“So swollen with purpose, so titanically self-conscious in its myth making, that at times it nearly paralyzes itself with solemnity”,
opines critic Ty Burr, for the Boston Times, definitely in the minority for his ambivalent review of Denis Villeneuve’s newest film Blade Runner 2049, the sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 science fiction classic Blade Runner, currently doing the multiplex rounds and the object of infatuated critical response.
His summary of the film encapsulated my own feelings completely though.
We emerged from the cinema on Saturday night so delighted to be back in the cold fresh air, to be back in real life, after three hours of crushing, reverential seriousness and spectacular special effects and artful production design and the reverberating oppression of the synthesized score, finally beginning to to feel as if we could breathe again, packed under the weight of the portentous seriousness and the grand themes of humans and technology and artificial intelligence and whether virtually real creatures can fall in love. A future world, a dystopia that was so treeless and depressing I could hardly bear to watch it. The plight of the ‘replicants’ – the humanoid creatures at the heart of the film who live and respire like us but are man-made and thus disposable. Slaves.
Potentially absorbing subjects, yes, and I did love the original, and also rather like director Denis Villeneuve (whose Prisoners, starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal was a mesmerizingly intense and dark crime drama that really gripped me and whose recent Arrival, another sci-fi starring Amy Adams as a linguist trying to make contact with extra-terrestrials was also rather interesting, and quite beautiful to look at). I like his aesthetic, so there was no way I was not going to see his take on Blade Runner 2049 this weekend and drag Duncan alongside with me.
Prior to seeing the film, we had a delightful Japanese meal at one of our favorite izakaya near the cinema in Tsujido – red lanterns and wooden tables, the only foreigners in there, packed, tucked in at the counter table near where the cooks were wreathed in steam and smoke and shouting enthusiastically in tandem with the waiters as the orders came in; delicious yakitori and tofu and our first winter nabe hotpot of the season that felt like very necessary soul food – we ate it in silence, immersed in the ambience of the restaurant, and then moved on contentedly to the cinema, looking forward to new evocations of Shinjuku and giant neon screens familiar from the city itself and the original classic.
I was bored to death though. It felt like molasses. Like a vacuum. I love slow and beautiful films, but this felt almost interminable. Like a gradual asphyxiation. Choking in black. I even asked D if we should leave the cinema half way through (could we make it to the very end?), but we decided to stay and brave it out. Surrender to it as it washed over you and crushed you. Slumped in our seats, in the dark. A slow, viscous black of cinematic texture that certainly impressed with its ‘design’ and its almost tactile heaviness and peculiarly realistic feel, but which also seemed to have no heart, nor tension, nor propulsion nor real dramatic interest but which was drowning instead under the weight of its sheer duty to not betray the original film and yet also to showcase the originality of the director’s successor in a morass of such humorless ‘philosophical’ gravity that it felt, almost, more like an ordeal of ‘quality’ and sturdily scientific ‘good taste’ than an evening of pleasure or entertainment. We came out numb.
And yet yesterday, and even today, I find the film lingering still in my consciousness. It is in me. And despite what I have written here, and quite perversely, I almost really want to go back and see it again ( I very nearly just abandoned this post to rush back to the cinema to try it in 3D). Perhaps it was the level of consternation of so many of my friends who really loved it and were outraged by my initial reaction to it that makes me want to reassess it. Perhaps it touches me in some way I don’t entirely understand. Perhaps it went under the skin.
Do I identify with the main protagonist, K, played by Ryan Gosling, in some way? A replicant human who is employed by the corporation that created him, a vital part of the organization and yet outside of it? It might be an overreach to say so. And yet the experience of being a permanent, eternal etranger here in Japan, while having its fair few privileges and attractions and beautiful dreamness (I don’t think either of us has remotely tired of those yet and who knows if we will ever leave) can still be very alienating, disturbing, fascinating – like K staring at his hands and yearning for humanity, myself aware of my otherness and whiteness in a way that is perturbingly, but importantly, quite different from the familiarly European or American or any other Caucasian majority nation standard white gaze out on to the other – the darker skinned, the ‘alien’. Here, obviously, it is in reverse. Privileged, certainly, but still a complicated lodestone of Japanese complexes of superiority and inferiority, interiorized. A useful lesson, but still very distancing.
