Monday, July 15, 2013

Big in Japan

I've always had a fondness for this phrase "Big in Japan," which sort of encapsulates how the Japanese seem to care more about U.S./U.K. pop cultural figures -- and even more so jazz music and jazz musicians -- than their home audiences.  Maybe it is the quirkier one-hit wonders that really become celebrated in Japan while remaining near unknowns at home.  This is more obvious in pop music than in jazz, where the Japanese seem to shower love and affection on all jazz musicians, well-known and obscure.  I don't really know what drives this obsession with Western music and movies.  Maybe it really is as simple as in such a space-constrained place as Tokyo, it is easier to be consumerist over music and to a slightly lesser extent movies and books than cars or model trains or what have you.  While it isn't quite as surprising as it was in the 80s and 90s, major film stars would go off to Japan and film commercials and do things that would cause them to lose too much "cred" at home.  (Now they do the same for the Chinese market, but there is less shame attached and sometimes their agents even pimp out these weird US/China hybrid things.)  And of course, lesser known (and perhaps washed-up) movie and TV stars may have enough of a fanbase in Japan that they are called in to make said commercials.  (This was essentially the premise that kicked off Lost in Translation.)

Anyway, perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise that with all the love that Japan has given U.S. pop culture, there wasn't some recognition of it (and no, I am not just talking about The Vapors' Turning Japanese).

There is a defunct U.K. punk band called Big in Japan.  At least three novels with that title.  And at least 4 songs.  Here are my top 3, listed by artist who performed them:

Alphaville (an early (1984) song about the phenomenon)
Alphaville live (2011) (now that they are a middle-aged band I do wonder if they are more appreciative of being appreciated in Japan)
Tom Waits (it takes 30 seconds for sound to kick in -- maybe to trick you into blasting the volume)
     This doesn't appear to be an official video (though it does use the CD version of the track).
     This video isn't authorized either and is a bit NSFW (though it may be worth watching for some clips from Godzilla).
Martin Solveig & Idoling (this seems to capture Japanese pop culture the best, though I do wonder if it is a dated portrait (from the 90s perhaps))

While it would be kind of cool to write a short story about an artist who is still big in Japan, I'm just not that sure I have that much to add.

Where I can add a bit is that I made my own trip to Japan in 2006 for a conference in Kyoto.  I was pretty sure then that it would be my own trip, so I added a side trip to Tokyo.  Kyoto was a bit odd, with the very old shrines with a modernist city on top (but a city that was more of a 80s or 90s version of a city).  I was amazed at seeing vending machines for everything on the sidewalks. Tokyo was ultra-modern in comparison and had far fewer obvious shrines.  The crowds were fairly overwhelming, at least in the main shopping districts.  I had a great time getting obscure jazz releases at the records shops.  I'll add in a handful of my better photos, starting with Kyoto.

Kinkaku-ji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion)

Sadly, I don't really have any good photos of a typical Kyoto sidewalk, just this photo of a store with various "medicinal" remedies.

On to Tokyo, where I spent a day and a half in a strange timeless rush (never did quite get over the jetlag even by the end of the trip).

At night:

It was quite a journey, and I'm glad I went.  I certainly got a kick out of being the one running around with a camera (despite not taking nearly enough photos!).  The one thing I struggled with, particularly outside the conference centre, was just how difficult it was to make myself understood.  This simply hadn't been that difficult in any part of Western or Central Europe.  I knew this was going to be a bit of an issue (and also knew I didn't have time to take a primer in Japanese) but it was still pretty alienating.  This post is already quite long, so I will spill over into the next one where I discuss the implications for "The Poet" in Japan.

No comments:

Post a Comment