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Swallowtail Butterfly—Yen Town Culture: An Essay on Shunji Iwai’s 1996 Film

Swallowtail Butterfly(Japan, 1996)

DIRECTED BY SHUNJI IWAI

Essay written by Christopher Porter

Swallowtail-poster
________________
Swallowtail Butterfly “Opening”
“Once upon a time when the yen was the most powerful force in the world
The city overflowed with immigrants
Like a gold rush boom town
They came in search of yen, snatching up yen
And the immigrants called the city ‘Yen Town’
But the Japanese hated that name
So they referred to those yen thieves as ‘Yen Towns’
It’s a bit puzzling
But Yen Town meant both the city and the outcast
If they worked hard, earned a pocket full of yen
And returned home they would be rich men
It sounds like a fairy tale
But it was a paradise of yen, Yen Town
And this is the story of Yen Towns in Yen Town.”
スワロウテイル「オープニング」
『むかしむかし“円”が世界で一番強かったころ
その街は移民たちであふれ
いつかのゴルドラッシュのようだった
円を目当てに円を掘りに来る街
そんなこの街を移民たちは
「イェンタウン(円都)」と呼んだ
でも日本人はこの名前を嫌い
移民たちを蔑んで「イェンタウンズ(円盗)」と呼んだ
少し難しいけど
イェンタウンはこの街とこの街に群がる異邦人のこと
頑張って円を稼いで
祖国に帰れば大金持ち
夢みたいな話だけど
何しろここは円の楽園「イェンタウン」
そしてこれは

イェンタウンに住むイェンタウンたちの物語』

 

yen town club sign

Iwai Shunji’s film is an alternate history, localized to Tokyo, but with implications for Japan at large. It is narrated by one of the main characters temporally from some point after the events depicted in the film. This film was released in 1996, well into the decline of Japan’s bubble economy that began to collapse in the beginning of that decade. However, the premise of the film is that Japanese currency is the strongest in the world and that immigrants are flooding into the country to make money. Iwai has reimagined Japan’s recent past; in this history there is no bubble burst and he uses this setting to imagine the culture that may have emerged if the yen’s strength actually had risen the point it has in the film. When carefully observed the level of complexity to be found in Yen Town culture reveals itself to be staggering and deserves a detailed study. My overall goal is to understand what Iwai was attempting to express about the real Japan, and so my analyses should in turn be interpreted as commentary and criticism on the prevailing Japanese ethos in the 1990s and the extremes to which he feared that sentiment may have gone.

 

As I embark on this study of Yen Town and its culture it is important to take into consideration the problems and pitfalls of anthropological study. Clifford Geertz warns against making generalizations about a society or country at large merely from what one witnesses within the inescapably confined environment where a study is being conducted. An anthropologist is not omnipresent and so has no choice but to pick one location at a time and observe. The cipher to the problem of having a small number of locations (sometimes, a single location) in which to study a larger society or culture lies in recognizing that this problem exists, and in narrowing your approach to the problem. “The locus of study is not the object of study. Anthropologists don’t study villages (tribes, towns, neighborhoods…); they study in villages.” (The Interpretation of Cultures, p. 22) That being said, I do have to pick a starting point. As any anthropologist is, in this study I too am confined to a very specific locale; I have only this film with which to extrapolate a large amount of inferential data. My locus of study is Yen Town and my immediate objective is to understand its culture. Luckily I am privy to a rather detailed account of a few very telling events that take place within the setting. I will begin by focusing in detail on a few scenes within the film that, upon a close reading and interpretation, begin to reveal some of the underlying structures that form the Yen Town culture.

 

The foreign population of Yen Town is large in number and vast in kind. The effect this has on the language the denizens speak is apparent very early on in the film. In a conversation between one of the main characters, Glico, who is a prostitute in the beginning of the film, and another prostitute, both Chinese, takes place in a mix of Chinese and Japanese. It is not uncommon for polyglots to mix two or more of their known languages together at times, but what is revealing in this scene is the words that are spoken in Japanese. In the following monologue, the unnamed prostitute is figuring out how much she spends on cigarettes each month while mentioning that her father, a farmer in China, could not even afford to buy Japanese cigarettes with his monthly income in Yuan. Although she is speaking in Chinese, every time money is mentioned she says it in Japanese. So, for example, 250円 is said as にひゃくえん despite the other words being in Chinese. Below is the Japanese translation of the dialogue:

 

