of Osaka, or somewhere in Kansai (meaning they all speak that wonderfully guttural and hearty Kansai dialect) populated with low-lives, yakuza and those who exploit them (like richer businessmen looking for low-rent prostitutes). As I was watching it, I couldn't help but think to myself, "Boy, this whole story is a big pile of shitty shit, which just keeps getting shittier" (I pride myself in my eloquence). Of course, and I found this out later, that's exactly how director Imamura wants you to feel. Oh, and this film is actually a dark comedy.

Ogata working on his doll.
The plots of many of Imamura's films, especially from this time, appear to largely be about poor unfortunate souls, in many cases not all that likable and perhaps the sowers of their own discord, trying to improve their lot in life through various means. They often fail in the process or achieve a measure of success and then realize the high life isn't all it's cracked up to be. In any case it doesn't usually end well, but it's often almost laughable just how properly the characters screw themselves over in their many endeavors. Which I guess is where the comedy comes in, everything is just so shitty, in fact it's too shitty, it's perfectly shitty, it's so shitty it's hilarious. It's like when you have a bad day, and just about every little thing goes wrong and when you finally lay your head down to sleep in the evening you take a moment to reflect and can't help but chuckle at how deliciously terrible your day was.

The Pornagraphers is a perfect example of this dynamic. The ending is absurd and has Ogata becoming unhinged and working tirelessly on a realistic sex doll in a houseboat, only to turn down a lucrative offer to mass produce the doll he is working on (remember he was trying to get rich all this time). The boat on which he's building the doll eventually gets untied from the dock and floats out to sea with him totally oblivious as he fawns over his new creation. It's just all so shoddy.

In many ways the transitional nature of the Show period was evident even in the landscape. Tall skyscrapers, dwarfed thatched roof houses and while the urban elite lived with all the amenities, the countryside looked to be somewhat more archaic by comparison.  
But this film isn't merely a bunch of shoddy people doing shoddy things, for if it was I doubt it would receive the level of acclaim it has. While the story definitely appeals to the morbid curiosity of watching human tragedy play out in front of one's eyes, it is also formally as interesting as it is narratively. The shots are often dark and are filmed in cramped locations, the camera often peers around corners, hangs from the ceiling, lies at floor level, or is obscured somewhat by objects in the foreground, giving a sense of voyeurism to the watcher, a concept closely related to the medium of pornography itself. After all, in most pornographic material is not the watcher but a "passive" viewer rather than a participant? One can't help but be given the current constraints of the medium (I'm aware that's beginning to change however). In any case there's some truly stylish shots with my favorite being a top down shot through the carp tank, which in this case is placed on the ceiling (obviously not meant to be literal) of Ogata and Matsuda getting it on while the carp occasionally flicks into the foreground and obscures the picture with ripples in the water (the carp is actually used as the point of view for many shots, adding to the voyeuristic form of the cinematography).

While the style accents the grungy darkness of the subject matter beautifully, the formal choices that Imamura uses could also be interpreted in a historical, social sense as well (though, I mean anything could be interpreted as anything so . . . yeah). I've talked about the Showa period before on this blog, but for Japan this period represented a great shift in both it's internal (local) and external (international) identity. A country, formerly the most powerful, politically and militarily in Eastern Asia, largely rebuilt by western powers in the post/trans-war period after it was nuked twice by those same powers, Japan was having an identity crisis of sorts. The Showa period, which saw Japan on it's way to it's "post-war miracle" was rife with meditations on identity, concerned with where Japan had come from and where it was going. One may look at The Pornographers through a similar lens and interpret the formal elements of the film as an inward look at a problematic, perhaps archaic section of Japan's being that it wished to cast off -- it's local, superstitious and backward poor. Those who at war time might have exalted the Emporer while being, and perhaps choosing to remain blissfully ignorant of the atrocities committed by Japan's armies on it's own people and it's "enemies". The viewer, the vouyer, watching, judging and condemning but at the same time reveling in the hypocrisy and dysfunction of the characters, thus forming their own kind of hypocrisy -- "judge not lest ye be judged" and all that.

Perhaps this interpretation is a might too on-the-nose but I feel like the Japanese name of this film which translates to "An introduction to anthropology through the pornographers" is begging for this film to be dissected. In any case, should you choose to watch The Pornographers it will leave you with quite a bit to chew on. It's a sumptuous feast for the senses and that's just how a like my media. Tasty!

Friday, June 3, 2016

Rant: Moral Relativism and That Racist Chinese Laundry Ad

I have to get this off my chest.

Here we are again. The North American internet has blown up over some racist content that some people in China made, specifically a detergent ad in which a young Chinese women shoves her handsome and seemingly Black boyfriend into a washing machine and he comes out a light-skinned handsome Chinese guy. It's racist, pure and simple, and has all the shitty connotations. Blackness is bad, whiteness is good, blackness is dirty, whiteness is clean, blackness is undesirable, whiteness is what everyone needs etc. etc.

While this may not offend most Chinese nationals, I do agree that this ad is objectively racist and problematic. That being, said I can understand how it came to fruition, which is more than I can say for the majority of the English speaking internet at the moment. You can watch it here, if you want to feel uncomfortable.
So naturally hordes of North Americans netizens are taking to all sorts of channels to blast this ad, and say how backwards and terrible and racist and intolerant China is and making comments against China, its culture and its people that are pretty much just as racist as the ad itself. Many are questioning, "How could such a thing be made!? It's 2016! Who approved this?! What a bunch of insensitive assholes!" (that last one wasn't a question). And herein lies my problem with people who react, knee-jerkily to offensive things from other countries -- they ask questions but they don't seem to give a crap about finding the answers. 

It is a good question though, how did this come to be? Who in their right mind would make such an offensive ad? Well I covered this sort of thing before in my article on racism in South Korea which you can read here if you so desire, but basically I'm a believer, within reason, in moral relativism -- not so much as an ideal but more as a fact of life -- it's a thing that exists in reality for better or for worse. If you don't know, moral relativism basically equates to "what seems fine in some places is totally not cool in others". Now I do believe that some things can be considered objectively wrong, such as things that cause irreparable pain and trauma, like rape or murder -- wherein it is clear that great human suffering is taking place, but I think it goes without saying that in this vast world, different places have different conditions and circumstances that produce different social climates and situations. 

Segregated drinking fountains were a thing in America. In China, they were not a thing.
While this might be an unpopular opinion, I think racism works in a similar way. This is why I think that judging racism from a place like China in the same way you would judge racism from the United States or Canada, doesn't make sense. I believe most of our strong reactions to racism in North America are the result of our national histories, and present apparently, being full of unabashed institutional racism which makes a lot of people miserable and dead on a weekly basis. We carry with us a sort of national guilt, or anger or what-have-you that makes many of us, especially those who identify as "non-racist" very sensitive towards any sort of thing that could be construed as overt racism, like a laundry ad in China for example. To put it in the simplest terms, I believe that black-face or yellow-face in movies would likely be a non-issue if North America's history (and present) wasn't rife with discrimination against people of colour (especially in the film industry). I mean it would be kind of odd, but I doubt it would be considered nearly as offensive.     

But here's the thing, China doesn't have the same racial baggage that we do. The Chinese never sailed to Africa to enslave large segments of the local populations to work their fields, breaking up families and commodifying humans. They didn't (however "unofficially") summarily exclude them from higher education and, subsequently, higher wage jobs, indirectly (and sometimes directly) forcing them to live in poverty stricken ghettos, while chastising them for being lazy and somehow inherently less intelligent. Their cops don't racially profile them on a regular basis even now (not sure about that last one actually). I can't even find a statistic for the amount of Black people currently living in China which leads me to believe that there probably aren't that many relative to the massive Han Chinese and other populations that lives there.

This is from an interesting video which tries to put some things in perspective. You can watch here. The host in the video is English by the way.
I mean, the ad is still racist, and just cause it's from China doesn't make it right. But I would say that it makes it kind of a different beast entirely. I should bloody well hope that seeing a Black person, literally being "whitewashed" in a washing machine would strike a very strong cord for the average North American. I'm convinced that if this ad was released in North America it would be a media massacre -- no one would buy that detergent ever again, and that would be only the most peaceful outcome. However, it's pretty ignorant to expect the vast majority of Chinese to have the same reaction. Why did this ad get made? Because most Chinese wouldn't have a problem with it and it's a Chinese ad directed at Chinese people. If you get mad at China and the Chinese for thinking this sort of thing is okay, for being "backwards" or somehow intrinsically wrong, you are essentially getting mad at China for not being more like America or Canada and, like it or not, that makes you a cultural chauvinist. "We are right, they are wrong." I know it's hard, but just imagine if slavery, apartheid and racial segregation never happened, and you saw this ad, your reaction would, logically, be different, you might even think it was funny, perhaps a harmless bit of tongue-in-cheek. 

Now look, I know that as a white, hetero, cis-gendered, able-bodied, facially symmetrical, English speaking, middle-class, employed, male, I'm practically swimming in privilege and have little business telling less or differently privileged people, what they should be mad at. The internet is also a big place that gives us the illusion that we are all connected, that we should all know and be sensitive to each other's issues. But you can't expect a Chinese twenty-something who spent their entire lives in Chengdu, who speaks a smattering of English and works a dreary nine to five, to give the same amount of hoots you do about something as mundane as a detergent commercial made at the expense of an ethnic group they've likely only ever seen on television and in Hollywood movies - which, by the way don't paint an especially positive picture, by-and-large.

Hypothetically, imagine if you were some person living in a small city in China and Lil' Wayne was the only Black American person you knew of. Like you knew there were others, but Lil Wayne was the only one you'd ever seen, in a magazine you read in a hair shop one time (or something). Yeah, just think about that.   
And therein lies another thing that pisses me off about this whole dynamic. We North Americans seemingly love to get pissed off at people in other countries for portraying insensitive and stereotypical images of our Black countrymen but where do you suppose they got those negative stereotypes to begin with? You know what has been famous in Asia for a really long time? American movies and pop music. Now, I like me some Hollywood and I'm not suggesting that all racism in Asia against American people of colour can be traced to American pop culture, but I'd wager that quite a large portion of it can, especially when it comes to portrayals of Black American culture.

Take a second and think for a moment. Could you imagine what kind of mindset you would have if your only point of reference for Black American culture was Kanye West, Lil' Wayne, Chris Brown, Rihana, Nicki Minaj, and Beyonce combined with the numerous Black stereotypes one can easily see in the latest Michael Bay vehicle and the like? (Transformers was very popular in China I'm told) Also imagine if you didn't have normal Black people around to balance out this extremely lop-sided influx of information? Yeah see that's what I think is going on here. It's like sneezing on someone and then blaming them for getting sick. I honestly can't think of a more racially segregated industry, rife with racialized caricatures, yet still so widely accepted as legitimate, than the American pop music industry. Also, it's still a big deal when a Black American person let alone a Black woman gets a role in a Hollywood film that isn't exploitative in some way. I mean, what year is this again? I digress.

Remember these lovable scamps from Transformers? Hehe, and one of them had a gold tooth, and they spoke in ebonics and they were lazy and kind of slow and everyone loved them and we all had a good laugh, hahaha, and nobody was offended? Remember that? No?  
In my experience, the proof is in the pudding. I've gone through more instances than I can count wherein I've tried, with varying degrees of success, to convince my students and local friends here (in South Korea, where I am currently living, albeit not China) that Black Americans aren't anymore prone to delinquency, promiscuous behavior and/or violence than anyone else, and I mean, lets be honest here, where else could they getting these ideas than from American media? East Asian television shows sure don't feature too many Black characters period.

If the add featured one of these migrant workers getting "whitewashed" I get the feeling it would have generated way more controversy locally. And most Americans, probably wouldn't give a crap about it. 
I'll end with quick turn back to moral relativism. I bet if the advertising execs decided to replace the Black man in the Ad with a dark-skinned migrant worker from Northern China, or a Turkic Muslim, or a Tibetan, or a South East Asian man, you would have a shit-storm on your hands -- at the very least it would definitely strike a cord with a number of sizable local populations. It's a different reality over there, plain and simple, and that's how terrible commercials like the one everyone is raging over get made. Sure, the world is seemingly getting smaller and we're all getting more connected, but it's still frickin' huge and we're not all in the same boat. We also have to think about the consequences of the messages we send out -- context is important and certain information processed in certain conditions can lead to all sorts of outcomes, some great, some terrible.