“Japan O Files” Video Commentary

Video commentary for the “Japan O Files”

8/22/08

Kenneth Burchfiel

To see how I produced these videos out of raw footage, try visiting the guide I made: https://schreibendepot.wordpress.com/2008/08/17/craft-a-movie-out-of-memories/ .

When it comes to the land of the rising sun, some things can only be explained in the form of a picture or video sample. And yet, there are overarching themes to the country that need text, not just visual media, to explain. The following is meant to be an accompaniment for my 35-minute “Japan O Files” video, covering and explaining the things that mere video footage cannot.

Quick chapter reference guide (The links next to each chapter go to the separate Youtube videos of each; the times to the right of each title correspond to the point at which that chapter begins in the full video at the bottom of the page)

Chapter One: “Cutesy Japan” (Starts at 0 minutes and 29 seconds in the full video) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H3N89ApQ8Cs

Chapter Two: “Scenery and Nature” (Begins at 6 minutes and 29 seconds) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ds9_ERrQPzM

Chapter Three: “Japanese English” (Begins at 10:14) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qkSmiRDsHmw

Chapter Five: “Buildings and Vistas” (Begins at 16:01) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e5Tkol7Bg6M

Chapter 6: “Other” (Begins at 22:14) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nCveB4eg3o0

Chapter 7: “Transit” (Begins at 24:31) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gf8_XEkXkI0

Chapter 8: “Shops” (Begins at 28:07) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dvFBYPnirLQ

Chapter 9: “Crowds and People” (Begins at 31:56) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lk1WpSbnLyU

Chapter One: “Cutesy Japan” (Starts at 0 minutes and 29 seconds in the video)

If I were asked to describe the country in one sentence, I would say that Japan is the cutest industrial power in the world. This land might have a bigger economy than both Germany and China, but step into Tokyo or Kyoto and the first thing you notice are the cartoons. I’m not just talking about children’s advertisements or video game pictures, but little animals on customs forms, happy dogs on the back of buses and smiley pins on policemen’s lapels. Subway stations in the nation’s capital are flooded with the Suica Penguin and the Pasmo Robot, both of whom seem to be mascots for credit card companies. Hello Kitty, once just an innocent cartoon figure, now adorns intercontinental jets.

In a post 9/11 era where everyone seems to be turning more serious by the day, Japan is refreshing in the sense that they don’t seem to be aware of these sober times. Commercials for cars look more like children’s programming than adult marketing. (As for the children’s programming? Watch the video and see.) How wonderful it is to step into a land where even the crossing lights seem to be in a good mood, playing out little tunes as you walk by!

And yet, one wonders if this visual cheer is only on the surface. Japan as a populace is known for self-dissatisfaction and underlying depression. The country’s suicide rate ranks 10th out of 100, approximately twice that of Germany and the United States. Certainly, if this populace does have a downward outlook on life, it doesn’t show on the outside.

Chapter Two: “Scenery and Nature” (Begins at 6 minutes and 29 seconds)

No country is without a beautiful vista or a national landmark, however small it may be. The difference with Japan is that natural beauty seems to lie around every street corner, just beyond every railroad, just up past every summit.

The traditionalist nature-seekers are welcome to spend their time in Japan climbing up mountains and fording streams. Such effort is unnecessary, however, where even a clustered park in Tokyo can make one feel like they’re hundreds of miles from human development. The trick to Japan’s aesthetic beauty is that its development seems to coincide with its natural surroundings; instead of blotting out trees and streams, like so many American developers do, the Japanese are world-renowned for building in harmony with nature. The country’s Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines offer excellent examples of this. If you see temples in this chapter and nature scenes in the temples chapter, it’s only because the two tended to go together.

And if the Japanese can live peacefully with nature, it’s more surprising yet that nature can get along so well with the Japanese. There exists a herd of deer in Nara (Japan’s oldest capital) that walks fearlessly among human bystanders, seeking out snacks from tourists and locals alike. Rooks in Tokyo squawk just feet away from photographers. Carp and turtles swim as fast as they can to anyone walking alongside the lake, knowing (as the deer do) that tourists will be more than happy to feed them. The relationship between humans and nature, thus, is anything but one-sided.

Chapter Three: “Japanese English” (Begins at 10:14)

If fiction writing or journalism doesn’t work out, I may as well move to Tokyo and offer my skills as a “regional copy editor.” My job would be simple: businesses would show me their attempts to translate Japanese into English, and I would help them along as they went.

Of course, that might take some of the fun out of visiting Japan. Where else but the land of the rising sun can you dine at “Freshness Burger” and spray your head with “Grossy Hair?” Indeed, there are times when mistaken translations can become true poetry. My favorite English line of all could be seen on a sign in a Tokyo park: walkers were instructed to clean up after their dogs so that “troubles should not hang to the other.” A close second was a sign in a sushi bar that read, “Articles on the menu do not usually hear a take-out.” (Considering that Japanese food is sometimes served alive, this could be taken literally.)

If the state of the English language here was less than superb, I can’t help but wonder what Japanese tourists must experience going into the United States. Something tells me that the Asian tourists I see in Washington are laughing behind their back.

