Back from Tokyo and the International Film Festival, where Trashed won a Special Jury prize, and the Audience Award went to a Japanese film: Flashback Memories in 3D. Another labour of love, Flashback Memories tells the real story, through old videos and song, of Goma – traveller, husband, father and musician – who woke up after a car crash thinking that he was a painter.
Looking at old photos, he couldn’t remember who the people in them were, or why he was smiling. His post-accident diary confessed that he often wanted to give up. But Goma still loves, still laughs, and, because he retains what he calls body memory, still plays live, with his band. The fact that he plays the didgeridoo – an instrument which, in amateur hands, sounds like someone blowing raspberries into a sink – is another education. Japanese business men were watching, transported, as this ancient pipe became a pulsing condenser of power, reaching out – literally, thanks to the 3D – into the audience: a clarion call to hope, and creation.
And yet chances were that Goma, who now paints too, would not even remember collecting his award. Existentialism has never seemed so attractive. It made you wonder who, or what, you would think you were, if memory were suddenly wiped.
Then there was Tokyo itself: a collective, quiet memory of the earthquake last year. Bafflingly, most of the signs and announcements are in a combination of Japanese and English, even though you are often the only Westerner on the metro, or on the street. “There was a mass exodus” explained a jolly woman from Manchester. “Before the earthquake, it was very mixed – almost fifty-fifty”. Now, as things stand, it’s surreal, as if London had added tube stations in Cyrillic, or Cornwall had started announcing bus stops in Farsi.
But then, no-one could really work out how much English the Japanese generally speak. “Hardly any” Japanese people would say, cheerfully, and fluently. “I am learning English at university” said one of the festival’s delightful attendants, proudly directing me to the current page of her university text book. “I want to talk to people around the world”. Her book turned out to consist of helpful phrases. “I am sorry, we no longer have that collar size in stock” I read. “Please let me order more”.
Everyone had said that Tokyo would be a culture shock, but hardly. A culture shock, coming from London, is Calcutta, or Manchester. Tokyo, on the other hand, is an utterly charming, delicate version of a Western city; its trucks in shades of bright orange and blue; its street cleaners wielding wooden besoms like public spirited witches. Its version of the London Eye – a towering ferris wheel – is endearingly spindly. The Fuji television HQ boasts a giant golden ball in the middle of its walkways, as if a reformed Bond villain had somehow been involved in the design.
All of which is quite enough to make you instantly want to live there. But there are plenty more marvellous buildings – a vast, jaunty barber’s pole, a twiddly alien tower, an imposing, but wonderfully merry, Buddhist shrine, where laughing visitors smother themselves in incense smoke (good for health) while rows of tiny stalls, dating back to Samurai times, sell you cakes stamped from antique metal presses. The one vaguely stern construction – the NY-esque skyscraper in Roppongi – just makes you question the sanity of anyone who would stand, 42 floors up, drinking iced tea in an earthquake zone. You could feel the thing swaying, as you backed away from the windows. “Are you scared?” asked a few rather more macho film-makers, in disbelief.
And in between all this, more films. Michael J Rix’s Accession: a genius, visceral look at ignorance and despair in South Africa. Himself He Cooks: a stunning, spicy, moving, human meditation of a film, which follows volunteers in the Golden Temple of Amritsar as they make free food for a hundred thousand people, every day. And, of course, the sold-out screenings of Trashed where, in the Q&A sessions afterwards, Japanese audiences would valiantly get to grips with the horrific reality of our waste. Some people launched into lengthy speeches; some people just said ‘thank you for making this’; almost everyone got engaged, passionate, concerned. It felt like a catharsis, in fact.
But then, people are getting sick of – as well as sick from – our rubbish. Practically everything in Tokyo comes wrapped in plastic – you almost expect to be cling-filmed yourself, if you stand still for too long. As you walk through the city, you leave a little toxic trail behind you – plastic tops, milk containers, sugar tubes, cake wrappings, tube passes, water bottles. It makes you imagine what the place would look like if your consumption wasn’t solid, but still oil. It makes you think that milk used to be in jugs, sugar in bowls, water in taps, cakes in paper bags. It makes you go slightly insane, before deciding on black coffee and ice cream instead. And in this respect, of course, Japan is no different to anywhere else in the world.
I ended up, on my last day of exploring the back streets, in a small cafe, whose owner rescued small, abandoned dogs. He was delighted by the chance to speak English and took off the Stone Roses album he was playing to showcase some Japanese music. “Do you know about the earthquake?” someone had asked me, at the second screening of Trashed. “You say dioxins take generations to be removed from the environment: do you know that radiation takes a hundred thousand years?”
Only one other person had mentioned Fukushima. The Tokyo Occupy movement, which had mounted large scale protests against nuclear power, had gone unreported: people went curiously silent when Occupy was mentioned – preoccupied, perhaps. And who wants to make a point, in the face of such an immediate and ongoing tragedy? The common factor, I had replied, eventually, was that there was too much poison out there already. As the scientists in the film were saying, we had to stop adding more. There was a pause, and then a powerful, low, communal murmur of agreement.
In the cafe, the Japanese band were singing about a previous earthquake, which had devastated Osaka. Two other customers were fussing over a rescued poodle, while a chihuahua growled at me from beneath their seats. One of the films I had yet to see was called Facing Animals: the director, Jan Van Ijken, had managed, after years, to get factory farms to let him install cameras into animals’ cages. The result was a view of humans from the animals’ point of view, and a trailer which had had me in tears within seconds. “Everything is sad” sang the band. “Everything is so sad/That it’s being laughed away, on a dry winter morning.”
Out on the streets, it was a glorious autumn afternoon. I made my way back through the Tokyo subway, a system so convoluted that the map looks like a spider has painted a kanji, and began packing for the flight. Which, as I knew, would involve not only countless tonnes of carbon (I plant trees), but also plastic being handed out like confetti – cups, cutlery, headphone bags, blanket bags, more cups, straws, cocktail sticks. Across the skies, hundreds of thousands of people would be experiencing the same thing, as if a mad scientist had looked at travel and thought ‘how can I make it even more rubbish?’ Below us, billions of people would be obediently following suit, without the excuse of being tied into a seat, although it’s a convenient enough metaphor. If I ever flew long distance again, I promised myself, I would bring my own provisions. Better still, the airline boards would watch Trashed, and change their policies.
Because rather than throw everything away, like so many unwanted memories, we can make everything recyclable or best, reusable, and that’s the pity and the shame of it. But it’s also, one realises, the hope.