Crispy Gamer

TGS 2009: Sekkusu! Part One

in
Shinjuku

As Jones mentioned, we are staying in Shinjuku, the city's classic entertainment and nightlife district. Shinjuku has lost some of its luster over the decades. It used to be that when a movie shot on location in Tokyo, the establishing shot would always be the same: a wide shot of Shinjuku's Yasukuni-dori street, stacked with neon signs, full of Japanese characters blazing with illegible mystique.

In a modern film, though, you'll usually find Tokyo represented by the more youthful Shibuya, where the Starbucks and Tower Records and Parco department stores flop over each other in an architectural pig-pile. Contrast that against the staid parallel lines that make up the standard old Yasukuni-dori shot and Shinjuku seems to age by the comparison, like a playboy past his prime.

I'm not saying Shinjuku is a wretched hive of scum and villainy, but it is a place where, the other day, Jones and I were accosted by a man in a cheap suit pointing us to a nearby gentleman's club. "You want sekkusu?" he said (in Japanese). Jones waved him off and then asked me what was going on. "He was offering you 'sex-u,'" I said, parroting the Japanese pronunciation. "Strippers, maybe." It was 10:00 in the morning. Shinjuku = classy.

I lived in Japan for a while, and I've visited a number of times besides. Travel in a foreign country is always intimidating, but Japan has a special ability to induce neurosis because its foreignness is mixed with tantalizing familiarity. There is so much appropriation of Western culture and language with so little regard for its original meaning. English words, American brand names, well-known characters, etc., are peppered throughout the scenery, but they're all fragments—"WEB!" "HOKKAIDO GET!"

And that wears on you. Japan seems like it should be an easy destination for an American because it's so Westernized, and English is pervasive. In many ways, it is indeed easy. There is also a pernicious feeling of unease, though, because you're inundated with seemingly straightforward images and language that don't mean what you think they do. It's more disorienting to misunderstand than to not understand at all.

The guy asking us if we wanted "sex" is the crudest example of this (and, admittedly, maybe not the best one, but stick with me). If he had spoken words I didn't comprehend, that would have been the end of it; we'd move on. But you process your native language instinctively. He said "sex," and that meant something to me. I had to override the involuntary mental reaction of assigning a ready meaning to that word. Same with the ad on the subway that says "GOOD LIFE FOR LUCK!" I know all those words, yet they just do not come together in a sensible way for me. That doesn't stop the brain from trying anyway. It's uncomfortable. Not only is there the usual issue in foreign travel of dealing with what you don't know; but it also feels like what you do know—your psychic foundation—is melting away.

WEB!

On a recent trip to Japan, one of my travel companions became so overwhelmed by the feeling of isolation here that she demanded to be flown home immediately, at great expense (and she went, too). I've never been that panicked, but I have felt, many times, a wave of desperation wash over me—a sudden feeling that you're lost and alone. Jones and I both felt it a couple nights ago, walking through Shinjuku looking for a place to eat, careening between the foreign, the misleadingly familiar, and the flat-out strange. A sign: "TOKYO NEW PARTY CLUB: Produced by Matsuo Shinagawa." Ronald McDonald, but not at McDonald's, for some reason. Two show dogs (literally, big fluffy show dogs) holding court outside the entrance to a restaurant. Mickey Mouse, everywhere, for some reason. Plus sekkusu! Everyone grabbing our arms and won't you please sample the sekkusu!

Each funny little oddity is harmless on its own, but when they come so relentlessly, you unconsciously cast about for something to ground yourself. We ended up taking refuge in a quiet place where the waiters didn't speak a lick of English. (I do speak OK Japanese.) We couldn't read the menus, and that was a relief. It was preferable to the noise of broken symbols rattling around our heads, trying to mean something.

Part Two has something to do with games, I swear!