Long before the meltdown of the nuclear reactors at Fukushima Daiichi, Japan had already been thoroughly irradiated, the national thyroid saturated with the iodine of despair. I say this in a subjective, emotional, and completely irrational way.
I was born in 1989, the year that Japan’s “Bubble Economy” burst and they embarked upon the so-called “Lost Decades,” which continue to this day. I would say that for the majority of my life, I was not aware that Japan was facing economic trouble (at least comparatively speaking). Japan is the land of robots and anime; surely, I reasoned, a country that could produce something as delightfully frivolous as the “digital pet” could hardly be suffering from economic difficulties.
Japan is still objectively rich. Until quite recently, they had the second highest GDP in the world, after the United States. Now, depending on which survey you look at, they were just a few months ago surpassed by the Chinese economy, or at least this is about to take place. But still, third largest GDP in the world is nothing to scoff at. Even if your economy has ceased to grow, it’s at least stalled out at a respectable level.
The problem with capitalism—and bear in mind here that I don’t know much about economics—is that it’s predicated on endless growth, the more dramatic the better. Unfortunately, endless growth just doesn’t happen in the real world. There’s only so far for your economy to grow before you’ve saturated your markets and your corporations are as large as they’re ever going to get. People compare the growth rates of China and the United States and lament that the United States “can’t compete” in terms of growth. But that’s because the U.S. has already grown; it’s been thoroughly industrialized, corporatized, and by and large digitized. Christ, what more do you want from it?
China, by contrast, has plenty of room to grow. When the communists seized power in 1949, after decades of civil war and a catastrophic Japanese invasion, China was generally a nation of peasants, and poor peasants at that. And then it stayed poor for decades, (a) because command economies are bad at generating wealth and (b) because Mao Zedong couldn’t have done a better job of sabotaging Chinese economic growth if he’d deliberately set out to do so. So you have the Great Leap Forward Famine in the late ‘50’s, and twenty to thirty million people die. Then you have the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, and the country is—again!—deliberately plunged into chaos, and untold hundreds of thousands of people are killed (I can’t find a precise figure on the death toll in the Cultural Revolution) and hundreds of thousands more persecuted, displaced, driven out of their urban jobs—for which they were qualified—to work in the countryside to develop the “proper revolutionary mentality.” Meanwhile, the students aren’t attending class because they’re too busy lynching their teachers and killing each other (I’m aware that not all students did this, but I’m speaking in broad terms). The government itself is in chaos, because Mao keeps purging everyone. In 1969, detachments of the People’s Liberation Army fight pitched battles with Soviet forces along their shared border, bringing the two states to the brink of a potentially nuclear war. In 1971, Mao’s would-be successor Lin Biao fucks up the early stages of a coup against Mao, hustles his family aboard an airplane, neglects to provide the plane with enough fuel, and crashes in the Mongolian desert while trying to reach the Soviet Union. And all of this chaos only really ends in 1976 with the death of Mao and the detention of the so-called “Gang of Four,” a clique of revolutionary extremists led by Mao’s last wife, Jiang Qing, who gets blamed for all the excesses of the Cultural Revolution (and really, the whole thing was just one big excess, but it’s too soon to admit that), and with them out of the way, we can rehabilitate communists purged during the late Maoist period, people like Deng Xiaoping, who comes to power in 1979 and says, “Wouldn’t it be nice if China could make some money?”
So it’s 1979, China’s economy is at rock-bottom, and they have hundreds of millions of people. China becomes the perfect labor market, and the gradual opening up of the country to foreign investment—as well as the loosening of communist restrictions on capitalistic activity domestically—will allow for astronomical growth rates over the next thirty or so years. And this shouldn’t surprise us; China in 1979 is a poor country with a great deal of ground to cover, but they are very well equipped to cover it. By contrast, let’s look at the United States and Japan in 1979. They are, respectively, the first and second richest countries in the world. They’ve already achieved a remarkable level of economic development. Certainly there isn’t much more they can do in terms of domestic production. And it’s cheaper to do it in China anyway. So America will stagger around as its industrial sector dies; the flourishing of computer and internet technology will lead to a brief recovery in the ‘90’s and early ‘00’s, but this will prove to be a bubble like any other. So if you can’t build things, and you can’t innovate things, what can you do? Well, if you’re a wealthy American, you take the money you already have (you acquired this money during one of the previous economic stages) and you move it around. You play the markets and you speculate.
