Mexican Food in Tokyo

So the semester’s in full swing, which means I’m back to not knowing which way is up or down and forgetting my own name occasionally, though at least I’m a little better prepared this time. One thing I feel compelled to write about briefly: Mexican food in Tokyo.

Taco Bell just opened up a shop in Shibuya, their first since the 1980s. People (mostly masochists or people who enjoy gastrointestinal distress, I guess) are bizarrely excited about this. One refrain I keep hearing is that Tokyo doesn’t have any decent Mexican food, so this is a great way to get a taste of home.

Huh? Okay, Tokyo definitely doesn’t have the variety of affordable Mexican, Tex-Mex, and Cal-Mex options that my two former homes of Austin and L.A. can lay claim to. But if you really think Taco Bell is a good Mexican food option, you need to get out more.

(I’m not above junk food. I do eat fast food occasionally, but Taco Bell is just…vile.)

Some university colleagues and I set up an informal Mexican food club last year. We’ve been out half a dozen times now and still haven’t been to the same place twice, and the list keeps growing. So if you’re craving Mexican food in Tokyo but are sick of El Torito, I’ve got a list of very good options.

Rest assured that I’m a Mexican food snob, so I’m not just being nice when I say these places are good. They’re not just “good for Tokyo,” they’re actually very good. For me that means that the salsa is homemade and flavorful, the tortillas are homemade (or at least soft, fresh, and served hot), and bonus if they offer both flour and corn. Atmosphere is important too, as is price–it’s never going to be as cheap as it is in the States, but it shouldn’t break the bank.

So here are my favorites, from one chili pepper (ugh) to five (heaven). Prices are per person without drinks. And I know I’m leaving some out, I just haven’t been everywhere yet (or I have my own little preferences).

7. Burri. Only came here once and it was pleasant–friendly staff, affordable. They used dark meat chicken, which I’m not a huge fan of, but the burrito was still good. And the pink lemonade is a nice addition.

Location: Harajuku

Price: 800-1200 yen

Rating: Two and a half chili peppers out of five

6. Chiles Mexican Grill. Very fresh ingredients, lots of veggies, friendly staff, comfy atmosphere. It was a bit spicy for me, but if that’s what you’re craving (real spice can be hard to find in Tokyo Mexican places), this will do the trick.

Location: Harajuku

Price: 1000-1500 yen

Rating: Three chili peppers out of five

5. Fonda de la Madrugada. I’m torn on this one. It’s a beautiful, cavernous space, very nice for a date or a party. But damn, it’s REALLY overpriced. The food is good–more interior Mexican, with lots of mole and seafood and baked dishes–but 1000 yen for a tiny cup of guacamole is kinda crazy. The fact that you’re expected to tip the strolling mariachis also makes it feel hard on the wallet.

Location: Harajuku

Price: 3000-4000 yen

Rating: Three chili peppers out of five

4. Frijoles. This is my standby–casual, quick, and familiar. It’s Tokyo’s version of Chipotle, down to the menu font. They get bonus points for making fresh tortilla chips, salsa, and guacamole. More of a grab-and-go than a sitdown place, though all their branches do have seating.

Location: Azabu-Juban, Roppongi, Akasaka, and Otemachi

Price: 1000-1500 yen

Rating: Three and a half chili peppers out of five

3. Rainbow Burritos. Thank the gods for Chubabe and her heavenly, San Francisco Mission Disctict-inspired, fresh-made burritos. Rainbow used to be a tiny little yatai next to a lesbian bar in Tokyo’s gay district of Shinjuku ni-chome, but now there’s an actual sit-down restaurant, though it barely fits ten people around the tiny bar. Still, it’s a lot of fun, especially late at night. Really cheap, too.

Location: Shinjuku

Price: 800-1000 yen

Rating: Four chili peppers out of five

2. Junkadelic. This is the only place I’ve found so far that does enchiladas that taste like home, with a side of rich refried beans and smoky red sauce. Also excellent Mexican rice, freshly made tortillas, great salsa and guacamole, fishbowl-sized margaritas and other frozen drinks, and lovely ceviche and mole nachos. If something’s not on the menu, ask and they might make it for you. Fun atmosphere with an emphasis on good drinks, especially tequila. Sadly the whole place isn’t non-smoking, but I haven’t noticed too much of a smoke problem when I’ve been there.

