Sunday, October 14, 2007


Jamie Foxx looked confused. Befuddled. Slightly out of place. It's one thing to be promoting your latest flick, The Kingdom, on a morning talk show back in the States, but it's another thing altogether to be sitting in a TV studio somewhere in Tokyo, sandwiched between six hosts, all of them asking questions in a language you don't understand, with only an eager but harried translator to serve as a linguistic go-between.

I felt his pain.

I tune in as much as possible to Japanese TV to brush up on my listening skills -- which need a lot of brushing up on -- and so I was pleasantly surprised to see an English speaking guest on a morning 'wide show', as they're called, and even more pleased that that guest happened to be Jamie Foxx, who is probably the most overall talented entertainer to come along in the past, what, ten years? (Watch his diverse performances in Any Given Sunday and Ali and Ray and Collateral and Dreamgirls, and you'll soon realize that he is a startlingly good, probably great character actor. Catch a DVD of some of his stand-up, and you'll realize he's almost -- almost -- as good a stand-up comedian as Eddie Murphy.)

Alas, all his thespiatic skills were no help in Japan.

He did a good job of it, though. Played along. Answered the questions well, gamely, professionall, humorously. The way it worked, the multitude of Japanese hosts asked questions, and the translator tucked behind his ear translated them into English, and Foxx usually gave a long, rambling answer that made me think he had actually forgotten that the lady hovered beeside him had to eventually translate the response, and I felt bad for her, and she usually only bothered to translate about half of the answer into Japanese, the gist of it. And at the end of the interview, Foxx took a picture of himself and his hosts with a cellphone camera. (I think it was his own, camera, too.)

Much is made back in North America of the ostensible 'wackiness' of Japanese TV -- and, don't get me wrong, there is a shitload of that stuff. But the strangeness is more in the way that it resembles American or Canadian TV, just skewed.

Their talk shows feature celebrity guests numbering to five to twenty, and many times what happens is simply that a feature story is shown, and, in the corner of the screen, we watch the guests' reactions as they, in turn, watch the feature alongside us. Is this because in Japanese society it's important to know what everybody else is feeling and thinking before you can make your own judgement? I'm not sure. But last night there was a segment on a vicious ice storm that hit Montreal and Quebec and Ontario a few years back (with footage that seemed suspiciously like something stolen from a CBC drama), and the guests' screen-within-a-screen reactions were all perfectly, appropriately sympathetic, horrified, relieved. Which encouraged me to feel the same way. Which is maybe the point.

There are also an insane amount of food and travel shows, with guests cooking and tasting and oohing and ahhing. Major and minor celebrities alike also travel around various spots in Japan and the world, pointing out interesting sights, visiting northern Japan or the Middle East, southern Okinawa or the the heart of the Netherlands. The Japanese have an insatiable curiosity about everything, and more important, a desire to constantly improve, to know more, to do better, so there are a multitude of books and TV shows centred around improving one's skills, etiquette, and overall knowledge of the world.

Of course, part of the fun for me is trying to figure out what, exactly, is going on. My listening skills are getting better, but they still have a long way to go. The other night I flipped through a channel that featured a baby in the womb. Ah, maybe it's about abortion, I figured. The scene then cut to the panelists in the studio, who kept repeating a single word, an unfamiliar word, and so I popped open my dictionary and saw that it was the Japanese word for 'evolution'. (Which I have now, of course, forgotten.) So they're talking about evolution. Cool. The baby in the womb, evolution, that all make sense.

But then they brought out a pony-tailed expert in a suit, and he started pointing to various graphs, and then unleashed a photo of a man with three nipples. He pointed carefully at the third nipple, located just above the waist, while the guests oohed an ahhed.

Baby in the womb. A man's third nipple. Evolution. It all makes sense.

However, the next guest threw things for an even bigger loop. A woman in her thirties is introduced, alongside footage of her in the wrestling ring, throwing butch chicks over her shoulders with supreme agility and ease. Ah, a Japanese female wrestler. I got it. Then they cut to her giving birth in the delivery room. Okay, fine. But then they show her and her husband at the zoo, I guess, watching a giraffe, and it soon becomes apparent that this giraffe is giving birth, and so the scene cuts from actual footage of the Japanese female wrestler giving birth to her and her husband watching a giraffe give birth! (Have you ever seen a giraffe give birth? No? Don't.)

Baby in the womb. A man with three nipples. A Japanese female wrestler. The wrestler giving birth. The wrestler watching a giraffe give birth. Sentimental music all the while.

Gotta love it.

There are also programs that feature learning French, learning English, learning Korean, learning German, learning Italian, learning more about haiku, alongside the usual Sunday morning shows about politicians, and, of course, the inevitable Hollywood star whoring themselves out for a bit of extra cash.

A Softbank ad features Brad Pitt outside of, well, I don't know -- an office? a museum? -- arguing with somebody on the phone while the camera circles around him. We can see him mouth: `Baby, I love you. I'm sorry. I'm sorry.` He grows steadily more exasperated before hanging up and shoving the phone into the hands of a befuddled businessman walking the other way. Hmmm.

There's also one featuring Tommy Lee Jones (!) sitting on an airplane next to Dave Spector, an American TV commentator who's lived in Japan for thirty years and speaks freakishly good Japanese. I can't quite figure this one out. Tommy Lee Jones is looking grimly out the window. (Come to think of it, does he ever look anything but grim?) Dave Spector is cheerfully saying...something. Next they're in Tokyo, while Jones drinks coffee from a can and Dave Spector and a stewardness look on happily beside him.

The moral of the story is: If you're ever bored in Japan, flick on the tube. At the very least, you'll get to see Jamie Fox or Brad Pitt in cultural, linguistic limbo. At the very most, you just might be lucy enough to see a giraffe give birth.

Which is not such a bad way to start a morning, is it?