Sunday, 27 February 2011

Genre Specific: 'Japanoia!'

Genre Specific - the wheel within the wheel that is cinematic convention - runs the rule over the tiny canon of films that tapped into the Eighties American nightmare of Japanese global domination. Read on...

Genre Specific: 'Japanoia!'
The Second World War and the world's perceived ingratitude for Blighty’s part in saving it has long been a source of neurotic navel-gazing for the British. As a mature nation, we channeled our bitterness into giving something back – ‘Auf Wiedersehen, Pet’; ‘'Allo 'Allo’; the Stanley-wielding football 'Casual' beloved of Eighties nostalgists. For the Americans, this kind of post-heroic status-anxiety crept up during the twilight of the Cold War as the Home of the Brave saw the Japanese overtaking them as an economic superpower. Regrettably, they had neither Tacchini-clad teenage assassins nor the comic powerhouse of Gordon Kaye to fall back on…
Who's on first? 1986's 'Gung Ho', that's who!
In the mid-Eighties, American manufacturing's greatest success story was two kids with bras on their heads creating Kelly Le Brock in the den. The belief that Japan was bent on buying America was becoming common currency among even serious commentators. Japanese takeovers of US companies sparked panic headlines, bumper stickers read "Buy American, Or It's Your Job Next!" and car workers' picnics offered brand new Toyotas for their employees to smash to pieces with baseball bats. Hollywood was quick to tap in to the anxiety of a nation under siege from the Inscrutable East, and the Dream Factory churned out a short but potent spurt of yellow-peril nightmares: Japanoia! had arrived.
The future, yesterday
A genre benchmark simply for its manic xenophobia, Rising Sun saw Sean Connery and Wesley Snipes step into a world of controversy in a movie that toned down Michael Crichton's Tokyo-baiting novel while still managing to suggest that within every Japanese businessman hid a katana/moustache-twirling Fu Manchu bent on world domination. Snipes (wisecracking) and Connery (wise) investigate the slaying of a hooker in the HQ of Generic Nippon SuperCorp in an unsavoury dog of a film that’s bombastic, riddled with cavernous plot fissures, and vastly overlong. Casting ace in the hole is Tia Carrere, obv. shoo-in for a genius lab scientist and outplayed only by Harvey Keitel's gloriously over-the-top bigoted cop who gets to deliver the film's one solid gold comment on the Japanese fiends - "These guys are known world class perversion freaks". The American public flocked to see it in droves.
The chilling statistics
Which isn’t surprising given the success of the millimetre-deep Black Rain just a few years earlier, in which Japanese economic expansion was proved to be built entirely on endemic corruption and cackling Yakuza thrill-killers. This time around it's Andy Garcia and Michael Douglas as American cops in Japan who find themselves out of their depth amid swathes of oriental villainy. Their investigation, it transpires, centres on Douglas bombing around Osaka on a midlife crisis motorbike, in the rain, at night, wearing sunglasses and a blow-dried 'do that would look more at home on the wall of a Lebanese barbershop. The rest is empty, kinetic violence with Ridley Scott revisiting his Blade Runner cityscapes while the Japanese actors (notably saving grace - Ken Takakura ) exist as underwritten ciphers for an impenetrable culture.
Salaryman blues - 'Black Rain'
It had all seemed much more fun back in '86 when Ron Howard's unemployment caper comedy Gung Ho set out its stall right at the heart of the issue with Michael Keaton's smug auto worker out to attract foreign investors and save the town car plant. With admirable disregard for the provenance of the film's title, he sets off for Japan (not China) on a trip that makes the feature outing of ‘Are You Being Served?’ look like a National Geographic documentary. Japan, in its entirety, is modeled on the sadistic '80s gameshow ‘Endurance’, where ritual humiliation, shame, despotic emasculation and lots and lots of shouting are the common currency of business. While nobody actually gets disemboweled for forgetting the boardroom biscuits, the implication is clear: behind the suit and tie, the Samurai lurks, and he wants nothing more than a piece of your run-down, redneck town. "Buck up, America!", implores the erstwhile Richie Cunningham, "or this model of Personnel Management is headed your way - and it will definitely not be 'cool'."


Originally published in Little White Lies#7

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