Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on March 2011
A few weeks ago, I finally got around to renting a DVD of Darling wa Gaikokujin (“My Darling Is A Foreigner”), the popular 2010 film that explores intercultural romance. Loosely based on a bestselling manga, it tells the story of a young Japanese woman, Saori, who falls in love with an enigmatic and exceedingly gentle American guy named Tony. The movie is entertaining, if formulaic, but I was most eager to see how my own culture would be represented by Japanese filmmakers.
Tony, for his part, seems to have no inner life, as though he had been designed in a rom-com laboratory for the sole purpose of delighting and infuriating the heroine. But he is wholly admirable. At one point in the film he says, “To me, she’s not Japanese—she’s Saori.” Immigration authorities at Narita should extract that oath from all aspiring charisma men, along with fingerprints.
On the other hand, the film’s representation of the gaijin community in general is either comical or laughable, depending on your perspective.
In the first scene, Saori goes with Tony to a party where she is the only Japanese person present. She slinks into a corner while beautiful young foreigners mutter and cast snide, sideways glances her way. One hipster-haired fellow swaggers over and immediately starts an argument when he learns that she works as a manga illustrator. Since Saori speaks no English, a young woman of slightly greater goodwill translates for him: Japan is an immature country because adults read comics, and what’s more, all manga are pornographic and therefore bad for children. Incensed, Saori listens as the man haughtily tells her that she should learn to speak English.
Sure, we’ve all heard the manga argument before, so that part of the episode is based in reality. But when was the last time you went to a 30-person party in Tokyo and there were no Japanese present or welcome? In my ten years here, I haven’t been to a single one. And when was the last time you heard a group of foreigners making fun of a shy young Japanese woman? The poor, beleaguered salaryman, sure, but definitely not this pixie.
It’s fascinating, though, that the filmmakers would portray us like that. Think of the millions of Japanese people watching the movie who have never actually been to a gaijin party. Is this really the picture of us their fevered imaginations concoct, that we gather in secret cliques on weekends to disparage our hosts and congratulate ourselves for being Westerners?
Wait. Crap. Touché, Japanese filmmakers, touché.
Still, there can be value in someone else’s grotesque stereotype of you, whether it is affectionate, as in this film, or menacing. Which reminds me of another movie about gaijin in Japan.
I know a lot of foreigners who were deeply offended by Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation. The Japanese people in that film were painted with broad and ridiculous strokes, generally as mere comic foils to the main characters, the backdrop to their melancholy. Here a pronunciation-mangling prostitute, there an affable old man unaware he is being made fun of. But I loved that film, because it is absolutely true to the perspective of many a wide-eyed gaijin during their first few days in Japan. The country and its people really do seem that strange and alien to just-off-the-boat Westerners, and our observations often really are that brain-addled. I think that this kind of cultural encounter is a valid perspective from which to create a work of art. If you want to see faithful depictions of Japanese people, watch a Japanese movie.
When it comes to stereotypes, Lost In Translation is probably more deserving of censure than My Darling Is A Foreigner. After all, Translation doesn’t have a Tony and doesn’t, in the end, offer a rapprochement between the two cultures. I reckon, though, that select scenes of the two films together form an acid test of your character.
If you (as a foreigner) like Translation and hate Darling, you are really kind of an ass. If you like Darling and hate Translation, you might be trying too hard. The most consistent philosophy is to join their outcomes in one mélange of absurdist stereotyping: a grand and entertaining comment on our pan-human struggle to become perfect metaphysical consciousnesses, rather than the contingently evolved animals that we actually are. Then choose a side, and either love them both or hate them both.
Me, I’ll go with whoever lets me laugh the loudest at inept prostitutes and invading ingrate gaijin hordes. My heart always opens wide to the world after a good chuckle.