Thursday 11 July 2002

Donald Richie’s visit

In the mid-eighties I stopped attending the Sydney Film Festival. The films had become increasingly earnest and didactic but the real reason was this: the audience made me ill. Smug, insular, awash with self-importance, they would cram into the beautiful old State Theater to gorge themselves on documentaries from Senegal and Ulan Bator and the latest piece of posturing from Peter Greenaway.

Years later, at a party, I insulted one of Natsuko’s friends—a Festival devotee—by saying that 80% of Sydney’s social problems could be solved by rigging the theater with plastic explosive one June and burying that audience in a pile of art-deco rubble.

But for two years, 1992 and 1994, I set aside my distaste and bought a Festival ticket. The critic and writer, Donald Richie, had curated two seasons of Japanese films.

Poster for Toyoda Shiro's Marital RelationsIn 1992, he presented ten post-war Japanese films including Yoshimura’s A Ball at the Anjo House, Kinoshita’s Morning for the Osone Family, Naruse’s Late Chrysanthemums, and Toyoda’s Marital Relations. Two years later, Richie showed ten Ozu movies including Late Spring, Early Summer, Early Spring, Late Autumn, and —of course—Tokyo Story.

Donald Richie would briefly introduce the film then take questions from the audience for fifteen or twenty minutes at the end. These sessions must have been painful for Richie for, despite the de rigeur Festival sensitivity to “other cultures,” most of the questions laid bare a view of Japan and the Japanese that could only have been drawn from the crudest of cultural stereotypes.

Still, he answered each question with warmth and generosity, revealing in his responses a depth of understanding and sympathy for Japanese society that added layer upon layer of meaning onto the film we’d just seen.

It was in one of these sessions that Donald Richie told the story about Ozu’s reaction to Disney’s Fantasia, a story that—because it was grounded in something the audience could understand (an American animated film)—was well received. Another story had that same audience squirming helplessly with discomfort and, in some cases, barely-repressed anger.

In response to a question about Japanese sexual mores, Richie had given the usual standardized response: since Christianity has repeatedly failed to take root in Japan, the Japanese are not moralistic or racked with guilt and shame about sex, which is regarded as just one of many human pleasures… then he suddenly launched into an anecdote about how an American acquaintance, visiting Tokyo, had asked Richie to take him to a Soapland, or brothel.

Richie explained that Japanese bath-and-massage parlors used to be called toruko-buro (or toruko), loan words based on “Turkish bath.” But in 1985, after a campaign by a Turkish diplomat outraged by the implied insult to his country, the Japanese Bath Association held a competition to find a replacement name. The winner was sopurando, Soapland, and so the Turkish Baths closed down and immediately reopened as Soaplands.

To the increasing dismay of the audience—who were beginning to wonder where the distinguished guest was taking them—Richie said that although he’d not been to a Soapland, he felt an obligation to his visitor and had called a Japanese friend to obtain an introduction to an appropriate Soapland in Senzoku.

He and the visitor had probably taken the Yamanote line to Ueno and changed to the Hibiya line for the two-stop ride to Minowa. Five minutes later a cab deposited them at their destination. Richie, determined to give the outing a cultural gloss, had chosen the Senzoku district since, for over three hundred years until 1958, it had been the site of the Yoshiwara pleasure quarter, the heartland of Japanese prostitution.

Inside the Soapland they discovered their arrival had been eagerly anticipated—perhaps his Japanese friend had mentioned that Richie was an important interpreter of Japanese culture to the West. The visiting American quickly chose a Soap-Lady, the pair disappeared upstairs, and Richie—who’d had no intention of partaking himself—sat down in the waiting room and began to watch TV.

However it soon became apparent that his reluctance was being misconstrued as disappointment or dissatisfaction and so, rather than risk insulting the owner and his staff and causing embarrassment to the friend who’d introduced him, Richie found himself in a large tiled bathroom handing his clothes to an attractive Soap-Lady.

At this point I became aware of a rift in my attention; for some time I had been simultaneously captivated by Richie’s anecdote and intrigued by the audience’s unmistakably hostile response. Even though, apart from mentioning that the Soap-Lady had commented favorably on his tie and that he felt like he’d been placed in the care of an exceptionally competent nurse, Richie refrained from revealing the specifics of his Soapland adventure.

But for the majority of his listeners he had already said far too much. The forced atmosphere seemed to choke off any further questions and soon the audience was filing out, a restrained silence replacing the excited chatter that followed most screenings.

At first I interpreted this incident as evidence of how completely Richie had internalized and adopted Japanese attitudes towards sex; that he’d been unconscious, to some degree at least, of the negativity radiating from the tight-lipped crowd.

But since Richie’s writing—about Japanese film and culture—displays an acute sensitivity to emotional nuance, I couldn’t believe he hadn’t picked up on their antagonism. Perhaps, I told myself, he’d decided there was no easy way to extricate himself and that he’d best press on.

Lately, however, I’ve started to wonder if his answer hadn’t been deliberate, sophisticated, and slyly malicious. I’d like to think he’d summed up his audience quite early in the season and that—following the old screenwriter’s adage of “show, don’t tell”—he’d taken advantage of their cramped moralism to demonstrate that the Japanese really are quite different. It’s just that the Festival crowd were too strait-laced, dogmatic, and stupid to understand.

