"Japan: Myth Behind the Miracle," is an ABC News documentary about alienation, anomie, loneliness and failure to achieve in the hurly-burly of modern Japan.
The show, to be telecast tonight at 10 on Channel 7, stumbles a bit at the outset when the theme is intoned in the jargon of High Journalism. I wasted some time -- and concentration -- trying to reconcile the irreconcilable, trying to match up what I was told I would see with what I was actually seeing.
I suggest you take the various vignettes on their own terms without trying to throw an intellectual tent over them. You will see a documentary that touches thoughtfully, if not particularly profoundly, on some of the social strains behind the economic "miracle" of present-day Japan.
Several of the issues are not particularly new: the intense pressures to conform, the low status of Japanese women, the grueling competition among the young to win admission to the handful of universities that matter. Yet they need restating from time to time and they are handled here with a sensitive and professional touch.
In many instances, of course, the name of virtually any industrialized country could be substituted for Japan. Who among us has figured out how to deal with these problems to everyone's satisfaction?
But here are those problems in the Japanese context, and I found it fascinating to watch how the Japanese approached them -- usually with no more success than any other country.
One especially affecting piece tells volumes about the loneliness of the Japanese elderly through the phenomenon of a best-selling life-size doll. What had been designed as a somewhat expensive toy for children has become for the elderly a surrogate for the children and grandchildren they no longer have around them because of the breakup of the traditional family structure. At one point the camera focuses on an elderly woman as she bundles up her doll in fine woolens and takes it to the playground where the two share a gently moving swing.
Another effective section covers a woman who has been a stunning success in the hard-edged world of international high fashion. Yet behind the scenes it is her husband who rules the company. She has only a minority share in the company and acknowledges her husband is "the boss."
In more than one passage the producers seem to give way to the temptation that lies athwart the path of everyone who works in TV -- the film footage is so compelling that it somehow has to be fitted into the piece.
This occurs in a segment about the motorcycle gangs which have developed in Japan. As far as I could determine, they do no particular harm to anyone, aside from making their raucous passage through the countryside. Yet we are shown impressive scenes of a long train of bikes twisting their way at dawn through the rice fields.
From time to time social commentators are brought on screen to give their insights into the course of Japanese culture. On the whole they are quite helpful. I found particularly valuable the comments of Donald Richie, an American writer who has lived in Japan for 35 years and who is less imprisoned by sociological jargon.
Some of the most poignant comments, however, come from a 14-year-old Japanese girl who had spent most of her life in the United States, where her father was an executive for Sony. Her attempt to enter the subtle, intricate world that is Japanese society has, in her own words, been harrowing.