By way of the Frog in a Well blog, a funny and deeply trenchant item:
The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco has been targeted by an anonymous artistic and political intervention that parodies the current Lords of the Samurai exhibition with a well designed website and a series of pamphlets distributed in San Francisco. The website is worth exploring, and becomes particularly interesting when paired with an interview with the anonymous critics on the 8Asians website.
Something I should explore as time permits is how Japan's own cultural self-criticism has evolved over the past few decades; it's become less skeptical and more sentimental, something touched on in the "soft power" portion of the parody site.
Samurai cinema's one of the biggest examples of this. Before, we had movies like Seppuku and Kill!; even the "pure entertainment" products like the Sleepy Eyes of Death movies were trenchantly anti-samurai and anti-self-colonial. They were aware that the whole samurai thing was a construction, created by people to maintain and justify the power they wielded. At the far end of the spectrum, you had nihilistic productions like Shura and Double Suicide, where corrupt samurai ideas and romantic attachments to death had their mendacity exposed. Even Kurosawa's classics had a skeptical edge to them — his seven samurai were a ragged, mismatched bunch, leftovers from wars that didn't need them anymore (or in the case of the youngest and most naïve, someone who hadn't yet been chewed up and spit out by all that, and it showed).
Today, such full-frontal criticism has faded out and been replaced with period-picture sentimentality — e.g., When the Last Sword is Drawn, which more or less completely eschewed the politics of the Shinsengumi era for a more personal story. Isn't that like making a Vietnam War movie where the politics of the war are never once touched on? Not impossible, just willfully blind, especially given the nature of that particular war and what it meant for everyone in it?
Of the more recent productions in this vein, only a few seem remotely critical. Perennial contrarian Nagisa Oshima gave us Gohatto, which examined the Shinsengumi and the concept of "comradely love" through a jaundiced lens, but seemed to stop short of taking an actual stance on its material. The closest we get to that is with Ryuhei Matsuda's character, who openly admits towards the end of the film that his whole reason for enlisting in the Shinsengumi was to be given the right to kill. It's a critique of his character, but not of the institution that allowed such characters to foster and be given sanction. Maybe the criticism is just far enough under the surface so as not to scare people off — e.g., the final shot involving Takeshi Kitano and a cherry tree, which on reflection is even more cynical and ominous than I originally realized.
Even the more harmless-looking material makes me wonder — viz., Gin Tama, which again the more I think about it the more it seems like an expression of the same kind of "new soft power" thinking. Outwardly harmless, and probably not conceived by someone with that agenda, but what drives and provokes such expressions is worth examining in detail. That manga and its TV show spinoff found a massive audience in Japan for a reason, and not just because it's funny.
I'm sure I'll have more to say about this (including the self-reflexive mythology of Japan as a monoculture) in the future, especially with a whole slew of relevant stuff to review in the coming year.