by Graeme Wood
An LRB essay on Clive James twice mentions the great man's long interest in the culture that is Japan. For his television show, James recognized early that Japanese game shows are one long string of high-quality Mental Health Breaks. And James saw why they're so appealing:
It was in a London Weekend Television office at Sea Containers House that he and his production team first got hold of the syndicated footage, assembled and posted by our Japanese-speaking stringer in Tokyo’. Editors trimmed it down to an hour, so that we could taste it. It was like tasting an electric light socket … One of the milder images I made notes on was of young men hanging near naked upside down over a well-populated snake-pit while their plastic underpants were shovelled full of live cockroaches.’ It was sure-fire material’, sure enough. Instantly’, though, James decoded the spectacle:
This was theatre, and it was formed on the ruins of a sadistic militarist tradition that had richly merited being ruined. As I made my first notes, I was forming something too: the beginnings of a theme that I would pursue for the rest of my career, even into the present day. Civilisation doesn’t eliminate human impulses: it tames them, through changing their means of expression. That, I decided straight away, would have to be the serious story under the paragraphs that tied the clips together: otherwise the commentary would be doomed never to rise above the level of condescension.
James speaks vaguely of writing a "Japanese-Australian War and Peace" that will take "a decade to prepare before I even begin to write." James has been slow-curing his lungs with cigarette smoke for many years now, so I am not optimistic about my chances of getting to read this book. But there is plenty of great James shorter work to enjoy in the meantime. (See "Bring me the Sweat of Gabriela Sabatini.")