Location: Naka-Meguro and Shibuya

Rating: Five chili peppers out of five

Price: 2000-2500

1. Tepito. I need to go back to this place. It has TAMALES, and they’re good. Plus really unique dishes like sweet stuffed peppers with cream cheese sauce and cochinita pibil. Apparently the chef here used to work at Fonda de la Madrugada. It’s not cheap, but somehow it doesn’t feel overpriced in the same way that Fonda does. Though I’m probably biased because it’s just up the road from where I live. Great tortillas and frozen drinks.

Location: Shimo-kitazawa

Price: 2500-3000

Rating: Five chili peppers out of five

So that’s my list. Others that I didn’t include: El Torito (not bad), Zest (decent fajitas, but why do they serve them with mashed potatoes?), La Jolla in Hiroo (good enchiladas, not the best fajitas), Salsita in Hiroo (didn’t much care for it).

Tokyo may not be L.A. or Austin, but it’s still got plenty of Mexican options beyond Taco Bell.

Four Mini-Reviews

A few more films that I didn’t have time to write full reviews of:

Paprika (2006)

This film by the late, great animator Satoshi Kon (who also made Tokyo Godfathers and Perfect Blue) is thought to have inspired Christopher Nolan’s Inception (if unconsciously). Both films focus on a device that allows you to enter and influence someone else’s dreams. Where Inception mostly made narrative sense, though, Paprika is off-the-wall trippy. Half the time I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on, and that’s not necessarily a criticism. Visually it’s amazing, beginning with the dizzying opening sequence where the main character jumps in and out of billboards, TV scenes, and photographs. There’s a constant parade of strange beasts and dolls that are occasionally terrifying. People and spaces stretch, contort, and implode in ways that appear much more real (and more squirm-inducing) than most anime sequences. Ultimately, the whole exercise allows Kon to comment on the dream-like nature of cinema itself. A great film for anyone who isn’t necessarily into anime, as it’s radically different from most other anime films, both in style and tone.

そこのみにて光輝く(The Light Shines Only There, 2014)

This film from third-generation Korean-Japanese director Mipo Oh took the top spot on Kinema Junpo’s annual “best 10” list for 2014. It’s incredibly grim but beautiful to look at, and the performances are spot-on. Set in a drab seaside town in Hokkaido, it tells the story of two deeply scarred people who are drawn to each other and want to build a life together, but are endlessly trapped by their circumstances. Not easy viewing, but it stays with you.

女が階段を上る時 (When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, 1960)

I first saw Mikio Naruse’s film about a 1950s Ginza bar hostess in a graduate class ten years ago. Watching it again, I was struck by how beautifully composed every shot is, and at the same time how claustrophobic—the camera never shows us the whole picture, choosing instead to focus on the actors’ faces and their immediate surroundings. It’s a wonderful time capsule of 1950s Tokyo, when rationing was coming to an end and the city was just beginning to enter its economic miracle, even though barren and bombed-out neighborhoods remained. Hideko Takamine is one of those stunning 1950s screen beauties that you just can’t look away from, and she embodies her role effortlessly.

珈琲時光 (Cafe Lumiere, 2003)

Another one that I saw a while ago, shortly after moving from Tokyo to L.A. At that time it filled me with a deep sense of nostalgia because I missed Tokyo so much, and Cafe Lumiere does an incredible job of conveying exactly what it’s like to live here. The tiny apartments with tatami flooring and just enough room for a futon and a low coffee table, the endless sound of trains, the local coffee shops, the sound of cicadas in the summer, the trips into the countryside where there’s more space and more green. Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s film is a visual and thematic homage to Ozu, and his long, unmoving camera shots are mesmerizing, even when all we’re looking at is a living room where a woman is hanging up laundry.


Image courtesy of tumblr.


The butler cafe was supposed to be a “research” trip, or just one of those at-least-I-can-say-I-did-it experiences. But I ended up kind of loving it.

