Millennial Traversals – Empire of the (Risen) Sun

My second foreign trip, a few months after the first (to Thailand). This had cover mention in National Midweek and came out April 12, 1989 (3-7).

“Don’t their heads ever bump together sometimes?” I asked Ruksarn Viwatsinudom, a Thai national. We were zigzagging across a sea of gray suits on the upper of two underground levels of Shinjuku district in Tokyo. Most of the gray-suit wearers were also hurrying in various directions, but quite a lot were facing one another and bowing profusely.

Ruksarn was too much in a hurry to respond with his usual repartee. “Taguchi-san was never late in Bangkok. I could stand him up there, but now we’re in his country.” We had actually cut some precious minutes from our training just to make this appointment: Ruksarn and I were the only film teachers in an international delegation of 12, so we had arranged some specialized trips for our common concerns. Sure enough, with the overhead summer sun confirming both the stroke of noon and our arrival at our street-corner rendezvous came Taguchi-san, perspiring but pleased at our punctuality.

It wouldn’t have been this discomposing for us had we stuck to the schedule submitted reliably by our coordinators every week or so; every minute would have been accounted for, including allowances for traffic and recovery from meals and trips. The training would last more than two months, inclusive of out-of-town tours by bullet train, but we were often allowed to spend our weekends and after-hours the way we wanted. Unfortunately no long trips or official transactions could be accommodated during these periods.

That was why we needed some help. Taguchi-san set up for us meetings with Imagica, a commercial audiovisual outfit, and Nihon Daigaku, a film-offering university. Imagica remains the only processor in Asia of super-8 mm. film, which we still used at the University of the Philippines, but the Tokyo headquarters did not handle that particular service. I had to content myself with the details of the branch concerned (too far from Tokyo to visit), plus jaw-dropping demonstrations of computer-graphic animation and a multi-slide presentation good enough to pass for a movie complete with split-screen features. Ruksarn’ s delight was fuller. At King Mongkut’s Institute of Technology, where he founded and still oversees a film and video academic program, they never got to use super-8; instead, students complete their works in 16 mm. format, fully subsidized by the school and their coordinator.

But at Nihon Daigaku, which translates itself as Japan University and which had been offering a degree in cinema since the 1920s, he despaired somewhat. Equipment, which observed 16mm. and commercial 35mm. formats, was stored in huge warehouses according to type: here a light room, there a camera room, elsewhere an editing room, etc. Students operated their own film processors. Exercises could be done on any of three sound stages, complete with collapsible walls and overhead platforms for special set-ups. There were video facilities, of course, most of them up-to-date even by Japanese standards.

Ruksarn whispered something in Thai to a grinning Taguchi-san, then turned to me for the translation. “I want to kill myself,” he said. “Or else maybe steal all this equipment, whichever comes first.” How can I describe to you, went my dramatic internal monologue, how Third-World this makes me feel?


I could do much better with our training exercises and final productions, which were conducted entirely in and for video; a film orientation definitely provides a qualitative advantage in this case. My credits appeared in three out of four graphic animation productions, and I narrated four out of five documentaries, including my own. And Ruksarn’s.

When he, though jokingly, contemplated suicide, there was some irony we must have been aware of at the same time. Every week brought with it intensive television coverage of sensational international news – the Nepal killer quake, tragic aerobatics in West Germany, the fatal plane crash of the Pakistani prime minister, the prevalence of prostitution in neighboring countries like Thailand and the Philippines (to which we kept responding with indignation more face-saving than righteous). Other times, everyone’s attention would focus on local matters, such as a collision between a submarine and a fishing vessel, the unusual delay in the arrival of summer weather, the relaxation of import restrictions on American oranges and beef, and the emergence of preschool-age suicides.

