On (Un)seeing

One of the films I neglected to mention in my last post on the Taiwan Int’l Ethnographic Film Festival TIEFF was Patrasche, A Dog Of Flanders – Made in Japan. Because it is a feature length film, I didn’t list it as a teaching film, although I could easily see it being used in a class on popular culture. The film is a humorous exploration of how the book “A Dog of Flanders” which is very popular in the US, UK, and Japan has been adapted and received in each of those countries, as well as in the place the story is set: Flanders. The basis for several films and a Japanese anime TV show, this book has never caught on in Flanders, although there have been some belated efforts by Belgians to cash in on the story’s popularity with Japanese tourists.

The film states several times that one reason the story of failed to become popular in Belgium is that the residents of Flanders don’t see Flanders when they read the book or watch the films, or the TV show. Rather, what they see is Holland. This isn’t surprising, since visiting filmmakers will find little pastoral beauty in modern day industrial Flanders, and Holland is just a twenty minute drive away. But while foreigners might not be able to tell the subtle differences in dress, or even the color of stones used in the streets and buildings, the people who live there are very, very aware.

I probably would not have thought twice about this, except I have also been reading China Mieville’s surreal crime-story, The City & The City. Here is how the Guardian describes the book’s central premise:

the city of Beszel exists in the same space as the city of Ul Qoma. Citizens of each city can dimly make out the other, but are forbidden on pain of severe penalties (administered by a supreme authority known simply as Breach) to notice it. They have learned by habit to “unsee”. The cities have different airports, international dialling codes, internet links. Cars navigate instinctively around one another; police officers cooperate but are not allowed to stop or investigate crimes committed in the other city.

The novel takes a trick or two from my favorite writer, Bruno Schulz, imagining twin cities occupying the same physical space. A situation reminiscent of another enjoyable film from the TIEFF festival, Jerusalem(s), which follows Jewish, Muslim, and Christian tour guides around Jerusalem. Constantly cutting to the numerous surveillance cameras which are also watching. But the book captures something which is not just true of divided cities like Jerusalem or cold-war Berlin, it is also of Flanders. In order to “unsee” someone from Ul Qoma, the residents of Beszel must be alert to subtle signs of dress and manner, just as the residents of Flanders would never be mistaken for Dutch.

I believe manner of seeing is something we don’t just learn, it is something we cultivate. We are proud of our ability to (un)see differences. Every once in a while I meet a Taiwanese, usually someone who lives abroad, or has travelled widely. They peg me for Jewish, but don’t want to broach the topic directly, so the usually ask me if I might not be French. When I insist that I am not, however, they usually garner up the courage to pursue the question until they’ve established that they were correct to begin with. I also know my friends of mixed ancestry (which, of course, is all of us – but you know what I mean) can cause tremendous significant discomfort in random strangers, simply because they are difficult to peg. A Japanese-Afghan friend gets asked: “What are you?” by total strangers on the subway. Once they know “what” she is, they can go back to unseeing her.

UPDATE: Some slight corrections made.

5 thoughts on “On (Un)seeing

  1. Along these lines, Marshall Sahlins often cites an apocryphal Ruth Benedict comment that Boas taught his students that “the seeing eye is the organ of tradition.” Although I’ve never been able to find the source of this quote, it seems apt for this post.

  2. May have mentioned this before, but photographer MIzobe Shuichi recently published a book of street scenes shot in Tokyo and Seoul under the title “Here and There.” The images were deliberately not captioned, to draw attention to the similarities of young people in two societies used to thinking of themselves as very different.

  3. “Shuji” is correct. I misheard my sagacious spouse when I asked the name of the photographer. We provided the English translation of an essay in the exhibition catalogue.

    I thought it might bring an interesting twist to the discussion, since the “unseen” could be similarity as well as difference. In this case, it is interesting that this exhibition occurs at a time of renewed interest in Asia as a source of shared non-Western identity in Japan. As translators we have long had to grapple with the fact that “A-ji-a” (Asia) in Japanese normally means Asia except for Japan. It would be interesting to know how far back this usage goes. My guess is that it starts in Meiji, when Japan was looking to Western models and distinguishing itself from the rest of Asia, may have been interrupted before and during WWII, when Japan was positioning itself as the leader of the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, then revived when Japan’s defeat in WWII made the USA the model to emulate…

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