December 26th, 2007


Honey and honour

My Christmas was a double bill: I watched two Japanese films made over fifty years apart. I began with Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950), a tale of rape, murder and honour-bargaining out in the medieval Japanese forest. In fact it's four tales, four mismatching accounts of the same violent events, told by the participants (a bandit, a samurai, his wife, and a woodcutter).

Now, I enjoyed Rashomon very much, especially this court-style narrative device of running through the same events from four completely different perspectives (one of them from beyond the grave, from a ghost). But in general I have my problems with Kurosawa. I think of him as a stiff, macho director too much given to crowd scenes, battle scenes, violence and pessimism. He makes great art, but if you were to plot the world of Rashomon -- a world where nobody trusts anyone else, where swords are constantly necessary, where alliances shift, where betrayal and dishonour, rape and murder power the narrative, and where none of the characters are remotely sympathetic -- onto the Inglehart Values Map, the Japan it represents would be close to modern Zimbabwe. This is a world dominated by traditional values and survival values. As such, great art or not, it says little to me about my life.

The second film (click the picture to watch it) couldn't have been more of a contrast. If Rashomon is a hard film, a tragedy, a 1950s art film made for export, a film for men (Hisae refused to join me on the sofa), Honey and Clover (2006) is a light, fluffy mass market film, a "women's picture", a comedy (in the Aristotelian sense). Despite a vague resemblance to Shakespeare's "Midsummer Night's Dream" (multiple lovers at cross-purposes), it doesn't really qualify as art. And yet it moves me more than Rashomon and says a great deal more about my life. For instance, Honey and Clover opens with a bunch of Japanese art students preparing gyoza. And it so happens that that's exactly how I spent Christmas Eve -- preparing and eating gyoza with six Japanese art students, one of whom had even attended Tokyo's Musashino Art University, the model for the college in this film.

If Rashomon showed, in terms of the Inglehart Values Map, predominantly lower-left quadrant values (survival, tradition), Honey and Clover shows upper-right ones: this is a film set in the secular-rational world of higher education, a world dominated by the quest for self-expression through art and personal happiness through love. What it lacks in artistic value (the music is awful and the cinematography slick rather than visionary) it makes up for by establishing the radiant Yu Aoi as the earthly summation of all possible human goodness. In Inglehart terms, the Japan depicted in Honey and Clover sits exactly where today's Japan sits on his map; in the civilized upper right quadrant. It's an advanced, soft place with advanced, soft values.

If you follow Yu Aoi through Japanese popular culture, you find that, over and over again, she's cast as an advanced, soft being, a quirky, childlike, expressive, kind-hearted fairy, modestly unaware of her own beauty and unwilling to use it in power games. In her many TV commercials -- for Canon, for the Aeon bank card, for Shuiesha -- Yu is self-expressive yet socially harmonious. She's a water nymph, sharing a bath with Aoi Miyazaki. If she's not a painter, she's holding a light meter, part of the creative team on a photo shoot, dressing up in a kimono, heading out to the seaside in a cute yellow Fiat 500, or weeping as she reads sentimental books in refreshing candy-striped wrappers.

Now, it's unlikely that so perfectly lovely a person could ever be a good artist. And, indeed, the paintings Yu's character creates in Honey and Clover are truly dreadful daubings, underscored on the soundtrack with appalling emo songs. But it would be a harsh film director indeed who forced Yu Aoi back to the Bronze Age -- and a series of survival- and honour-oriented struggles -- in the name of art. And perhaps we could see the society that vests some of its core values in Yu Aoi -- an advanced consumer society where people are finally able to concentrate on self-expression and personal happiness without sacrificing communal, unselfish values -- as a work of art in its own right, an incarnation of a new, less brutal code of honour.