Earthquakes were the most common calamity we would experience, so much so that a week wouldn’t be complete without any. Once I was editing a betacam exercise, the machine blinked and gave off a strange sudden scent, and the strongest tremor I ever felt in Japan (and the Philippines, in more than a decade) occurred; it was brief, and right afterward I looked around: the foreigners among us were all panic-stricken, the Japanese nonchalant. In one of our out-of-Tokyo destinations, a charming suburban city with Mt. Fuji (familiarly addressed as Fuji-san) looming in the distance, media officials outlined their earthquake safety measures. A prominent local specialist had been predicting one on the order of the great Kanto disaster of 1923, so the government, said one speaker, implemented some controls “to reduce the [estimated] millions of fatalities to a few hundred-thousands.” The seeming fatalism of the Japanese in the face of such prophecies of doom, scientific or otherwise, hints at incredible collective powers of concentration. One respected savant had even been moved to conclude that the Japanese brain must be structured differently from that of the rest of humankind. No one seemed ready to equate this logic with ultra-nationalism, which is how they refer to their overseas exploits during the last World War.

A more visible motive for their overpowering sense of survival would be the sheer number of fellow competitors. Metropolitan Tokyo has become one of the most populated capital in the world – as it was when it was called Edo, until (as a relatively young capital) it was decimated by earthquakes and, well, ultra-nationalism.

Even then, I could write to my students and make them envious with my descriptions of what a wondrous convergence there was of attractive young people in the city, all of them extremely shy yet fascinated with foreigners. At the same time I learned quickly to steer clear of certain types of old-timers, the ones who don traditional garb and seem to have reached maturity during the mid-century: they would instantly recognize you as an outsider, and stare you down in public for not being one of their fortunate 120 million.

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How much I could be missing (one lecturer estimated the annual per capita income at nearly 4 million yen, or way over Php600,000) I realized when I saw the teenage janitor of our international center driving a smart red sports car. Was the car his? I asked a receptionist. “I think so,” smiled Hashiguchi-san, who had treated Ruksarn and me to a movie and later sent me (in Manila) copies of Tokyo Journal. Was it brand new? “It must be.” How could he have bought it? Hashiguchi-san seemed as puzzled as I was. “Maybe he worked for it.”

Hashiguchi-san was the only Japanese I ever got to know, outside of Japan University, who shared a passion for films. Even the speakers in our training course, who represented Nihon Hoso Kokai (Japanese Broadcasting Center, a public agency) were fond of foretelling the eventual demise of the medium, what with continual advances in video. A more immediate cause, particularly among foreigners, was the price – 1,500 yen, or about Php400, for an ordinary orchestra seat.

But the most obvious reason for the decline in film attendance (almost 10 times less than 30 years ago) would be the near-absolute absence of necessity for the experience. Anywhere in Tokyo one is sure to run into an audiovisual stimulus; downtown the combinations can be downright staggering to a foreigner who isn’t fluent enough in the language to fully understand what’s being written or said – posters on walls, television screens in display windows, newspapers and magazines all over (including translations of foreign-language titles), multi-screens in shopping centers, performances in the streets, electronic billboards on buildings, airships in the sky.

The NHK lecturers themselves didn’t even bother to single out the contributions of their compatriots to world cinema. Never cross the conversation axis (an imaginary line bisecting two speakers) and be careful with details in continuity, said our speakers on camera usage. Rashomon[1] would make a poor example in this case, but I couldn’t presume yet to tell them so. The editors acknowledged the influence of film on video, even mentioning montage, but didn’t point out how the Russians derived their revolutionary prescriptions from their study of Oriental characters.

How did this sort of attitude affect the state of Japanese cinema itself? I first tried to look for answers from the medium involved. Dun-Huang, a co-production with the People’s Republic of China, reflected more the aspirations of the Japanese’s cultural and racial ancestors (and erstwhile colonials), notwithstanding the common obsession with the past that gave rise to Kagemusha and The Ballad of Narayama not so long ago. The world-weariness that characterized both titles still could he felt in Dun-Huang, but the epic panache that once provided cinematic and ideological vigor had been replaced by a languor that allowed the spectacle to devour an already feeble premise.

Dun-Huang offers a dramatic explanation for the real-life existence of an ancient collection of scrolls in the middle of a Chinese desert. A scholar, according to the film, had seen too many material fortunes rise and fall with the passing of time (and a number of warlords as well) so that, as a final act of heroism, he decided to save not his city, not his present ruler, not even himself, but the store of knowledge that he had accumulated and committed to these delicate pieces of parchment.

