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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.


I am utterly appalled by your review. Not only is one thing incorrect but a number of your facts are. Firstly, Sakurai Sho is not "anonymous on these shores." Couldn't you tell by the number of fans that were there? If you looked close enough, most of the people in that theater were Sakurai fans, me being one of them. Secondly, you should not look down on people just because they can't speak/understand a language. Those girls were there to give support to Sakurai, not only to watch the movie. So there was no need to make fun of them because all they knew was the word Arashi means "storm." Thirdly, ironically, the program did make a "reference to Mr. Sakurai, and his boy band for that matter." During the Q&A, Sakurai talked about Arashi and how he was going to tell them about the massive amounts of people that were there for him and sung to him IN JAPANESE at New York Comic Con, which apparently you did not attend or you would have seen the massive amounts of fans that did come to see Sakurai because he is known here. LOOK HERE: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R4X019kcYd4. And most of the questions asked were to Sakurai and even the Q&A was directed toward him. Also, the filmed WAS made for Japanese audiences. If you knew what you were talking about, they premiered Yatterman here because Miike had also premiered a film at NYCC last year so they invited him to do his film, Yatterman, this year too. There are many more things wrong with this post but I do not have any more time to bother with it. All I can say is that you need to get your facts straight before you make comments that are totally wrong next time.

Obviously you are biased so there's no use arguing with you. I don't see "facts" through the same rose-colored glasses as you do.

How am I being biased? Facts are facts, there's no taking sides to it. I even gave proof that Sakurai is not "anonymous on these shores." How's that when people from all across the United States came to see him? You tell me which part is biased and cannot be backed up by facts and is only me looking through "rose-colored glasses."

First off, "sakuraishofan" tells me all I need to know about you. Sho-kun isn't on the covers of any magazines or tabloids on these shores. He is less famous here than the Octo-Mom. That's a fact. By "program" I meant that piece of paper they gave away at the screening. He was not mentioned in that. Fact. Basically, you missed the entire point of the article. Fact. And you behave like a prepubescent teenage girl. Fact. I am sure Sho-kun, other members of Arashi or Johnny & Associates would not appreciate or approve fans like you. I don't know why there is even anything on YouTube when Johnny's and security explicitly told everyone "no photography." Obviously they should have hired someone who spoke Japanese, but all of the "real" fans should know the drill.

Just because Sho isn't on any magazine covers doesn't mean that he is "anonymous on these shores" which is what I have been trying to get across. The only reason why the Octo-mom has so much coverage is because she had 8 kids with another 6 at home, which is record, crazy and thats why she is surrounded by publicity, so that is not a valid comparison. Secondly, the people at NYCC said that we could take video of when Sakurai came to the window to wave at us, so we got PERMISSION, so you are wrong by that. And as you can see there ISN'T any of inside the DGA theater because that is where they said no video. Third, yes they would approve of a fan like me because I am defending them and their fans here. And you have no right to say that I'm not a real fan or that they would not approve of me, but I know they would not approve of this article, especially Miike would not. I don't think that Sakurai would appreciate you saying that the only reason that the movie will be a hit in Japan is because of Sakurai's status as a pop idol rather than his ability as an actor. And of course the program did not have anything dealing with Arashi because it was a movie about Yatterman and Miike, not them, but that does not mean that they were not metnioned at all.

The whole point of this piece is that perhaps Arashi could have been a big deal in America like the Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC in the late 1990s. But the "culture brokers" are not interested in Japanese boybands and most Americans don't know what they are missing out. If you aren't being such a monumental bonehead, you would see that this article is actually questioning why Arashi isn't bigger here in America.

True but I still don't appreciate you saying that I'm not a "real" fan because you assume that I took pictures and video of Sakurai. I know Johnny's rules and I didn't take any because I respected that. I can't help that that video is on Youtube.com. I just showed it to you to show the massive amount of people that do like Arashi and came to see Saakurai. I just hope one day that Arashi can come here and perform a concert and hopefully by the turn out at NYCC for Sho, they realize that they do have a fan base here and will come. It is a shame that more people do not know them but they aren't anyonomous here.

And momunmental bonehead? You couldn't come up with something better? And you're calling me the "prepubescent teenage girl?" hahaha ;)

Arashi gave its first concert in Hawaii, right? So there's hope for you fangirls. But they are superstars over there. They don't have to come here and be "anonymous." S. Korean singer Rain was supposed to hold a concert at the Madison Square Garden and canceled without explanation. One would assume it was due to poor ticket sales, since the concert is yet to be rescheduled. Members of Arashi probably want to meet their fans from around the world, but to have a concert not completely sold out or canceled is likely considered bad publicity by Johnny's. There's quite a history of Japanese acts trying to break in the American market. Kubota Toshi and Matsuda Seiko both failed miserably. But Puffy AmiYumi is somewhat successful because of "Teen Titans." All I am saying is, these culture brokers are hugely influential in terms of what makes it over here from Japan and what doesn't. So Americans will just have to settle for Octo-Mom!

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