The Beautiful Strange World of Hayao Miyazaki

Don’t call him the Walt Disney of Japan: How animator Hayao Miyazaki became a cultural icon by doing everything Pixar doesn’t via @Salon

The above article is a really interesting one about the famous Japanese animator.  His films can appear very strange to the Western eye.  After traveling to and reading I have learned about how the Japanese are more comfortable with abstractions.  Abstractions are part of their everyday language.  Because of their complex social behavior they often speak in abstractions and convey certain nuances through how things are said and facial expressions. 

I love Miyazaki’s beautiful and surreal movies.  They are art and entertainment all in one.  If you are looking to go someplace you have never been give his films a try. 

Forging a New Reality

The other day, while traveling back to Texas from Pennsylvania, I met one of those people that you are thankful you ran across.  The man was a 72 year old man from Panama of partially Jamaican descent.  He exuded a positive energy and intelligence that I found rare on this foul day of travel. 

I had delays getting on and getting off of my first plane.  Right before the doors to my first plane opened a stewardess announced through the loudspeaker that all passengers that did not have immediate connecting flights should allow the passengers that did to get off first.  As soon as the door opened people were basically trampling each other to get off.  It was a prime example of the ugly American.  Having just been in Japan, where people value community above all else, I was thunderstruck by how selfish and greedy people were on the plane.  Most of them were white, middle aged, heavy set Americans.  Let’s just say that my faith in humanity was not at a high point!

On my second flight I began talking to the gentleman that I mentioned.  He had moved to Michigan, although he now lived in Houston because of his grandkids, and he taught foreign languages at the University of Michigan.  He spoke 8 different languages.  We talked about how to learn a foreign language, he swears, which is funny for someone that taught languages, that the computer programs like Rosetta Stone were actually the best way to learn a language aside from actually living in a foreign country.  This was because it was interactive and someone could learn at their own pace, much like in real life.

We also talked about Panama and the way that the U.S., even though he largely loved this country, has intervened harmfully in developing nations.  He was not blind to the bad things in the world. 

However, what was so amazing is that he possessed an unbelievable calm and thoughtfulness that was especially noticeable in the horrible traveling conditions that we were immersed in.  We got off the plane together and walked to baggage.  He thanked every single airport employee in a personal and kind manner for doing a good job and allowing him to travel that week.  You could see each and every person lighting up with a smile.   Who knows what he was really thinking, but his outward demeanor brought out kindness and warmth in others. 

When I was in Japan I noticed how polite everyone was.  Again, even if they were thinking the opposite, this politeness had a great effect on all those around them.  The way that they interacted became the reality. 

I am a long, long way from enlightened.  Someone even called me a malcontent once.  However, I hope to be able to treat people this way someday.  For regardless of our thoughts, it is our actions that can truly make life a better place.  Through compassion we can slowly form the reality that we wish to see. 

I Don’t Care What People Say Behind My Back

One thing I have never cared about is if people talk behind my back.  I just assume at some point that friends or even loved ones are going to say something negative about me when I’m not around.  It’s human nature.  A lot of people worry about this kind of thing, but not me!  Let them talk away.  No one is going to like everything you do, even if you are always trying your best.  To blow off steam at some point they are probably going to need to get something off of their chest.  I’ve probably been called every name in the book when I’m not looking.  But if I don’t know it happened, to me it never existed.

Now I’m not talking about people plotting something behind your back like stealing your girlfriend or preparing a practical joke of some kind.  Those are things that you might one day have to deal with.  Also, if there is something that I’m really doing that bothers someone, and I am unaware of it, I would hope that they would be honest and make me aware of it.  But again, I’m just talking about the good old human nature of shit talking and blowing off steam.