I have long been the only foreigner working at my company, or at least the only one that has a permanent position. Teachers from all over the world are contracted to teach English conversation classes for the elementary school sixth graders, a couple of times a week, just short, entertaining lessons at the various schools in Kanagawa Prefecture, but I never meet them. I am alone in my position of almost total independence and autonomy. Trusted to do the job in my own way. Uninterfered with. It has been me, and only me, for seventeen years – a strange predicament whose origins I don’t understand entirely (why put yourself in a position where you are culturally, to some extent, permanently estranged? )
And yes, it has sometimes been difficult psychologically for me, as any job is, even (especially?) with people of your own nationality – don’t tell me you have never had work frictions – but it has also been endlessly fascinating: I am a natural voyeur and an analyst, and for me it has been like living as a borrowed infiltrator, a person who has absorbed what he has seen and understood a totally different culture intuitively, even when it is sometimes impossible to put into words. The madness of it. The beauty of it. The elegance. The obedience and sadomasochism. The physicality (when every person you interact with is Japanese, and those features become absolutely the norm of your eye), your own invisibility yet constant standing out; its almost willing erosion of your heart and soul.
In September suddenly there were two of us.
In a sea of hundreds of Japanese people: another permanent White Teacher.
And it has been strange. Awkward; something to adapt to.
The cynic, expatriate, anyone who knows anything about foreigners from overseas who have come to Japan (and often never leave), will assume, quite rightly perhaps, that my ‘uniqueness’ as the only white ‘charisma man’, the term given to pathetic people whose status and self-worth is built upon their identity as an ‘unusual’ foreigner, was unduly threatened by the invasion of this newcomer: everyone knows – it is a standing joke here – how unnerved foreigners (or ‘gaijin‘, the slightly pejorative term used for and ironically by the non-Japanese here) are by the presence of other gaijin: you don’t know where to look, whether to smile and nod in acknowledgement, or to look in the other direction, which is what almost everybody does, your bubble of insularity and nothingness and sheer emancipation in some ways from your former self temporarily burst by your unwanted reflection. It is almost a shock, sometimes, to see someone else who is in such a tiny minority of the population and has also made the strange decision to immerse themselves deeply into a society that doesn’t really want them but which, secretly, is equally very struck, bemused, and intrigued by their difference, their alienness – a discomfiting mirror. A reminder. A threat to your serenity. As in the film, where replicants are trained to kill one another to take out old models, but where other replicants are forming resistance armies, there is a dis-ease sometimes with your ‘own kind’, as if you wanted never to be remembered to yourself: to just blend, or even disappear.
The other man, who I shall call Michel, is from France. Intelligent, tall, dignified – perhaps troubled – and about ten years younger than me, he has been employed in the company since March as an English teacher who teaches English in Japanese. Unlike myself, employed as a native speaker and communicating with all English teachers in English but all other staff in Japanese, treated as a valued member of the school I think but definitely not quite part of it – because of his superior Japanese ability as well as his fluent English, Michel works as a Japanese member of staff, and is treated as such. He is ‘one of the teachers’. He has been absorbed. Partly. He is a novelty. A new kind of hybrid (the central conceit of Blade Runner 2049 is the possible existence of the child of human/replicant parents, or even fully replicant, a potentially lethal revelation – as the artificial humans were assumed to be sterile – that might endanger the stability of the strict replicant/human divide, imbuing the former with humanity, and more importantly, a soul.)
And while not subjected to the full, exhausting schedule of the other teachers, which only the Japanese teachers would put upon themselves, he attends the meetings, and team teaches with them, and, essentially, acts like them, behaves as a Japanese, which is not something I have ever done because I am incapable of it and not only because of my stubborn linguistic handicap – it goes more inwards, and it would feel like some kind of treason or terrible capitulation. It is instinctive. I just can’t. I have never wanted to. I have always refused to. For whatever reason, it would be like letting go of my inner core, a freakish pantomime. To my eyes, to be bowing and scraping and subverting yourself, if you are not Japanese, just looks too unnatural somehow- it looks like theatre, it looks buffoon. It makes me cringe. I would also love to know what my Japanese colleagues secretly, really think too.
