China smiles while Japan shows its dark side

China and Japan staged major cultural events in London this week and their approaches could hardly have been more different.

The Chinese New Year celebration in Trafalgar Square was an enormous, colourful show, designed for a wide appeal and maximum impact on television.

The Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme presented the dark side of Japan to a select audience of connoisseurs. Its title was intriguing: “People Still Call It Love” Passion, Affection and Destruction in Japanese Cinema.

I enjoyed both events. They emphasised important aspects of the way these two Asian countries see themselves.

Party in the square

China’s New Year party, staged under the famous statue of Lord Nelson, must have cost millions of pounds.

It carried a simple message: make friends with China and the benefits of international trade will flow your way.

I watched singers from the Peking Opera, some well known pop stars and troupes of dancers and drummers.

Belt and Road

Signs beside the stage drew the audience’s attention to the Belt and Road Initiative – China’s ambitious plan to restore the ancient silk trade routes taking goods from East to West. The project stretches all the way to London.

In fact, I moderated a conference about the Belt and Road the University of London last week, where many people expressed concerns about the implications of the project.

But the Chinese party in Trafalgar Square was not about political debate: it was a celebration, designed to show China in the best possible light.

Dark world

It takes less than five minutes to walk from Trafalgar Square to London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, where the Japan film festival took place. It was a completely different world.

I saw eight films over the course of the ten days and was fascinated by all the stories and characters.

The festival was brilliantly curated by Junko Takekawa, Senior Arts Programme Officer at the Japan Foundation. It provided an opportunity to see dramatic representations of many aspects of contemporary Japanese society.

Fighting and screaming

It was particularly interesting to see stories about working class people and rural communities.

The overall tone was dark. Here were the Japanese committing crimes, having affairs, fighting and screaming.

One striking film about sibling rivalry was called Thicker Than Water and showed the tensions between two brothers and two sisters.

After the screening, I asked the director Keisuke Yoshida if Japanese audiences take a visceral pleasure in watching characters express fury and passion on screen, given the taboo on such behaviour in real life.

He replied that the Japanese are patient and tolerant people – but only up to a point. He said that when their self-control is exhausted, they explode.

Intimacy

Was it brave of the Japanese to show this explosive aspect of their character?

Is China ready to get a bit more emotionally intimate with foreign audiences, too?

Perhaps other events will give me a deeper insight into China’s complex society and its people’s emotions.

I also hope I can get close enough to Chinese people to learn how they behave towards each other when they are not putting on a smiling face for foreigners.

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