Culture Corner – The “Exotic Foreign” of Wes Anderson and Haruki Murakami

By Bernie Langs

There is much made in some classical and modern philosophies of the concept and ambiguity of what is termed “the other.” In addition, one can find obscure musings on the idea of “the stranger” from the pens of philosophers as far afield in time and thinking as Plato and Camus. I’ve been avoiding, of late, the more difficult works of such trained thinkers and their non-fictions, opting to glean life lessons from those more akin within the arts to current travails. What I continue to discover is that I draw great pleasure from the belief that ideas originating from lands abroad that I will most likely never visit, appeal to my sense of intellectual adventure, offering to me, and perhaps to others, the mystery of the “exotic foreign.”

I offer, by way of example, two works of art extremely different in nature appealing to this sense. Wes Anderson co-wrote and directed the film The Darjeeling Limited in 2007 and Haruki Murakami wrote the book “Sputnik Sweetheart” in 2001. In Anderson’s movie, we follow the travels of three brothers on a train through India, a trip they take in an attempt to bond and heal a year after their father’s untimely death. The brothers are played to absolute perfection by the actors Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman (Schwartzman has frequently appeared in Anderson’s films and he is also a co-writer of this movie). The viewer identifies with these foreigners since we can relate to the notion of Western individuals seeking spiritual solace in the East as visitors. We discover India as they do, as enlightened tourists hoping to catch a glimpse and some meaning from something new and completely alien to our routines.

In the book by Murakami, we are taken by the author not as visitors of substance to Japan, but almost as voyeurs to a culture that we may or may not ever fully understand. “Sputnik Sweetheart” weaves a tale of one young man and two women dancing in a disturbing, yet touching, circle of broken hearts and unfulfilled love. The narrator, a young school teacher identified as “K” is in love with the impetuous Sumire. She matures as she falls for an older woman named Miu, who hires Sumire and teaches her about responsibility and the world. Much of the action takes place on an obscure Greek island, where Miu and Sumire are on vacation and from which Sumire disappears after feverishly displaying her passion for Miu. K is called in by Miu to help solve the mystery of Sumire’s disappearance, and he finds himself reacting emotionally to the island, and in some ways, falling into the web of an East to West “exotic foreign.”

The only book I’ve read in the past by Murakami is Kafka On the Shore, of which I remember little, but I knew (and feared) when I picked up “Sputnik Sweetheart” that at some point Murakami would present ideas and action that would be deeply disturbing. I was introduced to Japanese fiction in the late 1970s by my mother, who just simply started reading the genre and was followed by my brother, my sister, and myself in the pursuit. I’ve read authors such as Mishimi, Kawabata, and Abe, all of whom have the talent of writing of strange passions, obsessions, and, often, odd violence.

The Japan presented by Murakami is a bit different than those writers and what I appreciated more and more as I read “Sputnik Sweetheart” was his grasp and presentation of the concept of modern individual isolation and (though I hate to use the term) alienation. But this isn’t Albert Camus’ The Stranger. K’s loneliness, his disengagement and his emptiness, speaks to the reader’s own sense of those feelings, almost as a most welcoming friend. That Murakami can understand the very complex depth of where we are today is a comforting feat. A scientist may see the universe as exciting in its vastness and epic dimensions. A poet, however, and one with a broken heart, experiences the stars as lonely lights reaching out forever, eternally. To put it simply, it’s nice to know that another poet gazing alongside you understands this notion and can display it with such nuance and care.

I have long believed that America is a brand new entity, a fresh beginning, having escaped the tyranny of the political blood and religious zealotry of Old Europe. I also believed that we haven’t exactly found much to replace those complicated ancient fortresses with. There are only so many places a new car from General Motors can take you these days. Murakami explains the emptiness of those in a spiritual diaspora, and of the odd emotions of those who have shed God and religion and are muted and often defeated by the ensuing void.

On the other hand, Wes Anderson is able to fill the hole of our existence in his film, and he does it beautifully. I may no longer subscribe to classic religious rituals, but I remain in awe of both the wonders of nature and the better works of Man, sensing a hope that there is some kind of inexplicable divine spark in both. I may not believe in the concrete, absolute truths of Christian paintings from the Renaissance or the gods of Hindu mythologies, but I enjoy experiencing what those who believed in them felt in their hearts, since it came from the desire to express the profundity of the spiritual.

In Anderson’s movie, India is displayed with its vibrant and startling colors, especially its deep blues, as well as rich reds and yellows. Darjeeling is a wonder of cinematography. From the countryside to the cities, one sits back and looks on in awe, as do the three brothers in the film. Wilson, Brody, and Schwartzman have impeccable and unusual comic timing, but when the film takes a serious turn, they rise to the emotional occasion. The movie peaks when the brothers save two young boys from drowning in a small river, but are unable to save a third. The lesson they learn is spiritual and emotional, and their sibling bickering vanishes. The three are invited to the boy’s funeral by the humble villagers, and the slow-motion scene of them setting out to the ceremony is heart-wrenching. That scene is musically sound-tracked by an obscure song from the 1970 masterpiece album by the Kinks, Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One, called “Strangers.” The song was written and is sung by Dave Davies, the guitarist and brother of the band’s more famous front man and primary composer, Ray Davies. In this film about brothers, I was chilled by the choice of a song at that moment by Dave Davies, and by the fact that my own brother introduced me to the song decades ago. In fact, I recorded a version of “Strangers” myself, and have shared my work on that track only with my brother.

I watched “The Darjeeling Limited” twice in one week and was able to pick up during the second viewing a lot I had missed or not understood the first time around. It is a completely uplifting film about a mystic family journey that is often hilarious and tearful. The hope it offers to the personal and individual journey in life is wondrous and it may truly be a masterpiece of film. It’s a far cry from Cary Grant’s disruptive whistle in a Hindu temple in the film of Gunga Din based on Kipling’s poem and more in tune with the mysteries of the “traveler of both time and space” seeking “to sit with elders of the gentle race” that Robert Plant sings of in Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir.” But to keep me honest, I’ll have to revisit Murakami’s books in the future, just to stir things up and question ideas about life and art, and about the cultures of the East.