Letter from California

An archive of the weekly "Letter from Calfornia", written by Jim McCarthy.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Letter from California-November 15, 2004

Most people don’t know that the Japanese monster known to us as Godzilla is supposed to be a cross between a gorilla and a whale. The monster’s real name is “Gojira” which combines the Japanese words “Gorira” (Gorilla) and “Kujira” (whale), making “Gojira.” If I didn’t have this very important knowledge already, I would have guessed that Godzilla more closely resembled the love child of a Tyrannosaurus Rex and Wonder Woman, and I’m definitely thinking of the Linda Carter Wonder Woman from the 70s. She was more than a match for one T-Rex, so it seems as plausible a pairing as a gorilla and a whale.

Japanese moviemakers invented Godzilla shortly after World War II, and the big green guy has appeared in dozens of movies since then. Despite his age, he still brings a tremendous zest for life (or at least for eating Japanese cities) to what he does. Also, the people of Japan still love him. He’s a larger than life icon that still excites a crowd.

Funnily enough, you could say almost all of that about Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who visited Japan last week as part of a delegation of California businesspeople. Like Godzilla, Arnold was “invented” shortly after World War II by his Austrian parents, who happen not to be a gorilla and a whale. Like Godzilla, the people of Japan love him for his many movies, and even though he’s probably past his prime as a screen legend, this trip shows that the people still want to see him. Among other things, he’s there to remind the Japanese that it’s still cheaper to fly to California and shoot a round at Pebble Beach than it is to play golf in Japan and that we’d very much enjoy seeing their money visiting our state again very soon. They’re welcome to come too, of course.

A few years ago, when I lived in Japan, Schwarzenegger visited for another reason. He was there to film a commercial for a “vitamin drink” called “V.” In the ad, a younger Schwarzenegger appears as a kind of psychedelic samurai who moved across the stage doing a bizarre dance and chant. At the end, he holds up his two fingers and says “Bu-ee” into the camera. (The Japanese have a tough time with the ‘v’ sound, so that’s how the letter is pronounced.) The director apparently told Schwarzenegger that this performance was based on an ancient samurai ritual, when in fact it was created earlier that week as a ritual designed to humiliate rich and famous movie stars.

You might not realize it, but big time Hollywood stars frequently go to Japan to film commercials they wouldn’t want seen back in the States. Sean Connery, for example, used to hawk whiskey on Japanese TV. They set him up behind a bar and a big bottle of Suntory whiskey and fed him some crazy, half-nonsensical dialogue to say. In the end, it made him look like he was sitting at home by himself, pouring glass after glass of Japanese whiskey and babbling incoherently. Maybe it worked for Suntory, but I’m sure that part of Sean Connery’s agreement involved the eventual burning of the master tapes.

Why should the Japanese care what Schwarzenegger or any American celebrity has to say about whiskey, ramen noodles, or “vitamin drinks” designed to keep a Japanese businessman going at work on only 3 hours of sleep after a mandatory night out drinking Suntory whiskey with co-workers? I can’t think of any reason at all. Just because Sean Connery endorses a whiskey doesn’t mean it’s good. To get a look at him in that commercial, you get the impression he’d “endorse” cooking wine by about mid-evening if the bar went dry.

Yet Schwarzenegger is there, among other things, trying to convince Toyota to build its hybrid car factory in California and apparently, he’s not being laughed out of the room. Shouldn’t he stick to something less ambitious, like making sure no one sends a copy of his own bad Japanese commercial to his political opponents during the next election?

This week marks one year since Schwarzenegger took office, and in that time, the state has miraculously not broken off and fallen into the ocean because a movie actor has been in charge. In many ways, Schwarzengger has been very successful. He’s batting almost 1.000 on the ballot propositions he’s supported; he helped elect a President; and he still has a sky-high approval rating in a state where most people look for the word “republican” somewhere near “reptile” and “repugnant.” What gives? Shouldn’t one year of amateur governating have driven the state to the brink of social chaos? Aren’t we supposed to be longing for the steady, if unspectacular stewardship of a seasoned politico like Gray Davis by now? Doesn’t experience count for anything?

Sure, but experience battling killer robots, traveling to Mars, insulting Lou Ferrigno for his “spaghetti arms,” making a fortune in real estate, discovering your long lost twin, Danny Devito, and dancing like a loon in a phony samurai suit counts for something too.

At least, the Japanese seem to think so.


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