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Son of LO
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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
Okay, I've finally thought out a topic..

I've been thinking about going to see Memoirs of a Geisha. I'm studying Japanese, and a lot of the people on my course have either seen the film or been interested in it.

The reason I'm probably not going to see it is that I've been told it's a rather ugly Orientalist fantasy.

But it's not really alone in this.. The Last Samurai may have been popular in Japan, but let's face it, even in it's reverence, it's a stupid, patronizing film which pedals cheesy ideas of the 'exotic' and the 'eastern.' The summarizing of Bushido into 'life in every breath' was almost hilariously bad, and reminded me, unfortunately, of the Karate Kid. There were the same tired stereotypes of egoless drones and primitive warrior ethics, and of course, a repressed, easily exploited asian trophy babe for Tom Cruise.. I'm sorry, I have trouble containing my dislike of that film.

And of course it's not just films, and not just Japan. I met a guy the other day selling a book which apparently contained all the profound mystical secrets of Indian philosophy. Suffice to say, I wasn't convinced.

Why, in this modern age of mass communication and cultural hegemony, do people still return to these wierd colonial ideas about the 'mysterious and the exotic?' Why do we have to refer to them in contrast to our own 'Western' lives, as if we were somehow the centre of the universe, with everything 'different' as an amusing curiosity.

In fact, am I being paranoid and making this up? Am I ignorant myself (I accept that to a large degree) and just talking about things I don't understand?

It's all up to you..
 

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Dawn Under Heaven
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No you aren't alone Mantis.

I remember my high school orientation days.

"Caaan...yoooo....speaak.....Eeengliish?"

"Alright, just f*** off mate."

I haven't got very strong features, just the the overbite and and slightly slanted eyes. That was Tasmania as early as 4 years ago. Evidently they didn't get out much and meet Asian people. There were so few Asian restruants that you could count them on your fingers. However it's picked up since then, there are shops selling raw and packaged Asian food as well as there are now numerous Asian cuisine restaurants and take aways.

I have the same sentiments about the Last Samurai and Memoirs of a Geisha. I recently watched an interview with a Geisha hairstyler. In the interview he said the people producing the movie had come to see him for advice, and then taken none of it.
 

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An interesting topic.

The_Giant_Mantis said:
Why, in this modern age of mass communication and cultural hegemony, do people still return to these wierd colonial ideas about the 'mysterious and the exotic?' Why do we have to refer to them in contrast to our own 'Western' lives, as if we were somehow the centre of the universe, with everything 'different' as an amusing curiosity.

In fact, am I being paranoid and making this up? Am I ignorant myself (I accept that to a large degree) and just talking about things I don't understand?

It's all up to you..
I've got a question for you then. Why are you studying Japanese? I'm willing to bet it has something to do with how different the culture is. I think you're being a bit too cynical saying that westerners consider themselves the centre of the universe. I'm sure this is the case for some (a throw back to the old colonial days I guess) but I would say they are now in the minority. I'm interested in Japan because its so different to us. I don't consider it an ''amusing curiosity'' but as a culture to learn from and experience. I would imagine that a lot of them feel the same way, there are alot of international students after all. Remember that our culture will seem very different to them too (yes even we are exotic to some ;))
 

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I'll tell you why. ( and this is why I'm convinced I was born in the only wrong time frame)

There are no frontiers, we've discovered all about this world without doing space and underwater to death. Thats what people want, new frontiers. Its boring as hell to just sit around and live your life. A movie that brings you away from your own reality is nice. Which brings to why Asian cultrue is used.

Most westerners understand western culture, duh. Most Westerners believe they understand muslim culture, you know all muslims are evil and only want to kill Christens. So we know all about Muslims. ;) But Asians. This is a totally different culture. Not many people even grasp how it works. SO naturally it becomes the exotic by defination. Therefore prone to use by the movies. So basically they slap an Asian facade on a bunch of western ideals and call it a movie about Asians. Se La Vive.
 

