The Pursuit of Happyness premiered in the land of the rising sun this weekend, and I caught the first Saturday showing. Will Smith even came to Tokyo to promote it.
This isn’t a movie review. I don’t do those. Rather, I’m trying to get into the mindset of the Japanese people: what would they think of this Hollywood movie, very American-themed. I saw it with a few Japanese friends, and they just replied it was “good”, nothing more.
Will Smith plays a intelligent man who happens to be down on his luck; he risks everything, including the welfare of his five-year-old son, on a non-paying internship to a major brokerage firm, while he has little-to-no income, is living on the streets, yet still maintains the appearance of a businessman on the run. Eventually, after months of hard work, suffering, his efforts pay off, and he is on his way to a new and better life. Capitalism at its finest. Anyone can rise to the top if given the chance.
But how will this go down in Japan? Here, the stake that sticks out gets hammered down (出る釘は打たれる, deru kugi wa utareru): there is a certain method to life, engrained in the minds of all Japanese youth. You obey your parents. You go to school. You attend the right university. You follow the path to a well-founded Japanese company, and you slowly work your way to CEO over the course of a lifetime. After decades of 18-hour work days, you can retire, and have your thoughts to yourself.
This isn’t the world I’m from. Anyone can make anything of himself or herself. An internet company can turn a 20-year-old college dropout into a millionaire overnight. A talent scout can approach you in New York City and put you on the cover of Vogue.
I honestly don’t know if this is true in Japan; I am sure through all of my Japanese contacts, I haven’t seen anything to indicate otherwise. A man with nothing but a high school education (like Will Smith’s character) in Japan doesn’t rise very far in the working world. The right university, the right connections, the path is formed practically from birth. The computer age has changed the rules, but not the people.
Will Smith is talking to his son during a leisurely game of basketball. His son (only 4-5 years old) tells him excitedly he’s a pro basketball player, heading to the top. After a pause, his father gives him some advice, telling him not to reach too far; he doesn’t want him wasting his life pursuing something that may never happen. A split second later, he realizes the hypocrisy behind what he just said; he’s not only betting his life and happiness on a dream that may never happen, but his son’s as well. He quickly relents:
“Don’t ever let anybody tell you you can’t do something, not even me.”
This point I’m kind of split of on. Respect for your elders is held as one of the greatest virtues in Japanese society, individualism the most feared. Yet, in today’s world, we do see many Japanese youth abandoning the longstanding family traditions or businesses and going on alone with their own lives. Taking the initiative is not an admirable quality. Conforming to the mold is paramount.
Will Smith’s character is homeless. The Japanese, for all intents and purpose, pretty much ignore the homeless. Oh, there are good samaritans, and there are homeless shelters in cities with a large enough homeless population like Osaka, but I believe their thinking on the subject is very 19th century: the homeless are criminals, and cannot be helped. Of course we know this is hardly the case. People fall into bad luck.
It comes down to appearances, of all things. Homeless people in Japan know they are looked down upon, but I will give you this: they keep their dignity. They are not drug users or thieves. They set up their futons at night, throw a tarp neatly over it if it’s raining, and set their shoes outside, as if they had a threshold to their part of the world. Laundry is hung to dry on trees. Dress is still meticulous; I would not recognize the people I’ve seen in the park as homeless if they were walking downtown.
The movie follows this façade precisely. Will Smith understands he’s involved with a professional business, and dresses in a neatly-pressed suit and tie every day, despite his situation. He doesn’t want to be seen as homeless, as someone to be pitied. The author himself admitted he would have looked like a businessman on his way out of town – wearing a suit, carrying bags, and guiding his son.
A Year in Search of Wa follows up on this with a Japanese businessman who had been homeless for years, yet kept his business suit as his only clothing. He patches it up, makes sure it is cleaned every few weeks, and takes the jacket off when he lies down…
When he walks among the people at the station, nobody notices him. That minor gesture – or lack thereof – makes him feel a part of things. And he reacts like any good citizen when he sees a dirty man in wrinkled clothes sleeping on the ground. “I will never be like that.”
The play: that he is a successful businessman taking a lunchtime stroll in the sun. Only he never gets up to go back to work. But the suit – that’s more than just a prop. It’s his dignity, his face.
“One day,” he says, still rubbing, “it will be destroyed. And then everything will be over.”
Irreconcilable differences, breaking traditionals, and keeping up appearances. Think about it.