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Sunday, Oct. 21, 2001

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Like father, like son


My elder son sits across from me during supper and clubs me with the following questions: "Why can't Japanese die, Dad? How come it's so hard for them?" Not your usual dinnertime poser, perhaps, but we dads have to be ready for anything. I pause only briefly before delivering what I consider to be a brilliant answer.

"Why don't you ask your mother? She's Japanese." So he does. Only to incur dramatic wrath. "What do you mean? We Japanese can die as well as anyone. Just watch!"

So saying, she clutches her throat, waggles her tongue like a dowsing rod and then -- with a flutter of eyelids -- collapses in her chair.

I applaud. My son shakes his head. "There -- you've made my point." His mother blinks to life again. "But your dad liked it," she says. "Yeah, but he'll clap for anyone who feeds him. Then again, you're no more hackneyed than most Japanese performers."

Now she is truly offended. "There's nothing wrong with my knees!" "I mean you can't act. Few Japanese can. Especially when it comes to death scenes."

Here we have the cinema-soaked wisdom of modern-day youth. Like most of his generation, my son has grown up with his eyes pasted to a video screen. His bedroom is a monument to movies, and his shelves bulge with DVDs, not books. His critique of Japan's film industry, honed over his 19 years.

"It sucks.

"Japanese don't act. They take turns giving soliloquies. Awkward soliloquies at that. Ever watch a Japanese death scene? The dying actor gasps on and on -- while the other performers stand around and gather moss."

Next comes the wisdom of middle age. "You're exaggerating," I tell him.

"Quid pro quo, Dad. I exaggerate because Japanese films exaggerate. The outlandish storylines, the stock expressions, the chintzy-yet-overblown special effects, the fascination with gore -- Japanese cinema is just . . ." He rummages for words, then smiles when he finds them "Too too."

The boy has watched many more Japanese films than I have and, like his mother, has no need for subtitles. There are also several Japanese filmmakers he respects -- Akira Kurosawa and Juzo Itami, to name but two. All of which makes him a hard fellow with whom to argue.

But that doesn't stop me from trying.

"Don't you think you might be squinting too hard with your Western eye? So much of Japanese art is dependent on form. Think of flower arranging, tea ceremony, calligraphy . . . It's only natural that Japanese film would reflect this tendency. Excellence must follow a certain pattern -- whether that pattern be in acting, plotting or whatever. It's not that the films are weak; they are just created with different concepts in mind."

He paints me with a look that says, "How could I have a father so stupid?"

"Uh, right, Dad. So where is the subtlety of those other Japanese arts? Because most Japanese movies are about as subtle as a hammer. That's why Japanese, by and large, prefer films from the West."

"I don't," his mother speaks. "I think Western films 'suck.' " Then she grins, proud of having used English slang, and her smile wriggles with satisfaction.

"Talk about exaggeration!" she continues, on a roll. "Too much noise! Too much violence! Too much everything! And so formulaic! If you've seen one American movie, you've seen them all."

The boy fights back. "You feel that way only because Japanese TV replays the same brain-dead films over and over. The movie menu is enormous, but the networks offer the same silly goop every time."

"My idea exactly!" I pound the table. "Form! Order! Proper brush strokes!"

Wife and son pin me with glances. Their message: Shut up.

"I've read somewhere," she says, "about how many scripts are submitted to U.S. film studios and literary agents every week. Hundreds and hundreds. And of that number, only a trickle ever get produced. With all that competition, do you know my main question about American movies?"

"No," her son answers. "How come so many of them suck?" Once again, the wriggle. "But they don't." "Suck, suck, suck." "You don't know what you're talking about."

"And you're confusing volume with quality. When all's said and done, the percentage of good Japanese movies is just as high as that in the States, if not higher. The main difference is budget size. Give a Japanese director a hundred million dollars, and then watch what he'll do."

One lesson the boy has learned is never to argue with his mother. "We're off the point," he backtracks. "I said Japanese can't act. They don't know how to die."

"And Americans do?"

"Sure. Shoot 'em, stab 'em, blow 'em up -- kill them any way you like, and they die as naturally as snowflakes melting on your palm."

I am thinking his comment hints at some sinister background to American culture and a belief that the ability to die on screen might somehow reflect the civil violence that taints U.S. society -- when I realize they are staring at me.

"OK, Snowflake. Let's see you die." I swallow. My eyes switch from wife to son. The pressure is on. "It is a far, far better thing I do . . . " "Just shut up and die!" On cue, I topple across the table, knocking over the chopstick stand.

I lay there in silence, until they speak -- giggled words that perhaps ring out loud in every theater of split culture.

"Not bad," claims one. "You suck," says the other.



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