Monday, 27 September 2010

Number Two Home

Reading Nobuko Adachi’s recent essay on “Japanese and Nikkei at Home and Abroad” over at Japan Focus prompted me to dig out my copy of Noreen Jones’ Number Two Home: The Story of Japanese Pioneers in Australia.

I found Number Two Home at the second-hand book fair during the Marxism conference in Melbourne last Easter – for $1, no less! - and got caught up in its story during the flight home. Plenty of Victorian and wild, almost Dickensian detail to this history – the first Japanese to visit Australia were acrobats; pearl diving was the main trade the community built around in Western Australia in its early years – and plenty of reminders of the grubbiness of the colonial settler state’s racist history, those petty and mean little details that sustained White Australia.

Jones reproduces documents from stories that range from the tragic (families separated and imprisoned through the war, businesses seized). the frustrating and vexatious (Murakami Yasuichi denied a driver's license to use his car as a taxi in 1912, for reasons which seemed to be all about the council's meanness).

I love local detail like this, and I hope I learn from it. Whatever the fantasies of White Australia, the continent's working class has never been 'racially' homogenous. The only constant, it seems, has been the hypocrisy of its enemies:

The Japanese who traveled or ventured inland tended to work in itinerant occupations, for example as cooks or labourers, whilst those who stayed in the smaller towns either operated or worked in small businesses such as market gardens or laundries. They were often mistakenly thought to be Chinese by the European population. There were indeed also many Chinese in those occupations. For example, at Marble Bar there were both Chinese and Japanese market gardeners. When the Anglo-Australians in the district met around 1893 to discuss the removal of Asians from the settlement, the proposal excluded those employed as gardeners and domestic servants. The white population objected to the Asiatic presence, but did not want to be deprived of their fresh vegetables, cooks, and laundrymen.

Noreen Jones, Number Two Home: the Story of Japanese Pioneers in Australia (Freemantle Arts Centre Press, 2002), p. 37.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Satoshi Kon [1963 - 2010]

I have very clear memories of the first time I saw Satoshi Kon’s work, and of that sense of elation and excitement that comes when you feel like you’ve made a personal discovery and come into contact with an artist who will mean things in your own life for a long time to come. The self-conscious brilliance and exuberant madness of Paprika’s opening sections help secure that memory, as does having seen it at Canberra’s National Film and Sound Archive, a movie theatre which seems to appear out of bush-covered nowhere, thus adding to the dislocation and otherworldliness of it all.

Tributes have pointed out the massive intellectual dexterity of his films, all the off-the-cuff references and quotations and philosophical and literary sophistication. These films are useful ammunition if you ever get stuck in that tedious argument about anime not being a serious form: the way Kon managed to range from David Lynch and Philip K Dick to John Wayne and Ozu puts paid to all that.

His themes and obsessions – with the de-centred subject, with mediated memory, with images, copies, and originals, with anxiety about ‘true’ representation in a digital era – are so obviously our moment’s themes and obsessions that it seems clear to me we’ll be talking about these films for some time yet.

If that critical discussion is to have value, though, there will have to be a clear-sighted acknowledgement of the feelings energizing what I think we have to call Kon’s moral critique. Each of his works – most obviously the series Paranoia Agent and Perfect Blue – has at its core a persistent moralizing stance, a need to document and condemn what is presented as the sickness and degeneracy of modern, media-saturated society. Kon’s films are full of stray details stressing the connection between contemporary representation, technology, and falsity, miscommunication and lies. Think of his use of noise, background buzzes of malicious gossip or lies blending with the ‘buzz’ of technology and representational devices – Paranoia Agent and Paprika both make good use of this – and all those close-ups of pursed or slackly sneering mouths and made-up eyes, signifiers of an im-mediate communication lost, community habits gone sour.

Misogyny is the imaginative energy for this moral critique draws on and works within. I’m introducing the term not to give Kon a posthumous telling-off (although the aestheticisation of sexual violence in Perfect Blue, whatever its wider intentions, is appalling and should produce unease). Rather, it seems to me that the only way to get a useful reckoning of Kon’s aims and achievements is to make his misogyny central to the discussion, not as a lamentable detail incidental to the work but as its motivating and unifying structure of feeling. Women in Kon’s films stand in for the false, deceptive and untrue – think of the way prostitution as a topic and symbol appears in so many of the works, of those coldly sexual flourishes which appear so unexpectedly through Paprika, or of the way female voices and mouths figure so prominently in scenes of panic or chaos. Millennium Actress, Perfect Blue, Paprika and the Harumi Chono sub-plot in Paranoia Agent all revolve around the policing of femininity, the social and political work that goes into the creation of ‘woman’; this is their great interest, but its also the area where the heaviest moralizing work gets done, and where a symptomatic reading can be helpful. (It’s telling also that the least misogynist of Kon’s works – Tokyo Godfathers – is also the slightest). Kon recognized the importance of women for his own creative activity, even if the ideological work being done there remained obscure to him, telling an interviewer:

It's because female characters are easier to write. With a male character I can only see the bad aspects. Because I am a man I know very well what a male character is thinking. Even if he is supposed to be very cool, I can see this bad side of him. That makes it very difficult to create a male character. On the other hand, if you write a female protagonist, because it's the opposite sex and I don't know them the way I know a male, I can project my obsession onto the characters and expand the aspects I want to describe. However, my next film doesn't have one central female protagonist and until I made Perfect Blue I didn't describe female characters that much, especially in manga. Once I did, I found out it was easy to write them.

Susan J Napier is quoted in Kon’s NY Times obituary as placing Kon is a tradition of “humanist” directors and writers. This seems to me the opposite direction to the one criticism needs to be facing. (A comparison could be made with D.H. Lawrence criticism, most of which, until recently at least, if it wanted to rehabilitate Lawrence did so by trying to find a way to assemble a liberalism out of his work, without acknowledging that Lawrence stands or falls alongside his radicalism. Lawrence is at his most interesting and artistically successful when he’s at his most radically reactionary and illiberal. There's nothing to be gained from working our way around all that waywardness. Satoshi Kon feels the same.)

The anti-humanist power of these works is what I keep coming back to, the severity and relentless intelligence with which they take apart our myths of the centred subject, stable identity, coherent personal narratives. That there’s a gendered logic to all this matters. Elaborating how that logic works, and relating that logic to Kon’s wider project, might tell us about more than his own films.