Unlike other PROC co-productions, including The Last Emperor and even our very own Hari sa Hari, Lahi sa Lahi (but, in a manner of speaking, very like its makers), Dun-Huang is strikingly exclusivist. No foreigners interact with any of the characters here; even the Japanese have abstained from making distinct references to their love-hate relationship with the mainland, or selecting material that would allow them to throw in a Japanese national in so little as a minor role. Maybe such a philanthropic act as conjuring some sympathy for non-Japanese will take some practice on their part – after all, not since the current government have the Japanese been known to pay serious attention to their immediate, less-developed neighbors.[2]

Another title, Hashiguchi-san’s treat, translated as Tomorrow – a day in the life of a Nagasaki family, ending with the nuclear bombing of the city in 1945.[3] The treatment was loverly but totally predictable, each member expressing her or his fond hopes for a next day that never came.


More vivid was our tour of Hiroshima City, where a government building in the eye of the atom bomb explosion was allowed to remain standing amid the absolute ruin of its surroundings. A longing for the past could be perceived in the city’s desire for streetcars, but to be able to arrive as close as possible to a long-ago, you’d have to cross the bay to magical Miyajima Island, where fawn-speckled grownup deer would approach you as you disembarked, to be petted or fed as you wished. The Hiroshima A-Bomb Museum screened for special guests gut-wrenching footage shot by Japanese government cameramen almost right after the bombing, confiscated right afterward and held for about three decades by the Americans. No amount of justification, including the declassified memoranda displayed in the museum detailing American findings of suspicious military activity in the city, would ever be able to account for the annihilation, both sudden and slow, of the innocent. Survivors and would-be fatalities walked as shadows, skin, hair, and internal organs falling out to give way to light. Surprisingly, I couldn’t remember a single shot of a crying face; the horror must have transcended human comprehension. The absence of teats coupled with the anonymity of visible personae made the suffering more inwardly disposed, more heartbreaking.

Relatively easier to take was an encounter with a fellow citizen. I had learned in Shinjuku that Filipinas in Japan are very pretty, but could be mistaken for other Asian nationals. What gave them away were their stares: where Thais, Indonesians or Malaysians would lower their eyes, Filipinas would rather that the stranger gave in before they did; they spoke better English too.

“You’re a Filipino?” She looked like a young teacher out on a date with her boyfriend. She was attractive and he was Japanese and this was a side-street honky-tonk in Hiroshima. Pinoy, I said; it could have been a confirmation or a correction of her level of discourse.

SHE: Where are you staying?

I: In the hotel at the corner, I forget the name.

SHE: What are you doing here?

I: Observation tour. Part of a government scholarship for educational TV.

SHE: How long have you been here?

I: In Japan, almost two months. Hiroshima, we arrived yesterday, we’re leaving in an hour.

SHE [without speaking]: Won’t you ask me anything about myself? What I’m doing here, why I have to do it, what I feel about doing it?

I [in reply, also wordlessly]: Wouldn’t it be better to just talk about things we can answer now?

SHE: Sayang, I’d like to give a letter to my family.

I: I could give them a message, just tell me where to go.

SHE: No, they’re too hard to find. Maha-hassle ka lang. I’m not even sure of their address anymore. [Without speaking again.] You don’t have to remind them I’m alive and working in Japan. I send them the money they need.

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To give peace a chance

The Japanese no-nukes movement is based in Hiroshima, its theme is peace. One of our documentaries was a coverage of the delightful science museum of Toshiba, which happened to be the country’s main proponent of nuclear power. We watched the commemoration of the bombings on Tokyo television while doing storyboards on the museum.

More subliminal were the dream states induced by nocturnal media. Hotel-room TV sets suddenly became capable of providing forbidden fare with a few hundred-yen coins. In Shinjuku you could select from a number of small air-conditioned cubicles complete with cushion, tissue paper and trashcan, feed a thousand-yen note into a slot of the “video box” and watch even kinkier material.

