The king of Cambodia has a website.

But his deliciously tacky homepage is not just some static compilation of pictures and bland official communications: it features a message-board regularly updated (sometimes more than once a day) with notes handwritten by his majesty the king himself addressing various issues of both national and international policies. This low-tech (when I say “handwritten”, I really mean handwritten; as in “written on paper and scanned as is”) blog immediately made me wonder if I was in presence of some elaborate prank or mildly funny parody. But after careful reading and apt googling, the whole thing definitely seems legit. The question of whether these posts are genuinely his or just the work of some random office hack (as seems to be the trend with most western politician “blogs”) is a very quickly answered one too: the sheer candor of tone as well as the numerous corrections made on the original paper notes (text stroked out, paragraphs inserted in the margins) make it obvious that, while probably carefully thought of, these notes are nowhere near the sanitized professional-looking work a communication counselor would come up with. The notes are written in a flawless though sometimes slightly formulaic French, as Cambodia used to be a French colony and the king has received a French education both in Cambodia and France according to his biography.

From the notes, and although I must say I know close to nothing of the inner working of Cambodian politics for the past few decades (except that is, for the infamous Khmer Rouges and Pol Pot inhuman reign of terror), the man seems to be a rather nice, open-minded chap with progressive positions and opinions on a wide array of topics.

The site really reads like a weblog, with its fair share of “check this out” entries, that point to magazine articles and news-clippings usually scanned along with the note, replies to miscellaneous fanmail and typical “what I did today” entries, occasionally followed by discussions on much more serious topics (such as giving a proper burying to the hundred of thousands of people murdered by the Khmer Rouges and dumped in mass graves).

Which takes us to one of his later and widely publicized entry: a comment on Gay Marriage!

Now, call me prejudiced, but I would certainly not have expected a respectable 80 year-old monarch of a south-east Asian country to voice an opinion on such a contemporary issue in his personal tribune. And I must make a confession: the horribly misinformed patronizing westerner that I am, definitely was under some vague but deeply rooted impression that a country like Cambodia, given its recent history and the political climate of its neighbours, had to be somewhat lacking in the field of personal liberties, let alone personal liberties of sexual minorities… Well, it seems like it’s not in such a bad shape compared to the glorious god-fearing US of A. Actually, if they are to be judged by the positions of their respective leaders, it would seem like Cambodian are a few miles ahead of American, as far as entitlement to the pursuit of happiness is concerned:

I hope to have some time later today to put up an actual transcription and translation of the original text, but in a nutshell, His Majesty Norodom Sihanouk explains that, though he is not gay himself (and incidentally, thanks God for it), he still thinks gay and lesbians should receive the right to marry whomever they want and be considered with the same respect as any other human being in this regard. He also mention the cause of transexual and transgenders, who should be “accepted and well treated in our society”. Even though I think it’s important to mention that his tone is not one of beatific embrace of gay culture: he does make a few comments that most gay militants would probably consider disparaging, he holds an unequivocal position of acceptance and defense of personal freedom that prompts for immediate respect.

Lastly, after receiving what was most obviously some typical piece of empty-headed American bible-thumping conservative hate-mail, he posted a short yet thoughtful reply in English reiterating his position in lights of his Buddhist beliefs of compassion and acceptance…

Wouldn’t there be any way for Dubya to somehow, one day, by some incredible miracle, drop some of his rancid hate-spiked distorted Christian version of “compassion” (the same compassion that probably prompted him to execute the highest number of inmates in recent US history)… and trade it for a tiny bit of Buddhist wisdom?

In order to keep up with this world’s latest trends, and think global while acting local and eating very local (gyosa with natto and pasta at lunch, to be exact), I regularly go on an extensive browsing and skimming of that mythical “blogosphere” I’ve been reading about in hip media (the same that used to tell me how was gonna “revolutionize the way I was buying balls online” etc). From my entirely unscientific study sample, it seems one of the latest question on every bloger’s mind is whether Sofia Coppola’s last movie is very racist, kind of racist or not so racist. Even our dear froggy blogers seem to take a keen interest in this burning issue.

The movie, according to its detractors, greatly harms the US Asian population by perpetuating negative stereotypes about Japanese people…

Indeed, as most pointed out, and from what I remember, it does feature:

  1. Overly polite Japanese business people who bow every 30 seconds
  2. Wacky TV show hosts that go out of their way looking utterly ridiculous, shooting for the lowest common denominator’s type of humor, while more or less humiliating their guests all along.
  3. Japanese people unable to tell apart L’s and R’s for the life of them, making way for all kind of crazy misunderstanding and wacky situations.
  4. Fading american actors paid a hefty sum to advertise the merits of Suntory Whisky to the japanese masses…
  5. Horny young chaps who like to get “private dance lessons” from pretty long-legged ladies…
  6. Same young chaps, always ready to massacre a drunk rendition of old american classics at 3am in one of the countless karaoke bars cluttering the city…

And probably countless other examples…

Now, are there any truth in these stereotypical scenes and descriptions?