Butler cafes are one of a varied group of “cosplay cafes” in Tokyo that allow patrons to temporarily immerse themselves in a manga / anime-based fantasy world. There are maid cafes, which have probably gotten the most press–these feature young girls in conservative maid outfits who use deferential language and sing songs or play games with the mostly-male clientele. There are “tsundere cafes,” inspired by certain characters in anime and manga who have a prickly exterior but a warm heart (“tsundere” is a combination of “tsun-tsun” [to turn away] and “dere-dere” [to become lovey-dovey]). In those places you’re paying for the privilege of being berated, though the girls usually apologize at the end and ask that you please come back. There are “little sister” cafes, where female staff play the role of a teasing younger sibling.

And then there are butler cafes, sort of a counterpart to maid cafes. The staff are all attractive (and very tall) young men dressed in tuxedo-like outfits that, again, resemble costumes worn by certain characters in anime and manga. They address the (mostly female) guests as “ohime-sama” (“my lady”) and generally wait on them hand and foot during their time in the cafe, carrying their bags, pouring their tea, and pulling out their chairs whenever they need to go anywhere.

All of these cafes involve some level of role-playing on the part of both patrons and staff. The butler cafes feature men using very polite, formal language and waiting on women, in a country where it’s usually women who do the tea-pouring. The women, in turn, get to play the role of a high-class lady. For fans of these cafes, they’re a chance to escape from the real world for a bit and pretend to be an adored princess, a man who’s exceedingly popular with attractive girls, or just someone with a wisecracking sister.

Unlike host and hostess clubs, which charge an hourly fee and tend to pressure clients to purchase very expensive food and drinks, maid and butler cafes are affordable. They’re not cheap–there are service charges and plenty of optional extras–but they’re well within the budget of the average high school student or twenty-something.

I’d never had much interest in any of these cafes, mostly because a) I’m not a hardcore anime / manga fan, and b) I don’t want to seem like a gawking outsider in a world that can be kind of sacred for its devotees. I went to a maid cafe once and it was kind of a non-event. The customers were a mix of men and women, the staff were dressed like maids, and that was about it. (Admittedly, I went to one of the lower-key cafes–there were no songs, no game-playing, and no calls to do childlike chants with the maids.)

But when some female friends and colleagues who study Japanese media and pop culture invited me to a butler cafe outing, I said yes. It seemed like it might be a fun experience with the right group.

My first question: what to wear? Were we supposed to dress like 19th-century ladies? Not according to the website, which tells everyone to dress however they like. Still, I opted for a long skirt instead of my usual jeans.

Image courtesy of Nabari no blog.

Image courtesy of Nabari no blog.

The seven of us went to Swallowtail, the most well-known butler cafe. It’s located in Ikebukuro in an area known as “otome road,” which is filled with bookshops selling homoerotic “boys love” manga and is popular with female otaku. Swallowtail requires you to reserve an eighty-minute sitting, and the cafe can be booked up weeks in advance.

We arrived a few minutes early and headed down into the basement of a nondescript building where several other women were waiting. When it was our turn, an elderly gentleman in a tuxedo guided us into the entryway and introduced us to our butler–a tall, smooth-faced young man with glasses and a jaggedly cut hairstyle. He looked as if he’d stepped right out of the pages of a manga.

The older butler and our young attendant explained the rules (no photos, we would receive our check about 30 minutes before departure time and would need to leave on time because “ladies have very busy schedules”). They then took our bags and coats and led us to our table.

This was where the real performance began. As we entered and made the long walk to our table, we were greeted by a chorus of “okaeri nasai-masse, ohime-sama” (welcome home, my lady) by literally every single “butler” in the cafe (and there were about a dozen of them). The idea was that we were not visitors, we were “home”: high-class ladies in our own palace with our own bevy of attendants. We all giggled a bit, but the staff were 100% into their roles.

The first thing I noticed was that the place was NICE. The Akihabara maid cafe had felt cheap–casually decorated with uncomfortable furniture and really bad food. Swallowtail is gorgeous, with enormous chandeliers, beautiful furniture, and expensive-looking curtains. Someone paid a lot of attention to detail when designing it, and surprisingly it never feels kitschy or gaudy, just elegant.

Glancing around the room, I saw mostly pairs of female guests and a few singles, but no men. (The website notes that men are welcome, but suffice it to say I don’t think there are a lot of male customers.) Most of the women were very nicely dressed, some in the Gothic Lolita-style frilly skirts and blouses favored by young girls who hang out in Harajuku.