I met a lovely English girl for the first time recently, Polly – long term resident, writer, and sensitized to this environment as phobically as I am; nervous, too sentient, like me, a person who seems to feel the same in her love/hate relationship to it all though she is tipping over more to the latter side, now, and is soon going to leave and ‘go back’ (where ‘a different set of internal organs will be affected’, she memorably told me…)
Polly is now a freelance Japanese/English translator here and thus has no problem communicating, but she still, also, like me, can’t quite bear the sight of a foreigner putting himself through the motions, of aping and mimicking the gestures and body language and honorific language when he knows that he will never really be thought of as part of it all…….to both our sets of trained and languishing eyes it is embarrassing, undignified, almost, slipping willingly into an alien skin, an unnatural carapace like a sealed deep sea diver trapped within airtight glass of taut atmospheric pressure, gesticulating pointlessly and mouthing like a dumdum. Clownish. Like the lumbering but always good-intentioned Frenchman in Shusaku Endo’s ‘Wonderful Fool’.
Not that Michel is anything but charming and thoughtful and sensitive and very capable. I like him. I would like to get to know him better. And we have had some quite interesting, if occasionally fraught, conversations about various issues, where we realized how different our politics are; slightly guarded exchanges, the eyes flickering occasionally with some kind of mutual suspicion, or at least an uncomfortable wariness while we attempt to find some common ground (he had gone six months being ‘the only one’ while I was in hospital and at home so it must have been something of a shock, for him as it was for me, to adapt to the other’s presence). We both want to keep our own space. We both admit that it feels weird speaking too loudly in English (or in French, for extra confidentiality) in the teacher’s room, like an impingement on the Japanese harmony of the space. That we must know our rightful place. An invasion of the bodysnatchers.
There is some kind of hyperconsciousness. As you will see from reading this. This comes not from me, though, at least I don’t think so. It is possible that I am paranoid, but essentially I think I am just processing and reacting to what is there. Japan is neurotic and hypersensitive to everything foreign and I am just responding to it. It goes down deep into the insular DNA, the land that was sealed off from the rest of humanity for century after century. The island. The mythical Nippon. You can’t escape it, and it is part of the pleasure of living here, in a contrarian kind of way. You make of it what you will. You live the Japanese life that you want to. Or that you are able to. It is a choice. But judging from our exchanges so far, it is obvious that he is by far the Japanophile – with plenty of reservations and criticisms of the culture, still – but he does really seem to love it here, and seems to have left France far behind, for reasons he has not gone into and which I have not probed. Here he is more comfortable, despite his very French fundamental nihilism and what I feel is some kind of suppressed despair, and his socially gregarious, polite and generally genuinely likable self. In that way, I feel we are the opposite. I like to imagine that I am happy within myself, deep down, but that it is society and the falsity of communication and the oppression of stupid, arbitrary rules imposed on us from without that get me down. The ‘outside world’. And in escaping both the strictures of my culture of birth but also rejecting most of the one that I have adopted, I have found a strange form of spiritual freedom. A place where I can ‘be’. As has he. But unlike me, Michel is great at the Japanese small talk, and the friendly banter – something I have much more difficulty with – I go straight for the crux – and is essentially far, far more pleasant, nicer than I ever could be, more ingratiating, even. I find it impressive. But for me when I am observing, quietly from my corner (we only encounter each other in various schools intermittently) it also feels like a weird, self-conscious replication of something. It feels like an act. Or is it just jealousy?
The intense, almost unnerving feeling of being quasi- repelled within my own skin (an interesting sensation – this must be what happens to all racial minorities when overexposed to the majority ethnicity of the country they live in) came one evening in early October when the two of us were alone in the teachers’ room, all Japanese teachers having gone to their lessons. Preparing lessons, typing at our computers, and occasionally talking. We were sitting at our desks, visible to the students from the outside. And I noticed that two of them, young girls, who had come to ask their teachers a question, were looking in from the corridor with slightly odd looks on their faces, dismay, even, or at the very least discomfiture, and I immediately felt some form of perturbance ; an awareness of my skin, that the teacher’s room had been colonized by Europeans. I really felt that I could feel the students’ slight discomfort and even the school secretary’s: that we had almost taken over.
I felt, in fact for a moment, almost like an android; uncanny.
Piggish. Keen: flushed with Europeanness.
An amphibious, capillaried skin pallor; drained yet somewhat pinkish with our Caucasian, more prominent noses ( we don’t look entirely dissimilar, M and I; vaguely Napoleonic); our melatonin depleted irises – his blue; mine green.
Cold beacons of light in a more usual, familiar sea of penetrating, brown, nearly black, indigenous eyes.
Big-limbed, ungainly, straw-haired goons seeking oblivion