All that really matters is how people treat you.  In the realm of interpersonal relationships it is action that counts.   How many times have you had to go to some event for a friend that you just didn’t want to?  Probably while you were driving there you said something like, “Why the fuck did Bobby have his birthday party on a Tuesday!  Doesn’t that dumbass know that I have to be at work tomorrow?”  But Bobby has been a good friend overall so you soldier on despite how you feel.  Does making that negative comment negate the fact that in the end you did the right thing?  I don’t feel that it does.  In the end you burned off some of your negative energy, made your friend happy, and all is well, with your friend being pleasantly ignorant that his event put you out.  All people put us out at times.

When I was in Japan everyone smiled at me and was very outwardly kind towards me.  You find yourself smiling back even if you aren’t really in the mood.  These people could have been calling me a dumb American behind my back, but the way they treated me made me feel welcome even if I wasn’t.  In turn I was kind to them.  In some ways the action became the reality that was taking place, even if people were thinking different thoughts.

I’m not necessarily talking about being fake.  If you hate someone you might be polite, but you definitely don’t need to kiss their ass.  But often our emotions towards someone are complex.  We have friends that we love, but they do that one thing that drives us crazy.  As people we want that person to know that we love them, but we also might need to vent about what they are doing to someone else so that we aren’t mean to them in a way that they might misinterpret as being something more than a casual annoyance.  Again, human interactions are complicated!

So as long as people are nice to me I’m happy.  They can say whatever the fuck they want when I’m not around.  I’m a realist.  I expect that kind of thing to happen from time to time.  If I never find out about it, it is just taking place in some parallel dimension that I will never enter.

Dust Before the Wind

The knell of the bells at the Gion temple 
Echoes the impermanence of all things. 
The colour of the flowers on its double-trunked tree 
Reveals the truth that to flourish is to fall. 
He who is proud is not so for long, 
Like a passing dream on a night in spring. 
He who is brave is finally destroyed, 
To be no more than dust before the wind.

From The Heike.  The Heike is a 13th century war tale from Japan.  The translation was done by P.G. O’Neil.  

Why do the Japanese Make Such Weird Movies?!!!

I have long loved certain kinds of Japanese anime, especially the Studio Ghibli films.  Watch the movie Spirited Away sometime.  Visually these movies are unlike anything in Western culture.  Often after viewing one of these movies several questions come to mind.  Are the Japanese taking a lot of acid?  How do the Japanese know exactly what my dreams are like after I eat a Cadbury egg right before bed?  I often wonder if things like Santa Claus or Mickey Mouse are as strange to the Japanese as their films are to us.  Is there something in their culture that makes these movies so popular in Japan?

I don’t have a definitive answer, but I have read part of two books about Japanese culture.  One is A Geek in Japan: Discovering the Land of Manga, Anime, Zen, and the Tea Ceremony by Hector Garcia.  The other one is called The Japanese Mind: Understanding Contemporary Japanese Culture by Roger J. Davies and Osamu Ikeno.  I admit that I am only about 30% through the first one and I haven’t actually even gotten to the part about anime yet.  However, what follows is some guesswork on my part that I believe will turn out to be somewhat accurate.

The Japanese highly value social harmony.  Because of this their culture is infused with a great deal of ambiguity.  People will often say things that are vague so that the other party is not offended.  A good deal of the time you can infer what people mean by the way they say something and not by what is actually being said.  The closest example in our culture that I can come up with is from an episode of Married with Children.  On the show there is a situation that goes something like the following:  Al Bundy gets asked by his wife Peggy how she looks.  He can either tell her she looks good and then be forced to sleep with her, or he can tell her that she looks bad and get slapped.  Neither outcome is desirable.  Because of this he tells her that she looks nice.  Nice is a lukewarm meaningless compliment that can only be understood by how someone says it.  The Japanese use a great deal of this kind of language so that they can maintain social harmony.

There are also other reasons that the Japanese are comfortable with ambiguity.  Another reason is related to the roll of Zen Buddhism’s influence on Japanese culture.  There are a series of brief stories that resemble riddles called koans.  The most famous one is: “What is the sound of one hand clapping.”  Another one is as follows:

Two monks were arguing about a flag.  One said, “The flag is moving.”  The other said, “The wind is moving.”  The sixth patriarch happened to be passing by.  He told them, “Not the wind, not the flag.  Mind is moving.”