Hell yea!

I seriously suspect that some of the people throwing rather bold accusations of racism (explicit or “submerged”, as some contend) against Sofia Coppola do not have a fraction of her knowledge of Japan. Actually, it is pretty safe to assume they have close to no first-hand knowledge of contemporary Japanese culture. Otherwise, they might have realized how, in a lot of aspects, the “stereotypes” they loudly decry in the movie are, in fact, very much actual – watered-down – traits of Japanese culture…

Let’s take a quick look at the aforementioned points, shall we:

1) Overzealous politeness and incessant bowing is not a myth: ask anybody who’s ever had a business relationship with a typical Japanese company. Not that this is actually something the movie or I would think about criticizing. It is simply a part of Japanese life and common business practice as much as shaking hands is in a western country.

2) Preposterous TV shows featuring excruciatingly annoying hosts: I mean, come on, have you watched any Japanese TV lately??? In comparison, the slightly doppy host in LiT is a model of professionalism.
Update: Actually, my bad. The show host featured in LiT is a real Japanese TV show host (can you tell I never watch TV). I saw a few bits of his show, and can tell you he really toned it down for the movie.

3) One word: Engrish

4) Foreign celebrities and “japandering“: would you be surprised to learn that Bill Murray’s commercial for some local whisky brand is for real – only with a different actor…

5) Regarding “Private Dance Lessons”: if my stint as a bartender/waiter in one of Tokyo’s “most refined gentleman’s club” is any indicator, Japanese youths are indeed very keen on taking the ladies to the champagne room… Yes, Japanese men sometimes are total hornballs who go to sleazy places and pay to see naked girls (or guys). just as much as every other men from about every country on that freaking planet: get over it!

6) Karaoke: Did I mention that before working in a strip club, I did work in a small neighbourhood bar near azabu-juban? did I mention that said bar was equipped with the latest in terms of Karaoke technology for the enjoyment of drunk salarymen and tipsy O.L.?
I will merely point you to my current state of mental imbalance and overall borderline psychopathic behaviour, as well as my irresistible urge to stump repeatedly on any microphone-shaped object whenever I hear the word “my” and “way” in the same sentence nowadays… Let’s just say it was a deeply psychologically scarring experience.

So a vast majority of these so-called “stereotypes” about Japanese are irremediably and undeniably true
Does that make the movie an objective, unbiased look at Japanese culture? Of course not! It is not a freakin’ documentary, it is a movie aimed precisely at showing how people have difficulties understanding foreign cultures and can feel somehow alienated by these differences…

The movie does not claim Bob and Charlotte’s attitude toward their Japanese counterparts to be exemplary behaviour, but since when do movie heroes have to be flawless embodiment of humanistic qualities?

The movie does not imply that the quirky and strange facets of Japanese civilization do not exist elsewhere, otherwise why would Bill Murray’s character feel so alienated by his own all-american Martha Stewartish wife as well?
All of the above points can be successfully matched with equal quirkiness or sheer imbecility by about any culture on Earth: Japanese TV only seem really stupid until your remember Jerry Springer and what passes for TV in the US. I’ll take twenty japanese polite bows any day over your average American sales consultant’s colgate smile and pushy demeanour. And need I say that the occasional melting of English consonants by Japanese locals speaking an otherwise decent English is nowhere near as hilarious as what you get when hapless gaijins take a shot at speaking basic Japanese (and that is, assuming we overlook the fact that most americans have trouble mastering their own language, let alone bothering to learn any foreign language)…

Of course Lost of Translation is packed with clichés a dozen, but if this is a punishable offense, I think it’s time to fold the whole Hollywood industry and call it a day, ’cause the competition is rather fierce in this domain…

I will finish by saying I might give more credits to some of the valid arguments fueling that controversy, if not for the fact that the official boycott site:

  1. complains in the name of “Asian Americans and the stereotypes it is conveying about them“. If this is not racism, then I don’t know what is. Implying that a movie that talks about people living in a certain country (Japan) could be applied to people living in another country (US), not even because they are of Japanese descent, but because they are somewhat of the same skin color! Tell me who’s using racial stereotypes here?
    I don’t see how cultural traits of people living in Tokyo are supposed to reflect poorly on American citizen, who just happen to have parents born somewhere in Asia…

  2. gives the grossly inaccurate, ridiculously one-sided, historically incompetent Last Samurai as an example of “positive, unbiased” take on Japanese culture. no comment

Frankly, I’m the first one to be appalled at Hollywood’s “lack of cultural sensitivity” (major understatement) and its overall cultural imperialism. But picking on Lost in Translation on that ground is seriously looking in the wrong direction, when it’s so obvious Sofia Coppola has a lot of affection for Japan and Japanese people, and shows it in her movie.
This kind of PCness bigotry only serves to weaken an otherwise very respectable cause.

