October 29, 2008

Localizing "The Parent Trap" (part 1)

The following ties into two posts at A Motley Vision, "The Tragic Tell of Mormon Morality" by Tyler Chadwick and "LDS fiction, Mormon fiction" by William Morris. Specifically, supplementing Karl Keller's reasons for "Mormonism's lack or denial of a serious literary heritage": the lack of a uniquely identifiable culture.

As previously noted, my favorite television program right now is the NHK serial drama, Dan Dan. It's an extended (to cover a season's worth of plot) Japanese version of The Parent Trap, about twins separated at birth who discover each other on their eighteenth birthday.

Watching Dan Dan prompts me to think about how culture can accentuate "the same only different." I think a major selling point of anime and manga, for example, is experiencing familiar stories couched in unfamiliar settings that bring out unexpected, undiscovered aspects of the narrative.

The "big C" culture aspects in Dan Dan are obvious. One sister (Nozomi) is a maiko (apprentice geisha), living in Kyoto's Gion district. The dialect spoken by the Gion geisha is such that when playing Nozomi, Megumi has to stick to "Yes," "No," and "Thank you" to avoid giving herself away.

Japanese concepts of family duty and honor are leveraged to an extent that would still surprise American viewers. Screenwriters can have grandparents living with their children as a matter of course, and when Japanese apologize for really screwing up, they will kowtow. The visceral impact of this gesture cannot be underestimated.

Legal differences. When Megumi first suspects that her mother might be her stepmother, she only has to pay a small fee and get a copy of her koseki birth certificate (which records maternity and paternity) at the local government office. Plot developments delayed in the American version are brought immediately to the fore.

Comparing the 1998 Disney version (which I quite like) with Dan Dan also brings to mind the differences between The Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven. The latter is not just a "remake" of the former, but an entire reimagining within the mythos of the American West.

Ditto Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars. But the Bruce Willis remake (Last Man Standing) is little more than a pale copy with the actors and sets changed. All Last Man Standing inspires in you is an appreciation for what Leone and Eastwood did with A Fistful of Dollars.

The point I'm getting at is summed up in a Bruce Jorgensen quote William Morris links to: "Maybe Mormonism itself has no 'essence' but only a story." I would clarify that it has no cultural essence. Namely, I'm hard pressed to imagine how an explicitly "Mormon" context would introduce that much of a difference here.

Ironically (because the church now disavows it), rich possibilities could be found in a polygamous setting. Otherwise, the dramatic "essence" contributed by a Mormon setting would be too subtle to detect. Are the unique cultural elements of Big Love (for example) the only kind recognized as such by non-Mormons?

[Continued in part 2.]

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# posted by Anonymous Anonymous
10/29/2008 10:44 AM   
Eugene, I'm still trying to unpack this sentiment from when you posted it on AMV. I know I seemed flippant about it, but it was serious to me.

Anyway, I really am attempting to distill this for myself, but it's slow going.
# posted by Blogger Kate Woodbury
10/29/2008 12:43 PM   
I recently watched the fantastic Touch of Mink with Doris Day and Cary Grant; it is chock-full of hilarious innuendos and a touching, if exaggerated, dilemma on the part of the heroine. And I thought, "Yeah, but Hollywood could never do that movie now." Basically, you have to have a culture where one doesn't have sex before marriage--not for religious reasons necessarily, just because one doesn't (a la Jane Austen).

In a way, the LDS version of Pride & Prejudice, for all is faults, caught Austen's underlying assumptions better than even the black & white version--so did the incredibly long (Indian) Bollywood version: you have to have a culture where certain expectations/taboos still have some weight in order to make certain types of arguments, and I've wondered if Mormonism could supply that culture.

The key, of course, is that the taboos are unspoken. Many religious cultures can supply taboos, but the taboos are often very, very spoken, and the literature, especially, just can't leave them alone. While Mormon teachings mention taboos, a large part of Mormon culture is expectation-oriented rather than gospel-oriented: at least in Utah where you have temple weddings by people who have little knowledge of the gospel and less interest.

Another example: when I was at BYU, I heard the legend of the students who drove to Las Vegas to get married so they could have sex (followed, presumably, by an annulment). I always thought that would make a great story, but in order for it to work, the cultural expectation would have to be implicit (not the gospel expectation which obviously doesn't apply since one presumes that 20-year-olds aren't so stupid they can't tell the difference between the letter and the spirit of the law. Well, maybe not.).
# posted by Anonymous Anonymous
10/29/2008 1:53 PM   
when I was at BYU, I heard the legend of the students who drove to Las Vegas to get married so they could have sex (followed, presumably, by an annulment).

Yeah, I heard that one, too.

at least in Utah where you have temple weddings by people who have little knowledge of the gospel and less interest.

See, that blows my mind, but my grandmother worked in the SLC temple for years and years and has tales that I have never really believed.

But that cultural expectation thing applies to kids who go out on missions to "straighten them out," too, and kids who really shouldn't go for any number of other reasons but do because not doing so is...simply not culturally acceptable.

Re: "Hollywood could never do that now."

In genre romance, the "virgin heroine" is now much maligned, especially if she's any older than, say, 22, as not being realistic. And you know, that's one of my favorite devices because as LDS women who DO wait (sometimes for an unreasonable and unnatural amount of time), that IS realistic.
# posted by Blogger Th.
10/30/2008 12:09 PM   

I don't see us as so culture-free. But I think the differences are subtle enough that they are diffficult for outsiders to observe correctly and difficult for insiders to recognize as different.

Ergo, I suspect success in this area will more likely to be found accidentally.

If we "write Mormon" -- unapologetically -- those differences will manifest themselves.
# posted by Blogger chosha
10/31/2008 7:34 PM   
Kate: "Basically, you have to have a culture where one doesn't have sex before marriage"

That's what I liked about Baz Luhrman's version of Romeo and Juliet. He understood that the decision of a 14 and 15 year old to marry would make little sense in the modern context, so he filled the movie visually with religious iconography that gelled with the main characters' outlook. Good movie-making.

Incidentally, I loved the LDS version of P&P (as you say, despite its faults), because it did capture those pressures and expectations that exist in Mormon culture both to marry and to marry well, and also I think illustrated how those things can actually hinder the course of true love rather than aid it.

OT: Having a good Darcy didn't hurt. He's a wonderful character played well.

To the topic in general: I think Mormon culture easily provides a distinct cultural essence. I think the problem lies in the explaining. It's not well known enough to just launch into a story and know that your audience 'gets it'. Which is why Fallen Angels uses that common device of the stranger in a strange land, so that relevant information can be disseminated. (Just finished it, by the way, and it was good. Will post a review soon.) And why the plethora of LDS movies that have emerged lately often get accused of only being good for a Mormon audience and having too many by-words, etc.

It's clever that they made one of the sisters in Dan Dan a maiko. Huge opportunities for comedy there.
# posted by Blogger Eugene
11/01/2008 8:31 AM   
Although often annoyingly ahistorical, I think Hinckley's efforts to create a kind of Mormon pilgrimage were spot on in terms of creating religious culture. As chosha points out, the problem often lies in the explaining. That's one reason why I advocate "desecretizing" the temple ceremonies: it'd force the church to explain them.

I think it's possible to integrate "high church" theology into "low church" culture. In the previous Asadora, Hitomi, the butsudan (Buddhist family altar) plays a subtle but critical role. Butsudan can be very high church (and very artistic, ornate and expensive), but they can also be simple and ordinary, as in Hitomi.

I'll get around to examining the religious symbology in Hitomi one of these days.