Monday, 18 August 2014

Is there any nostalgia in The Grand Budapest Hotel?

Although skeptical at first, I was enthralled after a few minutes by the movie I was watching, Wes Anderson's The Budapest Hotel. Not so much by its visual splendour - with the cake-like hotel, the mountains, the stylized miniatures and so on - but rather by the music. The score is by Alexandre Desplat, but some of the best tunes are adaptations of Russian balalaika music (both “Moonlight” and “Kamarinskaya”, performed by the Osipov State Russian Folk Orchestra, irrestibly made me happy). The use of Vivaldi’s Concerto for lute in D Major is also effective.

I also liked the skilfull way the characters were introduced and the comical alteration of speaking styles (the “good” protagonists, for instance, like to speak in harangues that sound like when you read poetry aloud). Here the talent of Ralph Fiennes, who plays the consierge Gustave H, is an important contributing factor. I also liked Harvey Keitel’s brief appearance as a tough, matter-of-fact prison inmate (“It’s got what we might call vulnerabilities”). In fact, this is a good movie for admiring the small, brief appearances of several actors.

As an aside, as I write this I realize again that part of the secret of “realism” in portraying people lies in sketchiness, in not revealing too much. During the movie some characters are faced by choices such as: Will Gustave employ the paperless migrant boy? Will the attorney Kovacs cave in to Dmitri’s intimidations? Despite these situations being treated in an offhand way, I found myself watching eagerly to know what choices they would make, since I was unable to predict it in advance. This is of course just like in reality, where we only know most people around us superficially. But it is unlike standard Hollywood movies, where part of the implausability of character portrayals consist in the they are made to fit into pregiven molds and hence become predicatable and knowable at once. To me, this realism was one of the sources of the pleasure of the film.  

So how about serious analysis? Well, it’s a charming aestheticized picaresque. The overt political gestures (the civilized, aesthetic repulsion for fascist barbarism) are commonplace and not much to make a fuss of. So how about the role of nostalgia? Nostalgia is indeed an explicit theme in the film. “There are still glimmers of civilization in this barbaric slaugtherhouse once known as humanity” is a phrase that occurs twice in the movie. Nostalgia is also evoked by the juxtaposition of the hotel as it was at the height of its splendor in the early 30s with how drab it became in the communist post-war period. As the film ends, we are told that it was inspired by Stefan Zweig's The World of Yesterday.

But what is done with this nostalgia? Not much. There is nothing in the film that upsets it or puts it in question (just think of the contrast with The Shining, another great hotel film, where the brilliance of bygone days is an uncanny abode of horror). The Grand Budapest Hotel contrasts the beauty and aristocratic refinement of the lost world of yesterday to the brutality of ascendant fascism – a repulsive enemy that can be rejected without controversy. Admittedly, the fact that Dmitri, the scion of an archduchess, is portrayed as a fascistoid bastard shows an awareness that fascism had historical roots also in aristocratic circles. But such traces of historical accuracy are not developed into a critique and fail to diminish the radiance of the bygone civilization. The same can be said about the fact that the main protagonist is an illegal immigrant boy who has fled a genocidal war. As shown by the behaviour of Gustave, accepting such immigrants with generosity and humanity is portrayed as something that goes hand in hand with the civilization of yesterday. But wasn’t this civilization itself racist and colonialist? It certainly was, but in defense of the movie one might add that it was more so in countries like Britain, France and Germany than in the old Habsburg Empire which seems in fact to have been more tolerant.

So nostalgia is in fact not really a central problem in this movie. It’s there, of course, but not as a problem, not as something it struggles with. Rather than sorrow at the loss of the lovely world of yesterday, the movie delights in its dazzling, fictional reappearance before us. No sorrow can take root in this world since it it constantly swept away by happiness. This delight is akin to that of a collector or connaisseur who finds a lovely piece of art at a flea market or the tourist who discovers a charming little restaurant in a back street. Nostalgia, then, is surface. The film is not at all suffused by any desire to stay in touch with the lost world, a world that is long gone and never really existed anyway - except as a graceful illusion. Near the end, the aged Zero Mustafa is asked by the “author” if he kept the old hotel in order to stay in touch with “his world”, the world of Gustave. No, he replies with a smile, that world was already gone at the time of Gustave, "but he sustained the illusion with marvellous grace”.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Is Japan still a "bad place"? Reimagining Japan after the disaster

Here are just some reflections on a book I just got into my hands, Nihon 2.0 (vol. 3 of Shisō Chizu β, edited by Azuma Hiroki, published 2012). It's interesting for the explicit attempt of the participating authors to reimagine Japan in the wake of the 3.11 disaster. Thus in the opening essay the editor, Azuma Hiroki, calls for a new creative engagement with Japaneseness, similar to that of Fukuzawa Yukichi at the time of Japan's opening to the West in the 19th century, another time of national crisis. Considering Azuma's previous work, it is hardly surprising that the volume contains lots of material dealing with otaku culture and a the text of a speech held by Murakami Takashi (famous for his "superflat" art) in Doha on the occasion of the exhibition of his latest work, The 500 Arhats. Somewhat more surprisingly, the volume also contains a respectful interview with the philosopher Umehara Takeshi and an entire draft for a new constitution of Japan.

