Speed Racing on the Cultural Silk Road
The much-ballyhooed world premiere of Takashi Miike’s designated Japanese box-office hitter, “Yatterman,” drew a crowd in New York City that well exceeded the capacity of the Directors Guild of America Theater, and many found themselves literally left out in the cold. The inside of the house was a study in contrasts. The majority represented Mr. Miike’s blood-thirsty, guts-hungry cult following, whose conversion likely occurred after Film Forum imported the monumental mindfuck that was “Audition” in 2001. Also present in remarkable numbers and even more impressive vocal volume were screaming teenage girls with homemade signs who turned out for Sho Sakurai, the star of “Yatterman” who is also a member of Japan’s chart-topping boy band Arashi.
Many of Mr. Sakurai’s fans apparently had never seen one of Mr. Miike’s films. Four lucky teens who scooped the last of the remaining seats worried whether “Yatterman” would be dubbed in English, so they obviously didn’t speak the language or frequent American cinemas enough to know that movies are almost never dubbed. As they scanned through the entirely English program, which declared the film “the ultimate entertainment spectacle that’s taking the world by storm,” they understood only one word: “Storm,” as one pointed out in Japanese, “that’s English for ‘Arashi!’ ” Ironically, the program actually made no reference to Mr. Sakurai, or his boy band for that matter.
What’s truly lost in translation is the fact that an obscure cult filmmaker in Japan has so many fans here, while one of that country’s biggest pop stars is anonymous on these shores. Indeed, there’s so much more to Japanese culture than horror films, animé and crazy game shows, that we are perfectly happy living without. Or are we? A little Google search reveals scores of American devotees starving for everything else Japanese culture has to offer, from manufactured pop idols to those ubiquitous telenovellas. They congregate at countless Web sites and message boards, trading Torrent copies of movies and TV show episodes that money can’t buy. So why have the rest of us settled for less?
Those who aren’t fluent in Japanese – or any language that’s not English – and don’t engage in illegal downloading rely on culture brokers to point us in the right direction. These can be foreign correspondents, authors or film festival programmers. Unfortunately, culture brokers rarely present us with a broad and diverse overview of a country, and instead fixate on their own personal fetishes. Those of us who don’t have the wherewithal to actually visit a country must see it through the culture brokers’ tunnel vision. What’s more revealing is the fact that these culture brokers are uniformly white, and they have mobilized ethnic fetishism the way Marco Polo transported silk.
It’s mind-boggling, really. The folks behind the New York Asian Film Festival are white. And Tony Rayns, the authority on Asian cinema who writes for Sight & Sound and programs Vancouver International Film Festival’s Dragons and Tigers sidebar, is – you guessed it – white. By way of full disclosure, these are friends of mine who have done a tremendous service to popularize Asian culture in the West and are truly passionate about it. But ask any South Korean film buff and he or she won’t hesitate to tell you – with much horror and disgust – about the low blows Mr. Rayns dealt Kim Ki-duk after the filmmaker managed to attain his own success in the West without Mr. Rayns’s culture brokerage.
While the culture brokers don’t have a hand in shaping a country’s identity in a colonialist sense, they are certainly influential in how a culture markets its byproducts in the global economy. “Yatterman” appears to be a package carefully calculated to appease audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. The animé’s creator was also involved in the 1997 reload of “Speed Racer.” While conveniently capitalizing on the buzz drummed up by the recent live-action treatment of “Speed Racer,” the new “Yatterman” raises little doubt about its supposed superiority and authenticity over the Wachowski Brothers’ offering. Casting Mr. Sakurai in the lead coupled with a theme song from Arashi almost guarantees its blockbuster status in Japan. But the choice of Mr. Miike as director and the decision to hold the film’s world premiere in New York City during the Comic Con are just thinly veiled attempts to attract an American distributor. Granted, Mr. Miike has made all kinds of films so “Yatterman” would fit right into his smorgasbord filmography. Still, one can’t help but think how the movie would have turned out differently if it were made strictly for the Japanese audience.