Traditional blue-film screenings still had to struggle for patronage, surrounded as they tended to be by competitive video outlets. I watched a triple-fare treat in a Quiapo-seedy-type movie-house. The items, about an hour long each, were tongue-in-cheek (sometimes literally) presentations of various erotic complications, quite competently executed. I made the mistake of asking some elderly Japanese what the collective title meant, until Hashiguchi-san explained that Onanie was derived directly from the biblical character.[4]

One final search area I refused to take seriously, until it was almost too late; it yielded at least one possibility of where we were all headed. The discovery was somewhat accidental. We learned that our international center actually bordered the military camp where Yukio Mishima committed his multi -media suicide. Naturally we were thrilled, a reaction that seemed to embarrass the receptionists who volunteered the information. I asked if it were possible to get inside the place, but was instead offered an 80-percent discount on an entrance ticket to Tokyo Disneyland.

So there I went, sampling some woolly roller-coaster rides, until I noticed a cluster of postmodern-style pavilions. “American Journey” provided a 360-degree sensurround experience through an encirclement of projectors. “Captain EO” was the old three-dimensional trick utilizing tinted glasses, updated with real-life laser and smoke effects; Francis Coppola directed a George Lucas production of Michael Jackson saving the future from evil and misery by singing and dancing his latest hit, “Another Part of Me.”[5]

The last audiovisual happening was free; it was also the most amazing; and, unlike the previous ones, it was Japanese. “Meet the World” combined several levels of video projection with the dioramic interactions of moving mannequins. A theatrical entertainment commercialized by Louis Daguerre before he invented the photographic process that bears his name was revived, to stunning effect, by having the audience physically transported, where they sat, to other designated tableaux.

In a flight of fancy[6] I had earlier written that the future of film lay in a combination of various levels of projection with live actors. Here I was witnessing the realization of such a principle, but using video and robots. The subject matter was absolutely perfunctory – a capsule history of the Japanese nation, pre-school level – meaning that true film talents still had to claim what was undeniably a mutation, a hybrid even, of their medium. At least some Hollywood guards had bothered to come up with the confection that was “Captain EO”; but will we ever live to witness, say, a Steven Spielberg superspectacle in the mold of “Meet the World”?

As with the no-nukes movement or prostitution issue, a Third-World subject could only write about what did or could happen. The Japan Airlines plane rose above bald mountains alternating with population-center infrastructure, and a few hours later brought before me expanses of green, beside a bay whose waters seemed to absorb, rather than reflect, the hues of the setting sun. It could have been literally fatal; good thing I had gorged myself sick on sushi and sashimi every opportunity I had back there.[7] By airmail I exchanged curricular information with King Mongkut Institute in Bangkok and with Japan University, and pictures and postcards with most of the other delegates and some Japanese acquaintances. My first weekend home Hirohito fell sick, and an entire nation stood still, waiting. Wonder if the earthquakes and suicides similarly held their peace?


[1] Rashomon was a global hit from Japan, made in 1950 by Akira Kurosawa based on stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa.

[2] The films in the paragraph, in order of mention, are as follows: Dun-Huang (a.k.a. Tonkô or The Silk Road), dir. Jun’ya Satô, 1988; Kagemusha, dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1980; The Ballad of Narayama, (a.k.a. Narayama-bushi kô) dir. Shôei Imamura, 1983; The Last Emperor, dir. Bernardo Bertolucci, 1987; Hari sa Hari, Lahi sa Lahi, dir. Eddie Romero, 1987.

[3] Tomorrow (a.k.a. Tomorrow – ashita), dir. Kazuo Kuroki, 1988.

[4] An Internet Movie Database filmographic entry exists on the title Special Onanie (dir. Masahito Segawa, 1987), which does run for about an hour, but unless this specific film title was shortened and made to stand for the rest, and was hard-core in nature, then information on an omnibus collectively titled just Onanie will have to be presumed lost. This type of film would be known outside Japan as “pink eiga” (presumably in contrast to the Western “blue movie”) and circulated with some success in foreign festivals long after, during the 1990s.

[5] This was actually the MTV version of the song from MJ’s Bad album, enhanced with special effects.

[6] See “Carnival Cinema,” originally published February 7, 1990, in National Midweek, and anthologized in Fields of Vision: Critical Applications in Recent Philippine Cinema (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1990) 102-05.

[7] The discoloration of coastal water turned out to have been the first incidence of red tide in the National Capital Region in modern times.

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About Joel David

Teacher, scholar, & gadfly of film, media, & culture. [Photo of Kiehl courtesy of Danny Y. & Vanny P.] View all posts by Joel David

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