「この煙草が一箱250円。1日1箱で一ヶ月7,500円。パパは国で畑耕してる。パパの月収が400元。1元が12円だと4,800円か。1ヶ月畑耕しても日本じゃ、煙草代にもならないのよ。」

 

Glico in curlers

The combination of the dialogue’s content as well as the mixing of the two languages tells us a lot about what is important to those trying to make a living in Yen Town: money. A money-focused culture has emerged and this has affected the way people speak. As the dialogue between the two continues we hear Glico mixing the two, though not limiting the Japanese she uses to just words pertaining to money. The word for “customer”, お客さん, is in Japanese as well as a few other common Japanese expressions. As the film goes on we know that she is fluent in both languages, as well as in English, which could explain her more liberal usage of Japanese.

 

In Paul Ricoeur’s essay on interpretation he states, “…the symbol is universal mediation; we say the real by signifying it; in this sense we interpret it.” (Freud and Philosophy, p. 22) He is referring to the act of speaking in general, but if we extend this to the Japanese written language, where the symbols themselves have individual meaning and can be combined together in innumerable ways to form new meanings, the possibilities for both conveying meaning and for meaning to be interpreted are vast. The deliberate choosing of characters for which to signify something is a window into the consciousness of a culture.

 

As stated in the opening of the film the term “Yen Town” indicates both the nickname the immigrants gave to the city, as well as the name the Japanese, out of abhorrence, call the immigrants. Calling the immigrants “Yen Towns” does not initially seem like it would be offensive; the pejorative nature of the term is not apparent until you look at the Japanese characters. The characters for “Yen Town” when referring to the city are written 「円都」, which mean “yen” and “capital” or “metropolis” respectively. The characters for “Yen Town” when referring to the immigrants are written 「円盗」, which mean “yen” and “steal” respectively. Iwai has skillfully expressed the enmity of the citizens toward the immigrants by working it right into their language. Language is a very important aspect of the film and I will return to it many times.

 

Arrow

As stated above, money is of utmost importance to the Yen Town society. As the number of illegal immigrants in the city is enormous naturally a number of illegal money-making enterprises, both large scale and small, have formed. Prostitution, drug dealing, organized crime, and, one of the main focuses of the film, money counterfeiting. While we can assume all of these are also occurring outside of Yen Town, it is important to recognize the extent to which money has permeated our micro-society in question. This is most evident in a scene that takes place in a location on the outskirts of Tokyo called Aozora 「青空」. It is here that some of the main characters have created a small secondhand goods business and offer, at times, unscrupulous car repair service that consists of puncturing the tires of unsuspecting drivers by means of a sling-shot and then selling them the replacement tire. They then also siphon the gasoline out of the tank so that they will return and buy some of that as well.

 

The secondhand goods business requires the inhabitants of Aozora to sift through landfills in order to find old, broken, or damaged goods (trash hunting) that they can repair and resell. In a scene fairly early on in the film there is a dialogue where the characters Ran and Nihat, longtime residents of Aozora, are explaining the business of fixing and reselling the items they find in the landfill to the character Ageha. Ageha stumbles upon an umbrella and is about to pass it up when Nihat tells her that they can repair and sell it. Following is the dialogue:

 

(Ageha picks up an umbrella and then throws it back down)
Ran: Hey pick that up.
Ageha: But it’s broken.
Nihat: Fix it! An umbrella always sells when it rains. You never know when you might stumble upon a chance to get rich. God gives everyone that same chance. It depends on if that person decides to grab it or not. 「天は人の上に人を造らず、人の下に人を造らず」。
Ran: What’s that?
Ageha: Fukuzawa, the Yen Town god said that.

The Japanese quote is from Fukuzawa Yukichi (福澤 諭吉), a very influential person in Japanese history. It is likely, however, that most of the immigrants in the film do not know much about this man considering they all mispronounce his name as 「ファック・ザワ」, the Japanese subtitles including the mark 「・」used in the separation of given and family name for foreign names written in katakana even though Fukuzawa is the full given name. What can be concluded is that the name Fukuzawa is important to them because it is his face that appears on the Japanese 10,000 Yen note. In fact, they often refer to this denomination of Japanese money as a Fukuzawa rather than a 10,000 yen note.

