Ruminations on Trump’s Visit to Japan

Updated! From “No Gate” to “Fishgate,” with stopovers to sing the Jet Jaguar song, eat at Alice’s Restaurant, battle smog coming from PR flacks, and hear the Heart Sutra performed in four different languages.

President Trump got everything from Prime Minister Abe but a piggyback ride, which put me in mind of this classic send-up by the MST3k gang:

MST3k is known for its obscure references which people love tracking down. The last line, “Don’t touch my bags if you please, Mr. customs man” is from an old Arlo Guthrie song called “Comin’ Into Los Angeles.” Arlo is the son of Woody Guthrie, and had a big hit with “Alice’s Restaurant,” a satirical talking antiwar song that was later made into a ramblin’ film by Arthur Penn, a veritable paean to anti-authoritarianism.

At his presser with Prime Minister Abe, President Trump spoke slowly and quietly, looking rather tired and restrained. It could just be jet lag (or Jet Jaguar lag), but I wonder if any of the Washington press corps have the nerve to ask Sarah Huckabee Sanders (a.k.a. “Clarice”) if the president is on meds to calm him down and keep him from uttering phrases like “little rocket man” and “total destruction of North Korea.” (They should also ask Sanders whether she still hears the screaming of the lambs.)

The MST3k send-up of Godzilla movies from the 1970s (in this case, Godzilla vs. Megalon) is a lowbrow poke at our brethren from the land of the rising sun. One could discover from Wim Wenders’ outstanding film Tokyo-Ga that Japan is a nation of contradictions. Fifty years ago they were famous for turning out cheap transistor radios and bad monster movies, but this stereotype fails to reflect the hidden (or at least less visible) Japan — a highly cultured Japan rich in noble traditions worthy of study and emulation.

Japanese Zen Buddhism (with its “no gate” philosophy) has had a profound effect on spiritual seekers in the West, and on the New York School of artists and composers. The venerable American literary character Suzuki Beane was probably named after Zen teacher D.T. Suzuki. But even Godzilla, tacky though he was, has become a meme ranging from the computer world (Filezilla, Clonezilla) to the Thanksgiving oven (“Birdzilla” in a classic episode of Cheers). Maybe we should refer to our president’s huge ego as “Trumpzilla.” It can only be tamed by leading it around golf courses until it is tired and spent and requires Bosco. (Maybe a metaphor for spiritual practice?)

Apropos of the MST3k line “He crimefighting covers up a basic insecurity,” what do we make of Trump’s speech to the military at Yokota Air Base?

We dominate the sky. We dominate the sea. We dominate the land and space,” the president said. “Not merely because we have the best equipment, which we do, and by the way, a lot of it’s coming in. You saw that budget. That’s a lot different than in the past. A lot of beautiful brand new equipment is coming in. And nobody makes it like they make it in the United States. Nobody.”

“No one, no dictator, no regime, and no nation should underestimate ever American resolve,” the president said, standing on a stage in an airplane hangar on the base. “Every once in a while in the past they underestimated us. It was not pleasant for them. Was it? It was not pleasant. We will never yield. Never waiver, and never falter in defense of our people, our freedom and our great American flag.”

— Donald J. Trump to troops stationed at Yokota Air Base, Japan, as reported by abcnews.go.com.

While it’s good to have an effective military, bragging about one’s domination and equipment does suggest an underlying insecurity as well as being in bad taste for a superpower. Military force alone is brute force, ignorant force, unenlightened force. There is no such thing as a “smart bomb,” and while Trump’s words may have been aimed at North Korea, they were doubtless a grim reminder to the Japanese people about Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Military force should always be tempered by wisdom, compassion, keen insight into subtle aspects of diplomacy, and an overarching desire for peace — all qualities Trump seems to lack, but tries to make up for with braggadocio.

We have yet to see Trump go on a Godzilla-style rampage, but the prospect is not encouraging, and Republican Senator Bob Corker recently vowed to hold a hearing examining such questions as whether Trump has the power to unilaterally start World War III (perhaps in response to a Twitter spat).

Outsized American politicians and Japanese monsters

When George H. W. Bush visited Japan in 1992, he famously vomited on the Japanese Prime Minister. Urban legend has it that this gave birth to a cheap Japanese toy, a likeness of Bush 41 which spewed vomit on cue. Whether or not this toy ever existed, the underlying incident reinforced Japanese perceptions of American politicians as oversized entities capable of extreme behaviour.

President Trump did little to overcome the American oaf complex when feeding fish in a koi pond at Akasaka Palace. Oblivious to their true needs and natural limitations, he quickly emptied the entire box — possibly causing the same malreaction in the fish as Bush 41 had shown 25 years earlier. If a fish could sing, it might have sung to Trump “I need a slow hand!”

But is Fishgate real or fake news? It could be yet another Rorschach test in which we see a reflection of our own internalized views about Dear Leader (or as Schubert would say, “Dear Lieder”). Country Joe and the Fish might dutifully enquire “What’s that spell?” Japan clearly has Donald Trump all a-cluster.