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I personally have not seen the movie, but have been told by family members that have that it is pretty good. Now, we are an asian family and one of the people that saw it was my grandfather. He is someone who wouldn't like a movie like Last Samurai, but he really liked Memoirs of a Geisha. Apparently they actually did something right, go figure :rolleyes: I heard it was quite like the book and was reaaaaaaally long. Something like almost 3 hours or something like that. So be prepared to sit on your ass for a while.
 

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Always Fabulous
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I agree with most of the points being raised, but I'd also like to point out (or second if this has been said already) that movies like The Last Samurai are entertaining first and historically accurate second. This is why we get such infamous controversies as the Greek lawyers who sued the makers of Alexander over their depiction of the great conquerer. On the other hand, some people are more intelligent than you give them credit for and are perfectly capable of distinguishing what goes on in the movie from real life. I, for one, have been lucky to get very little of the asian stereotyping nonsense apart from the occasional weird look when I start talking with an American accent. So inevitably, some peoples' perceptions are going to get colored by mass media to a certain extent. It's also important to point out that mass communication/globalisation != enhanced knowledge about the world. The means are there but it's up to people to discover for themselves what other cultures are like.
 

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Consumate professional
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As far as i understand there is a bit of trouble over the film for the decision to cast Chinese actors and actresses as Japanese characters, plus their decision to have it in english with an accent.
Personally if i want to see a film about China, Japan or Korea etc, i will watch an Asian film, those guys have a kick ass film industry, particularly the Japanese!
 

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Librarian from Hell
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I think this amazement about the more exotic parts of the world is due to how we look upon them.
When we are looking at our own civilization we are looking at it now, but when we are looking at countries like Japan we look at their history as well as their "now".
It is easier for us to see how the different "cultural-historical" trends in our own culture have come and gone, while the exotic east seems to be one everlasting culture, without such trends.
If someone has managed to keep their culture solid for such a long time (as we due to our ignorance think) they are bound to know things we do not.

But it might very well be some completely different...
 

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Son of LO
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Discussion Starter · #9 ·
impending slaughter said:
I've got a question for you then. Why are you studying Japanese? I'm willing to bet it has something to do with how different the culture is.
Hehe.. Talking about me, eh.. Dangerous ground indeed. ;)

But I guess you're partially correct, I got raised on the stereotypes, and I really bought into them once. I did used to see Eastern culture as exotic, I did once believe Buddhism was a different sort of religion to Christianity.. In fact, I bought into just about everything I'm railing against in this post.

But I did have the fortune of going to Japan before starting my course, and I realised that what really did throw me, and what I hadn't been expecting, was how similar everything was. I was expecting the exotic, and I got something different. I found a place where people lived ordinary, mundane lives.

So yeah, what interests me about Japan now? Well.. I guess it's probably mostly the fact that all the 'exotic' things don't really exist, in fact, they never existed. Japanese history is as comprehensable as Western history really. So I guess I want to know what does exist instead.
 

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It's pretty hard to remove orientalism from western culture, as it's a part of our mythos, our cultural narrative, dating back to medieaval times. One thing I find interesting is that many people who attack orientalism are more dangerous orientalists than the simpletons they accuse, if only for the fact that they are more articulate and intelligent. Instead of a "mysterious east" they buy into a post-colonial fantasy of eastern wisdom oppressed by western imperialism. To these people the old deacdent culture of the east is being exploited every day by the virile west.

Let my give an example. I recently read an article in the Australian National University student magazine written by a student of Japanese. The article was an attack on orientalism in western pop culture, where the author particularly singled out Gwen Stefani and her "harajuku girls." She claimed Stefani (and the US entertainment industry as a whole) exploited Japanese pop culture and reinforced negative steroetypes of Asian women and eastern mystery in general. She said Stefani was an orientalist, and that the music, fashion and movie industries exploited asia by "stealing their ideas." Take that, Quentin Tarantino!

I would reply with the assertion that the woman who wrote that article was herself an orientalist, of a far more subtle and dangerous nature. She felt the need to protect the poor defenceless Japanese from the big bad Americans who stomp in and steal their culture.