 

The influx of immigrants into Japan during its bubble economy was significant. As the yen’s strength fell so did the foreigner population. In crafting the foreign characters’ dialogue in the film as exemplified above, Iwai is clearly commenting on the immigrants’ ignorance of Japanese historical persons as well as their single-minded pursuit of money. While discriminated against to inexcusable extremes it is plain that Iwai does not want to present the immigrants in a completely unblemished light and is deliberately choosing ways to distinguish them.

 

Ran and Girl

In “Imagined Communities” Benedict Anderson writes at length about the initial rise of nationalism having a causal link to the rise of print-capitalism and eventually a decided print-language. Nationalism is often directly related to concepts of identity and belonging. While the ties citizens of any community feel with fellow members (imagined or not) are many, language is no doubt a particularly potent unifier as one’s native tongue while not actually innate can be thought of as such. Anderson writes:

 

“…languages […] were, so to speak, the personal property of quite specific groups – their daily speakers and readers – and moreover that these groups, imagined as communities, were entitled to their autonomous place in a fraternity of equals.” (Anderson, p. 84)

 

Some of the Yen Towns speak Japanese but it is often a strange mixture of their own mother tongue and a distinct dialect that has emerged within the ghettos and prostitution districts where many immigrants find themselves confined to. This imposed separation from mainstream Japanese society allows for the continued justification of biases based on discrepancies in language usage, and acts to further legitimize the camaraderie felt between those that share the national tongue.

 

The idea of “us and them”, the creation of “the other” works both as a narrative tool within the film itself and perhaps most importantly as a way to appeal directly to the targeted Japanese audience. Iwai is, after all, critiquing the observed spreading of a society-wide ethos regarding foreigners that was born during a historical period in Japan’s recent history. That the most prominent way this differentiation is expressed in the film is via language speaks to the significant role language plays in establishing and maintaining a sense of community between members of a society. In a mixed society such as Yen Town, where the native citizens feel threatened by outsiders from within, the discrimination comes more deliberately as exemplified by the derogatory terms they use.

 

It is essential now to explore the way in which media acts upon society and the way the viewers are affected by it. Media’s influence is now more obvious and more strongly felt than ever. Film and television act as a mirror, a way by which people assess their lives and their society. It is through the causal relationship of image as agent and introspection as response that the fictions of Iwai’s film can come to life and become relevant for the audience.

 

Ageha and Glico

In her essay “Can’t Live without Happiness: Reflexivity and Japanese TV Drama”, Kelly Hu considers how the frequent employment of reflexivity in Japanese TV dramas can be seen as evidence of a changing ethos of the self. In contrast to earlier times this refocusing is more concerned with being able to consciously articulate that self’s place in society, this position becoming the decided locus of happiness for the individual. This change has come onto the Japanese scene unwittingly on the wave of modernity. She writes:

 

“Questions of happiness in representations of Japanese TV drama echo questions of modernity; modern individuals strive to gain happiness through the reflexive means of locating the self in a modern society. The development of modernity and globalization accompanied by increasing uncertainty and risk has profoundly transformed the psychology of personal activities in relation to the world.” (Hu, p.199)

To understand why this change has taken place, I think it is important to recognize the role that images can play in complicating the idea individuals have of themselves in society.

 

Television and film can in one sense still fall within the classification of ‘image’, though their complexity, their ability to feign reality to a greater degree than any type of image that came before it, undoubtedly necessitates a reevaluation of their role as mere signs. W.J.T. Mitchell in his work “Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology” says:

 

“Images are not just a particular kind of sign, but something like an actor on a historical stage, a presence or character endowed with legendary status, a history that parallels and participates in the stories we tell ourselves about our own evolution from creatures ‘made in the image’ of a creator, to creatures who make themselves and their world in their own image.” (Mitchell, p. 9)

 

In the realm of images I think it is safe to say that the ability of television and film to display ‘real’ people in ‘real’ motion speaking ‘real’ words has allowed us more thoroughly to represent reality than paintings or even photographs ever could. The dimension of time now plays a pivotal role in this creation and the artist is allowed to develop the reality through complex constructions of character and plot, as does the added element of audio. The pictures can now literally speak to us.

