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April 26, 2011

Remembrance of Video Rentals Past




People back in the Satan are astonished when I inform them that folks here in Japan still trek to video rental stores to get their weekend entertainment. To them, it is the most incongruous notion regarding this supposedly technologically advanced nation aside from the awkward fact that we don’t have robots that can patch up our nuclear facilities for us.

Personally, I’ve grown too bookish in my dotage to indulge in much video entertainment; but back in my NU days (as described here) I would often patronize the local Tsutaya (think Blockbuster). That Tsutaya branch gobbled up an enormous amount of precious Japanese urban floor acreage and had the VHS cassette of every Hollywood feature that one could ever want to see. It’s only drawbacks were its location—far on the other side of the train station, making the return of the tape a daunting mission, what with the inevitable hangover—and the fact that its staff was composed entirely of female NU students.

You would think that the latter point would actually be tallied in Tsutaya’s favor, but I found that having to let my female students scan my rental selections sort of crimped my constitutional right to freedom of choice. Take, for example, 1993’s Body of Evidence, a highly stylized thriller in the Fatal Attraction/Basic Instinct mold that featured a buck naked Madonna enthusiastically pouring hot wax all over Willem Dafoe.

You would think the Japanese distributor would simply translate the title into Japanese: Ichidan no Jijitsu would have done nicely. But no: those distributors were determined to hype the sensational aspects of the movie to the hilt and thus gave it a Japanese title that translated back into English roughly as Buck-Naked Madonna Enthusiastically Pouring Hot Wax All Over Willem Dafoe. And I, for one, lacked the fortitude to inflict the box bearing that title (and an equally evocative still shot of buck-naked Madonna enthusiastically etc., etc.) on the sweet, ponytailed sophomore who was struggling through my Monday afternoon elective.

On the whole, the path of least resistance would more often lead me to another video rental shop just a six-minute walk down the street from my apartment. Here, on the first floor of a skinny, half-occupied, cinderblock office building, covering scarcely more floor space than a subway car and perhaps with an even lower ceiling, lay our local, independent video shop—a sort of Mom-and-Pop store, minus the Mom.

The proprietor was a small, stringy-haired specter in his late twenties. To catch a glimpse of this exotic, ferret-like specimen, one had to crouch down while sliding one’s selection and money through the narrow opening in the opaque glass that separated his sanctum sanctorum from the shop proper.

Inside, amid towering black metal racks laden with videos, he would hunch over a desk littered with paperwork and microwaved dinners from the Lawson’s next door. An eight-inch TV was tuned to a baseball game in season. The corner of a futon could be glimpsed in the far corner, indicating that the poor man actually did live in this hermitic cell. This fact would be confirmed one day when I arrived at the shop just after its scheduled opening time, five p.m., to find the door locked and the curtains drawn. A call to the number printed on my cardboard member card drew a muffled and apologetic response, soon after which the man himself, looking even more haggard than usual, appeared at the door to let me in.

I felt lousy about it. My first assumption was that he had labored at some crappy job for several years, scrimping and saving to fulfill his dream of owning and operating his own small business. But this saccharine vision had given way over time to a grittier theory: That he had overextended himself to yakuza loan-sharks, who were exacting their penalty through slave labor at one of their neglected businesses.

Despite its location in the heart of NU’s student ghetto, our female students were rarely encountered in this store, while male students were often seen. Then again, perhaps not seen so much as glimpsed. A typical young male customer would stalk stiffly through the main room and vanish into the curtained-off porn section in the back, like an eel going into mud.* I recall a particularly purposeful lad who strutted past me one evening in such haste that he had neglected to remove his motorcycle helmet. On a hunch, I opened the door and peered out into the street. You guessed it: not a motorbike to be found.

I did poke my head into the porn section once, just to satisfy my curiosity that it was what I thought it was. It was crammed with row upon row of boxes depicting Japanese girls beaming the same sort of heartfelt and wholesome smile that you would expect them to beam upon discovering a 50%-off sale on shoes, or having a surprise birthday party held in their honor by their female friends. Except that they were all topless. But I did not venture further inside.

The reader may be dubious of this claim, and perhaps understandably so, given my blog oeuvre to date; and yet I stand by this claim. My forbearance stemmed from the “Don’t shit where you eat” principle. I can’t afford to be caught renting porn in my own neighborhood. It would make me look ridiculous! And a man in my position can’t afford to be made to look ridiculous! Besides which, all Japanese porn that is legally available in Japan is heavily blurred over or mosaic-ed out.**

The years rolled on; a new millennium dawned; but you would never have known it from our local video shop’s stock. Tsutaya was shelving Season 7 of The X Files—in DVD yet—while on our side of the tracks, we lay frozen in Season 4. Which, if you think about it, sort of sounds like an X Files plot in and of itself.

Then one evening, I met a tableau that filled me with dread. It was rather like the time my twenty-four-years-younger girlfriend dumped me or the more recent reelection of Jim DeMint: an event long known to be inevitable that was nonetheless flabbergasting when it finally came. Yes, the shop was going out of business. For its final two days of existence, our neighborhood video rental store morphed into a plain old video store, all stock going for a dollar a piece.

The proprietor, lodged behind his mostly opaque window, was ringing up sales as fast as he could manage. His long bondage would soon be at an end and he would be free to pursue other dreams; or perhaps he was simply slated for execution. Frankly, I preferred not to dwell on his fate. For the moment, at least, he was cheerfully occupied. The patrons lining up at his window were of an older and respectable brand not usually seen there, but this was understandable given the shop’s eclectic selection, which included many Fellini and Bergman and Truffaut titles.

Most of these classics were gone by the time I wandered in, but they were a little too highbrow for my tastes, anyway. I managed to corral Chinatown, Rumble Fish, The People vs. Larry Flynt,Blood Simple, Animal House, Galaxy Quest, Airplane, The Naked Gun 2½, Titanic (a two-tape set), and When Harry Met Sally, and as I stood in line I was already mulling plans to return the next night—the shop’s very last, according to the sign—for still more lucre.

But the longer I waited in line, the thinner the pickings got, and I soon concluded that I had best seize the moment—or at least The Godfather, Part II--while there was still a chance. I whirled around to make my move for it only to bump into a weaselly little Econ major, causing him to spill his entire teetering armload of porn boxes to the floor.

I briefly considered helping him gather them up, but then thought better of it. A man in my position, and all that...




* Simile courtesy of the estate of PG Wodehouse


** Probably a blessing, given the predilections of most Japanese porn auteurs. Scratch a Japanese pornographer and you’ll find a frustrated gynecologist.