Monday, September 15, 2003

On five star Tokyo hotels, expense accounts, Japanese popular culture, dislocation, art house movies, and Just how good is Sofia Coppola?

In early 2000 I spent a month in Tokyo at the expense of the investment bank for which I was then working. This was the moment when certain parts of the global economy were going quietly mad with the irrational exuberence of it all, and I thus got to spend a month living in the Okura, a five star Tokyo Hotel. This is a famous hotel rather than a modern business hotel, (although it has all the features of a modern business hotel) and it is popular with famous people as well as businessmen. The hotel is just across the road from the US embassy, and the entire wing of the hotel I was staying in had been taken over by Bill Clinton's entourage on his trip to Tokyo the year before. If I had chosen to stay in a more modern hotel, the rooms would have been bigger but the character of the establishment would have been less. And as it was, the character of the establishment was such that on one evening I found myself sitting in the bar having a whisky with Liam and Noel Gallagher at the next table. On another occasion, I was passing through the lobby one morning and I found the hotel staff laying out a red carpet. I was intrigued by this so I waited for a minute or two, and William Cohen, then American Defence Secretary, walked into the hotel. I was no more than a few metres from the guy. I assume that there were a couple of Secret Service agents handy, but he didn't seem all that well defended. If I had had a gun...... Actually, let's not go there. Somewhat amazingly, I was a few metres from the US Defence Secretary. I cannot imagine anyone like me would get that close to Donald Rumsfeld these days.

In any event, despite the hotel's tendency to host American cabinet secretaries, the television in my hotel room had only three channels in English, and these were CNN, CNBC and BBC World. And frankly, there is only so much news that you can take and stay sane. Japanese television is bizarre and incomprehensible, and is fun to watch for a while even if you can't understand it, but only for a while. The hotel did have for pay movie channels, but I was not allowed to watch these. This was due to what might be described as the "porn problem". Almost all hotels everywhere now offer pornographic movies along with Hollywood movies. As hotel bills have to be dealt with on expense accounts, the movie is normally not named on the hotel bill. However, knowing this fact, and being terrified of sexual harrasment lawsuits, my company simply banned the watching of for pay movies of any kind in hotel rooms they were paying for to ensure that there was no way they were paying for porn. (This wasn't about the money: they had no problem with my drinking $13 whiskies at their expense in the hotel bar). The trouble with this was that I didn't want to watch pornography. I just wanted to watch something vaguely entertaining to prevent me from being bored shitless. Arnold blowing things up would have been just great. A television channel showing old episodes of Friends would have been good. But there was nothing.

But in the end I could cope. For one thing, my number one rule in life is "always bring a book". and I had brought half a dozen, so I got some reading done. For another, I did have one of the greatest cities in the world to explore. For a third, while I couldn't watch movies in my hotel room I could go and watch movies in the cinema. While some parts of Japanese popular culture exist in a different universe from that of the rest of the world, cinema does not, at least not completely. Although there are many Japanese films made and shown, Hollywood is dominant there like anywhere else and there was no trouble seeing American movies in English (with Japanese subtitles I couldn't understand). Tickets were very expensive. At the time they were 1800 Yen, which was equivalent to about $27 Australian dollars and about $US16. However, as I was on expense account for everything else I could certainly afford a movie or two even at this price.

And I explored Tokyo. Like London, Tokyo is not so much a city as a group of villages that grew together in a single metropolis. Like London, it does not have a single centre as much as a large number of different centres, each of which has its own people, culture and mood. Of these large centres, I found Shibuya to be the most fun. This is an area catering mostly to people under 30. There are Times Square like video screens, and seven story shops selling all manner of DVDs, CDs and video games, with bowling alleys lit in fluorescent blue on the top floor. Video game arcades hide down small alleys. Immense stores sell fashion items catering to incomprehensible teenage trends. Teenage girls wear enormous and ridiculous platform shoes. It's the modern, post-modern and post-post-modern city all together. I liked it. (I also found the best English language bookstore in Tokyo - at least in terms of catering for youngish expatriates - on the seventh floor of a Tower Records outlet in this area, so I spent a little time there too).

And one other thing that exists in Shibuya is movie theatres. The district contains twenty or thirty of these: little cinemas with one or two screens showing arthouse movies. These are often American arthouse movies, and they are the same arthouse movies that you see in the rest of the world.

Except that in a way they are not. There is a joke in the music world about being "Big in Japan". Some musician who is down on his luck in the west will say that it is okay because he is "Big in Japan". Japan is such a huge and lucrative market that to be big there is clearly a good thing and is incredibly lucrative, and many western musicians clearly are big in Japan, but the disconnection between that and the rest of the pop-cultural world is such that they are often not the same acts that are big in the west, and it is difficult for anybody else to actually know whether this claim of bigness in Japan is actually true. And this extends into other media, in odd and unpredictable ways. Prince Edward Island in Canada gets enormous numbers of Japanese tourists due to Japan's extraordinary Anne of Green Gables cult.

Sometimes western celebrities who genuinely are "big in Japan" will go there to take financial advantage of this by filming declasse commercials in Japan, getting paid a lot for this, and then assuming that nobody back at home will see them. Harrison Ford has done this. Leonardo Decaprio has done this. In the world of sport, David Beckham seems to have made this his principal career.

If a film is a big hit in the US, then it will almost certainly be a big hit in the UK, and in France, and for that matter in most of Asia. However, Japan has its own rules. Sometimes a film that is not a hit in the rest of the world will be a huge hit in Japan. Sometimes the reverse will happen.

