Japanese Weepies

It’s tempting, and dangerous, when reviewing a film to make grand claims about the state of the art when you should be focused on the task at hand, in this case, the merits of a flick called of Departures, which won the 2009 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. For a review in today’s paper, I wrote, and then cut, the charge that, “sentimentality is endemic to Japanese film these days.” Based on the sample I’ve taken over the past few months, that certainly seems to be true. But why distract the reader when the critic’s purpose is more focused?

I enjoyed Departures, but it sure does ooze old-fashioned sappiness. As did all three of the Japanese films I reviewed for Filmfest DC earlier this Spring.  Yoji Yamada’s Kabei was syrupy and melodramatic (“For most of its more than two-hour length, this sentimental drama about a strong woman, loyal wife and loving mother is so sweet it makes your teeth hurt…”) as was Shunichi Nagasaki’s The Witch of the West is Dead (“At times, The Witch of the West is Dead feels a bit like a very long Marie Callender’s commercial set in a Thomas Kinkade painting…”) And yet I enjoyed both of them, despite the bathos.

Which leads to a claim I’ve made here before, and in my review of Departures: That the sentimentality of other cultures isn’t as offensive as our own homegrown variety. But is that a rational statement? Can it be defended as a principle when reviewing films? Or is sentimentality a failing in art, no matter where it comes from?

I guess I take the following position: That senitmentality isn’t per se a bad thing, but only bad when it is used to manipulate; and that art from other cultures is often arguing and manipulating on different ground, about different issues, in ways that may not be particularly dangerous in an American cultural context. The same thing should work in reverse: Thus, a Mel Gibson film may not be as ideologically disturbing when seen in China as it is here. And thus the emotional buttons it pushes can be pushed in China without doing any harm.

I don’t know if I believe this.

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