As for me, I’d never been to a Soapland, but now I could hardly wait.

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Australians, cosmopolitan and otherwise, have always been a source of fascination to me in their ability to unselfconsciously encompass the vulgar or profane while still clinging to the kind of Victorian prudery that reigns still in Canada. The sad, wan juicelessness of King's Cross, one of the most pathetically safe and uninteresting (if nonetheless drug-riddled) excuses for a 'red-light district' I've ever explored, is testament to that. But at the same time, there is an openness about sex and sexuality that is entirely unlike North America - the Mardi Gras parade is testament to that.

Fascinating, but difficult to understand, for this Canuck, at least.

Also : Christianity took root in a big way here in Korea, and it's fucked them up, badly. Horrible swelling buboes, spawned of deep conflicts in the heart of what it means to be Korean, in part from the malign influence of the church, daily continue to rise to the surface and burst.

Interesting, if unpleasant, to watch.

Posted by stavrosthewonderchicken on 10 July 2002 (Comment Permalink)

I was surprised to read that an audience that must consider itself to be urbane and sophisticated, would be uncomfortable about what sounds to be an enjoyable anecdote.

Though the group must consider itself intellectually replete, they sound to be sensually bankrupt as well as morally repressed.

What a loss for them.

Posted by Burningbird on 11 July 2002 (Comment Permalink)

That's a great story. I'm afraid to ask if you ever did make it to Soapland. I've never been, but I have at least one friend who has visited. Just for scientific reasons, of course :)

Posted by Will Leshner on 11 July 2002 (Comment Permalink)

I don't mean to be a whiner, as I do completely agree that the Japanese approach to sexuality is quite different from the standard Western mixture of guilt and transgressive thrill...

Still, it's worth noting that the floating world ethos was and is entirely oriented toward men. There is no equivalent Soapland for women.

I'm not saying that, in their private lives, Japanese men and women may not negotiate a sexuality that is equally interested in both party's pleasure. But the culture as a whole, as in the West, in certainly not organized to provide for female sexual joy.

Posted by Pascale Soleil on 11 July 2002 (Comment Permalink)

It is an interesting issue that you raise, but I'd have to do some research to convince myself that you are right. I do think that things are not that simple. It is certainly not the case that Japan is a man's world. That's a myth. I think there is also a myth that's pretty common that women in Japan are submissive. That is simply not true.

An interesting fact that may or may not have anything to do with this topic is that there are a number of manga that deal fairly explicitly with sexuality in Japan, and many, if not most, of them are drawn by women. Perhaps they are just mimicing what is in their culture. But somehow I think that an oversimplification.

Posted by Will Leshner on 11 July 2002 (Comment Permalink)

I expect that, though he may indeed have been wryly digging at the unexamined mores of his audience, Richie may have also just been displaying the honesty and humanity so prevalent in his work: there are passages in The Inland Sea about his loneliness and longing to be touched that are among the most frank, honest, and beautiful words I've ever read. He announces in a quiet way, 'I'm human, I want to be loved, and I'm looking for someone to do it... think whatever you will.'

There was a film version of The Inland Sea made a few years ago, for an anniversary, and as Richie read those passages over footage of a woman's profile in the window of a moving boat as she stares to sea (like the cover of a 60s jazz album), I almost started crying. It's stayed with me several years now, and I can still hear that distinctive voice of his reading the lines. I only wish I had my copy of the book at hand to find the passage.

Posted by steve on 11 July 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Stavros, you're dead right about Kings Cross. I lived in nearby Darlinghurst for a few years but eventually had to flee the "sad, wan juicelessness" you so accurately describe. Pity about the Koreans and Christianity -- one of the most wonderful things about the Japanese is that their commitment to "religion" is so wafer thin.

Bb, you've hit the nail on the head. I'd love to have blown them all to smithereens.

Will, I do have another Soapland story, which will have to wait for another occasion.

Pascale, while I won't deny that the Japanese prostitution business is entirely oriented towards men, the Japanese prostitutes I've met -- perhaps as a direct consequence of Japanese sexual mores -- have been simultaneously realistic yet relaxed about their profession. And there are clubs in Ginza and elsewhere that are certainly organized to provide for female sexual joy.

Steve, my copy of The Inland Sea has disappeared but I recall the scene in the film. It was, as you say, heartbreakingly beautiful.

Posted by Jonathon Delacour on 11 July 2002 (Comment Permalink)

I did some research into female sexuality in Japan (which means I asked my wife :) ) and found out that there is now a female version of Soapland, though it isn't as popular as the male version. That's kind of what I suspected. I figured the lack of a female Soapland was more for business reasons than anything else.

My wife also told me that, though it is not as popular anymore, a few years ago it was very popular for women (and girls, in some cases) to have sex for money. That's just prostitution, right? But my wife disagrees. These women didn't need the money. They just did it for fun. They liked the sex and they didn't mind have some extra spending money.

One last really scary thing my wife told me. HIV and AIDS is becoming a silent epidemic in Japan. Nobody talks about it but many young people now have it. It isn't taken seriously and it isn't discussed. Apparently, many people view it as not much more than having a permanent cold. Very scary.

Posted by Will Leshner on 12 July 2002 (Comment Permalink)

[Removed (off-topic)]

Posted by luap on 3 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour