Full Metal Apache: Transactions Between Cyberpunk Japan and Avant-Pop America

Takayuki Tatsumi,
Full Metal Apache: Transactions Between Cyberpunk Japan and Avant-Pop America.
Duke University Press, 2006.
ISBN-13: 978-0-8223-3774-4
US$22.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Duke University Press)

Full Metal Apache is not a book about Japanese cinema for two reasons. Literally speaking, it is more accurately a work about Japanese national discourse, culture and identity. Takayuki Tatsumi’s meditations on the relationship between Japanese and American culture necessarily include analyses of literature, theory and politics in addition to film. But more importantly, the book is not about Japanese cinema per se because its more significant import to film studies lies in its contribution to the continuing debate regarding the most effective methodology for the study of Japanese or for that matter, global cinema studies.

Scholars assessing the intellectual history behind Japanese film history inevitably question the tendency of some early accounts to essentialize Japanese culture and consequently equate those identified characteristics with a Japanese film style. In this regard, the most famous and usual suspects here are Noel Burch’s To the Distant Observer and Paul Schrader’s section on Ozu in Transcendental Style in Film. They are often accused of overstating Japanese cultural difference while overlooking instances of intertextuality. More recently, writers like Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto have deepened that basic critique with a consideration of how scholars treat national difference as a positive quality in and of itself, resulting in a benevolent brand of Orientalism. When difference is defined by adopting Hollywood practice as the norm, as Edward Said might have predicted, the field of film studies becomes imbued with a form of intellectual imperialism. As a corrective, Yoshimoto and Paul Willemen as another example, advocate ‘comparative’ methods that eschew Hollywood-centric understandings of film style, as well as the assumption that its aesthetic standard should serve as cinema’s universal language in the first place. They also insist on a fundamental awareness of discursive distinctiveness (as opposed to difference) between cultures.

Full Metal Apache would seem to break down some ideological hierarchies because its multiple elucidations of intertextuality within both Japanese and American cultural production debunk the notion that we can reasonably isolate and identify any national essence within these texts. It is then debatable whether it dissolves both difference and distinctiveness, and thus whether it is a truly comparative study. We learn implicitly that Hollywood/American cinema should have no claim to occupy the center of stylistic convention. Additionally, following Yoshimoto’s claim that even terms like modernity and postmodernity are not uniformly defined and also underpinned by imperialism, Tatsumi also shows how for more than a century, intercultural appropriation has taken place across boundaries of high and low art. In other words, the bottom line might appear to be one inflected by postmodernism, where identity is as unknowable as the aesthetic distinctions between high and low.

However one senses that Tatsumi goes about his analysis with a deeply historical sensibility, that is to say, with an attitude that history counts for something. In constructing his diagnoses of cultural symptoms caused by Japan-U.S. relations, he confronts readers with provocative terms like ‘creative masochism’ (referring to the manner with which the creative classes participate in their own spiritual death by hyperconsumerism), and ‘Mikadophilia’, one of the forms that creative masochism takes. The Mikado is a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta that allegorized a critique of the British government by setting the narrative in Japan. Its politically incorrect caricatures of Japanese characters have predictably elicited charges of racial insensitivity, but Tatsumi finds it the perfect conceptual vehicle for his description of Japanese identity. He calls it a “chimeric, heterogeneous, postimperial identity” that has engendered and embraced the creative masochistic sensibility, “across which the cultural clash of Orientalism and Occidentalism plays out” (p. 28).

If the definition of creative masochism feels incomplete, it is because Tatsumi prefers to flesh out concepts not straightforwardly but by slinging together continual streams of cultural examples, interspersing textual readings with a set of flitting cultural references that is at the very least, eclectic. The style can make for turgid reading, but this is not an introductory work and it does assume an academically literate target audience already familiar with Japanese and American culture. One would have a reading experience similar to that with Fredric Jameson’s work, although Tatsumi is discernibly more patient in his argumentation. Comparatively, Full Metal Apache corrals together a more disparate set of phenomena, which brings its own disadvantages.

Without a materialist or more discernible historical backbone, Tatsumi often engages in an approach of proof by sheer volume and multiplicity of examples. The connections he makes are invariably engaging and occasionally persuasive, but his highly selective examples often lack decisive chains of cause and effect. Rather, he relies all too often on allusions to something no greater than coincidence, caused by what he terms “a historical imperative that makes possible such a coincidence” (p. 106).

An example of where such a methodology can be exposed occurs when Tatsumi considers the future-war genre’s significance. He reads the campy blockbuster film Independence Day (USA 1996) as an updated translation of The War of the Worlds’ anti-China and anti-Russia narrative. In the wake of the 1991 Gulf conflict according to Tatsumi, the narrative’s xenophobia becomes reconfigured towards the Middle East, then resonates with the conservative political climate and ultimately affects the course of Bill Clinton’s second presidential term. The simple declaration about Independence Day that “the American unconsciousness, in the wake of the Gulf War, clearly reinvented the other as the Middle Eastern” (p. 68) is in fact far from clear. How precisely were the aliens re-Orientalized? Won’t The Terminator (UK/USA 1984) have something to say about racialization and future-wars? Furthermore the notion the Clinton administration was a liberal one that lurched towards reactionism in midstream is politically simplistic and overlooks the regime’s regular practice of triangulation.

In the big scheme of Tatsumi’s larger argument, the example is minor. But it does beg the question of whether 100 loose connections can add up to one convincing argument or if it is only as strong as the weakest link. Lastly, it must be mentioned that the book’s other weakness is its emphasis of narrative over formal analysis. Nevertheless, it ultimately does deliver rewardingly on its basic promise of presenting the ruminations of an author who might just embody the notion of a Japanoid – described in the book as a cyborgian, “monstrously hybrid” Japanese being (p. 25). This is a work that one should return to repeatedly. The tangents created within the connections of Japan and America, culture and politics, theory and society, and high and low, make it necessary.

Gerald Sim,
University of Iowa, USA.

Created on: Saturday, 20 September 2008

About the Author

Gerald Sim

About the Author

Gerald Sim

Gerald Sim is Assistant Professor of Film Studies at Florida Atlantic University, where he specializes in American cinema, national cinema and critical theory. He has a recent essay about postcolonial cinema and spatiality in Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, and a forthcoming historiographical account of digital cinematography in Projections.View all posts by Gerald Sim →