Birney Imes: Enchanting and enigmatic

March 26, 2011 9:45:00 PM

Birney Imes - [email protected]


"Partly it is the beauty of the country... 


Partly it is the ancient, intricate arts and crafts... 


Partly it is the bottomless depths of Zen Buddhism... 


Partly it is the cuisine... 


And partly--and perhaps most persuasively of all--it is the kindness and sensitivity of the Japanese people... 




The truth, of course, is that all of these attributes interact in amazingly complex and compelling ways, creating the whole of Japanese culture and countryside--a whole that is as enchanting as it is enigmatic." 


~Traveler''s Tales - Japan, True Stories of Life on the Road 




Last week a news story showed up at our front door in the person of Mary Simmons. Daughter Tanner and Mary have been friends since middle school and despite living on opposite sides of the planet -- Mary has lived in Japan since 2004 when she went there to teach English -- they have stayed in touch. 


She''s the daughter of Debbie and Jimmy Simmons. 


When the March 11 quake struck, Mary was on the fifth floor of the 14-story building that houses the Tokyo law firm where she works as a translator. Technically, she is an English support secretary. Her account of the quake ran in Wednesday''s Dispatch. Her employers have told her to stay put for now, so she''s still in Columbus. 


She says lawyers are a rarity in Japan. You only go to them in extreme circumstances, she said. 


"There are people in Japan who have never met a lawyer," Mary said. "They ask me, ''What are lawyers like?''" 


The girl can talk, always could. Mary is a spot-on mimic, and I''m sure that gift was useful as she learned to speak a language so foreign to American ears. When I called her cell phone to check on two items in the story, I got a greeting in English and Japanese. I don''t know a word of Japanese, but the stream of words that issued forth sounded to this untrained ear like those of a native speaker. 


During our interview, Mary spoke of her love for the richness of Japanese culture, the symbolism, the reserve of the people, reverence for the old ways. Her talk infected me, got me thinking about a place and a people I only know about through movies. 


Laugh if you must, but movies have a way -- the best of them, anyway -- of sucking you in, immersing you for 90 minutes or so in the sights, sounds and passions of a people, culture and even a different time. When I''ve seen a really good film, I have flashbacks the next day much like those you have after a long trip. You return home only to realize that part of you hasn''t quite made it back yet, that it takes you a week or so to fully return to the here-and-now. 


Japan has a rich and varied cinematic history. Rashomon (1950) and Seven Samurai (1954), both by the country''s best known director, Akira Kurosawa, are consistently on top 10 lists of the best movies of all time. And then there are Ninja films, monster stories, animated features and gangster flicks. 


I asked a friend, a film aficionado, to recommend some Japanese films. He e-mailed back that aside from Kurosawa, he liked "Godzilla." 


"Really, the Godzilla monster was born out of nuclear fears, and I cannot look at the films of the Japanese destruction without remembering the guy in the rubber Godzilla coat and pants knocking down models and creating havoc." 


Two contemporary Japanese films I''ve enjoyed portray modern life in Japan and offer insight into endearing traits of the Japanese people, their gentleness, unquestioning devotion to conformity (sometimes to the point of absurdity) and reverence for family. They are "Shall We Dance" (the Japanese version) and "Departures." The former is a lighthearted but poignant comedy centered around ballroom dancing, the latter a heart rending story about family and tradition (and winner of the Oscar in 2009 for best foreign film). 


Want to visit modern Tokyo? You can go with Bill Murray and Scarlet Johansson in "Lost in Translation." 


Animation? "Spirited Away," "Grave of the Fireflies" and "Princess Mononoke" are considered among the best in that genre, I am told. 


As for Mary, she''s not sure when she will return. Friends living in Tokyo are not drinking the tap water. Each morning they go to the grocery to buy water. By afternoon shelves are empty. 


Her employer has encouraged her to stay put, telling her America is the safest place to be. 


"I really would like to go back," she says. 


In the meantime, anyone have a short-term need for a Japanese translator?

Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.