These koans are supposed to be slightly confusing and ambiguous.  However, when you are confused you begin to think.  By thinking you can start moving towards enlightenment.

Another factor that might play into all of this is the way that the Japanese write.  Two of the Japanese alphabets, their culture uses three, are based on symbols.  Anyone that has seen the beautiful Japanese characters knows what I am talking about.  The Japanese do use our alphabet, but often when things are written in this alphabet this can be slightly confusing to the Japanese.  That is because their minds are trained to again read through symbols.  Reading is often a much more visual act for the Japanese.  Because of this the Japanese are a highly visual people.

So you combine a highly visual culture with people that are primed for ambiguity and that is my guess on how you arrive at strange cartoons that resemble acid trips.  Except for certain filmmakers like David Lynch, our cinema does not dive so regularly into that kind of abstract dream logic.  Unless of course we do drugs, which we sure have a lot of!

The Vivid Nightmare of Oldboy

The other night I watched the movie Oldboy.  It is a Korean film that plays with the norms of the revenge film.  It featured some of the most depraved film violence that I have ever seen.  Whatever you are expecting, from the revenge films that you have previously seen, you won’t see what’s coming at the end.  I felt like the rug had been pulled out from under me, which doesn’t necessarily translate to enjoyment. 

A careless drunken Korean businessman is imprisoned for 15 years.  Why he is imprisoned is the mystery that is at the heart of the movie.  Once he escapes he decides to solve this mystery and seek revenge on those that imprisoned him.  To tell you anymore of the plot would be to spoil it. 

To be honest I can’t say if I liked this film or not and I definitely can’t think of who I would recommend it to.  I have an extremely strong stomach for violence in cinema, and I found myself squirming at times.  Although there is graphic physical violence the emotional violence that takes place is every bit as harrowing, if not more so. 

What purpose does a movie like this serve in our culture?  It’s not escapist in nature.  Although the cinematography is really well done it is not a moving painting like certain works by David Lynch.  Although you could not call the film dumb, it doesn’t necessarily have any deep probing intellectual questions. 

However, to say the movie has no worth would be easy and probably not fair.  First of all, as previously stated it is a Korean film.  Although it steals from Western culture, it is not entirely based upon it.  There may be some misunderstanding on my part.  It was based on the Manga comics that are popular in Asia.  In Asia these comics are popular in ways that our comics are not.  When I was in Japan I saw many businessmen and other adults waiting for trains reading them.  I also have a book on Japanese folklore, while that obviously being a different culture than Korean culture, that’s tales of revenge were reverberating through my mind as I watched the film.  In the folklore book that I read there were many stories that started out with rules about honor, and once these rules were broken things descended into the most extreme forms of bloodshed. 

Also the film again plays with what we have come to expect from these kinds of films.  Again, I don’t want to spoil it, but let’s just say the ending doesn’t leave you with the satiated feeling that most revenge films leave you with.  In fact I think part of the idea of the film is a comment on revenge in film itself.  While most movies leave you feeling a sense of resolve, like loose threads have been tied, this one doesn’t.  In fact it leaves you almost feeling like you participated in a crime! 

I love the language of cinema and I love when movies play with conventions.  As long as a movie tries to do something original I try not to write it off.  I don’t like things that are shocking just to be shocking.  Something like the Saw movies holds no interest for me.  That being said many of my favorite movies are extreme in nature.  I enjoy when story tellers go into unexplored country, whatever the nature of that country might be. 

I do love well done genre films.  Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula is a film that I have been thinking about recently.  Despite it containing an array of horrors there is a dark Victorian beauty to it.  There may be no value to it in terms of learning anything about life, but it is a piece of art.  Every shot is like looking at a sculpture on a gothic cathedral. 

