Tuesday, March 27, 2007

166. Coming to America

Nothing personal, but I think this will be the last Japanese movie I'll watch for a while--although my damnably enticing description of Kurosawa's Ikiru, the screening of which my wife missed, has made her want to see it, so I may return to Japan one of these days soon.

But I'm glad to feel harried by such a small matter; it's nothing compared to the pressures in Giants and Toys/Kyojin to Gangu (1958), directed by Yasuzo Masumura--a prolific filmmaker (the Internet Movie Database lists sixty-five directing credits) I stumbled onto--I think I was looking for a Kobayashi film, and wandered just far enough to slip-and-slide down Masumura's pre-Pop-Art anti-big-business diatribe, with its caramel-company spokesmodel, Kyoko (Hitomi Nozoe), a nut with rotten teeth who looks like a monkey. And I am not being impolite, merely quoting other characters' ver batim descriptions and opinions. But I'm glad to say they're right: Until she succumbs to the power of persuasion herself, transformed by her agent into a stuck-up celeb with an enviable smile and a distant demeanor--snubbing the caramel marketers who had "created" her--Kyoko runs around sticking out her tongue--the sybaritic photographer is especially interested in the fact that she can touch her nose with it--and crossing her eyes and jittering and jumping like, well, a monkey. And her teeth are indeed terrible, and her pets are obscenely tumid bullfrog tadpoles, and her family is crowded into a near-hovel, and they all screech and smack at each other, while pop stars and marketers and delirious dance numbers yell and caper in our faces. This is one tiring movie.

At its core is a bitter scorn for Japan's voracious market economy, catching up with America's while outdoing it in salary-man (and -woman) double-dirt-dealing. The rival execs are either old classmates or new lovers, but none of that matters as they vie for the right to turn every Japanese mouth into Kyoko's, sugar-ravaged and ragged. Not to fixate on her damaged dentals, but the poor things do jump out at you, imprinting like--OK, like a bite--along the entire length of the film. As the competition intensifies and the stakes go up (and all over caramel, a paltry thing, as everyone agrees--but cuts throats nonetheless), and the bonds of friendship, loyalty, and love snap over and over, like the ad exec's faulty cigarette lighter--a recurring motif, his repeated nerve-wracking attempts to strike a flame superimposed on various montages of caramel being manufactured, markets established, competitors crushed--Kyoko's gap-toothed grin, carried around by her spindly frame, looms larger and larger, until it's nothing but crooked smiles all around.

Sometimes I think I'm being, well, culturally myopic in my reaction to Japanese films that deal with "Western" topics: They can seem bizarre re-imaginings of familiar conventions, unintentional kitsch made quaint by "foreignness." After all, in 1956 The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit had already outlined the dilemmas of American Upward Mobility; and its more ghoulish side was already considered in The Sweet Smell of Success, along with the marketing of personality in A Face in the Crowd, both in 1957; by 1958, Hollywood was only three years away from Billy Wilder's hysteria-tinged conflation of Cold War brinksmanship and Coca-Cola diplomacy, One, Two, Three.

But Giants and Toys is more than American culture recycled, with goofy dubbing and maybe Godzilla off in the distance--although the awkward, garish faults of American pop culture seem particularly embarrassing when viewed through a Japanese lens, so to speak. Kyoko becomes emblematic of a deep discomfort Masumura wants his Japanese audience to feel, since those who manipulate her--and then of course are manipulated by her--eventually have more to say about post-War Japan than they do America, even though the latter is always in the background or on the tips of their Kyoko-length tongues; but in the end it is specifically Japanese caramel everyone's tasting, as bitter as the crow anyone has to eat in, say, Oliver Stone's Wall Street (1987) or David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)--except in Giants and Toys they bring it on themselves; it is not a legacy of the American occupation/re-culturalization, but a bitter decision made by young men and women who grow old quickly, hunched over their desks--literally clutching their ulcers--and demeaning themselves for market-share. The final shot of the ad exec, forced to wear the spacesuit Kyoko disdains, walking down the crowded Tokyo street to hawk caramels, is heartless in its insistence that the New Japan may be suffering from rot, but it keeps chewing, no matter how much face is lost.

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