The Disease of Disney and the Solace of Zen

Japan is an oyster whose pearl is the asceticism of Zen and the consequent aesthetic of minimalism. Thousands of years of philosophical struggle with the eternal questions of existence and thereafter run a deep course beneath its modernity. I have to admit I am deeply affected by it. It needs protection from the global consumerism that reduces the spiritual and intellectual quest to gift shop retail. Of the latter let me make some vitriolic comments.

Japan has a strange fixation with cartoon realities. Everywhere you go, the shops, the people, the tv programmes have elements of humanity reduced to the simplicity of animated creatures, anthropomorphised into stylised representations of human characteristics. If there were seven versions of the human condition then the Seven Dwarfs would represent them. Kuresawa’s The Seven Samurai would involve Dopey, Grumpy, Sleepy et al being ‘collected’ by a central, smiling, androgynous hero to take on the mission of saving humanity. Or the more serious version would be found in the vivid, sometime violent and perverse renditions of a Manga graphic novel. Walk down the roads of Electric City in Tokyo and you begin to believe you are a figment of the Matrix and there is no separation between you and the virtual.

That is the every day. Then go to Disneyland and what is already a twee world becomes exacerbated into the outlandishly infantile. Here, the garish and the glitzy, the caricatured and the personified become a treacle of mawkishness, as devoid of the sweat, flesh and blood or intellectual curiosity of the human condition as it is possible to experience. Millions visit every week. They can queue up to an hour for ‘rides’ and if they manage three special attractions in a day’s slog, they go home happy. Do not imagine I am talking about children. From my viewpoint, primary school and younger ones were actually a minority. Couples, mature professionals, pensioners and every other age group and type of worker wander about with blissed-out expressions as they take in the Disney experience. This chasing of the dragon of fantasy is an addiction. A friend of mine, known internationally for his pithy and delightfully creative children’s books was once visited by the wife of the Japanese Ambassador to the UK with her about to be married daughter. They wanted my friend to sign some of his books created for five year olds. He learned that they would be added to a ‘shrine’ of artefacts that the daughter was gathering her marital boudoir. English and American children’s books are much sought after.

I visited Miyajima Island on my last day’s trip to Hiroshima. The usual tourist traps were full of souvenirs, superficial replicas of the Buddha through to ornamented rice paddles and sake bottles and cups. The narrow streets, despite the bitter cold, were thronging. Only twenty metres above the main shopping street is a wonderful Buddhist building of ancient, polished planks and massive columns. Peace and tranquillity rule. The structure radiates an imperative to ponder on the shortness and superficiality of life and what meaning might be squeezed from its fruits. While I was there, there were only a couple of other visitors.

Disney and the Buddha emphasise that life is but an illusion, an unrolling celluloid that one day will flutter off the reel. Take your pick as to which one offers a path to enlightenment.

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