Our butlers (there were two of them now) explained the rather complicated menu. Most of us opted for one of the “afternoon tea” sets with names like Cordelia, Victoria, and King Lear. I chose the Anna Maria: a plain scone with clotted cream and strawberry jam, a mini-quiche, and a trio of small desserts with Darjeeling tea.

The tea arrived first, and the butlers took their time explaining the very expensive cups it was served in and the tea itself, and of course poured for each of us. For the entire time we were there, we were never allowed to pour our own tea–we rang a little bell and they would rush to pour it for us. At first it felt bizarre to constantly ask other people to do what I was perfectly capable of doing myself. By the end of the afternoon, though, I have to say that I didn’t mind.

The food was amazing. The portions were small, but they were quite filling, and everything tasted fabulous. The butlers served our tea sets on three-tiered trays, asking us which plate we’d like to sample next and then delicately placing it in front of us.

I think we were all surprised by how much fun the whole experience was. From the minute we walked in the door we were all smiling at each other. For me, at least, there was nothing fake or creepy about the butlers–they didn’t overdo the flattery and didn’t try to flirt with us, they just remained nearby and performed little acts of service every few minutes, all while speaking in very formal language that really wasn’t so different from the kind of language you’d hear in a fancy restaurant.

It was, perhaps, the first time I’d been waited on hand and foot by a group of men, and it was confusing in kind of a fun way. It’s not as if I spend my days waiting on and being incredibly deferential to men, but even so, it was intriguing to take part in something that felt like a role-reversal. It’s part of the basic appeal of role-playing–stepping outside your usual sphere and being someone else for a little while.

I also realized that I enjoy spaces with a certain level of formality and certain kinds of rules, at least for a little while. Swallowtail doesn’t allow photos or cell phone use, which makes everything feel a bit more formal. The atmosphere and the attentiveness of the staff made it fairly easy to pretend for a moment that you were royalty, which was fun.

The cost was a little over 3000 yen per person. Definitely more than I would usually pay for tea and snacks, but really, it didn’t seem overpriced. You’re paying for an experience, and you’ll certainly get one. It helped that the food and tea were fabulous.

So, if you’ve been curious about butler cafes but were a bit hesitant over the weirdness factor, I say give Swallowtail a shot. I didn’t feel like an outsider invading a secret world, just a guest having a cup of tea and enjoying myself. The hour and twenty minutes flew by, and when my friends and I all made our way up the stairs we expressed a little sigh of disappointment at returning to a “real world” where no one calls you “ohime-sama” and welcomes you home with a bow.

Reservations for Swallowtail can be made here (in both English and Japanese). Click here for a video tour (in Chinese with English subtitles).






Uzumasa Limelight is one of those movies that never loses sight of the fact that it’s a movie. It’s formulaic, but when the formula works, it can be a beautiful thing.

I’m surprised that I was so utterly won over by Limelight, especially given my recent, not-so-positive reaction to Hirokazu Koreeda’s Still Walking, which seemed to be trying for a similar level of poignancy but failed. The problem might be  expectations, or inconsistency of tone. Still Walking had a lot of the trappings of an art movie, and thus its frequent forays into melodrama felt stale. Limelight, meanwhile, maintains from beginning to end that it’s a spectacle, and thus I was able to surrender to it.

There is, however, one very grounded element in the midst of all the spectacle, and that’s the breathtaking performance by Seizō Fukumoto. From his physical appearance to the timbre of his voice to the way that he can convey so very, very much with so little, he is never less than mesmerizing—and heartbreaking—to watch. Every line on his weathered face tells a story that you want to hear more of.

A bit on the plot. “Uzumasa” refers to a district of Kyoto that was once a famous center of jidaigeki (dramas usually set in the Edo period and featuring samurai). Seiichi Kamiyama (Fukumoto) is a 70-year-old kirare-yaku, or a particular type of bit player who’s especially skilled at dying onscreen. Sadly, the long-running drama series that he’s been performing in for decades is being cancelled, and he and his fellow bit players struggle to fit into a new system that puts all the focus on youth and computer-generated effects. But Kamiyama finds new purpose when he begins coaching a female actress in swordplay. She ends up getting a starring role in a new film. There are the usual conflicts, and most audience members will see the ending coming a mile away, but it still manages to pack an emotional punch.

