Sunday, August 26, 2012

In Japan, it is Evidently Easier to Build a Gun from Scratch Than it is to Buy One: Shinya Tsukamoto’s Bullet Ballet; or, Thank God the Gunman’s Second Amendment Rights weren’t Infringed Upon

The poster for Shinya Tsukamoto's Bullet Ballet (1998).
In some countries, they don’t have shooting sprees.  Now, this could be for a variety of socio-economic-cultural reasons, but in some cases, the major factor is that people just don’t have access to guns.  Take Japan, for example.  If you’re living in Japan and you want to flip your shit and kill a bunch of people, you couldn’t get a gun even if you wanted to.  No, the Japanese mass murderer is reduced to going on a stabbing spree; now, these stabbing sprees can still be remarkably deadly—the Akihabara slashing of 2008 killed seven people—but if I had to choose between being attacked by a gun-wielding maniac and his knife-wielding counterpart, I would have to choose the guy with the knife.  Also, in Japan, these slashing sprees don’t happen that frequently, whereas we in the United States have had two major shooting sprees within the past month or so (and the New York police-accidentally-shooting-everyone thing), not to mention the day-to-day shootings that take place across the country.

Now, there’s not really a gun-control movement in this country anymore, or at least not an effective one, because the party of gun control—that would be your Democrats—have completely given up on the issue.  The gun nuts at the NRA just can’t process this; some of them are convinced that Obama must have some really draconian gun-control measures in the works for his second term.  But I’m pretty sure he just doesn’t want to touch the issue, and he never will.

Whenever I think about shooting sprees in the U.S., and the ease with which any lunatic can get a gun in this country, I always think back to Shinya Tsukamoto’s Bullet Ballet (1998), a film about a Japanese man who develops a fixation with guns after his girlfriend commits suicide with the firearm that she mysteriously acquires. I say mysteriously, because it is almost impossible to get a gun in Japan.  So the movie opens with people wondering, “How the hell did she get a gun?  Where do guns come from?” And I would say almost the first half of the movie is devoted to the quest of our protagonist, Goda—played by Tsukamoto himself—to acquire a gun.  He tries to make the acquaintance of gangsters from whom to buy a gun, he solicits strangers on the street whom he hopes might have a gun (I believe one of them is an African-American, which would accord nicely with Japanese racism), and he finally tries to build a gun himself, from scratch.  Unfortunately for him, building a gun turns out to be hard, and when he tries to use it against one of the above-mentioned gangsters, he finds that it only has the force of a pellet gun.

And all the while that I’m watching this, I’m thinking to myself, “This section of the movie—about thirty to forty minutes of it—could have been dispensed with within five minutes in an American film.  If this was an American movie, Tsukamoto’s character would have walked into a gun store, signed up for the background check, and then come back and walked out with his shiny new gun.  And you just wouldn’t have had a feature-length movie then.  I had a similar reaction to the people who thought that Juno had an anti-choice agenda because Juno doesn’t get an abortion, and I wanted to tell them, “Yeah, but if she had, the movie would have been like twenty minutes long and not terribly funny.” But that’s another matter.

So in Japan, we have a country where it’s so difficult to get a gun that a whole film can be built around a character’s efforts to do so.  Now there’s a “cultural difference,” and one that does not reflect well on the United States.  I’m aware that, if you look at all the American gun-owners, the vast, vast majority of them don’t go on shooting sprees and that shooting sprees are still comparatively rare in the United States.  But the fact of the matter is that in Japan and a number of other countries, they’re not just rare, they’re virtually non-existent.

But James, look at the Akihabara slashing: if somebody there had had a gun, they could have put a stop to the rampage much sooner.  Yes, potentially, but if Japan had the American approach to guns, it wouldn’t have been a stabbing spree, it would have been a shooting spree, and if that guy could kill seven people with just a knife, imagine what he could have done with a gun.

The argument gets made that if the U.S. were to significantly curtail gun ownership rights, it would only be taking guns away from law-abiding citizens, and that criminals would still have guns, because they’re criminals, and they don’t care about your laws.  And I can actually kind of see the logic here.  Because even if the U.S. were to ban guns now, the country is already saturated with them, which is not the case with Japan.  Another argument gets made, which I think was best articulated by William S. Burroughs: “Every time there’s a shooting, they want to take the guns away from the people who didn’t do it.” Well, I hate to launch an ad hominem attack, but William Burroughs shot his wife in the face (drunkenly, not maliciously, but still), so he’s hardly one to talk.

