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Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Swallowed by the media stream

Peep "TV" Show

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Yutaka Tsuchiya
Running time: 98 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens March 26
[See Japan Times movie listings]

In 2000 Yutaka Tsuchiya, an earnest documentary filmmaker, released "Atarashii Kamisama (The New God)" -- a meditation on the younger generation's search for meaning in the political and spiritual void of modern Japan. What made it a commercial success was Tsuchiya's evolving relationship with his principal subject, a straight-talking rightist punk rocker (!) named Karin Amemiya. He not only gave her a camcorder to record her private thoughts and sent her to North Korea to visit exiled Japanese Red Army activists but, in the course of the filming, fell in love with her.

News photo
Shiori Gechoff and Takayuki Hasegawa in "Peep 'TV' Show"

In other words, what started as a documentary became a real-life drama, a technique Michael Moore was later to use to greater box-office effect in "Fahrenheit 9/11." (This is not to imply, however, that Tsuchiya plotted out the falling-in-love part.)

In his latest, fictional film, "Peep 'TV' Show," Tsuchiya again joins with Amemiya, this time as co-scriptwriters. Their themes are ones that have engaged Tsuchiya for much of his career, including how young Japanese, emptied of both identity and ideology, have become absorbed into the media stream around them and how, through that media, the political has become the personal -- and the pathological.

Other documentarians of his generation, such as Hirokazu Kore'eda, Naomi Kawase and Nobuhiro Suwa, have also turned to fiction filmmaking. But where they use documentary techniques to tell otherwise fictional stories, Tsuchiya has made what often looks like a mockumentary, complete with on-the-street interviews and characters confessing to the camera from the privacy of their rooms.

He is also more blatantly the filmmaker as essayist, using his characters to express his perceptions of political and social trends. They stand out among the crowds milling around them because they are too obviously stereotypes (Lolita Girl, Otaku Guy). At the same time, Tsuchiya is thoroughly familiar with their world in a way that inspires confidence in his observations, if not always his mis-en-scene.

His hero is a long-haired, lip-pierced ethereally remote youth named Hasegawa (Takayuki Hasegawa), whom we see sitting slumped at Shibuya's Hachiko Crossing with what looks to be a small box at his feet -- a pinhole camera that he is using to record the passing crowds.

On Aug. 15, 2002 -- the anniversary of Japan's World War II surrender -- he starts a Web site called Peep "TV" Show to which he has uploaded candid footage from this camera, shot in various locations. He also records the activities, in diary form, of terrorist Mohammed Atta in the weeks prior to 9/11, while adding this observation: "On Sept. 11, 2843 people were killed when a fireball hit the WTC. It was a beautiful sight. I sat with a beer in one hand, glued to the TV."

He is not just a simple voyeur, but a traumatized witness whose healing process has taken a sick turn. In its violation of the social contract and invasion of strangers' personal spaces, peeping is terrorism's masturbatory twin. Hasegawa is Atta's spiritual co-conspirator.

One mid-summer day he attracts the attention of Moe (Shiori Gechoff), a young woman dressed in a frilly "gothic Lolita" (aka "gosurori") frock. Sensing a sympathetic soul, he gives her a card with the site address. She logs on and, seeing its odd cast of on-camera characters, becomes hooked. A hikikomori (i.e., a recluse who rarely leaves his room, save through his computer) talks into Hasegawa's camera about his life, or what passes for it. A nerdy convenience store clerk bags groceries, makes change and describes his dream of violent revolution.

As the number of visitors to the site increases, Hasegawa adds "attractions" to hold their interest. A cat is sealed into a plastic bag and visitors vote on whether to kill it or release it. He hires a prostitute to kick and beat him. When their two-hour session is over, she thanks him for his business and abruptly exits -- the camera rolling.

Appalled and fascinated, Moe seeks him out. Together they begin cruising the night streets in his van, watching and commenting on live feeds from victims' flats. They are creating their own private reality show, exploring the ground zero of humanity around them. Through their eavesdropping they seem to be affirming their identity, as well as their superiority over their unsuspecting subjects, but in the process they become dehumanized. They finally emerge from their shells only to engage in meaningless destruction. Ground zero is in them as well.

Tsuchiya is hardly the first Japanese filmmaker to take media-fed, digitally mediated anomie as his subject. Satoshi Isaka's 1996 "Focus" also had an otaku hero, who could hack into every radio frequency, but couldn't handle a media intrusion into his world. Tsuchiya does, however, create a more intricate network of links, from George W. Bush and the 9/11 terrorists to a kid sitting with a jacket over his head on a Shibuya street -- but watching, always watching. Does he exist outside of Tsuchiya's imagination? Google to find out, if you dare.

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