Limelight’s narrative clearly takes inspiration from recent headlines. In 2012, TBS announced that it was ending the long-running series Mito Komon, which had been broadcast for an amazing 42 years. The reasons seemed to be declining ratings and a desire on the part of sponsors to affiliate themselves with hipper, more modern forms of entertainment.

In the role of the old master training a young protege, you might say that Seizō Fukumoto is cheating a bit. He is, in fact, a lifelong kirare-yaku who has appeared in hundreds of films (and first came to international attention as a silent retainer in The Last Samurai). There’s a reason he looks so at home in the studio backlot, or in front of his dressing room mirror applying his period wig and make-up. Maybe he’s just playing himself, but I didn’t care—I could easily have watched him for another two hours.

Limelight has a lot of fun satirizing the Japanese entertainment industry’s obsession with youth and looks over talent. In place of the usual jidaigeki, the studio is mounting a production called Oda Nobu, clearly meant to be a cooler version of the story of samurai Oda Nobunaga. The lead actor is an insufferable pop star who refuses to wear the traditional samurai wig, instead opting for a kabuki-style headdress of white fur. None of the actors perform their own stunts, and instead of real swords they use green sticks that will later become CGI weapons.

Young star Chihiro Yamamoto gets plenty of screen time, and she’s perfectly likeable as the ingenue. But thankfully it’s Fukumoto and a small group of older actors who are really allowed to shine. There’s the studio manager, played with a sense of weary pragmatism by Hirotaro Honda, who deeply cares for the actors and the films being made but is left with few options when arrogant directors won’t take his advice. There are Kamiyama’s fellow actors and cronies, who’ve been doing this a long, long time and have a deep love and respect for one another.

And then there’s another quiet, beautiful performance from Hisako Manda, who plays a former actress now running the local bar. Something clearly happened between her and Kamiyama—maybe they were lovers, maybe he just admired her from afar. But the amount of weight and history that they manage to pack into just a few brief, mostly silent scenes is incredible.
At this point I’m fairly weary of films that try to manipulate me into feeling something (and when it comes to dramas, that’s most of them). Some will probably accuse Uzumasa Limelight of just that—it certainly has its moments of swelling music, tearful speeches, and characters whose personalities shift with the demands of the plot. But Seizō Fukumoto could move me to tears just by sitting in front of his dressing room mirror and slowly, methodically applying his make-up and wig. And that is a rare, marvellous talent.


Koreeda Hirokazu was my introduction to live-action Japanese cinema. (Like a lot of people, my first exposure to Japanese media came in the form of anime—specifically, fan-subbed VHS cassettes of Ranma 1/2, Oh My Goddess!, and Video Girl Ai.) The first Koreeda film I saw was Dare mo shiranai (Nobody Knows, 2004), and I was stunned by the power of its silences. The camera lingered on simple, beautiful compositions—a toy piano, light filtering in through a window. The child actors’ performances had a natural, unforced quality to them. The story was heartbreaking, but never maudlin.

I felt the same way about Maboroshi no hikari (1995), with its long, uninterrupted shots and reliance on natural lighting. Afterlife veered toward sentimentality, but it still had that rough-around-the-edges feel that kept it from feeling like a soap opera.

Distance (2001), while intriguing in its premise, seemed more like a filmmaking experiment than a fully-formed movie. Then came Kūki ningyō (Air Doll, 2009). And…yikes. Many people I respect had very positive things to say about this movie, but I loathed it on a deep level. The stilted dialogue, the cliched “message” (we’re all like blow-up dolls, empty and waiting to be filled up), the number of reviewers who called it “sensual” and “erotic,” when to me it was creepy and unpleasant to watch a mostly mute, doll-like woman walk around naked and occasionally have very sad sex.

Koreeda’s trajectory hasn’t been a clear edgy-to-mainstream path–in the past twenty years his films have been a mix of rougher, more subtle stories and very shiny-looking melodramas. Knowing what’s come before, though, makes Aruite mo aruite mo (Still Walking), his 2008 film about a family reunion, hard to watch—mostly because there are frequent glimmers of the artistry that made movies like Maboroshi and Nobody Knows so beautiful. But those moments are mixed in with blunt voiceover, a generically sentimental soundtrack, and characters explaining a situation when the director could have just let the camera linger on their faces.

