Books: The Blaze of Obscurity — 12. Destination Tokyo |
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The Blaze of Obscurity — 12. Destination Tokyo


With the weekly show raking in the ratings, we had earned our upgrade to the shimmering cliffs of White City, where we were given half an acre of the Beeb’s unstained new floor-space in which to spread our staff, who revelled in the unfamiliar luxury of being able to sit down without touching each other. Much to my embarrassment, the whole operation was called the Clive James Unit. Feeling a bit overbilled, I resolved to redouble my efforts, but soon found that I was obliged to triple them. Having got our wish for a bumper ration of Postcard programmes, we now had to make them. It was soon clear to me that they would consume the last vestiges of my spare time. If I hadn’t learned to write on board the aircraft, and during every hour of downtime on location, I would have got no literary work done at all. By now I was composing the last of the reviews and essays that went into my book Snakecharmers in Texas. I got better at writing them in snatched hours, and their range of reference benefited from the second-hand books I bought wherever I flew. On location, collecting books and stacking them up on the cafe table at which I wrote was a way of staying sane, or perhaps just a way of resting from one kind of hyperactivity by burying myself in another. The cafe table could be anywhere, and today I can’t always remember which city came in which order, or even whether it was the BBC paying the hotel bills, or else that previous bunch. I never kept a logbook because it would have scared me to look at it. I could phone around all the old staff — half of them are tycoons by now, but they might still take my calls — and I could work out the actual order of events, but there would be no point: things didn’t feel sequential even then. As in every other area of my life, simultaneity was the keynote. The places we filmed were all different, but filming itself was just one place on its own. I loved being there, but often felt that I didn’t know where it was in the world. It had a hotel where you had breakfast, and there was a car that appeared on schedule, and then you appeared on schedule and climbed into the car, and then the car took you from one sequence to the next until it took you back to the hotel to have dinner and lie down for a couple of hours before staying awake half the night while you mugged up for next day. The call-sheet being always such a killer, it was essential to know something about the country’s past before going in, because when you got there you would see nothing except the present.

I already knew a bit about Japan before we flew to Tokyo. I had once been there on assignment for the Observer, and since then I had read quite a lot about Japanese history; and lately I had sat through several hundred miles of footage showing young Japanese game-show contestants performing routines out of a cabaret devised by Dante. That last thing, of course, was the principal reason somebody decided that we should make not just one film in Japan, but two of them on the trot. Our advance party returned with a thick folder full of sure-fire suggestions, and off we flew to make them real. I forget what I wrote on the plane. It should have been my will.

Barely had we moved into our skyscraper hotel in the Aoyama district of Tokyo when we made our first mistake. It was decided that I should carry a bag in the first few sequences, as if I was still looking for the hotel after having emerged from the subway system. We thus constructed a needless continuity problem, because when we got back to the editing room and duly reshuffled all the sequences into a different order, the bag mysteriously appeared and disappeared throughout the movie, always needing to be explained. (Memo: it isn’t enough to dress the same throughout. Don’t carry anything, because you never know if a walking shot from one sequence might not need to be patched into another, and if something even as slight as a hot dog magically appears in your hand, it will need an extra, awkward line of voice-over. ‘On my way to the shrine I bought a hot dog which I consumed instantly.’ Cue the sound of people switching off by the million.) But that lay in the future. At the time, I wondered if I would ever get home at all. My Japanese game-show expertise dictated that I should participate in, guess what, a Japanese game show. It was called Takeshi’s Castle: far and away the most popular game show on Japanese television, out-rating even the dreaded Endurance. The castle was a pasteboard cut-out standing in a patch of waste land, but it looked convincing beside Takeshi himself, who was dressed like Michael Jackson in the later, militarized stages of his madness and did a lot of jumping about and crouching while pulling the Japanese front-man’s standard idea of a subtly threatening face. Imagine Kirk Douglas feigning apoplexy and you’ve got it.