The volume strikes me by its careful and circumspect, yet quite explicit nationalism. After Fukushima another, new Japan is needed. As Azuma states, "We need a new heart to build a new nation". This is certainly not to be confused with the rightist nationalism of the Abe government, but the mere fact that a language centered on the nation can be adopted so unabashedly by prominent intellectuals like Azuma is, perhaps, significative of recent trends in Japan. In general, I would say that Japan today is characterized by much nation-talk of various hues, as can be seen in the rise of xenophobic "hatespeech" groups as well as in the populist rhetoric of parts of the anti-nuclear power movement. A lot of different discourses are tugging at the term "nation" from various directions. 

Here I will focus on one of the texts in the book - "3.11 go no warui basho - Tôkyô” (The bad place after 3.11 - Tokyo), the transcript of a conversation between Azuma, Sawaragi Noi and Kurose Yôhei. I once used to read quite a lot of Sawaragi's books and essay and I put together an interpretation of his works in an essay I wrote a few years ago, "Japan's Lost Decade and Two Recoveries: On Sawaragi Noi, Japanese Neo-pop and Anti-war Activism" (in Nina Cornyetz & Keith Vincent, eds., Perversion and Modern Japan: Psychoanalysis, Literature, Culture, Routledge 2010).

In the essay I argued that the anti-war movement that reached its zenith in Japan in 2003 - in which Sawaragi participated by founding a group, "Korosuna", that used art and street parties to protest against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan - became the occasion for Sawaragi to relativize his earlier bleak picture of Japan as a "bad place" and "closed circle". As he wrote himself at the time, by participating in demonstrations for the first time, he had discovered that the street was a "good place". This discovery of a "good place", I argued, went hand in hand with his discovery of a similarly "good" undercurrent in Japanese art which was marginal but nevertheless periodically surfaced to challenge officially sanctioned art. He linked this alternative current to millennarian ideals, the impact of the 1923 Great Kantô Earthquake, to anarchism and Dadaism, and to the activities of artists like Dadakan and Okamoto Tarô at the time of the Osaka world exhibition in 1970. By the way, the combination of earthquakes and millennarianism in this list is not so strange as it might appear. I explain some of the millennarian connotations of earthquakes in Japan here.  
日本・現代・美術Originally, he had put forth the idea of Japan as a "bad place" in his acclaimed book Nihon Gendai Bijutsu (1997). Here he claimed that Japan was a "bad place" for art, a place where art had failed to take root since modern art, in the sense of an imported "Western" institution, was founded on a "forgetting" of its violent origins, namely in the asymmetrical relation between Japan and the "West" which it sought to emulate. The book achieved much of its resonance due to the fact that Sawaragi's discussion seemed to have wider implications that went far beyond the field of art. In fact, Sawaragi defines "bad place" in general terms as a place for forgetting and repetition. In terms that resemble the political scientist Maruyama Masao’s scathing portrayal of Japan in Nihon no shisô, Sawaragi describes post-war Japan itself as a "bad place" and "closed circle" where social problems are pointed out only to be forgotten, where no accumulation takes places no matter how much a problem is discussed or debated, and where forgotten problems continually reappear.

The conversation with Azuma and Kurose revolved around whether Japan was still a "bad place" today after the 3.11 disaster. Sawaragi states that Japanese art has become more globalized, with artists like Murakami and Nara Yoshitomo being active abroad. But after them, not much has happened. Therefore, he thinks that the “bad place” still remains in place, wholly unchanged – a fact that was thrown into relief after 3.11. The earthquake had shown that Japan was still a place of forgetting and repetition. The occasion for writing Nihon Gendai Bijutsu had been the Great Hanshin Awaji Earthquake in 1995, he states, but now, with the 3.11 diaster, Japan had been hit by an even bigger catastrophe (Sawaragi et al 2012:350f). 

Notable in this discussion is how closely Sawaragi links the notion of “bad place” to earthquakes. Postwar Japan, he states, was built on the premise that the earth would not shake. This was part of the "forgetting" that constituted Japan as a "bad place". That is a point that was ignored in museums and art institutions in the era of high growth, and now when the earth has started to shake those institutions are unable to respond (ibid. 369).

We can note, however, that the bleak picture is not total. Sawaragi does state that he sees some hope in Murakami Takashi's The 500 Arhats as well as in the guerilla antics of Chim↑Pom, a group of young artists that became famous in the aftermath of the Fukushima accident when they used the cover of night to alter Okamoto Tarô's mural Asu no shinwa (The Myth of Tomorrow) by adding three smouldering reactors in a corner of the mural.

