imomus (imomus) wrote,

"If I commit suicide with someone, I'd like it to be you"

1. This is the trailer for a new Japanese romcom coming out in April, My Darling is a Foreigner. It looks harmless enough:

2. The trailer made me think back to the very different -- and much less positive -- way Japanese-Westerner relationships are represented in a french film made forty years ago, Domicile Conjugal (Bed and Board), the fourth in François Truffaut's Antoine Doinel series, released in 1970.

3. The film is up on YouTube in its entirety, so I watched it again. The relevant part of the plot begins at the end of the fifth slice, when Antoine (played by the beautiful, mime-like Jean-Pierre Léaud) is visited at his absurd job (directing model ships around a pond by remote control) by a rich Japanese family; a burly businessman and his wife and daughter (both dressed in kimonos). Antoine is given the job of accompanying Kyoko, the daughter, to the bathroom. They fall -- silently, like two mimes -- for each other, and Kyoko drops her bracelet into the pond deliberately, so that Antoine will have to return it in person.

4. Now, Domicile Conjugal is a great film -- I love Truffaut's lightness of touch, his combination of charm and realism -- but Kyoko is not a great character. As far as representations of Japanese women on the screen go, she actually makes Kissy Suzuki, the double agent in the 1967 Bond film You Only Live Twice, look well-rounded. Kyoko (played by the slightly-too-old Hiroko Berghauer, announced in the titles as "Mademoiselle Hiroko", and never seen on movie screens again) is, frankly, bizarre, a bore and a bitch; both stereotypical and weird, gracious and rude.

5. This is a romantic comedy, so stereotypes are forgivable, especially in the secondary characters. Kyoko draws on the 19th century imagery of Madame Butterfly, of course -- Antoine's wife Christine calls her that at one point, and even dresses up in a Butterfly-ish Japanese costume when she finds out about the affair. But could she also draw on the late-1960s stereotypology of Yoko Ono?

6. There are parallels. Released a year after The Beatles released their breakup single The Ballad of John and Yoko, Domicile Conjugal shows Kyoko breaking up Antoine and Christine. Christine finds out about the affair when some paper phrases -- half-Fluxus, half-Shinto -- pop out of a bouquet of flowers Kyoko has given Antoine. KYOKO LOVES ANTOINE, SHE IS CALLED KYOKO AND SHE LOVES YOU, COME WHEN YOU CAN BUT CAN SOON, SHE SAYS GOOD NIGHT AND THINKS OF ANTOINE, they say. Later, when Antoine's disinterest in Kyoko becomes too obvious, Kyoko also uses a note to tell Doinel to go fuck himself. It's written in Japanese on a piece of coloured paper, for all the world like a Yoko Ono instruction painting. ("Make three phonecalls to your wife. Return to your table. Examine my empty chair. Go fuck yourself.")

7. Kyoko is kooky, obsessional, determined, bitchy, rich, spoiled, aesthetic. She's living in France, but stays locked within her own culture, alternating kimonos with sexy black leather mini-skirts. She shares her apartment with Maki, a Japanese roommate Kyoko pretty much throws out onto the street when she wants to seduce Antoine over dinner. Sexually predatory, she lunges (amidst spooky pseudo-oriental music by Antoine Duhamel) to kiss Doinel when he delivers her lost bracelet.

8. Kyoko's Japanese lifestyle presents little interest or pleasure to Antoine. Although we see him lying in bed with Christine reading a tome entitled Japanese Women, Kyoko's apartment -- scattered with floor cushions, decorated with wind-chimes, ukiyo-e prints, a huge low-hanging paper lantern, and a groovy1970-style kotatsu table -- presents him only with discomfort (he keeps his shoes on and can't find a comfortable sitting position), and the Japanese food she serves seems to hold more horror than delight for him.

9. Kyoko soon begins to frighten Antoine with weird, fanatical utterances: "If I commit suicide with someone," she tells him, "I'd like it to be you" (this statement is followed by a dramatic chord on the soundtrack, part samurai movie, part horror film). When she isn't suggesting self-harm, Kyoko is boring Antoine to death by sitting silently, spinning meals out longer than he can bear, making him smile silently so long he gets lockjaw. Soon he escapes back to his wife.

10. Now, I very much doubt that My Darling is a Foreigner will trade in imagery anywhere near as negative and xenophobic as this. Imagine the Japanese film showing its American character as a kooky, unscrupulous fanatic, and the trans-cultural relationship as boring and doomed! From the trailer, it seems that the script of My Darling is a Foreigner concentrates, instead, on the happy couple's righteous struggle to overcome the prejudices of elderly family members.

11. My Darling is a Foreigner is clearly a nicer film, gentler in its treatment of its characters, and much more like the kind of scenario we'd all like to be living out in our cross-cultural relationships. I very much doubt, however, whether it's a better film; despite its unkindness to Kyoko and its very old-fashioned pessimism about cross-cultural relationships, Truffaut's film is artistically very strong indeed.

12. But Truffaut, with his portrayal of Kyoko, may have muddied his image in Japan. All the Japanese people I know love Godard; now I think about it, I've never heard one mention Truffaut. If they talk about Jean-Pierre Léaud, it's for his role in La Chinoise, or the darker, more complex, more obscure films of Jean Eustache.

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