Growing up in rural Middle-England it’s fair to say I didn’t have much exposure to the seedier aspects of the human experience. I mean, sure, there was the village tramp who everyone viewed with a sort of tolerant condescension and the church committee would give a hamper to at christmas.* Looking back, the guy was clearly suffering from at least one sort of mental illness, but talking about these things isn’t done so the fact his lifestyle choices included living under an upturned bath in a cave was publicly attributed to nothing more than good old-fashioned English eccentricity.
I subsequently found myself in Japan. Three cheers for the JET Programme’s idiosyncratic recruitment process! It was, though, an incredibly frustrating experience in many ways. I’ve always been quite a one for words, and to all of a sudden find myself with a communicative ability several notches below that of a nursery school student was a bit of a blow. I struggled through the first couple of months with the customary mixture of grunts, pleading facial expressions, and borderline threatening gestures before I finally had enough. I was a worldly (ahem) adult! I was fucking sick of having to repeatedly apologise for my ineptness and very existence, of entering every exchange with a bowed head and exiting it drenched in sweat born of shame and exhaustion. Just once, just fucking once, I wanted to have an exchange in which the word sumimasen*** didn’t compromise 80% of my contribution to the process.
I currently have a bit of a commute to work, but back then I lived just round the corner from my base school. I’m quite happy that’s no longer the case. A couple of minutes in the other direction was one of those big game center cum bookstore cum video**** rental stores that spring up in every Japanese suburb. It was a bit of a sprawling mess covering several floors, every section of which seemed to link to every other on a kind of random basis as if it was built from a rejected MC Escher plan for Hogwarts. The game centre was especially popular with the kids from my school, and as a result I’d often also see teachers there during their ‘time off’. I now realize this was just another one of those tedious extra-curricular duties Japanese parents have delegated to the education system, and the teachers were there as a preventative measure lest the kids do something unacceptable like drop litter or shoplift or suck each other off in the stairwells.
Regardless, the novelty of Japanese TV had quickly worn off upon the realization that no, it wasn’t just that I couldn’t understand it, it really was absolute shite, and so I hatched a cunning plan to rent a video. One in English. One I could actually understand and enjoy – none of this soppy overly-emotional nonsense that seemed so popular on TV. Something with guns and explosions and proper swearing in words I could recognize. And, because I was sick of communicating in a belittling combination of grunts, wild gestures, and apologies***** I decided I was going to OWN this rental experience. I was going to make renting this video my PRISON BITCH. Having never been to prison I had no idea what this meant, but it sounded like it captured the correct spirit.
I was going to be PROUD and CONFIDENT. I was going to LOOK LIKE I KNEW WHAT I WAS DOING. I was going to have NOTHING TO BE ASHAMED OF. I got out my English-Japanese pocket dictionary and looked up the word for rent, which I was happy to discover was rentaru.****** I resolved to walk into the store with PURPOSE and my HEAD HELD HIGH and select the first video I saw with either a large amount of English or Bruce Willis on the cover. I would then approach the desk with the video in one hand, my ID card in the other, and INTONE the word rentaru with STENTORIAN AUTHORITY and not care if EVERYONE IN THE SHOP KNEW EXACTLY WHAT I WAS DOING.
The video rental section was at the back, next to the game centre bit and past the book store. This meant that my MISSION BEGAN with a certain amount of PURPOSEFUL STRIDING as I made my way to the rear of the building. And by BY GOD I STRODE. I strode with PURPOSE. I strode with CONFIDENCE. I MET THE EYES of every person in there with the STEELY RESOLVE of one who KNOWS EXACTLY WHAT HE CAME FOR. I saw some students. I saw a teacher trying to look like he just happened to be there on his ‘day off’. I NODDED CURTLY at the man as I strode past him with CONFIDENCE and PURPOSE and MY EYES ON THE PRIZE.
Upon entering the video section I find there is nothing immediately available with either English or Bruce Willis. I refuse to be cowed by this temporary setback and surge onwards because I am CONFIDENT and PURPOSEFUL and I KNOW WHAT I AM DOING. The surge continues for several minutes. It is a large store. Very large. Nonetheless, the lack of both English and Willis DOES NOT DIMINISH either my BOUNDLESS CONFIDENCE or my DEAD-EYED RESOLVE as I continue to march onwards until eventually I see a science fiction cover and it’s not really got English or Willis but the external front of confidence I’ve managed to maintain thus far is starting to waver and I quite like science fiction and that looks like an interesting alien on the cover even if it’s not exactly state of the art in terms of FX and the heroine is quite attractive so we may as well have a look at the back and see if I can get some sort of idea about the story and what the fuck is this how does that happen is that even physically possible and now that I look they’re all like this for racks and racks and miles and miles and even though I search and search and run and run I CAN’T GET OUT of THE LARGEST PORNOGRAPHY SECTION IN THE WORLD and my teachers and students are out there oh fuck oh fuck what if they see me coming out of here what if they see me in here how would I explain grunts and hand gestures would surely make things worse not better where’s the exit where is it where is it where is it where is it…
I eventually stumble, gasping and blinking into the light of the Romantic Comedy section. I have never been so happy to see Meg Ryan’s face as in that moment. I grab for it like a shipwreck survivor at the bloated floating corpse of his former crewmate and let it carry me to the front desk, where I register in the dissociated trance of a PTSD patient and drift back to my flat without ever realizing what it is I’ve actually rented.
It turns out that the Japanese dub of Sleepless in Seattle is actually quite amusing. Who knew?
*Americans! In the UK, tramp just means a homeless person. Please don’t be thinking I’m talking about a woman with a reputation for loose morals. She certainly didn’t get a hamper at christmas.
**Americans! This is a metaphor. It is not a midget fucking joke.
***Americans! Sumimasen means ‘sorry’. It is a word you are able to say in Japan without admitting liability and leaving yourself open to a lawsuit.
Americans! Young People! Videos are what we had before Netflix.
You actually had to leave your bedroom to access entertainment! I know!
*****Puerile People! You can insert a joke about disappointing sexual experiences here! You know you want to!
******Non-Japanese Speakers! It’s not. Or at least not in this context. Imagine how foolish I’d have looked if I’d got that wrong!Credit where it’s due.