For many of my years in Japan, that was one of my favorite games to play with other expats, as a way of processing the odd juxtapositions of things we encountered on a daily basis on a scale from surprising and incomprehensible to shocking and bizarre, things that would crop up in the course of a day in Japan that we thought would be out of place elsewhere. In fact, early on, sometime in the first of my 24 years there, when I was having a particularly hard time dealing with all the things I couldn’t make sense of, a friend said to me, “You know what your trouble is? You’ve never cultivated your appreciation of the absurd.”
It was a magic moment. The next day I went out, saw something that didn’t compute, marked it as “absurd” and moved on. As the years went by, and my outsider perspective morphed into more of an insider perspective, I found less to comment on, of course, but to this day I still find myself saying with some frequency, “Only in Japan.”
I remember a conversation a couple of decades later that I had with the translator of Takeo Doi’s The Anatomy of Dependence, a book which touted itself as the “key analysis of Japanese behavior.” The trouble with Doi, I argued, is that he talks of Japan as if it were unique. But all cultures are unique!”
“Maybe so,” said my conversation partner, “but Japan is uniquely unique!”
I’ve left the academic world behind, and with it a primary interest in Japanese culture, but every once in a while something comes up which pulls me back into the swim. Such an experience hit the other day when I launched into my latest Netflix binge.
It’s a Japanese made-for-television ten-episode drama starring Natsumi Ishibashi and Aoi Nakamura. Subtitles are available in Spanish, Chinese and English. The Spanish title is Tenemos Un Gran Problema (We Have A Big Problem). The English title is My Husband Won’t Fit. The Japanese title is 夫のちんぽが入らない (Otto no chinpo ga hairanai - My Husband’s Cock Doesn’t Go In).
The protagonists are a boy and a girl – she’s a freshman, he’s a sophomore – who meet while she’s moving into a room ready to start college. He lives next door and barges into her life. In no time they’re sleeping together, but without the happy ending.
The problem is evidently some form of dyapareunia, possibly vaginismus, an inability of the vagina to open properly and function without pain. After repeated attempts to storm the ramparts, they give up, realize they very much love each other, and decide to live out a happy married life without penetrative sex.
Not exactly I Love Lucy.
Lest you think I mistranslated the Japanese title, I didn’t. There are several words in Japanese equivalent to “penis,” including “penis.” And “chinpo” isn’t one of them. “Chinpo” definitely means “cock, dick, prick, pecker, peter, willy or shlong” but not “penis.” The use of the word in a movie title is as shocking as it would be in English.
I’m finding myself back in the days when certain things related to Japan used to drive me up a tree. One of them is the character of Kumi, the female of the couple. The other is Kenichi, the male of the couple. He’s sweet, kindly, and uninformed. She’s vapid, clueless, and pathologically passive.
The world divides itself into two kinds of people, those who look upon Japanese passivity as “culturally-determined behavior” and those who find it a form of mental illness. I’m clearly in the latter group. If I have to read another review or commentary describing Kumiko as “cute,” I’m going to check into terrorism as a career.
There’s a no-doubt-about-it bad guy in the movie: Kumi’s mother. Mama produced three daughters and decided that was one too many. Kumi is Cinderella to her sisters. All her life Kumi has had to listen to put-downs about her ugly looks, her lack of brains or personality, or other imagined failings. It’s a mystery she didn’t throw herself off a bridge by the age of ten. It’s never made explicit, but the audience has no trouble putting two and two together. A couple good sessions with a shrink might well convince Kumi it’s her mother who deserves to be tossed off a bridge, after which she needs to get herself to a good gynecologist and get this problem dealt with.
Instead this bozo of a movie plot goes ten painfully long episodes creating the image of a couple who “learn” that sex is not the same thing as love, and one doesn’t need children to be happy. Well, duh! Maybe they don’t need children, but giving up sex unnecessarily isn’t noble. It’s stupid. Not to say self-destructive to the psyche. Like admitting you love music, but not using a hearing aid when one is available when the hearing goes.
We are told this is a “true story,” whatever that means. There may well be a couple out there that are plagued by incurable dyspareunia. Lord knows lots of people have sexual dysfunctions of one sort or another. But here we keep coming back to the notion that suffering is noble, a Japanese trait right up there with hara-kiri and signing up with a kamikaze squadron, as far as I’m concerned. Why fix a problem when one can spend the rest of one’s life stewing about it?
And while we’re at it, let’s make a movie about it and show how true love wins in the end.
Gag me with a spoon.
The problem with the whole thing, you see, is that they don’t make the situation believable. Kimiko at some point discovers her husband is burning through his savings making weekly trips to Soapland, the Japanese way of doing whorehouses these days. And not telling her about it, but leaving the receipts where she can find them. More passive-aggressive behavior. And how does she respond? She stands in front of the place, bows deeply and begs it to "take good care of my husband."
It’s not that they’re not having sex. They’re having plenty of it – just not penetrative sex. I won’t get graphic.
And while the massage parlor is taking good care of her husband, she decides the best way to take care of herself is to go online and make dates with strange men whom she meets in love hotels, where she has passionless sex – with full penetration, note, – while ruminating about what beasts men can be.
Kenichi gives it away at one point when they are congratulating each other on having recognized they don’t need sex when he lets it slip out, “But it would be nice….”
A great series to watch if you’re interested in confirming the common view that Japanese culture is all about collectivity (watch how the couple allows the parents to dictate their lives) and self-sacrifice. And if you take pleasure in tossing your shoes at the TV set. There is some humor, and the scene where the parents get together to scold the couple for not producing children and end up screaming at each other sort of compensates for some of the long silences. And there's a whole lot of sweetness, some of it sincere. The couple clearly love each other deeply, and that emotion gets through, despite all the frustration.
If you do decide to watch it, and find you want to scream “GYNECOLOGIST! SEE A GODDAM GYNECOLOGIST” remember – it’s only a movie.
Apparently, Natsumi Ishibashi, who plays Kumi, made another movie this year, as well:
It’s called Zombies Come and I Reflect on my Life.