In our pre-apocalyptic days of fear and anarchy, where every pimply teenager equipped with $300 of CompUSA hardware and a broadband connection can contribute to sap the very foundations of our cherished capitalistic society, different people have different ways of fighting “intellectual property theft”.

For the RIAA, which is obviously not reticent about jailing half the 12-29 population in the US and abroad, it has meant hiring a lot of lawyers and turning to court settlement fines instead of record sales, as a source for profit. So much so that they are now being sued under the RICO Act (originally tailored to fight more traditional forms of organized crime and racketeering, but still seems pretty fitting in this case).

The MPAA is slowly coming up to speed in terms of random scare tactics and other useless gesticulations, but in the meantime, they have settled on whining and moaning the usual corporate way, with a touching chorus on their huge profit loss. At this rate, they might even *gasp* have to stop shelling out millions of bucks to semi-articulate actors so they can show their familiar face, bleached teeth, cancerous tan, silicon implants and overall incapacity to convey the slightest human emotion with an ounce of conviction. Come to think of it, they might consider diverting an extra amount of that cash toward hiring real screenwriters to replace the brain hemorrhaging hollywood hacks who come up with such mind-blowing ideas as “Glitter, Maria Carey: the real Story” or “Bring it on: a no holds barred immersion into the fierce world of professional baton-twirling competition”… yea maybe they will (hope is cheaper than most food and you can live on it for a while)…

All in all, the way these people dealt with the unavoidable evolution of technology mostly revolved around raiding kids bedroom and showering Capitol Hill with lobbying money in order to get inept, unconstitutional, protectionist texts voted into laws.

And then, there’s French director Jan Kounen and actor Vincent Cassel, who, in order to thwart the intense trafficking likely to arise around their soon-to-open new movie, decided to release it themselves on P2P networks.

Well, not the real thing, of course: just a very convincing fake file. The actual movie titles would start rolling for a few minutes and suddenly cut into a recording of the two men, explaining with a good-natured smile to the pirate-that-be, how their movie would be much more enjoyable with the nice crispy photography and surround sound of a theater, instead of the usual crappy quality you get with internet telesync rips. The rest of the file cleverly consisting of looped promotional materials (“behind the scenes” footage etc).

How not to be seduced by this smart and funny way to fight for your bread and butter: rather than sue everything in sight, try to appeal to people’s intelligence and expose your case with rational arguments.

Well, this approach does postulate that your intended audience is not essentially composed of gregarious dim-witted simpletons, something that might be hard to establish with regards to your average Hollywood movie…

Despite serious efforts and a mind-blowing sense of timing (do I hear “valentine’s day breakup”, anybody?), I still drew enough pity from the wonderful ladies in my life (well, the ones I had not just broken up with) to get my share of the chocolate lovefest that is Valentine’s day in Japan.

A quick look at the war chest gives:

  • 2 boxes of assorted chocolate
  • 5 chocolate bunnies
  • 3 Japanese confection cake
  • 1 king-size Toblerone
  • 8 “chocolate rocks” from Europe (Suchard: lov’em!)
  • 2 French dry sausages (not really a Valentine’s present, but Sarah brought me some food from Paris)

    Good news is that I won’t be starving this week. Bad news is that nobody has come up yet with a healthy diet based essentially on chocolate (and dry sausages).

  • Spent the afternoon with Sarah in Harajuku, then took her to Roppong Hills, in order to get a glimpse of the city from up-above.

    We were not particularly planning on going for the museum, but, as chance would have it, one of the temporary exhibition featured my favorite Japanese artist.

    I first got a glimpse at Kusama Yayoi’s obsessive and beautiful patterns in New York, a few years ago and saw more in Tokyo (the Hara-san Museum had a few great pieces). This new exhibition, though quite in the same vein as all her previous work, was definitely an amazing experience.

    Unlike a lot of other contemporary artists who, at best, cannot manage to rouse any more than a certain kind of intellectual curiosity toward their art, Kusama Yayoi’s structures are just pure emotions put into shape: they do not require subtitles or lengthy comments to be appreciated, visual stimulation and subconscious imagery are immediate with most of her pieces. And if putting them into the perspective of her complicated life and long history of mental illness certainly brings another dimension, one just need to walk through her arrangements of mirrors, lights and dots in endless patterns to get an idea of what mind vertigo can be, for better or for worse.

    So, if you’ve not done it yet, go check out her exhibit at the Mori Art Museum in Roppogi Hills. The other temporary exhibit (People’s Artist) is also very much worth your time…

    PS: for those of you not familiar with Tokyo’s skyline, this building that looks like a cross between the Eiffel Tower and a christmas tree is “Tokyo Tower”… and no, to the best of my knowledge, Gustave Eiffel’s estate has not considered suing for copyright infringement yet… though I do suspect the “parody” argument might be protecting the Japanese version.