Still Walking is the story of the Yokoyama family reunion, which takes place over 24 hours in a small seaside town. It’s the fifteenth anniversary of the death of the oldest son, Junpei, who died saving a drowning child. Younger son Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) and his sister Chinami (YOU of Nobody Knows), with their respective spouses and children in tow, have come to spend the weekend. Ryota has married a widow (Yui Natsukawa) with a young son, which his superstitious mother (Kirin Kiki) clearly doesn’t approve of (the widow quickly sees through her polite facade). Chinami and her family want to move into the family home to take care of the parents, but the parents are wary. The father (Yoshio Harada) is withdrawn and bitter over the death of his son and heir, who was to take over his medical practice.

There are a few harsh words and heartfelt statements over the course of the weekend, but mostly it’s business as usual, and we get the sense that this is how this family has always interacted with one another—with warmth and affection, but also a great deal of deep-seated resentment and frustration. The film works best in its mundane moments—when the adults and children cook together in the kitchen, when the adults talk while the children run around just outside, or when Ryota and his wife and stepson joke with each other before going to bed.

What’s maddening is when a beautiful moment is created and then ruined with unnecessary dialogue or cutaways. At one point the family is visited by a man who, we learn, is the child that older son Junpei died to save. The man is sweaty, awkward, and doesn’t seem to be making much of his life, and it’s clear in the forced politeness of the father and mother that they regret their son’s act of charity. But then the man leaves, and the father feels the need to explain to us at length that he is a “fat loser” and that Junpei shouldn’t have died for him.

There’s also an unnecessary voiceover before the film’s coda, which tells us a lot that we probably could have guessed. And then there’s the soundtrack—plaintive guitar plucking that sounds straight out of a soap opera. Thankfully it doesn’t appear too often, but when it does it’s a distraction.

Even with those flaws, Still Walking is a very decent movie. In some places it’s even moving, and while it doesn’t have enough of the interesting framing and lighting choices of some other Koreeda films, such images do pop up occasionally and are wonderful to look at—a sunlight-filled window through which the adults watch children playing outside; the house entryway with shoes lined up and some of the family’s faces hidden as they enter; long, single takes of everyone around a table. But it’s hard, knowing that a director is capable of infinitely more interesting things, to see them produce something so safe. This may simply be the kind of film that Koreeda wanted to make in 2008, but I wish he’d make more of the ones that don’t look quite so polished.


(Note: I’m spending some time during the inter-semester break catching up on unseen films and unread books & articles, and will be using this space to get some thoughts about them down on paper [not literally on paper, but you know].)

Hiroshi Teshigahara’s The Woman in the Dunes is an amazing piece of filmmaking. It’s that rare blend of artistic visuals and compelling narrative that manages not to shortchange either—you’re sucked in by the story, but in the meantime you’re able to appreciate some absolutely stunning images, not to mention remarkable set pieces and visual effects for a film made in the 1960s. It’s an arthouse film that never feels pretentious, a story that’s obviously a parable but with characters and a setting that feel real and immediate.

I remember reading Abe Kōbō’s novel for the first time about ten years ago and being blown away, but also feeling a deep sense of revulsion. This was a novel that did a very, very good job of describing what it was like for two people to be constantly covered in grit—bodies covered in sand and sweat, constantly brushing sand out of their hair, sand falling into their beds and the cracks in the ceiling, brushing it off of their food. It was viscerally real, and as someone who’s always been a bit squeamish about dirt, it stuck with me.

Hiroshi Teshigahara’s film, though, places Kōbō’s story so squarely within the realm of myth and parable that the close-up images of skin covered in sand take on an aesthetic quality. You can still imagine the gritty, unpleasant feeling, but it becomes just another piece of the bizarre world that the characters inhabit.

(Note: If you haven’t seen the film, stop reading and go watch it. Don’t read about it, just watch it—the effect is best if you can just watch the story unfold without knowing what’s coming.)

