Wednesday, March 7, 2012

100 Million Idiots

Mondrian-like composition in "Ohayo (1959)"

Over the cups of sake, Chishu Ryu and others in the Izakaya murmur “TV creates 100 million idiots”. Yes, TV will blow their intellect out of all Japanese brains. Somebody said that.

Ozu’s “Ohayo” was released in 1959. TV culture was still at its early stage and everything was experimental and new. Its technology was cutting edge of the time, and this box was the object of industrial accomplishment. However, the virtual world it offered was prime example of dysfunctional contemporary world. “TV creates 100 million idiots” was a buzzword in late 50's. Souichi Otake, a journalist, first introduced this expression in a magazine article in 1956, criticizing the vulgarity of TV programs at the time. It was a popular game show, in which viewers competed to come up with the absurdest acts to get laughs. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

That was the time cinema industries were fighting against TV invasion as well. Hollywood was making the screen wider and wider. Cinemascope would be totally different experience from looking at a small window in a small living room. Studios in Japan also tried their own version of Cinemascope. But deterioration/transformation of visual arts was inevitable. Ozu and Noda must have grudgingly put this buzzword into their script, as a way of expressing their own cynical view.

But this expression has its own twist.

During the final months of WWII, the Japanese government wanted all Japanese to die for the Emperor, and created a slogan “100 Million Suicide Mission”. It means all Japanese should die honorable death rather than surrender. This insane slogan was motivated by the battle of Guam, Iwo-Jima and others, in which (almost) all Japanese soldiers had been killed. Though "100 Million Suicide" did not happen literally, people in Okinawa suffered a great deal because of this “mission”.

"Advance All Japanese people are 100 million of balls of fire"
A few weeks after the surrender, the Prime Minister Higashikuninomiya expressed the idea of “100 Million Repentance”. He considered every Japanese had been responsible for the War. Maybe he and the others in the government was playing the political game, in an attempt to diffuse the issue of war crime into wider population. Being the “Newspeak” of our country, the language of this kind demanded annihilation of individuality. It is amazing that surrender did not change the logic of perpetrators, who had been so accustomed to manipulate the mass. And the mass was accustomed to be manipulated.

Prime Minister Higashikuninomiya
However, SCAP was not particularly pleased with the idea and literally expelled Higashikuninomiya and other officials immediately. They were after those who had been responsible for creating the Imperial War machine and patiently paved the way to the Tokyo Tribunal.

Since then, the word “100 million” was used to suggest nature of collective obedience among Japanese people. “100 Million Idiots” sardonically referred to this nature, for they were easily manipulated by base materialism and repulsive escapism. How did those middle-aged men in “Ohayo” feel about this buzzword, “100 million idiots”? Consider their age and history. They must have been exposed to acidic propaganda during war years as young soldiers themselves. Then, after the war, they were supposed to feel guilty about being brainwashed since early childhood. Now, when they were finally able to rebuild lives of their own with their families, they were called idiots. How cruel. As you can see, Ryu Chishu and others are not monsters nor idiots. They are just normal, if not ambitious, fathers of the society. It is just self-righteous critics making another rounds of self-righteous remarks to get attention. But this one must have hit the right button for it reminds them of brainwashed days of their youth.

One of the most striking scenes in “Ohayo” comes when Chishu Ryu was reminded of his retirement by his wife. He just went silent as if he were not ready to admit his days were already 'numbered'. He had been struggling for all his life to make a decent living for him and his family. And just when life got better and he didn't have to worry about bringing something to eat on the table (1), he had to worry about the life after retirement. The colorful chest of drawers in the background accentuate this inevitable truth of aging.

Today, we have hundreds of TV stations airing for more than 24 hours a day via air, cable or internet. We have been exposed to TV for all of our lives knowing that most of programs are just waste of time. Have we become a nation of idiots? One thing I can say for certain: I got rid of a TV set for more than a year. Before that I had been a TV addict and could sit in front of TV for hours after hours., Now, I am not so sure what I had found so interesting about TV.

Yes, you can live without it.


(1) According to Takeshi Okazaki’s “Scent of Showa 30’s”, TV set cost around 60,000 yen in 1958, equivalent of 700,000 or 800,000 yen (roughly $10,000) today. Most families could not afford such an extravagance without setting up monthly payments. In those days, purchase on credit was considered something unrespectable, but popularity of TV changed the standard of personal finance. In another words, people was more confident on their future and less worried about something to eat everyday as they had done ten years earlier.




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