I have to be honest: Japanese pop culture terrifies me. While American pop culture, with its adolescence fetish, prideful ignorance, superhero love and submergent video game fantasias, can merely make me queasy, what I see flowing out of Japan triggers a flight response: the cute cult, the schoolgirl obsession, the giant-penis-monster animated porn, the apocalyptic visions, the oceans of twisted-fairy-tale manga, the deification of inexplicable toys, the combinations of all of the above, and so on. It’s as if, by Western junk-culture standards in the last three or so decades, Japan is going joyfully, helplessly insane.
Which accounts, obviously, for the stuff’s worldwide popularity. I just can’t often get my head around it, or see the opportunity to try, or track what kind of creative idea spawned something like Pokémon or Sailor Moon or the tentacle-rape epic “Urotsukidoji” or Satoshi Kon’s “Paprika” or gold-plated poop-shaped cell-phone trinkets, or take you pick. I think Minoru Kawasaki, the cheapskate Japanese pulp satirist semi-extraordinaire, shares my bafflement, and has converted it into derision.
True, “Executive Koala” (2005) — a psycho-thriller in which the hero is a man-sized koala-cum-salaryman — all too closely falls in line with huge strands of Japanese stuffed-animal worship, which itself cannot be measured on conventional scales of self-reference and irony. But the other Kawasakis hitting disc, “The Rug Cop” and “The World Sinks Except Japan” (both 2006), are unmistakable, ripping farces. “Executive Koala” keeps a straight face (until, at least, the obligatory Kawasaki music video sequence, executed in an arch style that makes the first B-52s videos look slick), but its launching into teeth-gnashing drama and suspense are outrageous, at least because of the ludicrous gray-furred, huge-headed marsupial costume stuffed into that business suit. The koala-ness is acknowledged as such by the humans in the story, but not as something unusual; nor do the giant white bunny boss or giant frog grocery clerk cause a stir. (We see the koala’s zipper, in close-up; does anyone else?) Kawasaki’s narrative methods are pure Skid Row — using available office space and barely bothering to dress it, having scenes begin with characters walking into rooms, etc. — and the neurotic travails of his hero (he’s an axe murderer and doesn’t know it) are given just enough respect to make us wonder which scene or image is an outright joke, or a set-up, or, perhaps, none of the above.
“The Rug Cop” also supports an elaborate fighting-the-terrorists plotline, but the police force handling the task include the titular toupee-winger, a weight-lifting midget, a seductive Don Juan (who interrogates only women), and a secret-weapon-bearing officer named Big Dick. Still, “The World Sinks Except Japan,” while coming equipped with the drollest title of the decade, might be Kawasaki’s crowning achievement so far (in a busy career that has also given the world “The Calamari Wrestler” and a new film with a subtitle that’s been translated as “Attack the G8 Summit!”). Global warming literally drowns every scrap of land on Earth except Japan, a titanic cascade of events Kawasaki depicts with cheaply animated maps, cheaply exploding model cities and a roster of cynical characters hanging out in bars and watching social upheavals on the street (as in, police beating on “foreigners” trying to get away with stolen daikon radishes). The wave of refugees that swamps Japan includes world leaders (trying to curry the Prime Minister’s favor while out drinking) and surviving American movie stars (one named “Jerry Cruising”), but Kawasaki’s taste for low-ball mockery is universal, and Nippon nationalism is chided as mercilessly as the Bushian idiot president and Kim Jong Il are. As doomsday scenarios go, it’s the new compliment to Roger Corman’s “Gas!” and twice as shabby.
Buster Keaton’s “The General” (1927) has few rivals as untouchable canon-classic comedy, and the new Kino DVD is long overdue, supplemented by a second disc of filming location tours, vintage intros (Orson Welles, Gloria Swanson), Keaton home movie footage, a montage of Keaton’s career-long series of train stunts, and three new scores to pick from. No reevaluation is necessary, however — it’s a perfect film, visually breathtaking, so confident and deft in its mise-en-scène that rewinding is mandatory, to see if what you thought just happened in real time actually did. Keaton’s “Sherlock Jr.” may be a more insightful metafictional creation, but “The General” is twice that film’s weight in physical wonder and heartbreaking heroism. There is this, however — why hasn’t anyone, in this age of historical hyper-revisionism, pointed out that Keaton’s film demonizes the Union forces and heroizes, in a single-minded Hollywood way, the Confederacy and, implicitly, its defense of slavery? No one could suggest that Keaton, a Kansas-spawned vaudevillian born 30 years after the Civil War, was a slavery-nostalgic secessionist, could they? What would you say the film endorses, politically? Could even “The General,” that most harmless and beautiful of film culture chestnuts, be stretched on the rack of historico-cultural correctness, especially in ObamaWorld? I ask you: if not…why not?
[Photos: “The World Sinks Except Japan,” Klock Worx, 2006; “The General,” United Artists, 1927]
The Minoru Kawasaki Collection (Synapse Films) and “The General” (Kino Video) are now available on DVD.