Her article made me really angry. :(( The Japanese are PEOPLE like you and me. They have jobs. Some of them are dancers, and working for Gwen Stefani is probably a good gig. I'm sure the harajuku girls are proud of their work like any other artist. Pop culture is constantly in flux, and influences travel in ALL directions. The peculiar stylization we call anime wouldn't exist without Walt Disney, and the Japanese creators freely acknowledge the debt they owe, as do people like Quentin Tarantino when they mention the asian movies they crib for thier latest project.

Gwen Stefani is a vapid pop singer with a temporary Japan fetish. The woman who wrote that article is an orientalist. I could just imagine intellectuals like her sitting on their porches in India during the Raj with a gin and tonic saying "We really have to look out for the fellows don't you know. Some people (meaning white people) are bloody unscrupulous and might exploit the poor buggers. I treat all MY natives like equals." It makes me sick. If Japanese artists feel exploited they'll bloody well say it, they don't need white people to protect them from other white people. They aren't children.

I think attempts to counter orientalism are more damaging than the surface stereotypes most people hold. Such attempts can only spring from a deep-seated sense of superiority and paternalism, whereas the orietalism displayed by the average person comes only from inexperience. It doesn't matter. Everyone in every society has prejudices about people from groups that are strange to them.

I'd rather the average Japanese person assumed I was an unintelligent crocodile wrestling surfer, then changed their mind when they met me, than have some Japanese professor build an elaborate justificaton for why I need the Japanese to defend me against the big bad world. How can you combat that? Plus at least the stereotype is sort of flattering (kind of like being a mysterious eastern sage...)

There has to be a way to combat orientalism without being paternal, and I think the best way is with banality. Don't take it all so seriously. If you get all worked up about it and go on a crusade then you are being paternalistic, and that's the truest form of orientalism.

Awesome topic by the way (Y) Australia has many many asian citizens and neighbours, and asia is a big part of our world down here. So we see the clash of steroetype with reality every day.
 

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What always surprises me is that poeple seem to think that this kind of thing only goes one way. That only western people see things in eastern culture and think they're cool and exotic and never the other way around. This is simply wrong, if you take a look at Japanese culture you will see words in english all over the place, in songs, in ads, on products, why? Because they think it's cool and exotic. This has also led to websites like www.engrish.com because the japanese have a tendency to get it totally wrong in humorous ways. I've often wondered if there was an equivalent site about western people using japanese wrong.

You said in your originaly post "Why do we have to refer to them in contrast to our own 'Western' lives, as if we were somehow the centre of the universe, with everything 'different' as an amusing curiosity." It's not that we think of ourselves as the centre of the universe, merely that their culture is different and therefore interesting to us, and vice versa. This strikes me as a very normal human reaction.
 

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Son of LO
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Discussion Starter · #12 · (Edited)
Thanks for making such interesting points, you guys.

@ Robotnik - Now that's a really intriguing response, and something I really hadn't considered before.

I mentioned that the Last Samurai was actually a popular film in Japan. This shows that, while I might think it's insulting, clearly a lot of Japanese people don't. Am I actually being culturally biggoted myself by assuming it's my role to be insulted on their behalf?

I don't know the answer, but you definately made me think and question my previous definitions and ideas.

@Xiahoi Dun (and others who made similar points, thanks all.) - Well said. We do often exagerate and play up national differences, regardless of where we're from. Perhaps, again, I'm being an orientalist myself by creating an artificial idea that somehow, when asian countries get stereotyped, it's different from other countries in the world.

But what I think I mean, above anything else, is that, in films like the last Samurai, and, or some I'm told, in Memoirs of a Geisha (heck, he does it in the book!) the creators aren't building a genuine idea of context.

Let me explain.. There are cultural differences, of course, between different countries. Noticing these is not, in itself, a problem. What is a problem is looking at them by reference, not to the society in which they developed and evolved, but by contrast to another country which is peripheral to their development.

In the last Samurai, for example, we're presented with an idea (a very fake one) of samurai culture, but what makes it an orientalist film, is that the director has chosen to present this culture to us by contrasting it with the attitude of soldiers in our own culture in a very contrived way. Even when samurai culture comes out as 'better' in the mind of Tom Cruise's character, we're not given any explanation as to why.. There's no context, there's no understanding of why this culture has evolved, or what it means, it's just indulging in the difference, and perpetuating this idea of 'exoticism.'