Speculation is called speculation because the outcome is uncertain, so, surprise-surprise, 2008 rolled around and the speculators crashed the world economy. The bubble burst. It was comparable to the speculation in Japan in the late ‘80’s that led to their economic crisis, and it was consistently ineffective leadership that made it so that Japan never really emerged from this crisis. The certainty that things were always improving (endless growth!) which had animated much of Japanese society throughout the sixties, seventies, and eighties, was shown to be illusory. The certainty that if you got a job at a good company, you would securely be employed there for the rest of your working life was abruptly withdrawn. Furthermore, inflation meant that your yen were worth less and less.
And then in 1995, your country is dealt a double-blow: an earthquake strikes Kobe and destroys much of the city, and the Aum Shinrikyo cult releases sarin nerve gas on several trains in the Tokyo subway system. So the ground beneath your feet is not to be trusted and the air you breathe on your commute might be poisoned. These will not do wonders for your confidence.
And things don’t get better. Now, remember, your economy is more stagnant than it is declining. But that’s not good enough; if your economy isn’t growing, then there’s something wrong. China’s economy is growing; and at a rate of about 12 percent annually. So what are you doing wrong?
The 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, and consequent Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, seem like Japan’s social and economic malaise made physically manifest. Amidst the tragedy, however, there was an opportunity to change course; to have effective government confronting and surmounting Japan’s social and economic problems. But so far, at least politically, that doesn’t seem to have happened. Naoto Kan, who was prime minister when the disaster struck, lost his job not too long after (I knew he would, by-the-by; his predecessor, Yukio Hatoyama, lasted all of eight months on the job before resigning after failing to relocate the U.S. military base at Futenma to somewhere off of Okinawa. If he could lose his job over that, then it seemed inevitable that Kan would lose his after bungling the response to Fukushima). The current prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, seems to be facing the same struggles as his predecessors. As of this writing, Noda is desperately trying to get several of Japan’s nuclear power plants back up and running; they have all been shut down for regular safety checks, but the political pressure is such that he can’t get them turned on again.
|Prime Minister Noda, who probably won't be prime minister by this time next year.|
And the anti-nuclear sentiment of so many Japanese is understandable as well, I might add. Japan has suffered more from the use of nuclear energy than any other country. They are the only country in history to be subjected to attack by a nuclear weapon, and they experienced it twice. In 1954, the sailors of the Fukuryu Maru were exposed to radioactive fallout from the American hydrogen bomb test on the Bikini Atoll. And now Fukushima.
I have said of all of this by way of establishing the context for Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s 2008 masterpiece, Tokyo Sonata. Although it was released several years before the Tohoku earthquake, it seems eerily prophetic, as if it anticipated an apocalyptic disaster for Japan. It follows a seemingly comfortable and settled middle-class Japanese family as their lives begin to unravel. As the film begins, the father is a reputable salary-man who suddenly finds himself downsized, his job “outsourced” to China. Rather than tell his wife, he just pretends that nothing has changed; he leaves in the morning with his suit and briefcase and kills time until his workday would have ended. His elder son is “going nowhere fast,” and has decided that he wants to join the American Army (more on the significance of this later). And the younger son is discontent at school and begins to secretly take piano lessons, which his father has dismissed out of hand. The mother’s problem is that she has these family members with all these problems
Now, what I would like to do here is examine each of the four family members in turn, and tease out the broader themes and implications of their respective predicaments. Let us begin with the father, whose catastrophe opens the film. He is a middle-aged salary-man named Sasaki (the characters in this movie generally don’t get called by their given names; the father is called Sasaki by his friends and co-workers; his younger son is called Sasaki by his friends; his older son actually gets a given name, Takashi; and the mother doesn’t seem to be called much of anything, other than “Mom,” although we see her opening a letter near the end of the film and the envelope is addressed to Megumi Sasaki, but I don’t recall anyone calling her Megumi in the film). Now, Sasaki, the father, works for a medical equipment company in the capacity of a fairly high ranking administrator. He’s just helped them prepare to outsource much of their labor force to China, and—much to his surprise—he finds that his job is going to be outsourced too. He can either find a new—presumably lower-paying, less prestigious—job within the company, or they’ll downsize him. It’s unclear how things played out in his negotiations with his corporate higher-ups—Kurosawa, much like Shinji Aoyama, as discussed in the last post, is a master of elision—but Sasaki ends up getting downsized.
