September 21st, 2006


It's so nice to be a beautiful girl

Yesterday I celebrated Japan's "mukokuseki diaspora" -- that wonderful, synthetic, portable state, or state of mind, where Japanese and gaijin interact. In reality, of course, the synthetic "third culture" produced by that fusion can be as ugly as downtown Roppongi on a Friday night. Today, as a sort of riposte to that statement, I want to celebrate something domestically Japanese, and yet also universal.

Qooqle Clippers is one of my daily glimpses into the Japanese mind, and, not very surprisingly, when the Japanese mind isn't thinking about food, it's thinking about sex. Yesterday I found the YouTube clip site framing Hime, a clip of an ordinary girl waking up, brushing her teeth, and putting on her make-up. The girl's "way of being in the world" struck me as very Japanese, and very domestically Japanese; this couldn't be an American; it couldn't even be a diasporan Japanese making a tape for an American boyfriend. The clip seems to me to be full of the kind of implicit semantic and philosophical agreements that only parties raised in the same country can really share, the kind of agreements you don't even have to agree on or specify, yet which infuse every action on screen. As such, Hime is a perfect way to put the case for the beauty of the complementary opposite of what I was advocating yesterday. If Exhibit A was the relaunched Tokion, Exhibit B is a short, home-produced "charm video" -- but also a glimpse into a whole way of being, thinking and feeling.

Hime acts like the air hostess of her own life. Her face is pretty, if not quite model-like. Her voice is light and sensual, with charming, cutely clipped rhythms and a caressing, intimate style. She's attractive enough to be quietly confident, yet remains sweetly unaffected, and this gives her a "girl next door" quality. And Hime seems to embrace rather than reject her generic interchangability with every other normally pretty girl.

Her film, though sexy, isn't structured like porn. The most sexually exciting things -- a glimpse of Hime's sex, her long, slow wriggle into her underwear, and the hamigaki section, in which she lingers on a view of herself brushing her teeth -- all come at the beginning rather than the end, defying the cast-iron "more and more exciting" law of professional porn. Above all, the logic of porn ("it's so nice to get excited and have an orgasm") is replaced by quite another logic. To quote my own lyric for Kahimi Karie's "Good Morning World" (my biggest-selling song ever, by the way, and, some would say, my stupidest as well as my wisest composition): "It's so nice to be a beautiful girl".

There's no semantic stress here, no battle with stereotypes to be symbolically fought, no jumping through hoops, no contradiction or denial of Hime's essential femininity. She's not "putting on war paint" before going out onto some sexual battlefield to meet jerks, losers, abusers. Instead, she's about to go out into a world which is sensual and consensual, not conflictual. Certainly there might be perversion out there in the floating world of milky fluorescence, but it seems most likely to be a sort of pitiful otaku fetishism or incest, and Hime understands that; in fact, she incorporates it kindly into her performance. She's almost sisterly or daughterly as she adjusts her panties, and she certainly understands the male fetish for these details, while never dispensing with her ingenue manner. There's an assumed hunger which is calmly and kindly understood, and accommodated. Why isn't there an English word for ingenue? Perhaps because Anglos don't have much use for the concept; our alluring women are forever wearing invisible devil's horns. In Hime's world the devil is absent (although a cute small dog is present).

No malicious envy is assumed on the part of the viewer, and defused defensively. Instead there's a welcoming kindness. Hime's delight in being a girl corresponds with ours in watching her becoming a girl, letting us in on her make-up secrets, giving us a behind-the-scenes look at her life, her apartment, her body, her routines. Her lack of insecurity almost makes us see her as "spoilt", but there's nothing brattily spoilt, nothing Britney-ish here. Her security puts us at ease.

With her light, solicitous gestures, Hime is part-pierrot, part-courtesan. In her performance there's no assumed hatred of women, no sex neurosis, and nothing is relegated to the unconscious. Hime doesn't sublimate the sexual meaning of brushing her teeth; it's there on the surface. And yet there's no hint of the lascivious in her performance. Hime's implied (constructed) Japanese viewer doesn't like lascivious girls who think they -- and we -- are evil for enjoying her enjoyment of her girlness. They prefer an ingenue sexuality which is nevertheless completely aware of itself, and completely in control. They don't want to have to go to "bad girls" on the fringes of society, beyond the pale, for their sexual excitement. It comes from everygirl. It could come from their daughter, their mother or their sister too. But foreign girls... well, they're different. A bit scary. They don't really go for foreigners.

And what about us? Do we want to educate Hime, raise her consciousness, help her to "empower herself by questioning her social role"? Do we want to sit her down and tell her about Western feminism, and how it's still ahead of her? Don't be silly. Hime already clearly has amazing power. Her power comes from society. She's there at the centre of society, and we're lucky to be peripheral to her, close enough to glimpse the social power of being a pretty girl. What's more, if we thought about it we'd see there really is nowhere outside society for her to step, should she question her role. Nowhere in Japan, and nowhere in the West either. Nowhere that would make her stronger than she is right now, anyway.

And so, switching off the denki, Hime goes out into the ultimate gentleness of the nocturnal world we know waits outside, the "isn't it delightful" breeziness of Japanese life. She'll be safe out there in the light, sensual, tropical calm of a summer evening. But there's a tiny hint of racism in the idea that she can only enjoy that safety because Japan is insular, protected against harsher outside manners. There's only us here, Hime, your brother and your father and your uncle. You know us, and we know you. We hardly even need the police or the army, so smoothly does everything go out there in the world of milky fluorescence.

The same evening I watched the Qooqle clip of Hime, I happened to see a trailer for a new Hollywood film called My Super Ex-Girlfriend. It's a romantic comedy about "breaking up with a superhero". The trailer shows lots of knockabout stuff as Uma Thurman -- a geeky librarian by day, Superwoman by night -- throws her half-hearted date against walls with superhuman physical strength. Although it's all played for laughs, the film presents a rather sad picture of gender relations. Here power can only be thought of as masculine; you get it by having superior physical strength and being prepared to use violence. You get it by stepping into, and superficially feminizing, the ultra-male archetype of Superman.

I find Hime's message much more positive than Uma's. To be a girl is, in itself, to be a superhero.