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Sunday, May 2, 2010


Downed in her prime, a beacon of Japan's emerging new culture

The formative culture of a country is its subculture. Mainstream culture is about the present; subculture creates the future.

In Japan, there have been three seminal subcultures since the end of World War II in 1945.

The first was the politically radical one of the immediate postwar period. That was essentially a continuation of the proletarian movement in literature and art of the 1920s and early '30s that was snuffed out through torture and force by the militaristic government of the day. This postwar subculture was bohemian and decadent, given its impetus by writers such as Osamu Dazai and Ango Sakaguchi. For all practical purposes, the latter's death in 1955 brought the curtain down on it.

The second subculture movement sprang up in the 1960s, thanks to the underground theater of playwrights including Shuji Terayama and Juro Kara, and filmmakers such as Nagisa Oshima. There was a robust iconoclastic power to this movement, which at times — as in Oshima's films in that decade — turned ideological, reinforcing the anti- establishment political trends of the day.

Make no mistake: Both of these subcultures had an enormous influence on every layer of Japanese society.

The third subculture, which has become mainstream and is flowing with full force today, appeared in the 1980s. It wasn't prodding, oppositional and subversive like its predecessors. Rather it was freaky, fashionable and fun — part of what was known in the '80s as the fuiringu jidai, or "feeling era." Its "don't think about it, just do it" message was embraced by a young generation sick and tired of over-serious conceptual polemics, lead-weight angst and rat-race drudgery.

Of course, the fact that young Japanese had wads of money in their pockets for the first time gave this era a commercial immediacy that had not been seen before.

One of the side effects of this new and buoyant subculture was that it swept away much of the older generation of critics. For sure, many of them continued to write in their thick magazines, but their influence was seriously on the wane by the time the '80s ended. The old distinction between jun (pure) and taishu (popular, mass) cultures was breaking down. If people liked it, it was good. This represented the greatest threat, in a sense, to the stodgy cultural establishment that had dictated Japanese taste for at least three decades.

New critics emerged to celebrate their view of culture both at home and abroad. One of them was a remarkable young woman named Sayaka Ueda, who, in her tragically short life, had a major impact on the new subculture of Japan just as it was turning mainstream. She was tuned into the film and music scenes of the time as few others were.

Now her mother, Sakae Ueda, has — after eight years' labor — produced a marvelous book, titled "Mezase, Karisuma-eiga-raitaa!" ("I Want to be a Charismatic Movie Critic!"), in tribute to her daughter.

Playwright Hisashi Inoue, who passed away last month, is quoted in the book writing that he recalled Sayaka "as a highly dynamic woman, a woman possessing an immense intellectual curiosity." Inoue discovered a woman who was "a master stylist able to write as she spoke. . . . A colloquial style like hers is very accessible to readers. She stood beside her readers. . . . The strong beam of light that permeates and emanates from this book illuminates her heartrending love for the cinema."

The book's 340-plus pages are packed with hundreds of articles and reviews. Its author interviews Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson and French director Claude Perron; she speaks with Korean actor Song Kang Ho and the child star of "A.I.," Haley Joel Osment, as well as to a host of other foreign and Japanese film people. She meets and talks with Glenn Close in London in 1997 and describes the movie scenes in Seoul and Hong Kong in great detail.

Sayaka Ueda adored every aspect of film production, getting to know distributors, scriptwriters, camera operators, makeup artists and hair stylists. She threw herself into everything she encountered. She loved fashion and design, from light fixtures to shoes, from stationery to straps for mobile phones. She herself modeled for an article on hair brushes.

After all, the pop culture that grew out of the '80s was in full swing in the '90s; and despite the recession, young people were still splashing out on the things that they saw as symbolizing their identity. Although Sayaka wrote about many aspects of this subculture-turned- mainstream, it was her writing on cinema that gave her an identity — and a name — in Japan.

Inoue points out in the book that, "in her later writings, she often worked into her articles behind-the-scenes episodes from the film world, and this brought her an even wider readership. Another feature of Sayaka's film writing is that she didn't publish a bad word about anyone or any movie."

Inoue amends his own statement, adding that this is "almost entirely true." He notes that there are two movies she criticizes . . . that's two out of hundreds, however.

Sayaka's mother, Sakae Ueda, has produced this exhaustive compilation of her daughter's writing. It is an amazing labor of love. A fulltime and busy editor herself from the time of Sayaka's birth, she has brought a professional's skill to the presentation.

Sayaka Ueda was born on Sept. 11, 1969 in Tokyo. She majored in Japanese literature at university, writing her graduation thesis on the Meiji Era author Ichiyo Higuchi (1872-96). In her fourth year at university she traveled to Adelaide, South Australia, where she spent a year perfecting her English. Then, after graduating in 1993, she went to work as a journalist, attached to a journal of commercial goods, Mono Magazine. The young pop culture of Japan had been married to commerce in the 1980s, and the honeymoon was still on.

In 1995 she took charge of the film articles in publisher Tokuma Shoten's new magazine, J Marker. After that magazine folded the next year, she moved to Recruit's music magazine, Zappi, where she wrote about music and film. Sayaka, who had a huge collection of CDs and tapes, followed Japanese music with an ardor equal to that of her ardor for film.

She was to write for many other magazines as her own popularity as a spokeswoman for her generation grew.

But then, on Oct. 16, 2001, Sayaka collapsed just before leaving her home to go to a screening of a new movie. A massive brain hemorrhage was the cause of her death at age 32.

Writes Inoue, "I know that we all must pass away someday. But reading Sayaka's writings again like this, I found myself choked with emotion at the thought that I would most likely never again encounter a person who loved films so deeply and so passionately."

The book of Sayaka Ueda's life and writing is not sold in stores. If you would like to buy a copy, priced ¥2,500, please write in English or Japanese to taruho0373@r6.dion.ne.jp

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