When I was in high school, I fell in love with anime. I would watch Dragonball Z every day. I would spend my hard earned dollars on expensive dvds (at that time anime was hard to come by and expensive). Later, when I had high speed internet and learned of torrents, I downloaded hours upon hours of anime. I LOVED anime. In fact, half the reason why I first went to Japan was because of my love of anime. I wanted to see the packed trains, school girls, maids and crowds first hand. All of my knowledge of Japan came from anime. This is how most people in America who love Japanese culture, get their information about Japan
Yes, even when I first moved to Japan I viewed it as a perfect paradise for me. I saw no flaws in it and everything that Japan had to offer to me was a wonder. I used to just walk the streets and marvel at little customs here and there that I took in and coveted. However, as stayed in Japan longer, the honeymoon ended. The alter that I built to Japan slowly started to crumble. I slowly came to realize that Japan was not a perfect place but in fact, flawed as much as any other country. This may have come to no surprise to some, but for me this was maddening and disappointing. It is kind of like when you are growing up and how your view of your parents change. As a kid, you think they are perfect beings. Almost inhuman. As you grow up though, you can see their flaws and their perfection is tarnished. You still love them and care about them, but you see them as they are. Sometimes this can be traumatic. This is how I felt about Japan. I still loved Japan but I could see it for what it was.
I recommend these two movies to all of you who love anime and think that it rightly portrays Japan. Perhaps you see Japan as an eden as I did. I feel that these two movies, although old, give an accurate representation of the two problems that greatly plague Japan.
The Bad Sleep Well 悪い奴ほどよく眠る
Before I give a quick overview, allow me to explain a little background about Japan. Japan’s government has been given the nickname, “The Iron Triangle”. This is because of the strong unity between Japan’s corporations, beaurocracy and actual government. Japan is strife with corruption. Every country you might say, has corruption. Why does this make Japan any different. Well that’s a post for another time but take my word for it, it is bad and in your face, totally unhidden from public view.
So to the movie. The story is one of revenge. The main protaganist is played by the one and only, Toshiro Mifune. Toshiro Mifune is probably Japan’s best actor ever. He was in so many movies and that when you see him you will instantly recognize him. Especially if you like Kurosawa flicks. Mifune plays the role of Koichi Nishi. The story follows Koichi as he struggles for revenge for something that you don’t find out till half of the movie is through. What is great about this story is just how elaborate his plan for revenge is. The story can easily be compared to The Count of Monte Cristo. It is a delight to watch as Koichi’s plan unfolds as the story goes on. I couldn’t believe how engaged I was in the story even though it was so old and seemingly slow. Like most of Kurosawa’s films, he ends the movie with a point that is easy to see and incredibly rewarding. You are left totally drained at the hands of this masterpiece.
I do not want to really give you a plot summary because it will ruin the movie and you can just read it somewhere else. Just watch this movie already!
To Live 生きる
Ikiru is another great, yet slightly unknown movie by Akira Kurosawa, and it tells a story that accurately describes an issue that everyone must go through if they want to live in Japan. Red tape and Beaurocracy. Japan’s government could not be any slower and more inefficient. It plagues many aspects of life in Japan. This stiff way of thinking does not just affect government but every day interactions you have with people. Really what the problem is, is that Japanese people (and I know this is a generalization) have incredible problems with critical thinking. What I mean is, they can not adapt to things because it is as if rules and regulations are hard wired into their brains. A perfect example of this. While I was working at an English teaching school, we had a daycare for toddlers in the morning. One of these toddlers started to make a mad dash out the door and into the street in front of our school. The kids concerned mother called after the kid and ran over towards him, only to stop at the door because she did not have her shoes and and it would be unthinkable to run out in the street with bare feet. The road was not a busy one but still, can you imagine seeing that? Anyways I have gotten away from the point
To Live tells the story of a man named Kenji Watanabe (played by the also great Takashi Shimura). Kenji has worked as a public official his whole life. As a public official, he has spent more time doing meaningless paperwork than actually helping people. He finds out that he has terminal stomach cancer and realizes how he hasn’t done anything with his life. Confronted by his own mortality, he decides that he should at least get one thing accomplished before he dies. He decides to make a park. Half the story is told while its happening, the other half is told from his coworkers point of view at his funeral. This makes the story easy to digest as the characters are figuring things out as you are. And in Kurosawa fashion, the movie wouldn’t be complete without a knockout ending.
These two films do not have the all the flash and speed of modern day anime. They don’t have pocket monsters fighting or socially inept dipshits making fools of themselves while a harem of girls pine over him. What they do have though is realism and depth that is rarely seen in Japanese cinema today. Although they may focus on bad aspects of Japan, a true lover of Japan must consume the bad with the good. Anime gives only the frosting of the cake that is Japan. Perhaps you think that the frosting is the best part. Did I happen to mention that this cake is in fact a double layered chocolate cake with a moist center? YOU ARE MISSING OUT!