Chapter Five: “Buildings and Vistas” (Begins at 16:01)

Nowhere in Japan was the division between old and new embodied more than in the country’s architecture. The contrast between old feudal buildings and shiny new office skyscrapers was sharp, to say the least. It felt a little strange seeing business complexes grow behind the Imperial Palace park and observing the Kyoto skyline in the background of a Shinto shrine, as if these were sights that shouldn’t have been within a hundred miles of one another.

One thing holds constant for almost all buildings in the country, though: their quality of design. If I were impressed by gold-plated temples and elegantly patterned shrines, I was even more so by the gravity-defying curves and facets of some of Tokyo’s newest skyscrapers. The master craftsmen of the Edo Period, needless to say, taught the coming generations well.

Equally impressive are the vistas I had the chance to see from skyscrapers and mountainous vantage points. Three cities are depicted in this chapter: the clean skylines of Osaka, the varied landscape of Kyoto and the metropolitan explosion of Tokyo. Day or night, near or far, high or low, each city is its own work of art when viewed from above.

Chapter 6: “Other” (Begins at 22:14)

Japan is not a city that can be categorized easily, which is why this “Other” category exists. This short, yet telling chapter includes a few odds and ends that truly could not have fit anywhere else.

Chapter 7: “Transit” (Begins at 24:31)

Japan is a land that never stops moving. Well before sunrise, when I peeked open the blinds to take a look at early-morning Tokyo, I could see cars shooting down the elevated freeway and pedestrians milling about below.

With that in mind, the question is: how does the country move? Two forms of transportation come to mind, and neither of them involve automobiles.

First and foremost: rail travel. Japan’s love affair with trains shows no sign of slowing down, especially with the rise in gas prices and increased metropolitan congestion. There is enough rail in the country to go back and forth between New York and San Francisco almost seven times. On these tracks run bullet trains, subway trains, monorails, rubber-wheeled trains—just about every form of guided transit one could imagine. If Tokyo’s streets do not seem as congested as the sidewalks, it’s because plenty of citizens get by without ever stepping into their own car. They have the subway lines to get around.

In the video chapter, you’ll see clips from a speeding Shinkansen (Bullet train) and footage of Shinjuku station, a fifty-exit subway stop that’s the largest of its kind in the world. You’ll also see a strange conductor who, for reasons unknown, kept pointing with an outstretched arm at the track ahead of him. Watch the video and come up with your own explanation.

You’ll have to crane your neck to see the second form of transit. Japan, small a country as it is, has a robust domestic airline industry. Airlines JAL and ANA have little trouble finding customers for even the shortest trips; therefore, they regularly send out fully loaded 747s on trips that, in America, would be serviced by miniscule jets. It may be cheaper to take the train, but the businesspeople who stuff themselves into the smallest of seats for an hour-long trip don’t seem to mind. More than one city in Japan will have both an international and a regional airport to handle all the traffic.

Is all this to say that nobody drives cars or motorcycles around in Japan? The Hummer limo visible near the beginning of the chapter should be proof otherwise. All that I can say is that Japan, a country handcrafted for public transportation, seems to have it down to a fine science.

Chapter 8: “Shops” (Begins at 28:07)

Sure, Japan has its foreign department stores and American fast food depots. (Not that I bothered to take much footage of either.) What most countries don’t have are nests of plastic food shops, where a restaurant-quality artificial lobster markets for $440, or a sprawling fish market that covers the space of three football fields. I would gladly spend my day at either instead of Macy’s.

During the course of my short trip, I saw a mix of foreign and traditional products; fancy and down-to-earth; Western-inspired and Eastern-inspired. Some of the items looked familiar, though I had never seen crabs walking around in a plastic container or sushi chugging along on a conveyer belt. It goes without saying that most of the items in shops were neither purely Western nor Eastern, but a delicate mix between the two. I can think of no better example than the “Ebi (shrimp) Filet” I had at McDonald’s.

Cultural interaction can be a wonderful thing, but it was saddening to see just how Westernized many of the shopping districts had become. Very few clothing stores even had Japanese characters on their storefronts. Profits might be everything in the retail business, but the income made by throwing away one’s own cultural identity comes at a cost.

Chapter 9: “Crowds and People” (Begins at 31:56)

During the course of my final edits to the video, I had to decide whether to put the shots of crowds or those of individual Japanese first. A tough decision, given that Tokyo and its neighboring cities are famous for their pedestrian crush. Amazing as the shots of crosswalks and sidewalks were, I opted to lead with my clips of street performers, musicians and karate students. They ended up making the bigger impression.

So much of the world knows Japan for its stuffed subway cars and suffocating walkways. The country, as a result, is perceived as a dense state without any flavor; a land where there’s not enough room for any sort of individuality. Yet the more I panned my camera around in search of crowds, the more it alighted on groups of pro bono musicians and animated youth. The types of people rarely mentioned in conversation about the land of the rising sun.

I let the individual precede the masses if only to counter that time-honored stereotype about Japan: that the country is too cramped for anyone to grow their own personality. I saw enough charisma in Japan that it made me, a blond-haired, blue-eyed American in a Broncos jersey, look nondescript as a result. Only the tip of that personality iceberg is captured in this video, but it might just be enough to make someone reconsider the people of this far eastern country.

Despite my prejudices and my assumptions, I came to realize that the populace of Japan is just as spirited, lively and unique as that of any nation, if not more so. I hope that the video reveals as much.

For the full “Japan O Files” video, which has all the chapters together, please visit http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-5507708617438509548&hl=en

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