I also like movies that are well done as pieces of escapism.  Films that are so entertaining that you forget where you are and can relax for a couple of hours. 

All of that being said this is one of those rare times when I can’t decide if what I gazed upon watching Oldboy was good or bad.  I can’t tell if sitting through this movie had any artistic value or not.  Although it is fading in my mind every day, I know that parts of it will stick with me, like some half remembered nightmare.  Does glancing into a vivid nightmare enhance human experience at all?  I don’t know.  However, if you are looking for something you haven’t seen before, you may want to take the risk.  

Heavy Metal in Japan

No Show Ponies played a show while we were in Japan.  It was a two man show as it was just my brother Ben and I.  It was a four hour deal, which to be honest we weren’t really prepared to play as a two piece.  But it all worked out thanks to our new friend David, who lent us equipment, and to an enthusiastic crowd.  We played an English speaking expat bar, though the crowd was a mix of different nationalities.  I knew it was a good sign when I spotted a Philadelphia Eagles helmet right above the stage. 

In many ways it was just another gig.  We had to play a long time and we did a set mostly covers to kill some time.  However, some of the requests were great; Bon Jovi, Guns N Roses, and even Whitesnake all made appearances, not that we played any of them.  I was thinking how if English wasn’t your first language, as it wasn’t for at least half the audience if not more, you don’t really care about anything but the sound.  That big American rock n roll sound probably sounds pretty damn fun if you aren’t troubled by things like having to dwell on the musings of David Coverdale.  In truth I would put Guns N Roses on an entirely different plain then all of the other 80’s rock bands, but that’s my own private war. 

I have long known that they like American heavy metal and rock in Japan.  Band’s that have long worn out their welcome here still have big followings in places like Japan.  Remember Mr. Big?  I know that they can still tour successfully in Japan and Asia as a whole. 

To sort of get myself in the proper mindset I broke out a lot of metal and hard rock records on my headphones as I traveled around the country.  I was listening to a lot of Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath.  I especially spent a lot of time with Iron Maiden’s The Final Frontier, which is their newest record.  I’ve read that the record isn’t mastered.  To be honest I can’t tell, but I hope that’s true.  I like thinking that a group with that money, and whether you know it or not they are still huge everywhere, has taken such a primitive approach to recording.  I also enjoy the fact that a band is singing about death and referring to it as the final frontier.  That makes me smile. 

I strangely find heavy metal and hard rock to be relaxing.  I can listen to it and fall asleep.  I don’t mean that it bores me.  It occupies my mind in such a way that blocks other thoughts from keeping me awake.  One of the things I’ve been thinking about in reference to that style of music is that bands like Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden are so much more interesting musically then many of the newer bands I’ve heard in that genre.  One of the reasons for that, and there are many, is that the rhythm sections swing.  A lot of newer metal has drummers that play with metronomic precision with little feel.  Because those bands came out of the traditions of 60’s rock their drummers till play with a deep pocket.  That means no matter how heavy they get there is still something interesting rhythmically going on there.  Anyway, just a thought on the way to the mountaintop. 

We certainly don’t want to always be serious around these parts man.  Sometimes it is good to put on a loud rock n roll record and drift off to space.  The final frontier….

The Rape of Nanking and The Indian Wars

While I was in Japan I read two books on George Armstrong Custer and his Last Stand.  One was called The Last Stand by Nathaniel Philbrick.  The other was Custer by Larry McMurtry.   The Last Stand was the more scholarly of the two, even though it would still probably be called popular history, or as I like to call it readable history.  Custer was a shorter book that was more the author’s musings on Custer’s life and times.  McMurtry’s book was a highly entertaining read, but if you are looking for something more substantial and don’t know anything about Custer, then I would read the Philbrick book. 