And this is also true for arthouse movies. Japan has its own taste. The little cinemas in Shibuya are the key to all this. Films will open on one screen in Shibuya, and this will often be the only place in Japan that they are playing. They will stay on that one screen for as long as they are doing good business. This can be many months. Because ticket prices are very high, and there are more than thirty million people in greater Tokyo, a film that becomes a big hit in this environment can make a great deal of money from it. It is not unheard of for small arthouse films that the Japanese for some reason decide to be partial to to gross five million dollars or more on one screen in Shibuya.

And when I was in Tokyo in 2000, one movie was making a huge stir. This film was The Virgin Suicides, the feature film directorial debut of Sofia Coppola. Coppola was (and outside Japan possibly still is) most famous for having been cast by her father Francis Ford Coppola in the part of Mary Corleone in The Godfather Part 3 (1990) when Winona Ryder dropped out of the production. Sofia Coppola's performance in that movie was savaged by critics. I saw the film when it came out, and at the time I thought she was criticised a little unfairly. She wasn't brilliant, but she wasn't terrible either, and it was a case of kicking perceived nepotism. If someone that nobody had ever heard of put in the same performance, then it would have received little comment. At least, that is what I felt in 1990. Perhaps I should watch the film again and see if I still feel that way.

In any event, most of us heard little of Sofia Coppola again until 1999, when The Virgin Suicides showed at a few festivals. This was based on the novel of the same name by Jeffrey Eugenides, and was a dreamy piece about adolescence and suburbia and the question of whether adult life is something worth passing into. (The female protagonists of the movie decide that the answer is no). And it was really a good film. It was one of those films where you remember the music (by Air, mostly), too.

The Virgin Suicides was generally well received, but there was still quite a bit of sniping about the advantages that Sofia Coppola got through being the daughter of Francis. It was said that she wouldn't otherwise have been able to raise the money to get the film made, or to have got Kathleen Turner and James Woods and Danny DeVito to play parts in the film without being a Coppola. (The adolescent leads in the film were played by Josh Hartnett and Kirsten Dunst, who would both be very difficult to get now but who were no doubt easier to get then. Coppola's judgement in casting them was good). The nastiest of the sniping suggested that Coppola had been "helped out" by her director/actor husband Spike Jonze, most famous as the director of Being John Malkovich. This wasn't fair, as Coppola's movie had a very different tone and feel to any of his. While it would certainly be much harder for me to get a first film made than it was for Sofia Coppola, the principal reason for this is that as a Coppola she knew lots of people who could help her and I don't. And apparently she was very persistent until they did help her. (This applied equally well to her husband, though, who had access to the same networks that she did, and he didn't receive any grief from critics for it).

In aggregate, though, the film was well received. It was a good piece of work, and pretty much everyone knew it. But, it still wasn't a huge hit, grossing $4.8 million in the US.

However, when I visited Tokyo in early 2000, I discovered that its impact was enormous. Virtually every CD and DVD store in Shibuya had the soundtrack of the film in large displays in pride of place at the front of the store. The film opened on its one screen in Shibuya, and then played for months and months and months and months. The film grossed more on that one screen in Shibuya than it did in the United States. One can only assume that when this happened, Sofia Coppola spend a lot of time in Tokyo, doing publicity, being interviewed, making appearances, wandering through that exquisitely weird world of high end Tokyo hotels and popular culture, which foreigners are always half excluded from and in any event cannot fully participate in due to not understanding the language.

Which is why it is very interesting to look at the description of Sofia Coppola's new film, Lost in Translation that was released in the US last week. It is the story of a jaded American film star, played by Bill Murray, who goes to Japan to film a series of whiskey commercials for which he has been paid a large sum of money. In parallel, there is an entire world of rather inscrutible Japaneseness going on simultaneously. He meets a young woman (played by Scarlett Johansson) who is in Tokyo with her fashion photographer husband and who has been left on the sidelines in a hotel bar, and they share one another's loneliness and move through that strangely dislocated Tokyo world together.

Or that's how the movie has been described. I haven't myself seen it yet. (Heaven knows when I will. An Australian release is scheduled for December 26, and I can find no information about a British release. Even Shibuya isn't going to see it until next year, and although there is actually some possibility I will spend a short time in Shibuya in the next couple of months this won't help).

Critics seem to have got over any need to snipe and Sofia Coppola, and if there is any pattern at all, it is now the opposite. The film has been received rapturously. Coppola is being described as potentially a great film-maker. A couple of weeks ago the New York Times magazine put her on the cover and ran a lengthy profile in the magazine. (Unfortunately this is now behind a for pay wall so I can't link to it). This was a kind piece, and revealed that yes, she is very well connected in the industry and that this has helped her get her films made, and that she is sometimes very persistent (which was necessary to get Bill Murray to commit to this film). However, she is very smart and talented, and is apparently sensitive to the feelings of people around her and most people like her.

However, this profile missed a point that all the subsequent critics are missing too. Which is that Sofia Coppola is herself really big in Japan. In a sense this new film is about the reception of her last film there. However, bigness in Japan doesn't really carry into the west, even when it leads a film-maker to make her next film about that very subject. Japan is like that, and round and round we go.

And one other thing that is clear just from looking at the trailer for Lost in Translation is that Sofia Coppola gets just how magnificently cinematic Tokyo is. For some reason the city hasn't been used as a location for many American films. Perhaps this is that filming there is too expensive. Perhaps this is that it is culturally just a little too weird. Perhaps the sorts of people who run Hollywood just haven't been there. (It isn't just that the city is Asian: Hollywood has repeatedly set films in Hong Kong). The little details of the city are just extraordinarily interesting, and to an observant eye could make an amazing film. (Cyberpunk author William Gibson, who loves describing places in great detail, finds himself endlessly setting his rather cinematic books in the city, perhaps for this reason). Which maybe is what Sofia Coppola has done.

I'm certainly looking forward to seeing what she has done.

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