The original 1954 Godzilla movie sported an anti-nuclear theme, and some later tokusatsu films had environmental themes, with pollution poisoning the fish so vital to Japan’s culture, economy and diet. Given Trump’s choice of anti-environmentalists to head environmental agencies, poisoning fish is something we more or less expect of him, and are quick to believe. But until we see a reliable body count from the pond in question, we ought not carp, lest the scales of justice be wrongly tipped. 😉

Speaking of outsized Americans who lack subtlety, the purely technical question has arisen as to what audio format should be used when archiving press conferences held by Sarah Huckabee Sanders. The answer? Definitely FLAC. (For Obama speeches, use OPUS.)

When Sanders walks out, you get the impression she turns on the smoke & fog machine. It’s rather like air pollution or toxic sludge, which were subjects of the environmentally conscious Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster (a.k.a. Godzilla vs. Hedorah).

Hey, maybe instead of calling Sanders “Clarice” (from Silence of the Lambs) I should call her “Hedorah.” I suppose after a press conference, reporters are left flopping like fish in a polluted sea.

The Smog Monster flick is strange and wonderful, full of bizarre animated sequences, nods to 60s psychedelia, and a cheesy “Save The Earth!” song in one U.S. release, replacing “Return the Sun!” in the Japanese version. And let’s face it, sunlight is the best disinfectant for political malfeasance.

With its smörgåsbord (or sushi bucket) of influences and techniques, Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster confounded critics. Legendary killjoys the Medved Brothers ranked it one of the worst of all time, but Andrew Pragasam writes:

The movie isn’t that bad. Its schizophrenic tone is born of a desire to please three wildly divergent markets: the kiddie matinee crowd, ecologically conscious students, and counterculture party hounds… Japanese cinema was facing such a financial crisis, Toho Studios were willing to try anything to rake in the yen. However, [director] Yoshimitsu Banno was entirely sincere.

One short animation from the film looks like it might have been influenced by Heinz Edelmann, the graphic designer behind Yellow Submarine:

In the Japanese clip, notice the dark, shadowy cityscape with “lonely people” wearing gas masks. Two tall European women enter, walk towards each other, get vaporized by smog, and merge into a single, two-headed image, which then becomes a crosshatched marking on a map showing the area affected by Hedorah’s pollution.

In “Godzilla is a Radical Environmentalist,” Daniel Oberhaus opines:

Although [Japan] is not without its environmental problems, today Japanese cities are among the least polluted in the world. This is due in part to the swift action against industrial pollution orchestrated by its government nearly 50 years ago, and was reinforced by Banno’s unique take on a Japanese icon in Godzilla vs. Hedorah. For all its corniness and pulpy action sequences, at the film’s core is a radical message that still resonates with modern audiences: the only way to take meaningful action against climate change is to stomp out the main problem — complacency.

Elsewhere, Oberhaus points out limitations of the approach taken by youth in the film:

Half [of it] takes place in a Japanese rock club, where Yano’s older son grapples with psychedelic hallucinations as Hedorah takes over the city. The smog monster eventually makes its way into the club and ends the party prematurely, at which point the elder Yano and his fellow students decide to take action by organizing a “million man march” against the smog monster.

Despite their good intentions, the students’ march is woefully under-attended and devolves into yet another dance party. Banno’s satire has a clear target and message — the impotence of well-intentioned environmentalists who naively believe that they can reverse the damage of industrial pollution with enough marches and bonfires.

Or maybe they just needed a better song! (“Big Yellow Buddha” is one title that comes to mind.)

“No Gate” philosophy and the Heart Sutra

Since I couldn’t resist a header promising a journey from “No Gate” to “Fishgate,” here’s more about the “no gate”* philosophy found in most strains of Buddhism, whether Indian, Tibetan, Chinese, or Japanese.

The terms “no gate,” “gateless gate,” and “gate of emptiness” are used to describe a particular Buddhist teaching. It is not easily grasped, but the essence of it is that the final void reached through meditation is not different from the phenomenological world. Zen is sometimes called the “gateless gate” because compared with some other religions (or non-religions), it’s viewed as non-dualistic.

Discussion of the gateless gate is sometimes connected with study of the Heart Sutra, a scripture accepted by most schools of Buddhism, translated into various languages, and often sung or chanted:

The Heart Sutra in Mandarin:

The Heart Sutra in Tibetan:

The Heart Sutra in Sanskrit (1):

The Heart Sutra in Sanskrit (2):

The Heart Sutra in Japanese (1):

The Heart Sutra in Japanese (2):

The first version, sung by Taiwan-born folk-pop icon Chyi Yu in Mandarin Chinese, might be described as “rich”; while the last version, chanted in Japanese by a group under the direction of Taisen Deshimaru, may strike us as more austere. But at the core is the same mystical teaching that “emptiness is form and form is emptiness.”

Somehow I can’t imagine Donald Trump grasping the concept of shunyata.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization. We gratefully acknowledge the city of Tokyo.

*Not to be confused with “No Gates!” — a chant popular among anti-Microsoft activists and Linux aficionados.

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