'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Friday, April 17, 2009

From the Archives: A History of Postwar Japan as Told by a Bar Hostess 

Last summer, Imamura Shohei, one of the great Japanese directors of the postwar era, died. A self-described anthropological filmmaker, he emphasized the means by which people survive the commodification of the most intimate aspects of human behaviour in movies like The Insect Woman and The Pornographers.

Given that the colonization of everyday life is implicit in many of his films, even if accidentally, he could be described as the great Situationist director, except that, in a departure from Situationist thought, his protagonists are never victims. He celebrates their capacity to adapt to their perpetually changing surroundings even as he suggests, unlike Fassbinder, that such adaptability paradoxically results in an a social and cultural identity that is essentially immutable. Indeed, when interviewed by Audie Bock in the 1970s, he asserted that the modernization of Japanese society was an illusion. He insisted that the Japanese people retained their fokloric perception of the world, with all attendant superstitions.

Last night, I had the good fortune to see Imamura's 1970 documentary, A History of Postwar Japan as Told by a Bar Hostess at the Pacific Film Archive. In this film, Imamura engages in a truly radical enterprise, he contrasts the official postwar history of his country, as depicted in the media, with the real life experiences of a bar hostess, Etsuko Akaza, near the US airbase in Yokosura. Etsuko has just closed her bar, the Bar Onboro, and Imamura interviews her in the now nearly empty business, asking her about her life and her responses to the newsreel depiction of major postwar events screened upon a back wall. A visually simple, yet explosive means of presenting the narrative.

Etsuko recalls the dismissive response in her neighborhood to the Emperor's radio broadcast announcing the end of the war. Everyone was relieved, although careful to make sure that the police did not see it, and no one felt compelled to bow in his honor. She, like the rest of her family, is a barukumin, stigmatized as part of a lower caste in Japan associated with professions like the slaughering of animals, but they profit from shortages of meat. While the left and the labor unions protest the newly elected government under US occupation, they focus upon making money and enjoying themselves. Her encounters with American troops are favorable, and she considers them superior to Japanese men like her husband, who she frequently maligns as a loafer prone to episodes of spousal abuse. In the early 1950s, she moves to Yokosura to open a bar for off duty US troops stationed there.

Etsuko is the right person in the right place. Her bar flourishes, and her love life does as well, even if monogamous bliss remains unattainable. It is not something that worries her very much. Unlike Maria, the protagonist in Fassbinder's The Marriage of Maria Braun, another woman in another defeated Axis power, Germany, a woman who prospers in the immediate postwar period, but, ultimately, does not survive, Etsuko is not prone to guilt and remorse, and seems to delight in the challenge of gratifying her appetites. And, of course, she most definitely survives.

As she does so, Japan becomes independent, and memorializes its subordination to the US through the US-Japan Security Pact in 1960. The terms of independence, especially the retention of the royal family, use of Japanese territory by the US military during the Korean War, and the granting of permanent bases to the US in 1960, provoked intense left protest. None of this touches Etsuko's life, except when the protests reach Yokosura. She observes, rather cynically, the contrast between the chants in Tokyo and Yokosura. In Tokyo, the protesters chanted, Down with the US-Japan Security Pact!, while, in Yokosura, they chanted, Yankee, go home! In Yokosura, she explains, the people only cared about closing the base.

By contrasting Etsuko's life with these highly charged political events, Imamura engages in a profound revisionism of one of the most highly charged questions of this period: why did the left fail? Oshima Nagisa, another directer who traveled over similar social and cultural terrain, attributed it to the corruption of Stalinism, as manifest politically and personally, in his film completed shortly after the 1960 protests, Night and Fog in Japan. It is an important question, because the US-Japan Security Pact has been the linchpin of US geopolitical dominance in East Asia.

Imamura, unlike Oshima, did not emerge from the 1950s Japanese left, and so, his evaluation of the question through Etsuko is so daring that he renders the question itself irrelevant, if not absurd. When asked about the Communist protests back during the occupation, Etsuko blandly observes that there were none in her town. Her brother talked like the reds, but even he did not travel to Tokyo to participate in them. Etsuko suggests that the town, much like herself, did not display hostility towards them, but, rather, even worse, indifference.

Such indifference persists through the newsreel footage of protests in the 1950s that foreshadowed the explosion of 1960. Her only remark about the 1960 protests is that a young college student killed by the police may have been paid to join them. For her, such an explanation is entirely logical. Overall, the implication is that the Japanese left failed to find a way to communicate with, much less organize, some of the very people that it purported to represent.

Even more importantly, Imamura implies that there was no way for the left to do so, because Japanese people like Etsuko rejected the notion that such relationships mattered. Etsuko, and people like her, lived a curiously anarchic social life. They engaged in activities that, while legal, were socially disreputable, and frequently crossed the boundary into criminality.

For them, the nation state of Japan, while they would never deny its existence, was not especially important to them as a day to day proposition. They made money during the occupation, they made money after independence, they were confident that they could make money under any regime. Etsuko drives this point home at the end of the film when, after another marriage to an American soldier, she describes how she plans to make money running a bar in . . . you guessed it, the US! She observes, rather pragmatically, that it is easier to run a bar there because she doesn't need hostesses, just a bartender, although it is difficult to obtain a license. Of course, she would still be Japanese, but she could be Japanese anywhere. Shortly therefter, she departs, along with her husband, to San Diego.

In other words, the left could only reach people like Etsuko by understanding that they identified themselves more as part of a social world than a jurisdictional one, a geopolitical one. Such a message, such a vision, would necessarily involve a political philosophy that evokes anarchism more than socialism or communism. It would have to be more Argentina, a country where the informal sector has flourished out of necessity, much like 1950s Japan, than Cuba.

Interestingly, the only protest that sparks an emotional response from Etsuko is an incident associated with the royal wedding of Prince Akihito in 1959. As the royal couple travels down a boulevard in an open car, a young man runs out into the street and throws stones at them. This, Etsudo viscerally understands, as she condemns the extravagant spending associated with the event. That's probably why he did what he did, she speculates. Of course, such a populist act is more akin to anarchism by the deed than to socialist reformism or Marxist-Leninist governance in the name of the proletariat.

Finally, Imamura paradoxically praises Etsuko's resistance to information produced and presented by the media. Etsuko is noteworthy for her absence from the media induced spectacles that had already begun to encroach upon our lives. In the late 1960s, protests against the Vietnam War erupt in Yokosura, and Etsuko recognizes that the salad days are over, that there is not much more money to be made running a bar for Americans, prompting her to leave for San Diego, as already mentioned. No doubt, if she is still alive, she is doing quite well there.

Imamura presses her about the war, showing her pictures of the My Lai massacre in a magazine. What does she think about it? She doesn't believe it, she says, Americans have always been well behaved. Imamura presses her further, turning through the pictures in the article, one by one. She still doesn't believe it. Why? I don't believe anything I can't see or touch. I don't believe the horse races because I can't touch the horses. Situationists like Debord and Vanetgem would have approved.

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