It isn’t often when a film production company is itself a story about how Japan is dealing with cross-cultural issues and its future. There are films, of course, that deal with such subjects and some production companies form just to make such films. But Tokyo Cowboys is probably the only multilingual and multicultural film production company that specializes in cross-cultural entertainment and tells stories in a short film format that are distinctively Japanese.
Reading my first paragraph, I suppose that you might be thinking Tokyo Cowboys produce documentary films. Although the TCs do make films rooted in contemporary Tokyo realities, they are not documentaries. Still, there seems to be – from the first two films of four scheduled for this year – something akin to social commentary in their depictions of an international Japan.
The TCs first film is “Sure Thing,” also called “Bill & Betty” in Japanese. This short film runs roughly 20 minutes and is an adaptation of a western love story, set in a café in Tokyo. The story itself is simple, a couple meet in a café when Bill (Chris McCombs) asks to share a seat with Betty (Camilla Ståhl) because it is unusually crowded. The whole film seems likely only because the two are in a café in Japan. I would find the whole encounter much less likely between two Japanese characters or if the film were set in Paris.
The TCs second film, “Nopperabou,” is impressive, for a number of reasons. First, it is a wonderful adaptation of a legendary Japanese ghost story. In fact, the screenplay was written by the TCs based on a Japanese graded reader, which makes a small cameo appearance in the film. (A representative of the NPO that makes these readers was at the movie screening, with her books.) Second, the film deals directly with some very interesting bicultural themes, especially the loneliness and strangeness many foreigners experience in their first visit to Japan. But most of all, the film shows great progress of the cast and crew between the first two films, produced less than 6 months apart.
I saw both films on March 14, 2015 at the Baroque Café, located in Asagaya Anime Street. The Baroque Café itself is a Fantastic venue, with 20 comfortable ergonomic chairs equipped with personal speakers. The seats have drink holders, too, so you can sip a coffee or other beverage while watching the movie in what feels like a Recaro seat fro a sports car in a large living room.
The TCs self-funded these films, too, with a combination of personal investment, family and friends, and crowdfunding. After self-funding Bill & Betty – definitely not a “Sure Thing,” – they were able to crowdfund Nopperabou on Japan’s Green Funding and Kickstarter in the U.S. It seems that not only have the TCs struck a chord with an audience in Japan, but also that there is a growing interest online in cross-cultural entertainment.
For me, this is not a complete surprise. There are many of us who have lived in multicultural and multilingual environments throughout our lives. We are not completely “Lost in Translation.” In fact, we aren’t afraid of being lost once in awhile. We also feel that the translations made by those unfamiliar with the other cultures and languages tend to miss something important, the something special which makes us happy to call another place “home.” Being put a little off kilter, feeling our of place, but then making our way to a feeling of understanding – these are shifts that we multi-nationals are comfortable with.
Japan is still known for its relative homogeneity. It still has a lack of empathy for the outsider’s perspective. This can, of course, be a part of the mystery and the joy of discovery. Sometimes it can feel like one has become accepted into a wealth of knowledge that is parted only to the insider. But really, Japan is changing. It must. It always has, in fact, absorbed many things from the outside. It makes these things seem somehow native. But like the whole of the world in this Internet and mobile communications era, the speed and the interactions will profoundly affect us all – even in Japan. In fact, perhaps, especially in a nation as different from the west as Japan.
I know that bilingual entertainment isn’t going to win everyone’s hearts and minds. It’s a niche market – but it’s also growing. And Japan will continue to start thinking about how it will grow up, too, with more and more non-Japanese residents and inter-racial, inter-ethnic, inter-cultural, and multi-lingual kids. How will Japan and average Japanese see their world? How will they see Japan? What will happen when the salad bowl ends up moving from the metropolis and into the villages?
Perhaps Tokyo Cowboys will point some of them in a good direction. It may help people to see the world through a different lens. With a bit of humor. And pride. It is, I think, likely to be entertaining. I’m looking forward to the 3rd and 4th films, which the TCs promise will come later in 2015. If you’re one of us – loving the interactions and exchanges that happen when cultures and people collide, giving us a sense of perspective and a reason to explore the unknown – then you’ll agree, “Sure thing!”
Mike Kato is a third-generation Japanese American, living now in Japan for nearly 30 years. He grew up in East Los Angeles, went to secondary schools in the San Fernando Valley, and university in the San Francisco Bay Area. Living in each of these places in California gave Mike a very multilingual and multicultural perspective, though none of it really prepared him for the culture shock of living in Japan for the first time in 1987. The land of his heritage was not, in many ways, anything he had expected. Still, after experiencing the Bubble Era, the lost decade(s), the IT Bubble years, 3.11 and its aftershock, Mike has learned to call Japan his "home." With his wife of 25 years, Mike is the father of a tween and a teen – both boys – giving him ample source of inspiration and exasperation. Thankfully, he is inspired by the potential for a multicultural future in Japan, which at once preserves many important traditions and challenges itself and the world to be more fair, understanding, thoughtful, sustainable, and peaceful. He has been president of a small company, Japanese Greats Co., Ltd., working to bring great things from Japan to other places throughout the world.
Tokyo Cowboys: http://www.tokyo-cowboys.com/
Sure Thing: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sure_Thing_(play)
Japanese graded reader: http://tadoku.org/teachers/order
Baroque Café: https://bq-club.jp/
Asagaya Anime Street: http://www.jrtk.jp/asagaya-anime-street/
Green Funding: https://greenfunding.jp/
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