Shitoyakana Kedamono / Elegant Beast (1962)
How can I write about Japan?
I lived there with Cathy from 1998 until 2003, and I have been back twice since in 2008, and 2018. I have just finished reading a book by Ian Buruma called A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir (2018), and it ends up with Buruma reflecting on Japan’s influence on him:
Japan shaped me when the plaster was still wet.
It’s a statement that sounds right about me too. Although Cathy and I were 25 when we went to Japan I – at least – was still very much wet, and waiting to be shaped a little.
Perhaps, a lot.
Yet I have never really written about it. Why? I’ve never known how to, or found the way. I think I can do it through movies. Although I love post-war Japanese movies (post-war and pre-bubble I guess I should say) I am not interested in reviewing the movies; I am interested in what they remind me of about being there. Or, I should say, they give me a way to speak about my time there.
Art, for me, is always a route to somewhere else.
Elegant Beast (1962) is a terrific movie directed by Yuzo Kawashima and almost all of it takes place inside one apartment.
It is the apartment that seems like a good place to start when I think about living in Japan.
The thing that most people knows about Japanese apartments is that they are small, and in the cities that is true. This beautifully organised shot from the film shows the whole apartment excepting the (small) toilet and (small) bathroom. I was sometimes in the apartments of Japanese that were bigger than this – further out of the city in the bed towns – and I was sometimes in the apartments of Japanese whose apartments were smaller: they had only one main room which was a bedroom at night, a dining room for meals, and a living room the rest of the time. The kitchen was really just part of the corridor from the genkan to the main room: a sink, two gas cookers with a grill in the middle, and a bar fridge. In a few short shots the camera shows the full theatre of this film’s drama.
Which is precisely accurate if you want to know how intimately everyone has to live in an apartment building.
When we moved to an apartment very similar to this one in Nishitanabe in Osaka we felt it was a big step up from our first apartment in Daikokucho. Not really in size – it was about the same – but certainly in terms of light. The Daikokucho flat was hemmed in on all sides and had windows opening onto either the concrete walls of buildings a foot away, or the loading zone of a light industrial office block. The Nishitanabe flat was flooded with light by comparison. From the narrow balcony of the Nishitanabe apartment (a balcony is really a laundry in Japan) we had a view. Directly below us was the tiled roof and garden of an old Japanese house where I sometimes heard early morning chanting. Across the little street behind us and beyond the old house were a row of roller doors and a little bottle store. A man with a young family worked there and a makeshift bar would open on the street on the back of his little truck when the weather was hot.
It felt like being in a neighbourhood. A coin laundry around the corner. A little supermarket. Schools.
The weather was often hot. Our first couple of summers were an ordeal. Going out was a series of carefully premeditated moves between air conditioned spaces in order to minimise sweating.
The emphasis in the shot below is more on the carnal, sordid, fleshy nature of the character in question, but it also happens to be accurate to the sheen of life outside the air conditioner’s cooling balm. I don’t know when the aircon became ubiquitous in Japan, but it is certainly not a feature of any film I have seen from the 1960s. Of course, the world was a little cooler then.
It looks like it might be sensual on film, but few things are more likely to sap desire than days of insistent humidity and sweaty armpits.
When we first arrived in Japan we didn’t know what an air conditioner was. Heat pumps were not yet a thing in New Zealand which was still gripped by the “insulation is for wimps put another jersey on” school of heating, let alone anyone discovering (or perhaps needing) the cooling function on those same heat pumps.
It was night time when we first arrived in Japan and were taken to out apartment in Daikokucho. It was also hot. After dealing with a few things of import (getting toilet paper) and wondering what the fuck we had done with our lives, we went to bed. It was hot so we opened all the windows. That was Cathy’s all night introduction to Japanese mosquitoes (hajimemashite). After that the windows were never opened and the air conditioner was on every summer day. Which was another thing that was good about our apartment in Nishitanabe: the sliding doors also had mosquito screens and we could have seasons in between air con and heat pump.
We didn’t have much in that apartment in Nishitanabe. Very little in fact.
When we came back to New Zealand and bought a TV we told everyone that it was huge. It seemed huge to us but it was in fact a normal sized TV. Our TV in Japan was small and had a built in VCR. Living in Japanese apartments for five and a half years had changed our perception of what small and large was. Everything seemed big in New Zealand, and American sizes seemed grotesque. They are grotesque.
The characters in Elegant Beast are living on ill-gotten gains. They have a fake Renoir, and a small black and white TV. They drink Cola, and the father asks for blue cheese. Which all also serves as a comment on the dangers of western cultural influence for the dad breaks rule one of being Japanese when he later suggests that rice is no good, and the national diet needs to change. This would be the equivalent of going to a Labour Party conference and suggesting Jacinda Adern was a phony.
The decadence of the apartment and the foods they eat only work now if we use our imagination. Things that the characters consider luxuries in 1962 in Japan are laughable and basic in 2019. In fact it now looks like an ode to simpler times. Something this writing will probably be guilty of too.