Hundreds of teenage contestants in crash helmets pretended to feel terrified. They shrank back, they clutched each other, they shivered. In my tight-fitting red tracksuit and white crash helmet, I wasn’t pretending. Stretched high above a pond, there was a jungle-style rope-and-plank bridge on which you had to stand while the other contestants tried to eliminate you with soft cannon balls fired by a spring-gun while Takeshi jumped around doing his threatening thing. Twice as heavy as the average contestant, I had trouble keeping my balance anyway. The bridge swayed wildly to either side even when the cannon balls weren’t flying. When they did, the very first one hit me in the face and down I went, to discover that the pond had been dug shallow, in order to receive the falling bodies of much smaller people. Dug out of the slime, I was inserted into the castle to be chased by giants. They were small giants but they were good at poking you with a stick. I was propelled out of a doorway and fell into the moat. For our crew, filming the Japanese crew as they filmed me was tricky, so I had to do it again. This time I emerged from the door and did three-quarters of a somersault before hitting the moat stern-first. Anything for the camera. The massed contestants dutifully howled at the marvellous sense of humour of the gaijin — the foreign person — while Takeshi mimed jealousy with what I thought was, for him, uncharacteristic authenticity. It turned out that he wasn’t miming. He was the one who was supposed to get the laughs. He had lost face.

He lost his temper along with it but we already had what we needed, so it was no great loss to take our leave as Takeshi did the equivalent of a Hollywood sulk. In the Hollywood sulk, the star retreats to his huge trailer and refuses to come out. Takeshi retreated to a very small bus and never stopped coming out, snarling at us, and going back in again. He was probably still doing that for the next fortnight, during which time we managed to prove that most of our planned story was like a game show anyway. I had been in on the preliminary thinking so I can’t say that I was double-crossed. The problem of capturing Japanese culture would have been unavoidable however we approached the task, because so much of the old art depends on refinement, which takes a lot of explaining, and only the explanation can prove that you are looking at the real thing. A Japanese classical sword-smith takes a long time to make a sword, you need a degree in metallurgy to appreciate what he does, and the finished product looks exactly like a stage prop from an amateur production of The Mikado. In a Noh play an actor takes half an hour to cross the stage. The special walk he is using takes a lifetime’s training, but he looks exactly like an old man with arthritis setting out to buy a newspaper. You can fall asleep while he is making his entrance and when you wake up again he is still making his entrance. In Kyoto, at the Geisha training school, the top lady was one of the greatest living players of the shami-sen, the single-stringed guitar that has come down through the ages without acquiring any extra strings to compromise its purity by providing it with, say, the capacity to produce a chord. It goes plunk. It goes plink.

But from this woman we had been promised prodigies of subtlety. We had been reliably informed that there was no one in her class. A ringer for Sessue Hayakawa, she applied her fingernails in various groupings to the string of her instrument, which produced a series of noises astonishing for their lack of variation. The piece she played, which had reputedly driven many a Tokugawa nobleman to hoarse grunts of desire in times gone by, sounded like a tennis racket popping its strings one at a time under intense heat. As I sat there on my crossed legs in the listening position, her display of virtuosity continued without any hint of an ending. She went plink. She went plunk. As she did so, she moaned at seeming random, evoking the last hour of a coyote with its leg crushed by a steel trap. There was a spoken passage which I thought I recognized as a reproduction of a tannoy announcement at Tokyo’s mainline station saying that the Bullet Train to Osaka would stop at Nagoya. Then the moaning resumed, until it was finally climaxed, as she hunched with added tension over her instrument, by a virtuoso simultaneous combination of plunk and plink. The attendant trainee geishas politely told me how long it took to put on their makeup but they took just as long to tell me, and there was no way to save the sequence except to shoot reverses on my straining face while I showed the effects — no need for acting — of having to sit for a long time on my crossed legs. I couldn’t manage more than a few minutes without getting up for a rest but then I had to sit down again. We filmed me doing this. It was a true story, and to let myself in for ridicule might mitigate any impression that I was setting out to ridicule the culture, which in fact I revered, even for its way of becoming even more incomprehensible as you focused your attention on it.