Chim↑Pom's addition to Asu no shinwa, April 2011.
Near the end of the conversation (ibid. 365-370), Azuma starts an interesting discussion about whether art has any important role after the disaster. He himself doubts it. He quotes the Osaka mayor Hashimoto Tôru, who said that what is needed now is not art but rather entertainment (geinô) and comic performances (owarai). Sawaragi immediately objects, asking if people will really put up with mere entertainment after the disaster. Azuma replies that he can't agree to position that people in pain need art, not entertainment, adding provocatively that what people need can only be measured by the market. He also asks Sawaragi to clarify why he thinks there is any need for art. 

To this, Sawaragi replies that regardless of whether the necessity of art can be defined or not, art will always keep being born anyway. He then repeats that when people lose their children, their siblings or friends, art will be necessary to reach that "deeper dimension where souls are pacified and redeemed". Referring to The 500 Arhats, he states that Murakami produced the work for the sake of pacifying dead souls after the distaster. Azuma remains unconvinced, however, saying that he knows of no case of art really having saved a person and that the very notion of salvation has become hard to grasp today. He then criticizes Sawaragi for being inconsistent: wasn’t Sawaragi's idea of Japan as a “bad place” supposed to rest on the fact that art in Japan was a mere imported fashion without any real anchoring in society to begin with (ibid. 368)?

Murakami Takashi's The 500 Arhats
Azuma's criticism of Sawaragi appears to hit the mark. Why is Sawaragi so concerned with defending the necessity of art, when he himself claims that that Japan is a bad place where art can failed to take root? Is Japan not a "bad place" after all? To understand Sawaragi's position here, I believe we need to recall that after his discovery in 2003 of a "good place" on the street, he in fact no longer sees the "closed circle" as total and that he also recognizes a subterranean, alternative current of "good" art in Japan that is capable of disrupting the "forgetting" dominating official art.

So how does Sawaragi reply to Azuma's final criticism? He starts by saying that he thinks a crack has opened up in the bad place after the disaster (ibid. 368f). Here Azuma quickly inserts: “So the bad place has turned into a good place? I cannot be so optimistic”. Sawaragi continues that he's not at all saying that after the earthquake Japan has become a good place where everybody can appreciate art. But thanks to the repetition of disasters that require mourning and the pacification of souls, people are starting to recognize that this is a bad place (ibid. 369). By finally recognizing that Japan is a country of earthquakes, we also become more aware of the meaning that has been produced in response to disasters earlier in history (ibid. 370).

On the whole, I tend to side with Sawaragi in this debate. Surely art has been important is articulating experiences of the war or the atomic bombings in ways that might not have been possible in other ways. But I also believe that he can be criticized in part. As Kurose points out, nothing says that the function of mourning must be fulfilled by high art or contemporary art (ibid. 370). Sawaragi himself has argued earlier that experiences of WWII were better preserved in manga and pop culture than in art where sensitive subjects have often been taboo.

Furthermore, Sawaragi is indeed inconsistent in arguing both that the “bad place” is still in place unchanged (early part of the conversation) and that a crack has opened up in it (concluding part). Here Azuma's criticism is justified. To avoid it, Sawaragi would probably have to drop the idea that the "bad place" is intact. I also think it would have been far more helpful to readers if he had explained how he relates the present situation to that of the anti-war movement in 2003, when he claimed a “good place” had appeared on the streets. The "crack", in other words, existed already then and is not something he discovered after Fukushima. What gets lost in the conversation are the changes in his thinking, above all the change from Nihon Gendai Bijutsu where he tended to portray the "bad place" as a closed circle to works following his engagement in the anti-war movement (such as Kuroi taiyô to akai kani or Sensô to banpaku), where he discerns an alternative, subterranean current in Japanese tradition that tends to produce “good places” whenever it resurfaces. As I've argued above, this latter idea is needed to explain the views he puts forward in this conversation. The idea of a submerged or forgotten awareness of Japan as a land of earthquakes that resurfaces in the wake of disasters is similar to the idea of a subterranean millennarian-anarchistic-dadaistic current in art that periodically resurfaces to disrupt the dominant order. But adopting this view of Japan as consisting of two rival traditions also means that Japan can no longer be viewed as a wholly bad place. There is a good pulse beating below the surface.    

Finally, there is the objection that what people need after a disaster is neither art nor entertainment. They need food, shelter and other daily necessities. More generally speaking, the need for political action will almost certainly also be greater than the need for art. What is needed after a disaster is a new society in which the disaster will not be repeated. However, what Sawaragi calls art is not opposed to that. The art he champions - from Dadakan to Korosuna and Chim↑Pom - has always been indistinguishable from activism. His defence of art is, in the end, a defence of activism.


Sawaragi, Noi & Azuma, Hiroki & Kurose Yôhei (2012) “3.11 go no warui basho - Tôkyô”, in Azuma Hiroki (ed) Nihon 2.0, Shisō Chizu β vol. 3:346-374.  
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