Tuesday, May 31, 2011

“Maybe none of us really understand what we’ve lived through...”

After I’d acquired an interest in all things Japanese and before I actually came to the country, I would jump at the chance to get my hands on anything with a hint of it. Which is why I picked up “The Remains of the Day” by Kazuo Ishiguro. I soon realized that despite his name, he hasn’t lived in Japan since he was a child and is for all intents and purposes a British writer. Remains is even narrated by that staple of British literature, the Butler – and yet, in a strange way, Stevens struck me as an integrally Japanese character. He’s one of a dying breed – the dignified, loyal servant, and as he considers his own role in relation to those he has served, there’s a strong feeling of “shikata ga nai” (alternatively shouganai)– “it can’t be helped.” Stevens knows that the man he spent most of his life serving was not as honorable as he would attest – but it couldn’t be helped. Where else would he go, who else would he serve, what else would he do if he weren’t buttling?

Shouganai is a sentiment that is pervasive here, notably so since 3/11, and it can be at times a frustrating display of complacency(1)and heartbreaking calm in the face of adversity. Stevens’ sense of resignation becomes fatal in the characters from Ishiguro’s more recent work. I went to see on the draw of Andrew Garfield (and my love of all things Social Network) and ended up buying the book the second I left the movie theater. I rarely buy new English paperbacks here because they’re unreasonably expensive, but it was such a beautiful movie – the actors especially were brilliant – and I needed to know how it differed from the adaptation.

Usually I’d try not to spoil the plot of a movie for you, but the trailer reveals pretty much everything, and it’s not a suspense-heavy story, but rather relies on the characters. The three main characters start as children living in what appears to be an idyllic English boarding house. We soon realize that they are actually clones, created to provide organ donations that will lead to their early deaths.

If this were just about any other movie based on any other novel than an Ishiguro, there would be an inevitable chase scene where the doomed lovebirds make a desperate flight for freedom and are hunted down by The Man. And yet Never Let Me Go has the same sense of tragic acceptance that Remains of the Day does, that Japan itself has had these past few months. The only method of escape they consider is what they believe has been sanctioned – when that falls through they don’t seek an alternative. Because what else is there, really?

It can’t be helped.



(1)“But it can be helped,” an exasperated ex-pat friend once said to me when I used it in his presence. I was speaking to some mutual Japanese friends. While they nodded in agreement, he responded, “We can help it.”

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