Ancient Japanese arts were proving a bit of a bust from our viewpoint. The modern stuff was easier. With complete dominance of the global electronics market as a motor, Japanese economic life was booming, the ‘salary men’ were working themselves to early graves, and it was fun reporting on the way they lived. In Tokyo the men in suits slaved a long day, got compulsorily wasted with the boss in the evening, missed the last commuter train and checked into one of the new capsule hotels. I checked in along with them, changed tightly into the pyjamas provided and climbed up to a capsule on the third tier. All around me were capsules full of salary men, at the rate of one per capsule. They were in there like bees. The crew had filmed then getting in. Now the crew had to film me. With my racked legs still aching from their agony in the geisha college, I climbed a ladder whose rungs were shorter than the span of my hands. But swinging myself horizontal so that I could slide into the flesh-pink plastic capsule was trickier still. For one thing, I didn’t slide. I was exactly the same size as the space provided, which was not the idea. You were supposed to be a bit smaller, so that you had room to read a porno comic book one-handed while politely farting sake fumes. But the camera was on my face as I strained and grunted. Again, no acting necessary. The right effect first time. But it had to be done a dozen times, to get the angles and the long shots. Sweat poured from my face, suggesting that I was crammed into a microwave oven. From other capsules, voices emerged, which, our translator explained, were voices of complaint. The bees were being kept awake. All that the scene needed was Takeshi rushing in, jumping up and down, pointing his finger at me and screaming, ‘You are keeping our salary men awake, foreign devil!’

We flew down to Kyushu to film me sitting in a pool of hot grey liquid mud dotted with melons and the heads of people who were there for the melon-flavoured hot grey liquid mud. Some of them had been there for years. They were quite tolerant of the intruder, but I couldn’t help wondering why I was so often ending up submerged. (In subsequent movies the question would occur to me again: it was a kind of running theme.) The answer to the question, I realized much later, was actually quite simple. Like the wearing of the blue suit, the plunging of my body into alien liquids emphasized the only reason for my central role in the proceedings: I was the wrong man in the right spot. But the films we made in Japan had a bit too much of the wrong man and not nearly enough of the right spot.

We got closer to capturing the traditional Japan when we filmed my participation in the tea ceremony. The tea master was the top guy in the country. Radiating sacred expertise through the paper walls of his little house, he held the tea master’s equivalent of a black belt, tenth dan, and he had not arrived at this exalted rank without suffering, as his permanent frown attested. Change his kimono for a naval uniform and he could have been Admiral Yamamoto just after he got the news that four aircraft carriers had been sunk in the Battle of Midway. As we squatted facing each other, I too suffered. At several points during the first hour, while the tea master was still preparing the tea for mixing with water — the leaves had to be pounded, sifted and closely contemplated before being pounded and sifted again — I did not get up quickly enough to rest my legs. Instead I rolled over backwards, to the amusement of the third participant. Her name was Yoko Shimada and she was present at my suggestion. Back in England, I had informed my troops that the actress in the television mini-series Shogun was the most beautiful woman on Earth and that if she were present during the tea ceremony her ethereal face might do a better job of conveying its spiritual significance than mine. This proved to be an accurate forecast and I don’t apologize for having made it. Some of my critics were scornful about the way my Postcard programmes were populated with good-looking women. A few of my producers, especially if they were female, agreed with the critics, but I thought the audience could use an effective relief from looking at me, and I would still think the same today. In Japan, especially, it was all too easy to fill the screen with brute reality. All you had to do was get a close shot of a sumo wrestler’s behind. But if you wanted to convey spiritual beauty in its most refined form, Yoko Shimada’s face was just the thing. Decked out in full kimono, she looked truly, deeply interested in the tea ceremony and declared herself honoured to be watching the tea being ceremonially mixed by the number-one tea master currently in existence. The camera could cut away to her divine countenance while the tea master got on with the job of mixing and whisking. The camera didn’t have to watch me rolling over backwards.