The film opens with shots of a man (Eiji Okada, star of Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour) climbing up and down sand dunes as discordant music plays in the background. He’s a teacher from Tokyo who’s come to the countryside to collect insect specimens. Having missed the last bus back to town, he’s offered a place to stay for the night by some local villagers. He descends by rope ladder to a house surrounded on all sides by walls of shifting sand. In the house is a woman (Kyōko Kishida) who serves him dinner and speaks cryptically about why he’s there—he corrects her when she mentions what he’ll do “the day after tomorrow,” saying that he’ll be gone in the morning. As night falls she goes outside to shovel sand into buckets which are then hoisted up above by the villagers.

In the morning the man discovers that the rope ladder is gone. Initially confused, he asks the woman to send for the villagers, but it soon becomes clear that they’ve trapped him: he must help the woman shovel sand so that her house—and the entire village—isn’t swallowed by the dunes.

The story’s logic doesn’t make sense, and it isn’t supposed to—of course endlessly digging sand that will only continue to bury the village is a Sisyphean task. Of course the villagers should just abandon their slowly disappearing homes and move somewhere else. But the woman’s reasons for remaining—and ultimately, the man’s reasons for not trying to escape—are heartbreakingly logical.

Akira Lippit’s “Atomic Light: Shadow Optics” points out some fascinating details about The Woman in the Dunes’ atom bomb-related imagery (the film is set in an utterly desolate landscape, and at one point there’s a close-up of the protagonist’s watch, which is stopped at 8:15, the moment that the bomb exploded). Though we are given clues that the story takes place in the modern world—the man mentions a bus and says he is from Tokyo—the bleached and barren visuals give the sense of being nowhere, or miles away from anything resembling civilization.

The film’s combination of surreal imagery and sound serves as a fascinating backdrop to the story, but it also IS the story—when images of the woman’s nude body are layered over images of shifting waves of sand, we start to realize that there’s very little that separates the woman from the dunes. (Akira Lippit points out that the film’s title, “suna no onna,” could also be translated as “the sand woman.”)The famous opening sequence, which shows a mess of fingerprints and inkan stamps layered over the opening credits as ominous music accompanies shots of the man climbing sand dunes, drives home the disconnect between the man’s pitiful claims—“I’m registered with the city office!”—and the indifference of the landscape.

The performances are incredible. Kyōko Kishida embodies her role so completely that you half wonder if the director simply happened upon her in her cottage and started filming. Her large eyes have a perpetually haunted look, even when she’s putting on a cheerful front. And yet at times she IS cheerful—she has accepted her situation so completely that she seems content.

Nearly fifty years after it was filmed, The Woman in the Dunes remains a potent allegory—for our slavish devotion to the status quo, for the ephemeral nature of human existence, for the pointlessness of tasks that seem incredibly significant. What sets it apart, though, is the very real story at its center, of two human beings caught up in forces beyond their control. The philosophical questions that the film explores are powerful, its images stunning, but at its heart it’s the narrative—the characters, the brilliant performances by the actors, and their painful existences—that makes it memorable.

1. Fuck nice shoes. Seriously, fuck them. I made a point of getting nice black work-appropriate shoes with slightly pointy toes and low, thick heels (no way am I ever wearing anything spiky). I put said shoes in my office thinking that I would come to work in my more comfortable boot-sneakers and then change shoes to look more, you know, professional. Nope, not gonna happen. With all the running around I do from place to place and back and forth there is no way I’m doing it in heely shoes, even if they are low, thick heels. I am officially over caring too much about my appearance—if my clothes and my body are clean, my hair is brushed, and my outfits aren’t crazy enough to distract my students, it’s all good.

2. Hello, impostor syndrome, my old friend. Time away from academia has reduced the number of fucks I give about certain things, but I still want to seem like I know what the hell I’m talking about. And whoa, I am way, way behind. Of course teaching eight courses hasn’t exactly given me much time to catch up on all the research and unread literature and unwatched films of the past two and a half years. Sometimes it seems like there’s a little mini-exam every week. I’ll get into a random conversation with a colleague and it’ll turn out they know way more about recent developments in lit theory and Japanese film than I do, and I’ll try to recall the names of important authors and directors and will draw a complete blank and will then want to curl up under my desk and not come out anymore because oh God, they’re onto me, I’m a fake.

