Rigid Japanese culture like “communism pretending to be capitalism”, says documentary maker Sean McAllister

20-03-2009

One of the biggest hits with audiences at the One World film festival, which came to a close in Prague on Thursday night, was Japan: A Story of Love and Hate. It is a portrait of a non-conformist, fifty-something ‘kept man’ whose much younger girlfriend holds down three jobs, including being paid to talk to men in bars. While very funny, the documentary also offers a fascinating insight into Japan’s rigid culture, including scenes of workers whose day begins with obligatory exercises and chants about achieving targets. I asked its English director Sean McAllister if it had been hard as a westerner to come to grips with Japanese culture.

“Very hard, yes. It was like making a film on the moon.’

Why do you say that?

“Just everything is completely different. I know it’s a cliché to say that, but…from the road signs to the way the way they act and behave. I don’t know, we’re just so different.”

You compare Japan to communism, or you said it was like communism pretending to be capitalism – what do you mean by that?

“I suppose that kind of controlled society, where under communism people weren’t free…in the same way that this is the most ultra-capitalist society, that they’re not free, in the pursuit of making vast amounts of money. The irony is that the characters in the film have no money!”

The main character in the film, Naoki, seems to be quite different from other Japanese. He’s non-conformist, he’s very funny, he uses bad language – how unusual was he?

“[laughs] That was fundamentally…you never, ever, ever meet a Japanese person that swears. He’s exceptionally unusual! I think that’s what you need to make a film, really…When you saw the exercise sequence, that was Japan. That’s what I’m dealing with to try and make sense of the bloody place.”

You were saying at the screening that people in Japan reacted negatively to Naoki in the film.

“Yeah. In their eyes he’s not a shining example of what is good about Japan. He’s a loser in the eyes of the Japanese…hanging your dirty washing out for the public to see is disgraceful, its shameful in that culture, he brought shame on himself and his country and his people. He’s sponging off a woman. He’s a very negative image of modern Japan. But I think he’s a hero, of Japan, and they don’t appreciate him. The sooner they open their eyes and get real, the better for the lot of them. And maybe they’ll stop killing themselves a hundred a day.”

Japan: A Story of Love and Hate lost out in the main competition to Below Sea Level by the Italian director Gianfranco Rosi, who picked up the best picture award at a closing ceremony in Prague’s Lucerna on Thursday night. The best director prize went to the Czech Republic’s Jana Ševčíková for Gyumri, about life in an Armenian city 20 years after it was devastated by an earthquake. The One World festival of human rights documentaries now moves on to over two dozen other Czech towns and cities.

20-03-2009