It has been a week since PSYâ€™s song â€œGentlemanâ€ was unleashed upon us, and it has already racked up around 180 million YouTube views. Its predecessor, â€œGangnam Styleâ€, has gotten over 1.5 billion views during the past nine months. That bouncy little ditty has had people doing the horsey dance in front of me and demanding that I do it to. I had ranted about the â€œGangnam Styleâ€ phenomenon and some of its less-than-fun implications for a while. I eventually decided, however, that it is better for my sanity and happiness to retreat into another corner of pop-culture that provides an equally superficial and misleading image of Asia: movies. Specifically, Asian movies that I actually enjoy watching, regardless of popularity or acclaim. So, for this blog, I shall beâ€¦
Most of the films that I will talk about here should either be available through your local library system, at any store that sells videos, off of amazon.com, or on on the internet…somewhere. Some of them you may have never heard of, some of them you may have seen more than I have. Some you might like, and some you might hate. I will try to showcase a wide range of films from the region, but you may eventually find commonalities in the films that I choose.
The first film I will talk comes from Japan, a land known for its samurai movies, anime, ultraviolent exploitation flicks, monster movies, horror movies, plain-old weird movies, and oddly censored porn. This, film, however, is none of that. And, perhaps as a result, it may not be that well-known.
Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald is a good natured and somewhat of a throwback screwball comedy that looks at the business of entertainment, the consequences of compromise, creativity on a budget, the influence of the West in Japan, the wonders of the old fashion art forms in modern society, professional integrity, and the tussle between individual needs and group efforts. And I find it to be really funny.
A radio program has just finished its final rehearsal for a radio drama to be performed live that night at midnight. The story, about a married pachinko parlor worker who leaves her husband for a former lover, is not a particularly good one, but the writer was the only contestant, so the people working at the station want to do the best that they can with what they have. If you donâ€™t know what a pachinko parlor is, donâ€™t worry; it stops mattering after a while, but you can pretend that it is like slot machines with marbles if it makes you feel better. In any case, the movie is not even three minutes in when one of the actors decides to make a little change in his acting style. It is not quite as important a change as he seems to make it, but it sets the tone of things to come. Soon afterwards, the showâ€™s narrator asks the producer for some grammatical changes in his lines. Again, this is out of the desire to provide the best product possible. The writer, an amateur (and a married pachinko parlor worker) who is overwhelmed by the experience of simply having her work being put on the air in the first place, is a little reluctant to change these lines, but soon relents.
Then, about ten minutes inâ€¦
Perhaps out of spite and ego, the main actress, who was the one who demanded the program be performed live in the first place, now demands that her characterâ€™s name be changed. Her manager makes excuses to the producer as to the reasons, but that pretty much goes out the window when she demands the name â€œMary Janeâ€. Now her character has to be half-American. Okay, a bit weird, but okay. However, the second main actor, who has been shown to be resentful towards what he sees as the preferential treatment towards his co-star, demands that he be foreign as well. It is not long before all of the characters have to be foreign and the entire story gets transported to America. Now, remember when I said not to worry if you were wondering what a panchinko parlor is? Since the story is now set in America, the occupation of the main character has to change. The writer, who may or may not have been using this story as a means of living out a fantasy, is not happy with these changes. But donâ€™t worry, there are many more to come. A back-up writer comes in to do major alterations to the story and a couple last-minute changes that seem petty at the time, end up leading to huge changes in the story while it is on air. It is not long before the story turns from boring to utterly ridiculous, and everyone starts desperately scrambling and bickering.
Now, when I say the word â€œridiculousâ€, that may conjure up images and ideas that do not apply to this movie. Why? Because Japan is sometimes seen as this strange place. A place of mystery and wonder. A place where everyone is the same, yet totally different from you or me. A place where creativity leads only to weirdness. A place clinging to tradition while dashing headfirst towards the future. A place that has different rules for foreigners. A place with the goofiest of fashions. A place where everyone is sexually repressed and not-so-secretly perverted. A place where everyone is obsessed with status. A place with a dark warlike past. A place where everyone has an intense sense of nationalism. A place where the patriarchy is mad with power. A place where youth is fetishized. A place where they infantilize their women by calling them â€œgirlsâ€. In other words, a place totally alien to an American such as myself.
So, how did Japan get so weird? Well, some say that it was always weird. Some say that it was the dropping of the atom bombs that did something to the Japanese psyche. What this movie implies is that it was the deluge of American culture after the war that changed Japan. Japan embraced the America that was thrust upon it, desperate to play catch up, but not quite able to do so as precisely as it wished. Sometimes this was due to lack of the same resources, sometimes due to rules imposed upon Japan by the United States. Sometimes due to a fundamental misunderstanding of American cultural signifiers, sometimes due to Japanese traditions that would not die. So Japan made do. Or tried to. Struggled to. Moving too quickly, with little understanding of what was going on or why. Sometimes taking desperate measures that may have seemed utterly bizarre to the casual observer. Out of that emerged a new Japanese identity. And out of my ass emerged this paragraph. Yes, folks, that is about as far as my analysis goes in these parts. So, if you disagree, you might very well be correct.
This movie starts out kind of slow, but turns hilarious pretty quickly. Some of the humor comes from the fact that the radio employees simply refuse to do a bad or even a mediocre job, even when the actual material is extremely lame or downright dumb. They could have settled for putting out an effortlessly stupid product and calling it a night, but it is watching the desperation and the determination of the employees, that makes this movie so enjoyable. Their need for authenticity and professionalism as the two main actors engage in their not-so-passive clash of wills is what leads to some of the silliest plot changes and the funniest sequences.
The characters, while not particularly deep, are well done. Except for maybe the two main voice actors, it is pretty easy to like and sympathize with the main characters. I can feel the stressed-out mania of the producer, the growing despair and creeping rage of the writer, the overzealous drive of the back-up writer, the hopeful concern of the assistant, the cynical weariness of the director. And even those two egotistical main voice actors are enjoyable to watch as clashing forces of nature. I must say, though, that my favorite character is the third voice actor. Unlike his two fellow leads, he seems willing to do anything and does it with a smile. Just like the crew, he is a true professional. A group of people, working together, doing the best that they can at their tasks to make the best product possible. It doesnâ€™t get more old-school American than that. Well, maybe a screwball comedy gets more old-school American.
I have seen some reviewers say that it is fairly clever, but only modestly amusing. Well, I laughed a lot. So there. I believe that this movie could appeal to those looking for a comedy that does not revolve around a man-aged boy and his sex troubles. Sure, the storyline of a woman leaving her husband may be a tiny bit controversial, as might the sudden inclusion of violence into the radio dramaâ€™s storyline, but there is really nothing there. The perceived notions of America, particularly one city, might offend certain people, but is more likely to induce chuckles if not outright laughter. It is more about the warped image of America and its cultural significance in the minds of the Japanese than of America itself, anyways. The portrayal and treatment of women in the movie might lead to some raising of eyebrows, but the emotional development of the writer, and her eventual confrontation of the cynicism of the station, can almost be seen as inspiring. There is a little bit at the very end that may cause you to raise your eyebrows but, to me, it is simply a final statement reminding the audience that this movie is not meant to be taken seriously.
This movie is about the struggles of adapting to the new, while maintaining oneâ€™s identity and respecting the old ways. It is about teamwork and individual efforts. It is about compromise and integrity. It is about imagination and pragmatism. It is about pride and humility. It is about a hundred minutes of laughs. It is about time that more people watched this movie.
Thanks for reading my first blog entry here. I hope that I did not totally screw up. I have a bunch more movies to discuss, but feel free to give me suggestions of things that you think that I and others should watch.