3. What the hell is wrong with my memory? I seriously thought I was having a stroke at least a dozen times during this semester. I couldn’t remember people’s names, I couldn’t remember my classroom locations, I couldn’t remember if I had met someone before (I usually had), I couldn’t remember who was in which department, I couldn’t remember my course schedule, I couldn’t remember if I’d brushed my teeth that morning. It was like a brief glimpse of what it must be like to gradually start losing your memory, and it was enough to make me head over to the Luminosity website or do some Sudoku or some shit that would create more synapses and keep the wheels running at a regular speed.

4. Not giving a fuck (when you can manage it) is really nice. It’s shocking how being immersed in academia can really convince you that your entire identity and sense of self-worth is tied to how much and where you publish, whether you get tenure, where you rank in your departmental hierarchy, etc. Maybe it’s just because I got a bit of distance from it for a couple of years, but I just don’t freak out as much about climbing the academic ladder or impressing people anymore. I’m happy in the position I’m in, and I can see myself being happy there pretty much indefinitely. I have no designs on prestige. I love to teach, and I love to write about literature, and I get to do both of those things. The money’s fine (it helps that I don’t have kids), the benefits are great, I have my own goddamn office, all’s good.

5. Oh, just WRITE. I can only help you so much. Yeah, I know it’s my job to teach college students how to write effectively. But on some days I just want to throw up my hands at them and admit my limitations. If you’re a shit writer at the age of 19 or 20, there’s really very little I can do to help you, especially if you don’t really have much desire (or incentive) to get better. See, I can write decently—it’s one of the few things that I feel pretty confident about—but some days I have NO FUCKING CLUE how to TEACH people to write. I can’t recall ever being TAUGHT to write, though I know there were some teachers and professors in my life who guided me in the right direction. It’s a bit like being born a beaver and then having to teach kangaroos how to build dams. I can’t TEACH you to build a fucking damn, I’m a beaver, it’s just what we do. But of course there are SOME things I can teach people, like how to distinguish shit writing from good and how to polish a so-so paper and how to make awkward sentences less awkward, so I do that. And occasionally students turn in really good work that is at least slightly better because of my guidance, and that feels great.

6. Trust is nice. As in it’s really nice to not have to clock in and clock out and just sit in an office building even if I don’t really have any pressing work to do, just because I’m required to be there 8.5 hours per day. And the irony is that I am actually working LONGER hours now than I was in my corporate job, but they don’t feel longer because I have a ton of autonomy and I’m doing the work that I need to do on my own schedule. Most days I come in around nine and stay till after six, but some days I have a dental appointment or I need to go to the bank and I come in at ten and stay till seven. And no one, to my knowledge, is peering at me through a surveillance camera and counting my hours. They just trust that I’ll teach my classes and get my work done, and I do. And it actually motivates me to work MORE.

7. Head, please talk to the hands. Oh, the joys of that special form of bureaucracy that is state institutions. At times it can feel like I’m living in the midst of a collection of feudal states, none of whom communicate with each other. One course that I’m teaching might be cross-listed in three other departments under three different names, so I’m getting emails from three different people about what I think are three different courses but in fact it’s the SAME COURSE, though naturally there’s no way for me to know that since the course names bear no resemblance to one another. The good news is that everyone is really, really sweet and really, really patient. They all seem to understand that things are a little bit insane, they’re just more used to it than I am. One of my colleagues called it “friendly chaos,” which I guess is better than unfriendly order.

8. Guilt. Oh, guilt. I have a job and health insurance and LOTS of people who deserve jobs much more than me don’t have them, and it sucks. On a day to day basis I just pray that I’m not part of the problem and that I will never become that horrible person who rolls their eyes at other people’s struggles and adopts that head-in-the-sand philosophy of “Well, I have a job, so everything must be fine, quit your whining!”

9. Fuck it, I will never read and watch all the things. But until I do, I will feel like a dilettante. That seemingly endless list of books and films that every PhD in my field is supposed to have read and watched just keeps getting longer, and I will continue to try to chip away at it, but it will keep growing.

10. Day to day, it’s awesome. Sure, there are days when I spill tea all over my desk and can’t get the audio equipment to work and want to strangle that arrogant kid who always shows up late and glares at everyone. But most of the time I’m just really happy, tired in a good way, and feel really lucky.

Friendly chaos suits me, I think.

Emerging from the Cocoon

Thoughts on life after the PhD

A Modern Girl / モダンガール

tales of travel, research, and life


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