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18 April 2008


There's moment in the rough cut version of "Tokyo Cowboys," supposedly a documentary of foreign men in Tokyo that startled me, causing all my built up understanding of the situation to come crashing down at the foundations carefully built up by director Daneeta Loretta Saft. Saft comes on the screen and we learn she was married to the guy, Mark Saft, whom I'd come to identify as the creepy guy, the lech, the tsukebei (Japanese for lecherous). The man who wanted an open marriage, but more likely wanted to sample the sexual side of his Oriental fantasies.

"Tokyo Cowboys" is not a labor of love, but one of discontent and perhaps even closure.

This is not a collection of random men, but men whom Daneeta Saft had known during her time in Japan and the kind of men who would hang out with the dog of a husband who was Mark Saft. This is, even from the perspective of foreign men in Japan limited, particularly since all the "gaijin" men are white and English-speaking in her movie presented at the 2008 Japan Film Festival.

Mark Saft isn't the only character in this movie. Ken is a recruiter who wants to become an actor and is willing to earn extra money by performing Christian marriages for Japanese despite being born Jewish. Dave rock star wanna-be and part of a band, Guyjin, white rappers hoping to make it in Japan. Patrick Of all the men, Cloudy, a man with dyed blond hair who drags around his vacuum cleaner "pet," would probably have been the most noticeable in his own country, Australia.

This is not to suggest that Saft doesn't know Japan well, or at least a part of Japan. . In an interview with Metropolis, we learn more about Daneeta Saft.

The 38-year-old director is more than just a visitor to Japan. Initially coming here with her boyfriend, she lived in the country from 1993 to 2000, first in Fukuoka on the JET Program and afterwards in the capital to work in the intense world of headhunting.

Mark Saft, now her ex-husband and still a close friend, is one of the characters in her documentary. “What the film is about is the point of view of the long-term foreign male resident in Tokyo,” she explains. “The only criteria are that they’re here for over ten years and they’re men. I didn’t want the female experience because I’ve experienced that already.”

Part of the experience was being fed up with the place. “I had such a bad time my last year in Japan. I started to blame Japan for all the problems I had in my life,” she says. But the US-born Saft didn’t decide to fly back home. Instead, she went to England and enrolled in the London Film School.

By making a film about white men finding success in the Asia, particularly with two of the main characters hooking up with Asian women, Saft is only adding to an old genre, the one where a white male goes into the so-called Orient, makes piles of money, has an affair with a local woman or local women and may even marry her and becomes more than he could ever been at home. Most famous or infamous of such romances was written by Louis Marie-Julien Viaud, under the pseudonym Pierre Loti: "Madame Chrysantheme" which later became the basis for "Madame Butterfly."

In the same respect, Saft's image of the wild west and cowboys and Westerns isn't totally accurate.

Instead, she looked at her own inability to describe her feelings on life in Tokyo as a woman for "Tokyo Cowboys." “There’s a reason Westerns are about men. It’s the frontier. It’s about reinventing yourself,” she says. “I can never have the same experience they have.”

Maybe Saft is thinking of westerns that mimicked samurai movies such as Clint Eastwood's character, a man with no name, in the Sergio Leone series or Eastwood's "Unforgiven." Yet there were women in the West who re-invented themselves, who became famous, who were more than good housewives, helpmates or prostitutes. Think Calamity Jane, the Unsinkable Margaret Tobin Brown, Annie Oakley, Willa Cather and Dale Evans. Debbie Reynolds starred in a 1964 movie musical about Brown "The Unsinkable Molly Brown," Doris Day starred in a 1953 musical called "Calamity Jane." Oakley became the subject of a 1946 musical on Broadway. What about Barbara Stanwyck in "The Big Valley," a western TV series. Stanwyck had starred as Oakley in a 1935 film. Gail Davis played her in a TV series from 1954 to 1956.

Yet what kind of woman is Saft and would she attract such gutsy pioneering women and get to know them?

This is not all that is Tokyo. We do not see the white women who become consorts to rich Asian men, white women who become nightclub singers or fashion models. We do not see the white men who are married and stay married to their white wives and we do not see the white women who are married to Asian men. We do not see the Americans, British or Australians who can pass as Japanese or other Asian.

These people do exist. I knew some of them the three times I was in Japan as an exchange student. For this reason, I cringed when one of the men was disgruntled and complained about being a gaijin and having a gaikokujin registration, to be registered as an alien. I, too, had an alien registration for Japan as well as the United Kingdom. My grandparents had alien registration in the U.S. as well. Yet Saft does nothing in her documentary to mitigate the mistaken bias of this comment.

Are the Japanese really so different from the U.S. or the U.K.? Ask any Asian ethnic, one born and raised in the US, UK or Australia if they haven't been complimented on his or her English and you'll know that you don't need a card to be identified as alien and that the marvel of someone speaking the local language with a different face isn't uniquely Japanese.

While learning the ins and outs of filmmaking, Saft says she started to long for Japan. “The school had some Japanese students and I gravitated towards them.” Then she caught up with one of her headhunting associates in London. Over a night of drinks, the former colleague mentioned he would give her $5,000 to shoot something in Japan. That was enough to get the ball rolling. The colleague eventually forgot his promise, and Saft was forced to raise the small budget of £60,000 herself.

At first, she thought she’d make a film about headhunters. “But their life is this Bermuda Triangle of their flat, Roppongi and their office because they work so hard. There’s no Tokyo. It’s not cinematic,” she says. “I didn’t want to make that movie.”

Instead, she looked at her own inability to describe her feelings on life in Tokyo as a woman for Tokyo Cowboys. “There’s a reason Westerns are about men. It’s the frontier. It’s about reinventing yourself,” she says. “I can never have the same experience they have.”

Reading Saft's blog entries is also informative. She writes,

"I'm thinking that BG is right. Maybe I should shoot something in Tokyo. Maybe something about the economic hostages. That's what we used to call ourselves--"economic hostages." How arrogant is that. But I don't know anything about documentary, really. And I have to work on my graduation film. I'll have to think about it.

The next morning, my flatmate asks me what I did in Tokyo. I tell her I was a writer.

"And, how was it...your writing," she asks.

It didn't suck. I could do what I wanted. I had fans. It was kind of rock and roll.

Please, God...if I go back there...please let it be rock and roll.

Is it fair to read her blogs? Why not when she so clearly ties it into the movie? We see how her documentary starts shaping up.

I've been watching my old tapes of Japan trying to get a feel for it again. There were so many strange experiences...so many things that I'd forgotten...things on the street. I even filmed myself having a nervous breakdown...5 hours of tapes of my crying pathetically.

I could even smell it...Tokyo It was such a strange place, and I swore that I would never go back. Now I'm seriously considering it. BG has put the seed in my head.

Five hours crying? And yet she finds herself drawn to the Japanese students at her film school in London where she is a registered alien as well.

At the screening, Saft seemed rather proud that she was the only non-Asian foreigner or gaijin to have her work included in the Japan Film Festival 2008. Yet she has produced a messy traditional view of the white males' experience in Japan, without the benefit of commentary from their Japanese colleagues or acquaintances as if these gaijin lived a compartmentalized life in a highly compartmentalized world.Her documentary is a small part of Japan, but we do not see the boarder view.

When I looked up gaijin on Amazon, the first page featured only books by men. Saft has given us more of the same. Is it really still a white man's world?

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