I think it’s the self-righteousness of the NRA types that perturbs me more than anything else about this issue (well, aside from all the people getting shot; that’s obviously more perturbing).  Every time there’s a shooting like this—be it a psychopath in a movie theater or a neo-Nazi at a Sikh gurdwara—I always want to sarcastically say, “Well, this is tragic, but we can at least take some comfort in knowing that that lunatic’s second amendment rights weren’t infringed upon.” Because even if you’re broadly supportive of gun ownership rights, I should hope that you can at least admit that there’s something wrong when any lunatic, no matter how deranged, racist, or some combination thereof, can buy guns and ammo with ease (and the Colorado gunman had thousands of rounds of ammo; a Muslim cleric wrote a delightful letter to the editor in a Colorado newspaper saying, “Yeah, if I went online and tried to order that much ammo, the FBI would be busting down my door in like fifteen minutes.” So at least, thanks to atrocious American bigotry, at least some people would have more difficulty in acquiring an arsenal.) And all these guns were purchased legally.  Cho Seung-hui, the Virginia Tech shooter, perpetrator of the deadliest shooting spree in American history, bought all his guns and ammunition legally, having met all the stringent requirements needed to do so (he was an adult and he didn’t have a criminal record).

And seriously, gun people, what do you need all your fucking guns for? Self-defense? Really? When was the last time you shot someone in self-defense? Probably never, I’m guessing.  Hunting? Do you really need to kill things that bad?  Because I just want to put it out there that there are other countries with different attitudes to guns—Japan has been my big example here—and they seem to get along just fine without them.


  1. I can't speak for gun nuts (I neither have nor want a gun), but for me and presumably many others the issue has nothing to do with the second amendment nor with any theoretical drop in violent crime. It's just a matter of civil liberties.

    Why should I, a native-born US citizen with no criminal record whatsoever, be restricted from an action that causes no harm to anyone, including myself? Purchasing, owning, and carrying a gun are all, in and of themselves, completely harmless actions.

    Now, the response to this is obvious: "If you're carrying a gun, you're more likely to hurt someone with it, either through negligence or violence." To which I say: says who? Am I not a competent adult, capable of assessing the risks of my actions and behaving accordingly? Am I not responsible for the harm I cause to others, even through negligence or accident?

    While we're at it, we should just administer psychological tests to everyone and, if the government determines that they have any kind of latent desire to own a gun, or a knife, or a tazer, or mace, or any other kind of weapon, we can lock them up for the protection of society. Then the good people will be safe!

    P.S. For what it's worth, it's totally a cheap shot to quote William Burroughs when there are probably seven zillion equally-good quotes from people who haven't shot other people.

    P.P.S. I do think it's interesting that a movie with this plot could be made in Japan and not in the US; I'd like to see a similar film with a US citizen in Japan who's convinced that he needs a gun, and the cultural dissonance that follows. In general, as an American critiquing foreign films I think these are the sorts of topics that you're particularly well-suited to discuss.

  2. Sam, those are all valid points. I should confess to a greater ambivalence on the issue than I conveyed in this post. For instance, I didn't just toss out the Burroughs quote because, coming from him, it's easy to strike down, but rather because I think it is, in general, a good point.

    Why can't a free and law-abiding citizen possess a firearm? Why should we curtail your rights because someone else might be a lunatic? And I suppose the best answer I would have for that is that your right to own a gun doesn't just impact you. First, there's the elevated risk that possessing a gun can pose to yourself and others (and I mean this statistically; I am not at all suggesting that YOU personaly couldn't be trusted with a gun). But then there's also the fact that the easy availability of guns, for the population in general, makes it easier for the minority who carry out shooting sprees to gain access to them. So this individal right and decision of yours doesn't just affect you. It was Voltaire who said that our rights only end where they infringe on the rights of others. It is my contention that the right to possess arms, as established in the Second Amendment, too often infringes on the right to not get shot by some guy who had a gun thanks to the Second Amendment.

    But perhaps that's the risk we have to run to live in a free society? How much freedom do we lose if we lose our right to bear arms? To what extent are the Japanese less free than the Americans because they don't have access to guns?

  3. I would never, ever disagree with Voltaire on any point (even if he was French), but I think the distinction to be drawn here is between actual infringements on the rights of others and theoretical infringements on those rights.

    Yes, I agree absolutely that I don't have the right to shoot someone precisely because it infringes on their right to not get shot. But I think the presumption that "if I have a gun, I will use it to violate someone else's rights" is at best inane. That's why I mentioned knives and tasers and mace before. These are all weapons that can be legally owned and carried (and concealed!), but the presumption is that owning one of these is strictly for self-defense. But of course, it's just as easy to violate someone else's rights with any of these weapons; the only difference is degree of lethality. (Even mace can be lethal under admittedly rare circumstances.)

    So to riposte: the right to own a gun ONLY impacts me. The right to USE a gun may very well impact others, and that is another thing entirely. If a gun that I use causes damage to someone else (or, by extension, if someone is harmed due to improper storage), then I've violated their rights and deserve suitable retribution from the law. And I'm all in favor of harsher penalties for gun violence of all kinds, and I'm also in favor of reducing the number of other things that are considered crimes (say drug use) so that our legal system can better process things that are crimes (like shooting people).