Monday evening found me on the train, glancing over the shoulder of the guy sitting next to me, in an effort to decipher his newspaper – to find out who’d won the Academy Awards. I was at work all day, went to the gym directly after that, and never heard a thing. As it turned out, the guy was reading the morning edition of the Asahi Shimbun (remarkably, they still have morning and evening editions of papers here). Due to the time difference, it would not yet have had any of the results. Finally, at around 9, I got home, nudged the iBook awake, and found out much of what I’d already guessed. Not quite the same, following the Oscars in Japan.
Who has been nominated for which Academy Award is still news here, and is dutifully reported, but since four of the five Best Picture nominees haven’t even opened here yet (I think Michael Clayton was here, briefly, last month), there’s only so much hype they can make of it all. The awards are not shown live here – late Monday morning is not exactly prime time, even in Japan. Besides, it would mean pre-empting cooking programmes and chat shows which have been on since the stars wore top-knots. A housewife in Aomori would complain: she would never use that sponsor’s miso paste again. So rather than provoke similar social unrest, the Awards are shown a week or so later, on the NHK satellite network. Why anyone would watch them then is beyond me, but they do.
I figure it’s a holdover from the days when the Japanese were passionate about movies – they once had a huge home-grown studio system, with famous stars and directors, producing as many classics and clunkers as Hollywood; they knew not only American movies and their stars, but French, Italian, even Russian films. Japanese friends of the Baby Boomer generation are big on the auteur theory (which hit Japan in the 60s), so they tend to choose movies by director, not actor; many rental shops still arrange their older movies by director – a big row of Hitchcocks or Fellinis, say, instead of a long line of Jimmy Stewarts. Even in the early 90s, the French directors Luc Besson and Patrice Lecomte were all the rage. That doesn’t really happen very much anymore, unless the director’s got a franchise, like Peter Jackson or he’s famous for whom he directs, like Steven Soderbergh, who makes movies with Julia Roberts and George Clooney and Brad Pitt in them. Younger people like stars, and will go see anything their idol is in. Anything.
In the 80s, the Japanese movie industry was on its last legs (or on its knees, producing porn), and video and TV had made everyone lazy. It was then that Hollywood blockbusters swept everything else aside. European films (with the above notable exceptions) are now sidelined to art houses. The old Japanese directors are, for the most part, forgotten (the irony is that the blockbuster kings, Lucas and Spielberg, revere Akira Kurosawa, whom most Japanese, c.2008, can’t stand – although they flocked to see Star Wars). But the Oscars still make the news.
Movies still arrive here months later than anywhere else (exceptions – Rambo, Schwarzeneggar, and the Die Hard series, some of which opened here on the same weekend as they did in the States). Some deluded souls (commentators who don’t live here, for the most part) still parrot the quaint old line that this is because the Japanese are very fussy audiences and want only the best (and nothing says “best” like Bruce Willis and Steven Seagal). I think it has more to do with simple economics: the distributors are waiting to see which foreign movies do the most box office before committing themselves to the expensive advertising and promotion required to put bums on seats here in Japan. The Oscar™ logo prominently displayed on the posters goes a long way here – vindication, like the little polo player on your breast pocket, or the LV symbols on your shit-brown canvas bag.
All that said, I did see No Country For Old Men, on a DVD burned by a friend (the way people watch movies in the 21st century is no different from the way people drank gin in 1928 – homemade or bootlegged). I can’t compare it to the other movies, not having seen them, but Javier Bardem was brilliant and will probably be advertising canned coffee here by summer’s end. I know the movie will be a hit because I have already seen Bardem’s hairdo three times this month, worn by three different unrelated men, on the subway.