In the course of about an era, the tea was finally all set to go. It looked like guacamole but it tasted of nothing, which was apparently the idea. A foreigner tasting his first ceremonial tea couldn’t expect to get the nuances. Later on I asked Yoko if she had tasted anything either, but by that time she was back outside the house and had been joined by her manager, who whispered in her ear. She said the tea had been wonderful beyond all imagining, but there was a giggle going on somewhere behind that mask of translucent beauty. While she was inside the house and still on the case, however, she did a superlative imitation of someone being knocked out by subtlety. The cup came to her after it had come to me. As per the protocol, I had turned the cup around so that she wouldn’t be sipping from the same bit of the rim I had sipped from. She turned it again, so I think her delicate lips ended up sipping at the same spot. If so, it was as near as I was ever going to get to sharing Richard Chamberlain’s big moment in Shogun when he fell with her to the futon. We got miles of footage but there was never any doubt that it would have been just another slapstick scene if we hadn’t introduced an extra element. Yoko was it, and I said goodbye to her with a correctly angled bow as she was helped into the back of her limousine by her manager, who hated me very much. I have often wondered whether he might not have been the reason why she didn’t become the biggest star in the world. If so, he was probably right. She was the golden carp, and she belonged in the old imperial pond. In the open ocean, she might have drowned.

We got a lot of good material in Japan and I think the two movies it yielded hold up fairly well — they are still being screened somewhere in the world all the time — but a single movie would have been better if we could have captured the real texture. I had already figured out why it had slipped through our fingers: not because it is made of silk, but because it is all based on the language. Our fixer on the shoot, an elegant young employee of the BBC’s Tokyo office named Noriko Izumi, was a born teacher. I called her Nikki and her spoken English was so good that she called me Clive, instead of the usual local pronunciation, Karaibu. (Most of the gags about the way the Japanese pronounce English are exactly backwards, by the way: it’s ‘l’ that they have trouble with, not ‘r’, so the famous ‘Lip my tights!’ sequence in Lost in Translation is nonsense, even if amusing.) So well did Nikki speak English, in fact, that she wasn’t in search of practice, and could dedicate all her attention, during my downtime, to starting me off on one of the big adventures of my life. I won’t try to record it all here. Sufficient to say that during the shoot I learned enough phrases to play my part in the standard everyday conversation that consists almost entirely of saying hello and goodbye, and I even learned to recognize my first half-dozen written words. That second thing, the written language, is what makes Japanese so hard for the foreigner. The spoken language is comparatively user-friendly. It’s spoken in a monotone, in complete syllables, so you don’t have to worry about your intonation, and the phonemes can be strung together as easily as in Italian or Spanish. In fact Japanese sounds a bit like Italian being spoken in the next room.

But the written language is a different matter. There are three alphabets going on at once. Two of the alphabets are syllabic, but most of the action is in the third alphabet, the kanji characters, and it’s a brain-burner. The written language, with its emphasis on memory, is designed to be learned by children so as to be used by adults. An adult trying to learn it had better not be trying to remember anything else. Nevertheless, in the following years, during which I spent as much time as I could in Japan, I got quite a long way with reading and writing, but I didn’t have to get further than about a yard before I discovered what our filming trip had missed out. The biggest artistic impact Japan makes is all contained within that amazing written language. A single page of a newspaper is a work of art. The whole population shares this enormous aesthetic turn-on and if you can’t read it, you’re out of it. Ainiku, as they say. A pity. Year after year, in the magic coffee shops of Jinbo Cho, the book district of Tokyo, Nikki would check my kanji characters as I laboriously entered them in my notebook. Always more keen to form friendships among women than among men — once a mother’s boy, always a mother’s boy — I eventually supplemented her invaluable help with additional instruction from a bunch of female teachers who had daringly started a two-room outfit to teach Japanese to foreign businessmen based in Tokyo. Their little school, called Business Nihongo, was an unprecedented initiative at a time when Japanese women were still meant to mind the hearth. I staked them to a few months’ rent in return for free teaching. Eventually I could write the phonetic alphabets — the sinuous hiragana and the jagged katakana — with fair fluency, but the kanji characters were always a killer. The upside was that I got steadily better at reading and a lot better at speaking. I learned women’s Japanese — men would raise their eyebrows when I spoke it — but it sounds better than men’s Japanese anyway. (Women, even when annoyed, sound like the pattering of a light rain on a tiled roof. Men, even when discussing the weather, sound as if they are whipping themselves up for a banzai attack.) Writing, however, was dead tricky, and I never really got on top of it even before the day came that I had to put it aside for a while, and then found, when I tried to pick it up again, that it had all gone away. One day I hope to start again, because it was one of the big aesthetic experiences of my life, like getting into the Bach cantatas.