Here to round out the list, and prevent all my loyal and dedicated readers from getting overwhelmed with film discussion, is back-to-the-basics talk about Japanese club. Japanese club this semester has been a lot more popular than anytime in the past. So much so that we actually got to rent out a room for our movie screening, instead of just projecting it in the cramped classroom like normal. This time, Princess Mononoke was shown in one of the huge Dale classrooms, and there were tons of seats, and someone even brought snacks. The point is it was great. Princess Mononoke was of course a good (if typical) choice for movie, as are almost all of Ghibli’s films. But it has been really nice this semester to see how many people are interested in Japanese. No longer does it feel like a weird hideaway meeting, attended only by the most devout Japanese practitioners. Aside from bigger rooms for movies, we also have trips to zoos and information on career opportunities and regular updates on JLPT deadlines. Next semester will likely be my last chance to participate, and I hope it gets even more popular. As a side note, it has also been nice to see one of the Japanese students I knew in Yamagata. He is doing a semester here in Oklahoma, and came over just as I was leaving Japan.
Last but not least, I would like to talk about The Shiranui Sea, the fourth documentary about Minamata disease by Noriaki Tsuchimoto. A bit of background: Minamata disease is a condition named after residents of Minamata, Japan started showing strange symptoms, including loss of motor control and difficulty with speech. It was discovered that the condition was caused from ingesting mercury, which had been being dumped into the bay by the Chisso corporation. Consumption of the local fish, the primary source of food and income to many residents, led many citizens to develop Minamata disease. The Shiranui Sea was filmed nearly 20 years after offical diagnosis of the disease, and over 40 years after Chisso started their illegal dumping. At 153 minutes, the documentary gives detailed accounts of the lives of many of those affected. We get to see how difficult it has been to receive compensation or adequate medical services. Worse, there is still mercury in the bay, and the people are still eating the fish. Fishing is huge for Minamata, and they do not have the resources to cut their connection to the Ocean. Furthermore, many do not know another way to live. However, only those with the worst conditions are getting help, and even that is not much. Combined with the shame many feel over coming out as having the disease, the whole situation is very bleak for the citizens of Minamata. The hardest part to watch was when the filmmakers interviewed children who had been born with Minamata disease and those who cared for them. Mothers who were pregnant while eating the contaminated fish could pass on the disease to their children. Many of these children were in their teenage years now, but were mentally handicapped from their condition. Adding to this, their limbs were so crippled that they needed help feeding themselves. The documentary gave an honest, unembellished account of not only their lives, but also the lives of their caretakers who had been assisting them since they were very young. All I can say is that watching this and then following it with 4 months, 3 weeks, and 2 days was a bad choice on my part. A Disney movie should have been thrown in in-between.
Next on our list of movies to discuss is 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days. This is the most well known of the 3 movies I watched, being critically acclaimed and listed in many best movies of 2007 lists. The film follows Otilia and Gabriela, two university roommates in Romania, as they try and procure a doctor to perform an abortion for Gabriela. In 1987 abortion was illegal in communist Romania, and both girls are quite poor, so this attempt is quite dangerous and shady. The film explores several themes, including loyalty to a friend, communism, and abortion under a government that declares it illegal. Shot in a very personal and minimalist style, what made this film such an enjoyable viewing experience is that it lets the viewer come to their own judgements. It explores communism without ever saying it. It has been seen as both pro-life as well as pro-choice. What it sets out to do is show the conditions of poor Romanian citizens during this pivotal time period, a goal I think it definitely achieves. The story itself, while brutal and at time nerve-wracking, is not the strong point of the film. Where it really shines is in the style of its delivery. By using what basically a documentary footage style camera, without any of the glamorized lighting or grand music of typical Hollywood films, the characters and their plight pack real emotional punch. You get drawn into their struggle, and the camera work makes you feel as if you are peaking int through a window, unable to act but rooting for them nonetheless.