 

gun from van

With television and film so forcibly infiltrating the lives of modern people an inevitable cyclical relationship develops: the characters on screen are unavoidably influenced by and made to reflect their real life analogues, and the audience in turn view themselves through these characters. What results in the viewer is a constant reassessment of the self, an unconscious response to being habitually exposed to portrayals of people, lives, and circumstances so closely resembling their own. This resultant empathy is not of an inadvertent nature but a reaction invoked by the writer. Hu speaks to this end in crafting an engaging drama:

 

“Japanese TV drama develops a formula encapsulating textual reflexivity, which is especially concerned with complicated and sensitive psychological mappings of the inner self, the interaction of the self with the other, and the self coping with dilemmas in social setting.” (Hu, p. 195)

 

By attempting to create on screen a more or less mirror image of the individual in his or her society it is not surprising that the outcome is deep self-reflection in the viewer. How is it that the mere viewing of fictional accounts of characters’ lives can cause such introspection, even if they do resemble those of the viewers? (For if the desired emotional response could not be conjured then television and film industries would not be as successful as they are.) I think the answer can be found in the potency of description. Mitchell quotes Addison:

 

“Words, when well chosen, have so great a force in them that a mere description often gives us more lively ideas than the sight of things themselves. The reader finds a scene drawn in stronger colors and painted more to the life in his imagination by the help of words than by an actual survey of the scene which they describe.” (Mitchell, p. 23)

 

While television and film often lack the opportunity to verbally describe a setting, there is ample occasion to expertly craft the situations and predicaments of the characters, the very things that drive the story forward, with such efficacy. A writer, sufficiently skilled, can create situations and dialogue that can appeal directly to the viewer’s emotions, thus enabling them clearly to reflect on how what is happening on the screen applies to their own lives. This works so well precisely because the situation is not the viewer’s own and so there is little risk of emotional overload fogging one’s clarity. Just as the reader of a poem can imagine the described setting as more vividly detailed than it actually is in reality, so too is it possible for the viewers of television and film to see their own lives more clearly through the fictions on screen than they can by actually closely observing their own situations.

 

The characters in Japanese TV dramas do not merely have things happen to them, but face the problems head-on. Hu says of one of the most famous script writers in Japan, “Nojima Shinji […] is not so much engaged in the role of telling a story than in mirroring and creating ‘an occasion for reflexivity’ that is related to ‘the discourse of modernity and values.’” (Hu, p. 196) This reflexivity is most obviously utilized via voiceovers and monologues as we are given direct, uncensored access to the characters’ thoughts. As stated above Swallowtail Butterfly has one of the main characters, Ageha, narrating the story. By having her reflect back on her experiences we come to understand the character we are viewing more intimately. In this specific case, we know that she has survived the events of the film and so the Ageha that is narrating is wiser than the Ageha that we are seeing.

 

Setting the film in an alternate, yet familiar, Tokyo acts as a way to unify the consciousness of the viewing audience. Because it is fantasy this is not any one person’s story, but at the same time it still deals with very real issues current to Japan making it in a certain sense everyone’s story. Iwai is interested in reflexivity from the perspective of post-bubble Japanese society at large. Iwai lived through the bubble economy and was witness to the many problems that arose in that atmosphere.

 

gun to head

During the bubble economy immigration in Japan increased greatly and the sentiment toward foreigners became more openly sour. One of the most interesting consequences of this increase in the foreign population was the children of non-Japanese ethnicity who were born within Japan’s borders. Knowing no home other than Japan yet not accepted by the rest of society as natural Japanese, many of these children were faced with a difficult dilemma that complicated things for them into adulthood. The film calls these types of people “Third Culture Kids”. A perfect example of reflexivity in this film takes place during a scene with a tall, Caucasian character, a “Third Culture Kid” named Dave who coins this term, who has lived in Japan his whole life and speaks only Japanese. The full monologue speaks to the sense of displacement that this particular group of outcasts feels and the importance of being able to identify with a group within one’s society. The following excerpt criticizes the Japanese education system, which to this day, is still struggling with how to increase the efficacy of its English language curriculum:

 

「両親はアメリカ人だけど、生まれも育ちも日本よ。
おまけに日本のひどい英語教育のおかげで、

アイ・キャント・スピーク状態。」

 

This scene is spoken in flawless Japanese by a Caucasian actor named Kent Frick. The effect of this is immediate and surprising and I would imagine it very difficult for a Japanese viewer to not be moved to introspection by it. It is humorous, Frick being a very animated man who frequently employs sound effects to comedic effect, but it is also a glimpse into the psyche of a member of society with whom the ethnic Japanese share their country. Just as a painter very deliberately chooses a brush, color, or certain technique to express a particular idea or express a certain emotion Iwai has purposely selected this actor and contents of this scene to complicate the texture of the film, making it reasonably uncomfortable to watch, especially for the viewers harboring hostile feelings toward foreigners.

