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Edging Toward Japan: Turning things invisible and perceiving other ways of seeing

Graham Greene

By Damian Flanagan

I recently received from author Motonori Sato -- a professor at Keio University -- a signed copy of his new book, "Graham Greene: A Cinematic Life." Sato-san convincingly argues how Greene had a passion for cinema and particularly directors like Hitchcock, Lang and Renoir. Indeed during the latter half of the 1930s Greene was watching several new films a week and writing copious criticism about them.

The ideas Greene discovered in film were transported into his novels, which were sometimes in turn recreated as superb films like "The Third Man." There is a trenchant observation that Greene loved Westerns and that "The Third Man" has a sense of being a Western set in Vienna.

Greene once wrote a short story called "The Invisible Japanese Gentlemen," which describes an emotionally entangled romantic scene between two British people against the background of the incomprehensible blank "noise" of Japanese men chatting away.

This idea of people from other cultures and backgrounds occasionally becoming "invisible" is a very interesting one. You regularly witness examples of this in Japan too. When I watch Japanese TV you often see scenes set in cafes in which foreigners sit at a table chatting in a foreign language, treated as virtually invisible to the main characters.

Indeed perhaps no culture has the capacity to turn things invisible as Japan. The attendants -- of either sex -- who walk around public toilets or public baths are simply judged "invisible," just like the stage hands who operate puppets on the bunraku stage. The writer Alex Kerr has observed that so selective is Japanese vision that the ugly overhead power cables which sometimes mar a beautiful vista are often virtually "invisible" to Japanese viewers.

Yasunari Kawabata

In his late novel, "Dandelions," written in 1964-68, Yasunari Kawabata described a young woman in an asylum suffering from a condition where her lover sometimes became invisible to her. It all seems very strange -- a form of mental illness -- yet we all suffer in some sense from this condition.

Cinema and literature are two media which can offer us new ways of "seeing," but they can also show us what we strangely choose not to see. We might consider people sitting quite close to us as "invisible," but that is not to see that they are not closely watching us. I wonder if Graham Greene ever imagined that one day one of those "invisible" Japanese gentlemen would be publishing a book on his cinematic means of viewing the world.


(This is Part 8 of a series)

In this column, Damian Flanagan, a researcher in Japanese literature, ponders about Japanese culture as he travels back and forth between Japan and Britain.


Damian Flanagan is an author and critic born in Britain in 1969. He studied in Tokyo and Kyoto between 1989 and 1990 while a student at Cambridge University. He was engaged in research activities at Kobe University from 1993 through 1999. After taking the master's and doctoral courses in Japanese literature, he earned a Ph.D. in 2000. He is now based in both Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, and Manchester. He is the author of "Natsume Soseki: Superstar of World Literature" (Sekai Bungaku no superstar Natsume Soseki).

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