He decides not to tell his wife. It would seem to be a question of pride. So every morning he gets up, puts on his suit, takes up his briefcase, and “goes to work.” He spends a lot of his time in a public park, lining up with homeless people and the long-term unemployed for free meals. Here he meets a friend of his from high school who is in a similar situation. He shows Sasaki how he’s tweaked his phone to ring five times an hour, so he can always answer it and look busy and important; he brings Sasaki to the public library, where “you can stay as long as you want.” When they—and this is a vague and abstract “they”—first set about inventing public libraries, I wonder if they realized that these houses of books would one day become places of refuge for the homeless and the unemployed. Sasaki agrees to have dinner at his friend’s house, and he pretends to be his friend’s coworker; the friend is worried that, despite all the skill he’s brought to bear on his deception, his wife is beginning to suspect that he’s unemployed. By having Sasaki over to discuss “business,” he hopes to allay her concerns.
|Sasaki, the illuminated fellow in the middle.|
The friend says, “We’re on a sinking ship. We’re on a sinking ship, and the lifeboats have all gone.” The “we” could mean him and Sasaki, it could mean unemployed, middle-aged salary-men, it could mean “we Japanese,” and it could even mean “we, the humans.” We are on a sinking ship and the lifeboats are all gone. That could ring true with any European pessimistic philosophy: we are born to die, we are born dying, we are all living under sentence of death. It’s also Buddhistic, because the first of the Four Noble Truths is, after all, “life is suffering.” Perhaps Sasaki and his friend are like the superfluous men of nineteenth-century Russian literature, who find that there is no longer a place for their “type” within society.
|Ivan Turgenev, famed for his depictions of "superfluous men."|
So not only is the “race to the bottom” destructive for pretty much everyone, but it’s also economically unsustainable. Eventually there’s a bottom past which wages and rights can’t be lowered. You can’t pay a person less than zero dollars for their labor. Furthermore, once you reach that point, you’re going to have increasingly few people who can afford to buy your product, because your consumers (in America and Japan, for instance) have long been out of a job.
The human condition is troubling, to say that least. Economics is only one aspect of it, and the “sinking ship” we find ourselves in also partakes of a more general sense of societal anomie and personal angst. The philistine Hungarian Marxist critic György Lukács quite famously didn’t like Kafka, because the sufferings of Kafka’s characters were clearly of a nature unrelated to economics; as a dutiful Marxist, Lukács believed in economic determinism, and couldn’t conceive of problems that didn’t relate back to economic issues. He seriously underestimated the complexity of man. This is one of the things I find so repellant about Marxism; it’s dehumanizing. The Marxists would have us believe that everything is economics and, that being the case, that all human beings are mere units of production within an economic system; the arts, human interactions, all of human culture, are but mere “superstructure,” the cause of which can be found within the economic “substructure” that supports it. Lukács and many Marxians and many of the various “Critical Theorists” who have succeeded him (and who have invaded so many English departments) see art only in terms of its relationship to economics; for Lukács, a “good” novel had nothing to do with aesthetics and everything to do with that novel’s exposure of the economic workings of society. And so he declared Walter Scott to be superior to Kafka, because Scott was concerned with a realistic, mimetic depiction of a particular society, whereas Kafka was concerned with the weaving of elaborate fantasy worlds divorced from economic reality.
