On Monday evening I attended the premiere of Petri Storlöpare’s documentary movie “A Life in Japan” at Urbanguild. In the movie, footage from all over Japan is accompanied by excerpts from interviews with 19 foreign residents of Japan. According to the film-maker, the objective is to let the viewer have a glimpse of Japanese life through foreign eyes. The participants explain how they first came to Japan, why they stayed, the problems they have encountered, the things they have learned, their loves, their hates, their hopes and their regrets. The movie lasts for 77 minutes, and though it is essentially just people talking, it is both entertaining and thought provoking. Alejandro Peña Flores from Mexico, speaks of how Japan has taught him something about honesty. Duduzile Sibanyoni speaks of police harassment and how that resurrected for her memories of apartheid in her native South Africa. Canadian Micah Gampel relates his disappointment at being unable to save his favorite machiya townhouse from destruction at the hands of developers… For me, as a long time resident in Japan, there were many experiences I recognized and related to. But I think that “A Life in Japan” would be most useful for people who are considering moving here from abroad, or for Japanese who might be interested in getting a fresh perspective on their own country (the movie has Japanese subtitles).
Now, this movie received quite a lot of flak on Facebook recently, before anyone had even seen it, on the grounds that it wasn’t representative enough. Some people who viewed the trailer were concerned that the movie didn’t have enough women in it. Others accused the movie of being Orientalist, and being only concerned with the opinions of white men from developed countries. Well, having seen the movie for myself I can state that these fears were misplaced. At no point during the screening did I feel that the movie felt culturally or gender biased. Seven of the nineteen participants are women, and though they are slightly fewer in number than the men, it’s not something you would notice in terms of screen time. It should also be remembered that Petri Storlöpare made this movie by himself, at his own expense over a three year period, with no funding or sponsorship, so making a movie that was perfectly representative of the expat population here was not something he could ever have possibly done. By his own admission he wasn’t really trying to do that anyway.
The intention was not to try to give an objective all encompassing picture of Japan, but to let you experience it through personal opinions and experiences of different people. The interviewees had the chance to speak freely, within loose frames, about the topics of their choice.
From the website A Life in Japan
I asked Petri how he chose the participants, and he told me that he began by interviewing friends in Kyoto, and then friends of friends and then after he had been doing that for a year he realized he didn’t have enough women in the movie. So he cast his net further and traveled as far as Tottori and Kyushu in a deliberate effort to make a more balanced movie. As for the ethnicity of the participants, there are people from twelve different countries and six different continents. I think for one man’s individual project, that’s not a bad balance at all!
Well, I hope I have laid those concerns to rest. The movie should stand on its own merits. I enjoyed it myself, and most of the people who saw it with me on Monday seemed to respond positively. I would happily recommend it to anyone who is curious about life in Japan, or perhaps even as an educational tool. If you are curious about the movie, you can learn more about it and download it here.
Here’s that controversial trailer: