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  • Writer's pictureStone Bridge Press

Japan's pandemic experience through film

Recently I had the great pleasure of seeing Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s latest film Evil Does Not Exist. It confirmed my feeling that Hamaguchi is one of the greatest directors working today. I, like many others, was introduced to his films with Drive my Car (2021), which premiered at Cannes to much acclaim and went on to win the Academy Award for international film. It was Peter Cowie’s exceptional introduction to the subject, Japanese Cinema: A Personal Journey, that made me aware of Drive my Car and I took the opportunity to see it as soon as it was available at my local cinema.

What’s remarkable about Hamaguchi’s style is the effortless realism that grounds his films. I’m reminded of the conclusion of Drive my Car where, after some time has passed, we return to see Misaki shopping in a surgical mask, as are those around her. It’s clear that we have passed into the period of the Covid pandemic. I was jarred by this detail and how it departs from filmmaking that either exists divorced from the real world or indulges in its presence as a form of commentary. It delivers a consistency to his characters, as does the focus on the resolution of tension through communication. Happy Hour (2015) and Evil Does Not Exist both feature scenes of dialogue in a panel or question-and-answer setting. Drive my Car slightly alters this formula: theater actors give table readings while the director offers feedback. In either case, the satisfaction of these scenes derives from the actor’s subtle performances of genuine, human communication.

Evil Does Not Exist returned to the theme of the Covid pandemic in a far more foregrounded and intentional way. A Tokyo-based company seeks local approval on a glamping project (a portmanteau of “glamor” and “camping”) in a small community in rural Japan. The locals suspect—and it is later confirmed—that the project is a pretext to apply for Covid-related business subsidies. While subsidies and business-targeted assistance programs were part of America’s Covid stimulus, seemingly they weren’t as salient. This got me thinking about the parallel experiences of the pandemic across national borders. As we move further away from the pandemic situation, we will inevitably have to reckon with creating a collective memory of the period. Film and other media will be essential in this process.

While Americans were embroiled in a culture war over public mask wearing, masks were well-accepted in Japan—something that should come as little surprise if one considers the preexisting social practices surrounding illness and mask-wearing. The United States and Japan were actually part of a small set of polities that sent flat, untargeted cash payments out to citizens. It’s hard to think of a more representative economic program of the period in the American context than the so-called “stimulus checks,” and it tends to overshadow the arcane systems of enhanced unemployment benefits and payroll-retention schemes that both the United States and Japan made use of.

I would speculate that what makes Japan’s program of economic assistance to businesses during the pandemic more film-worthy, more culturally visible is that it took the form of relatively direct support to small- and medium-sized businesses rather than indirect transfers that American policy makers tend to prefer. Japan’s policy suite consisted of grants with minimal eligibility criteria and subsidies to investment. American federal programs preferred tax credits and incentives to loans made by private financial institutions. All that is to say that Japan’s system, I think, makes for more narratively satisfying conditions: Tokyoite’s exploiting rural communities for a few million yen in subsidies or empty restaurants who remain open despite having no customers. The former example may be more than just a dramatization, the above-linked study showed that firms that received subsidies tended to be less credit worthy or underperforming before the pandemic. The latter recalls a passage from John Dougill’s travelog Off the Beaten Tracks in Japan:

It was lunchtime, so I let myself be hustled into a surprisingly spacious dining room in which sat a single Japanese couple. What was it like pre-Covid, I asked the waitress. “A full house,” she answered. How many would that be? “Eighty,” she said. “They come in large groups.” I presumed that was in summer, “No, they come all year round. Mainly tour groups for pensioners.”  Despite the disastrous downturn she seemed cheerful enough, and I wondered if they were being kept afloat by government subsidy. There was generous funding available for small businesses, and rumor even had it that some places were enjoying more income than pre-Covid.

It’s scenes like this that will sit with us in the coming years, forming an image of our own experience and the experience of others during the pandemic.


Learn more about the books mentioned in this article on our website. For a history of Japanese film, check out Japanese Cinema: A Personal Journey.



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