(From March, 2011)
I watched My Darling Is A Foreigner the other day. It’s a 2010 Japanese film (ダーリンは外国人, da-rin wa gaikokujin) loosely based on a manga of the same name, about a young Japanese woman, Saori, dating and falling in love with an enigmatic and exceedingly gentle American guy, Tony. The movie itself is pretty good if formulaic, but I was most eager to see how my own culture, Western gaijin in Japan, would be represented by the outsiders, the Japanese studio and filmmakers that made the film.
The lead gaijin Tony is wholly admirable, though he is little more than a collection of quirks and mannerisms without much inner life of his own, as though he were designed in a romantic comedy laboratory for the sole purpose of being alternately endearing and endearingly exasperating to the heroine. But I can’t fault a film too much for objectifying men; Sex And The City wrung many entertaining moments out of this device, and it only seems fair play considering that the media objectification goes the other way in the vast majority of cases. At any rate, Tony’s line “To me, she’s not Japanese, she’s Saori” should probably be an oath extracted at the border from all aspiring charisma men along with fingerprints.
The representation of the gaijin community in general, on the other hand, is either comical or laughable, depending on your perspective. The very first scene has Saori showing up with Tony to a party at an unreasonably large and modernistic apartment in Tokyo, and, lo, turns out she is the only Japanese present. She slinks mousily to the corner while a few young-professional—looking beautiful people mutter snidely under sideways glances. One fellow with hipster hair swaggers over to speak with her (in English), and immediately starts an argument about her profession, manga illustration. Since Saori speaks no English, a young woman of slightly broader good will translates his astute observations: Japan is an immature country because adults read comics. Also, they are all pornographic and therefore bad for children. As she gets increasingly incensed, he haughtily tells her, in Japanese finally, that she should learn to speak English, then storms away.
Granted, I’ve heard that ignorant manga argument before. But when was the last time you went to a thirty-person party at which no Japanese were present or welcome? Never in my ten years. When was the last time you heard a group of attractive and successful gaijin making fun of a shy young Japanese woman? The poor, beleaguered salaryman breaking his back and selling his soul for god and country, sure, but definitely not this pixie.
But it’s fascinating that the filmmakers would portray us like that. Think of the millions of Japanese watching this who have never actually been to a gaijin party. Is this really the picture of us their fevered imaginations concoct, gathering in secret cliques on the weekends to disparage our hosts and congratulate ourselves for being Westerners? Wait, crap. Touché, Japanese filmmakers. Touché.
But I quite like My Darling Is A Foreigner. There is much to be learned from seeing someone else’s grotesque stereotype of you, whether it is affectionate, as in this film, or menacing. Reminds me of another movie about gaijin in Japan…
I know a lot of foreigners who were rather offended by Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation. The Japanese in that film were painted with broad and ridiculous strokes, generally being mere comic foils to the main characters, and the backdrop to their melancholy. Here a pronunciation-mangling prostitute, there an affable old man unaware he is being made fun of by one of the greatest and most misanthropic comic actors of our time. But I loved that film, because it is absolutely true to the perspective of many a wide-eyed and lost gaijin in their first few days in Japan. This place and these people really do feel that weird and alien to some Westerners (well, me and Sofia can at least speak for Americans) who come here for the first time. I could fill a book with the wildly inaccurate assumptions I made about this country on the basis of my initial brain-addled observations and sheltered Midwestern upbringing. And I think that’s a valid perspective from which to create a work of art. If you want to see accurate depictions of Japanese people, watch a Japanese movie.
But I do understand the criticism, and Lost In Translation is probably more deserving of it than My Darling Is A Foreigner, because Translation doesn’t have a Tony and doesn’t in the end have a rapprochement between the two cultures. Anyway, we should remember the way privilege works, and whose perspective we’re getting; Darling isn’t so much a caricature of who we are as foreigners, but of how Japanese people might feel around us. They are making fun of themselves too, which Translation doesn’t do so much. I reckon though that select scenes of the two films together form an acid test of your character. If you (as a gaijin) like Translation and hate Darling—for political reasons (or the lack thereof), not aesthetic—you are really kind of an ass. If you like Darling and hate Translation, you might be trying too hard. The most consistent philosophy is to join their fates in one mélange of absurdist stereotypy and privileged perspective, a grand and entertaining comment on our pan-human struggle to become the perfect metaphysical consciousnesses we aspire to be, rather than the contingently evolved animals that we actually are. And then choose a side: love them both or hate them both.
Me, I’ll go with whoever lets me laugh the loudest at inept prostitutes and invading ingrate gaijin hordes. My heart always opens wide to the world after a good laugh.
(This was originally published in Metropolis in a slightly edited form.)