I became interested in Custer because of Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears album and by the work of Buffy Sainte-Marie.  I have already read two excellent books on the west and the Indian Wars, Hampton Sides Blood and Thunder and S.C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon, and I was looking for something as readable as those two.  If you haven’t read either of those books and are interested in the history of the west, they are must reads.  I was going to get Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, but I know how that turns out and thought I’d read something slightly less depressing on vacation.  I think now that I’m home I’ll move on to heavier ground and give the Wounded Knee book a read. 

Anyway, while I was in Japan the question kept coming up how the Japanese people, who are so outwardly kind, could do something like the Nanking massacre.  This is when, during World War II, the Japanese butchered the Chinese people in Nanking (now Nanjing).  It seemed often posed as a Japanese question, but after reading so much about the Indian Wars, I couldn’t help but think of it as a human question. 

We often like to think of the Japanese during World War II as being the bad guys.  We often think of them as people who did things that we would never do.  The truth of the matter is that the Japanese were extremely brutal and did things during that war that were horrific.  If you want to read something a little closer to home read Hampton Sides excellent Ghost Soldiers, a book about the Bantam Death March.  If there can be a right side in war, then during that war against the Japanese we were on it. 

However, they aren’t people that did things that we would never do.  Is there really any difference between what they did at Nanking and what we did at Wounded Knee or at many other points in our western conquest?  Sure there might be a scale issue.  But they had better technology.  If we had better technology in the 1800’s wouldn’t we have hunted down and exterminated the Indians as a far higher rate if we could have?  I guess that is a historical what if question that can never be answered.  We were extremely brutal given what methods were at hand. 

That’s not to say that the Indians weren’t often brutal in their own right.  When you read about depredations in a historical book, what they often called Indian brutality back then; it means rape, killing, and horrific mutilation.  The Indians liked to do things like cut people’s private parts off and stick them in their mouths.  Looking through the lenses of history no one comes out clean. 

However, we were the ones that made the treaties and then broke them time after time.  We committed brutal atrocities of our own.  Except for little pockets on reservations, which are really pale sad imitations of what Indian life was like before we intervened, we basically wiped out a people and their culture.  We acted with extreme prejudice.  The Indians that led raids against us were really hard to find, so we often just killed the ones that we could find, even if they were women and children. 

The thing I’m trying to get across with all this barbarity is that at some point most peoples have atrocities in their past.  While it is perfectly in the right to denounce violence and judge people for what they are doing right now, we should think long and hard before we go that extra mile in demonizing them.  Demonizing others is how one can make the mistake that leads down the road of darkness.  All races and people, given the right circumstances, have the potential for great evil.  We should be extra vigilante, and make sure that in the future, that our potential is never again realized.  

Being Sick in Japan

I was sick in Japan, very sick.  I had strep throat which is bad enough in itself, but it also made my allergy problems that I suffer greatly from ten times worse.   I don’t need to go into disgusting detail, but I was basically in a hellzone.  Not wanting to miss much, I was walking around and site seeing 12 to 14 hours a day while feeling like complete shit.  If I had been at home I would have been flat on my back.

Finally it got too much to bear and I had to see a doctor.  My family, and especially my Mom, helped me locate one and find the help that I needed.  Also, luckily for me the Japanese medical system is amazing.  I was able to go see two different doctors and receive seven different medicines for less than $100.  As a foreigner with no in country medical insurance, I found this to be amazing.  And it should be noted that both trips to the doctors had me in and out in about 40 minutes without an appointment!

This was one of several experiences over there that made me laugh in the face of the term American Exceptionalism.  There are many fools that claim that we do everything better and have it better than anywhere else in the world.  Wrong!  That’s not to say that there aren’t certain benefits of being an American and that there aren’t certain things that we might do better.  However, to make a blanket statement that we are the best at everything is comical at best.  Just the Japanese alone have a better medical system, at least if you have no insurance, and also have much better public transportation than we do.