 

Relying on language as the sole inclusive factor for nationality does not work in every case. It is circumstances like this that the imaginary aspect of nationality surfaces. There is no such thing as pure ethnicity, even in a society as physically homogenous as Japan. The homogeneity simply aids in the creation of an ethnic classification system based largely on appearance. Etienne Balibar writes in “Nation, Race, Class”:

 

“No nation possesses an ethnic base naturally, but as social formations are nationalized, the populations included within them, divided up among them or dominated by them are ethnicized – that is, represented in the past or in the future as if they formed a natural community, possessing of itself an identity of origins, culture and interests which transcends individuals and social conditions.” (Balibar, p. 96)

 

As the idea of the nation of Japan came into being and became a part of its inhabitants’ consciousness, various arbitrary criteria began to form what it meant to be Japanese. The homogeneity of the Japanese population throughout much of its history makes it easy to discriminate based on appearance and “Third Culture Kids” find themselves in a kind of limbo, born in Japan and thus not an immigrant, but not Japanese either.

 

Ageha 1
It is clear that through Swallowtail Butterfly Iwai wanted its viewers to reflect upon their society and upon themselves. Not all will be receptive to this though and many will recognize it as merely the writer’s own world view. Hu comments on this skepticism:

“The reflexivity in Japanese TV dramas does not necessarily indicate that it is radical enough to direct social revolution or even that it can avoid being implicated with particular power structures conveying certain types of ideologies. To some extent, reflexivity itself may be manipulative and authoritative, for example, by simply communicating the author’s idiosyncratic reflexive declarations.” (Hu, p. 212)

 

Though people are by their very nature prone to self-reflection and these narratives can more often than not trigger such a reaction. Hu continues, “Nevertheless, such reflexive impulses may still reinforce a sense of self-awareness and self-exploration, create alternate possibilities for resistance, or suggest ways being outside existing social norms.” (Hu, p. 212) By employing narration and monologue Iwai has managed to not just tell a story, but to craft a dramatization of a fictional Japanese society populated with denizens who are able to reflect on their situation and thus make the viewer assess their own changing place in an ever changing society.

 

Conclusion

 

I have shown how various aspects of both the conscious and unconscious mind have been made by the filmmakers to manifest themselves in very visible ways in the Yen Town culture seen in the film Swallowtail Butterfly. The behaviors and tendencies observed in this fictional culture can then be interpreted as extensions of the society Iwai saw around him; a thought experiment meant to approximate how Japanese society may have evolved had the yen’s upward climb continued. By and large the characters in the film are in dire straits, victims of the intolerance of a culture that does not want them, forced into a life of crime, and some of them meet tragic ends.

 

The Yen Town that Iwai created is not a desirable place and Japan’s present course was thus not viewed favorably. This film represents a dystopian view of Japan, a prediction of what might have been. The protagonists and antagonists in the film are spread out among both the Japanese characters and the immigrants. Therefore Iwai’s criticism is of the specific patterns and prejudices he saw around him that he feared would have made impossible any measure of harmony between the immigrants and the Japanese. Instead of their acceptance and integration they are deemed as “other”. Needing to survive but not allowed to earn a legitimate living a culture of prostitution, drugs and violence emerges.

 

Swallowtail Butterfly was a means by which Iwai could reflect upon Japan’s present ethos and a way to show Japan to itself so that through introspection and change it could avoid the ugly downward spiral he feared was ahead.

 

Works Cited

 

Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures. London: Basic Books, 1975.

 

Ricoeur, Paul. Freud and Philosophy: an Essay on Interpretation. New Haven:

Yale University Press, 1970.

 

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. New York: Verso, 1983.

 

Umberto, Eco and Sebeok, Thomas A. The Sign of Three: Dupin, Holmes, Peirce.

Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.

 

Ed. Mitsuhiro, Yoshimoto. Television, Japan, and Globalization. Ann Arbor:

Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan, 2010.

 

Mitchell, W.J.T. Iconology: image, text, ideology. Chicago: University of

Chicago Press, 1987.

 

Balibar, Etienne. Wallerstein, Immanuel. Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous

Identities. New York: Verso, 1991

 

Swallowtail Butterfly (スワロウテイル). Dir. Shunji Iwai. Perf. Hiroshi Mikami,
Chara, Ayumi Ito. Pony Canyon, 1996
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