In Koichi Iwabuchi’s book, he examines the global flows of Japanese popular culture to reposition the common conception of a West-centric globalizing force and advocates for the term transnational movement that highlights interactions between different locations and regions in Asia. More interestingly, he also discusses the term mukokuseki or “no nationality” in relation to the issue of a cultural odor. While he focuses on popular culture products like Pokemon or Japanese TV dramas, the issue of whether this can be expanded to other cultural products, such as Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s homage to Yasujiro Ozu.
Already, Hou and Ozu’s films, Cafe Lumiere and Tokyo Story respectively, position in terms of popular culture is a precarious one, yet these films can be read in light of Iwabuchi’s configurations of the transnational, mukokuseki, and cultural odor in that these films do, indeed, exhibit a transnational connection as a director from Taiwan goes to Japan to make a film in Japanese that pays homage to a Japanese director. The films do not validate Iwabuchi’s theoretical interventions on a larger cultural scale, but they, instead, offer specific vocabulary when discussing these two films in relation to each other. A key difference, however, is that Ozu’s films do not emit the notion of mukokuseki, which Iwabuchi defines as that which seeks to utilize non-Japanese characters or removing any sort of easily identifiable signifier of Japaneseness in order to make the text more easily distributable in international markets. For example, the use of Japanese actors and actresses already imbues the films with a Japanese odor or fragrance, or a positive stereotypical image of what it means to be “Japanese” or in this case a Japanese family. The film’s Japanese odor is very much removed from the issue of mukokuseki through the presence of Noriko’s missing husband. While he is not actually a physical character within the film, his ghostly presence eliminates the possibility for mukokuseki within the text and instead highlights the politics of the nation and collective memory in a time of war as he was a soldier conscripted in World War II and continues to be counted as missing rather than completely dead. Moreover, his presence is further highlighted by his photo in Noriko’s apartment.
Ozu’s film, perhaps, was not meant to be a transnational text, but Hou’s film as already a transnational text also addresses these same issues of Japan, the nation and mukokuseki, as well as a cultural odor. Hou’s film, much like Ozu’s, includes a certain degree of a Japanese odor constructed in a slightly different way. In particular, the centrality of trains function on various levels. The train image is used as a homage to Ozu’s use of trains in his films to mark the beginning of a journey or the end. There is also an emphasis on the particularity of the trains in Hou’s film. While the trains in Ozu’s films are numerous the identification of the trains is not as specific. In Cafe Lumiere, however, the Japanese Railway Company is invoked on top of the stations as meeting place, the characters constant travel in these trains, along with Hajime’s obsession with recording the sounds on the JR as possibly an invocation of the densha otaku. Through this repetition of trains in the film it seems as though Hou is not only attempting to associate his own film with Ozu’s films but also attaching a specific Japaneseness to these trains.
Hajime in Hou’s film and his fascination with the trains can also be seen as a place of intersection between Iwabuchi’s idea of nationlessness and popular culture as a densha otaku. This subtype of otaku already invokes a notion of popular culture, but in the case of Hajime it is a popular culture that is closely linked to the JR. The possibility of a nationlessness is by way of an otaku subculture is eliminated. While Hou’s inclusion of Hajime is in its own way a citation of Ozu’s own fascination with trains, it becomes pop culturesque in that he is not simply an admirer of trains but seemingly enamored with the sounds they emit making him also a pop culture reference as well.
Although Iwabuchi mainly tackles the circulation of pop culture and media in his book, he also provides useful terminology in discussing the transnational movement of cultural texts, especially in the theorization of a cultural odor. His explanation of mukokuseki on the other hand is one that can be contested from not only a cinematic standpoint but also a pop culture one.
Iwabuchi, Koichi. Recentering Globalization: Popular Culture and Japanese Transnationalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2002.
Tōkyō Monogatari. Criterion Collection, 2003. DVD.
Cafe Lumiere. Genius Entertainment, 2003. DVD.