Art is essential to us. It’s very uselessness is one of its chief virtues; it is elevated above mere necessity and can serve as an ornament to life, rather than as a means of carrying out a practical task. Without art and other “useless” non-economic activities, man is but an animal, a producing unit, concerned with mere questions of survival, a shitting, working, eating, sleeping, fucking machine/animal without fur, trying to keep warm and survive long enough to pass on its DNA. These are all animalistic qualities, even when coupled with activities not strictly economic. It is art that makes us human, and which continues to make us more human. Bear this in mind, as it will become increasingly important in my exegesis of Tokyo Sonata, as the Sasaki family struggles to find ways to extricate itself from its various predicaments.
Now, the elder son, Takashi, is what you would call a “wayward youth,” and we can reach this determination because he’s sullen and because he has long hair. I wasn’t quite clear on his age; he attends some school in some capacity, but whether that was a high school, a college, or some sort of vocational school was not indicated. He also has a job passing out flyers for a nightclub on the streets of Tokyo’s Ginza district. I know that’s what he was doing because it seems to come up in any number of Japanese films and books. There is a scene in which he and his co-worker—a fellow distributor of flyers—having failed to get anyone to take their handouts, ride a motor-scooter to a bridge spanning the Sumida River and toss their unwanted fliers into the water. His friend says to him, “When are we gonna get that giant earthquake?” “What giant earthquake?” Says Takashi. “The giant earthquake that will kill all those bastard politicians and make me prime minister so I can pass a ‘no helmet’ law.” And they have a good chuckle at this, but now, of course, it sounds prophetic. Tokyo Sonata was released in 2008 and the Tohoku earthquake struck in 2011. The apocalyptic attitude of Takashi’s friend isn’t all that surprising, given his circumstances. Both he and Takashi don’t have much going for them and they have little reason to think that things are going to improve.
I am reminded of the protagonist of Jia Zhangke’s 2003 film, Unknown Pleasures, who says, in response to his girlfriend’s prodding him to plan for his future, “There is no fucking future.” And if there is no future, one is hardly likely to be invested in the status quo. One would like it to implode, if only for the pleasure of watching it happen. I am also reminded of the British novelist Graham Greene; when World War II broke out and the Germans started bombing London, he was downright exultant. “Good riddance!” He all but said. Now, Greene was by no means pro-German or even anti-British. He was an air-raid warden for a portion of the war and helped to put out fires and rescue victims from destroyed buildings; he also spent much of the war working in MI6, which is hardly a fit occupation for a defeatist. So why the pleasure over a London in flames? Because Graham Greene was not a happy man. He found his life circumstances depressing and he found British society repugnant. And so he wasn’t going to pretend to be displeased during the blitz. The novelist Tao Lin summed up the sentiment quite well when he tweeted: “feel like my mental health would benefit from an apocalyptic event.” Apocalypses tend to have a cleansing effect. Furthermore, they vindicate the pessimist. “I told you so,” says the pessimist when disaster strikes.
|Graham Greene, whose reaction to the German bombing of London was "inappropriate," to put it mildly.|
But what strange and circuitous logic Takashi employs here! He wants to protect his family, and to do that he must protect Japan, and the best way to do that, he thinks, is by joining the American military, guarantor of Japan’s security. But what are Japan’s security threats, now, and let’s say within the next ten years? There’s North Korea, with its unpredictable lunatic regime and an established track record of abducting Japanese citizens and shooting rockets over Japan for “testing” purposes. Really, the biggest threat to Japan would be some North Korean freak-out that brought it into a cataclysmic war with South Korea and the United States. North Korea would lose that war, eventually, but not before they had the opportunity to unleash terrible destruction on South Korea, and perhaps, as long as they’re being crazy, on Japan as well. North Korea’s crazy is one of its few remaining assets, and nothing says crazy like, “I’m willing to lob a primitive nuclear bomb at Tokyo.” So that’s the biggest threat, but that’s not really likely to come about; if the Koreas have managed to avert all-out war in the nearly sixty years since the Korean War (despite occasional fire-fights, kidnappings, terrorist attacks, assassinations, shelling of islands, and sinking of ships), then I don’t see why they can’t keep it up. The other potential threats would be China (I guess? China hasn’t launched a military attack on another country since 1979’s abortive war with Vietnam. If they were to attack anyone, it would either be Taiwan or one of the countries with which they’re disputing the South China Sea; but whenever anyone discusses Asia-Pacific security issues, they always have to raise the prospect of Chinese military might, so that’s why I mention it here) and Russia, which still occupies the Kuril Islands right off of Hokkaido, but again, they’ve done so for over sixty years now and war has not yet proven necessary.