The same can be said of the book form of memoirs of a Geisha. Especially when the author tries to use a 'Japanese eye view' to tell us about our own society. It's this direct and irrelevant comparison, intended merely to display how 'different' everything is, which I think creates an orientalist piece of art, book or film.

The thing about the idea of 'the exotic' is that it can't survive being put in real context. Some things from Asia (I'm using Japan a lot I know, but it's what I know most about.. Please bring in other countries if you want) like manga or Japanese horror movies, for example, can be put in context with the west, because they are the result of a genuine exchange of ideas. I think what's annoying and uneccesary (for lack of a better term) is drawing irrelevant comparisons between cultures merely for the sake of emphasising the difference.

I don't even think it's a question of being offensive any more.. Robotnik has slightly put me off being offended about this. However, I do think it's bad art.
 

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I think I see what you are driving at. You are saying that it would be more constructive if artworks about the clash of cultures were predicated on the shared humanity of the characters rather than the stereotypical differences between cultures?

If this is what you mean, then what you are really asking is does art have a responsibility to enlighten, or are artists free to make artworks that pander to stereotypes and are aimed at the lowest common denominator just to make money?

This is a huge question, but I personally think artists should be able to make whatever they want for whatever reason. It's just that art made with the purpose of self-expression tends to be better in my estimation than art churned out for commercial success. Plus I think this mass market art is largely harmless.

Memoirs of a Geisha is an interesting case though. It is written by a white man affecting the character of Japanese woman, so even before we start talking about orientalism we should address the question of sexism. How can it possibly be a true representation of the world through the eyes of a female? At best it is an interesting exercise in seeing how closely a white man can understand the thought of a Japanese woman, in which case you'd have to be a Japanese woman yourself to get anything out of it. At worst it is, as you say, a hack work that capitalizes on orientalist fantasy.

I've never ben interested in reading it simply because I am a man myself and I know how men think women think. Likewise I know how I imagine a Japanese person thinks, and I consider that I cannot possibly be correct in these two imaginings. Neither can any other white man, so the author of Memoirs of a Geisha is no more qualified than I am to write that book.

I agree that much art could be made "better" by eliminating orientalism, but that would usually remove the very premise of the artwork. Things like "Kill Bill" are built around "mysterious east" stereotypes. That's what they are about, really. Take away the Hattori Hanzo sword and the Five Points Palm Exploding Heart Technique and there's nothing interesting about the movie. But as I said before I don't think this is harmful. People understand that it is fantasy, and if they don't what harm does it do?
 

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God's nutcase
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robotnik said:
People understand that it is fantasy, and if they don't what harm does it do?
That's where I find a problem with Orientalism and other such stereotypes; when it's presented as if it's not fantasy. The Last Samurai is a wonderful case in point: yes, Katsumoto did have an historical counterpart, Saigo Katamori, but it was presented as if Katsumoto was Saigo remade, which was rubbish. Saigo is documented as having a Western surgeon as a friend, but finding an enemy on the battlefield and taking him back wouldn't have been what he would have done, or so I guess. Yes, Saigo did leave Meiji's court, but it was because Meiji refused to invade Korea, not because of some concept of "honour of the samurai", who by that time were little more than drunken, gambling, feudally oppressive aristocrats who got their swords out every so often. The Imperial Army of Japan never lost a battle from its creation, despite the film's depiction of their loss to the samurai at the start of the film. The gatling gun wasn't exported to Japan, and the "treaty" (fictitious, I presume, I couldn't pinpoint it to any historical one) was never rejected.

It's a bastardization of history, and it's horrible. When people do think that such a portrayal is the reality is where the problems start. Admittedly the Last Samurai's "crimes against Orientals" aren't majorly insulting or whatever, it's the fact that it's a false portrayal that gets me; mystical Orientalism tends to be a misrepresentation of the facts of the particular case.
 
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