Being sick is a curse in more ways than one.  There is small chance of enlightenment when you are trapped in the physicality of a body that isn’t working properly.  I am someone that has always struggled with patience and a temper.  I have worked on it tremendously throughout the years, however, in being sick and not being allowed to get rest, most of my hard work went right out the window!  Not only was I miserable physically, but I made life hell for those around me.  I couldn’t see any farther than the extreme pain that I was in.  There might be those that have terminal diseases and long term illnesses that learn to transcend them, but I bet not in the first week.  When you are sick, especially in a way that is not physically apparent, it makes it hard for others to understand what you are going through.  In short I am trying to say that an illness, even a temporary one like strep throat, can make life difficult for yourself and your loved ones. Being sick can lead to misunderstandings in many ways and none of them are fun!

The experience of getting easy to access medical care and of being sick in a hard situation made me realize even more than I already have that there is no reason to let people suffer.  Why should the richest country in the world allow people to not get the medical care that they need?  I realize that Obamacare is a step in the right direction, but we can and should go further.  I’m sorry my Republican friends, but you are dead wrong on this issue.  And if you blindly think that we have better medical care than anywhere else in the world, at least in terms of care for the average person, travel to Japan or Europe and see for yourself.  You will find things that will make you eat your words for breakfast!

Being Treated Like a Human Being

One of the things that surprised me in Japan was how kind people were to foreign strangers.  I’ve previously read enough to know that Japan has been a completely closed society in the past, and is still closed off in some ways to outsiders.  I also know that it is a culture that can be hard on the individual, which can favor group think at times, and as a result can be casually cruel to those that don’t fit neatly into observed norms.  I’m also not blind to the fact that I have a completely superficial understanding of their culture.  I was there for a week.  For the flight home I downloaded several books on the Japanese and their culture so that I might better understand what I saw.   

However, none of this obscures the fact that on a surface level the Japanese are unbelievably courteous.  You are greeted with smiles and kindness around every turn.  If you need help it is there in spades.  If you pull out a map and look lost, someone approaches you to find your way.  If you drop something, someone will pick it up for you.  If you are sick, like I was when I was there, their medical care is efficient, affordable, and the treatment is on a very human level.  At hotels, stores, restaurants, and even just out on the street, they go out of their way to make you feel comfortable. 

With only having a basic understanding of their culture, surely I am missing something.  I am sure I am not picking up on basic signs that the Japanese would see.  I was reading a book written by Japanese students and their professor called The Japanese Mind.  It talks about how communication in Japan can be very ambiguous and that it is often in the subtlest of ways that their true intentions are communicated. 

None of what I might be missing obscures the fact that the way they behave makes for a seemingly better everyday life.  If someone smiles at you or says thank you here in America, even if it is just part of a professional courtesy, it can go a long way in improving your mood.  If someone smiles at you, you often find yourself smiling back.

Often it is not the big problems in life that defeat us, but the small everyday indignities that make us suffer.  I come from the North East where casual indifference seems to be the norm.  When I moved to Austin I was amazed that strangers would wave to me as I went on a bike ride.  I was astounded when I went to restaurants and people asked me how my day was with what seemed like actual interest.  My first reaction was, “what the fuck do these people want to know about my day for?!!!”  I was surprised at how quickly people were to hug me when I saw them, even people of whom I was only an acquaintance.  All of these minor things added up over time though and led to a sunnier lifestyle.  Austin is becoming more urban in attitudes and behavior as it grows, but it is still different than many places I have been in the US. 

The Japanese don’t seem much for hugging, but aside from this they display this casual kindness in spades.  Everywhere I went I was treated like what I am, a human being.  Even if it is nothing but politeness, this behavior pays off.  You feel your soul more relaxed and at ease.  Even in the airport yesterday I felt a calmness in the air that I don’t feel when I am home.  There at least feels like there is less anxiety in their way of life.  I wasn’t alone in that everyone who I traveled with or met that was an outsider felt this way.  I want to read and learn and get to the bottom of this, as it was simply an extraordinary experience.  However, no matter what I dig up, I can say that there is something to be learned from these people.  Being treated like a human being really is as nice as it sounds.