I say all of this because, if Takashi wants to protect Japan, joining the American Army as it commences upon the “surge” in Iraq doesn’t make sense. Iraq is not, nor was it ever, a threat to Japan (it wasn’t a threat to America, either, but that’s a different matter). But off Takashi goes to Iraq!
|Takashi, bidding farewell to his mother and wearing a keffiyeh for some reason.|
The mother gets her one bizarre subplot in the last third or so of the movie. A home invader (played by Kurosawa’s favorite actor, Koji Yakusho) ransacks the Sasaki residence while only the mother is home; when he fails to find money on hand, he decides to take her to the bank to withdraw cash, and they embark on a strange odyssey, with Yakusho’s character berating himself for his failures in life and the mother considering the idea of just abandoning her crumbling family and running off with her kidnapper (the Stockholm Syndrome evidently took hold of her with remarkable speed). After a night with her kidnapper in a shack near the beach, she awakes to find Yakusho nowhere in sight, and decides to return home. So her actions here are rather ambiguous; she eventually decides to re-embrace her family, but only after she lost her opportunity for escape.
|The mother with her abductor.|
There are a few more twists and turns along the way to the resolution of this familial apocalypse, but we’ll pass over them now and focus our attention on the film’s conclusion. How do the members of this family restore a semblance of tranquility and hope to their lives? For the parents, it comes down to resignation. As I’ve mentioned above, the mother returns home after her abduction and decides to keep “holding the family together” as she’s done before. The father comes to terms with being a janitor, which seems fine, in that there should be nothing inherently lacking in dignity in such a profession; things need to be cleaned; janitors perform an essential task and should be accorded the respect (and remuneration) that’s due to them. This is society’s problem, not Sasaki’s.
If the parents have resigned themselves, then the sons still have futures to pursue. In perhaps the strangest “twist” in the film, we find that Takashi, having been discharged from the U.S. Army (within the reality of Tokyo Sonata, the U.S. Army discharges its Japanese volunteers following the peak of the “surge”), decides to join the Iraqi insurgents. He sends his mother a letter in which he explains that perhaps the Americans aren’t as “right” as he’d thought they were, and that he wants to come to understand the insurgents by joining their cause. His actions are somewhat reminiscent of those of members of the Japanese Red Army (JRA) in the 1970’s, several of whom travelled to Lebanon to train with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and assisted them in attacks on Israel (it was three JRA members who carried out the Lod Airport massacre in 1972). Now, whether you’re joining the PFLP or the Iraqi insurgents, I think your ethics are pretty fucked up, but it’s interesting to see in Takashi a revival of the quixotic internationalist spirit that animated the JRA and other militant groups in the 1970’s. It says something about the disaffection amongst twenty-first century youth that the models once embraced by a previous disaffected generation seem attractive once more.
As for the younger son, well, things really come together for him; he gets to find redemption through art and his parents get to share it with him. The film concludes with an extended scene of the son’s piano audition at the music school to which he’s applying, and we watch his parents beam with pride as their son flawlessly plays Debussy’s “Claire de Lune,” (which recalls the recurring use of Debussy’s “Arabesque” in Shunji Iwai’s 2001 masterpiece, All About Lily Chou-Chou; apparently fucked-up Japanese kids and Debussy just go together). The film closes on this note, and there’s no reason to think that the younger son doesn’t have a bright future ahead of him. As for his parents, they can at least derive satisfaction from his success, even if they have more or less given up on their own lives.
|The younger son, at his piano audition.|