The first in today’s movie discussion extravaganza is also the one I saw most recently. Back to Cuba is a documentary that was shown at the GEF movie night last Friday. It follows a Cuban citizen who has recently moved back to the country after living in Italy with her husband for some years. While the main story is her attempts to renovate her grandparents house, the real impact of the film comes from its depictions of everyday life in Cuba after the recent changes. Changes such as the ability to run a business from your private home. We get to see a variety of different perspectives in the film: The woman’s difficulties in maintaining her business of selling imported goods, her friends lives in the country, what it is like to run a business in Cuba, and other snapshots of Cuban life. Personally, the most interesting part of the documentary was its exploration of how people living in Cuba viewed their situation as compared to that of other, capitalist countries. The predominant view was positive: most of the people asked were quite dismissive or contemptuous of the way of life often seen in Western countries. Most criticized was the lack of human interaction as well as the intense focus on work. Some Cubans who had traveled abroad saw positive aspects as well, and desired to return. However, even among this group there existed a preference for the Cuban lifestyle. I thought it was quite interesting to consider that even though people may be poor and you consider their lives miserable, they may be quite content and look at you the same way.
Yesterday in Japanese club I was able to play some of a game of Go. I say some because the game can take several hours, and when you have a bunch of novices who are unsure of the rules the turns can understandably take a while. Still, I appreciated Professor Frydman bringing the board and letting us play. Playing made me remember how much I like strategy games, and put the urge to go to boardgame club into me. Go, for those of you who are unfamiliar, is a Japanese strategy game. You place colored stones on a board, with the goal being to surround as much territory as you can. The possibilities with every move combined with the simple mechanics make it a very enjoyable game, in my opinion. I hope to get to play it again.
Japanese club is timed a little unfortunately this year. It starts during my Japanese history class, but at least i am able to head over there right after class and get some club time in. It seems more organized this year, with announcements every meeting, talks about the JLPT, and developing communication with OSU’s Japanese club. Bonus: they had food the first two meetings I went to. It is also a lot busier, with the classroom regularly filled with members.
So Japan has a week long break called golden week, during which I thought it would be a great idea to work at a hot spring close to Yamagata. The weirdness of the experience starts with the ease at which the job was attained: I called the number on the card I picked up when my culture class visited the onsen, and told them I would like a job. They asked until when, then told me to meet in front of the University early the next day. This was much less stressful than I expected, but the problems of bypassing all the usual steps soon presented themselves. For one, apparently a good Japanese language base is useful, as my coworkers did not speak English. This made learning all the ins and outs of hotel cleaning staff quite interesting. But the biggest shock came at the end of the day, when I was shown to my room and told to go to sleep. Apparently my stay here was more involved than I had previously believed. Workers stayed here all day, waking up early to work, having a midday break, then going to sleep in a private room. While not completely against this idea, I would have at least like to have it mentioned, as I do not generally carry around the necessary tools for daily life. Things like, you know, spare clothes, or a toothbrush, or books/homework, really show how important they are when you do not have them.
Language classes are similar here in Japan, but with a more high school-lean. Generally, we meet once a week to take a quiz and learn new grammar/vocabulary, then get homework to turn in the next week. Lessons are almost entirely in Japanese, which is nice, but the actual content is pretty simple so it doesn’t feel like I am learning as much as I could be. This is further hampered by the lack of opportunities for self-expression in the homework or tests. Teachers here generally want a reiteration of the right answer, without giving the student an opportunity to exercise their ingenuity. This is part of why practice outside of class is so important.
One downside of the way school works here in Japan, and which is particularly relevant in a secluded place like Yamagata, is that there are not very many breaks. Aside from golden week, the devouring of which deserves its own post, the first holiday will be the 17th of July. Most days of class are not too intensive, but the lack of longer breaks makes leaving the area difficult. Compounded with the cost of travel, this makes even trips to Sendai (the closest city worth the name) a luxury. Because of this, there are still many things I want to do in Japan that I doubt I will get the opportunity to. For one, I am living on an island smaller than some states but still have not yet seen the ocean. The biggest city* in the world is a few hours by shinkansen, Kyoto is a little bit further, and Korea is a short plane trip away, but I have not been able to experience any of these. Hopefully I will have a chance to do some of them before I leave, but the time after classes and before the plane ride is very short.
In recent weeks, it appears I have finally started to settle in to Yamagata. Classes have fallen into a regular pattern, weekends have become less hectic, and favorite spots have been established. Top of the last list is Yamonosuke, a ramen shop another exchange student took me to. It is far and away the best ramen I have eaten in Yamagata, and some of the best I have ever had. I even have a regular order: miso ramen with extra spiciness. The noodles come with chashu pork, and the broth is delicious enough to drink afterwards. A personal coffee shop has not yet been found, but this is partly due to the expensive nature of poured coffee here in Yamagata. I go to one (closer) grocery store, eat more regularly, and have gotten better at managing time. It’s too bad I acquire this a month before I leave…