I feel like the easiest way to explain why I loved Big in Japan is to first explain what I feel are the three main branches of narrative tension.
But first I’m going to qualify myself a little bit.
While I write about movies, there is, believe it or not, more to me. I majored in creative writing, I’m the head fiction editor for an online literary journal, and I just spent a year in private writing lessons with a Pulitzer Prize nominated author. Narrative dissection is what I spend a lot of time doing. And a lot of narrative dissection involves understanding where narrative tension arises from. With narrative tension being “something that keeps a reader/viewer interested in seeing what comes next in a book or film.”
In the most macro sense possible, narrative tension can come from any number of fucking things. There’s no “absolute way” to create tension in a narrative. But I think if we started labeling the ways in which a tension occurs we will find that most narrative tension comes from one of three main places (or two of the three or all of the three).
Plot tension would be something like Lion King.
A. Scar wants to dethrone Mufasa and be king. What will he do and will he succeed?
B. Scar succeeds and frames Mufasa’s young son Simba for Mufasa’s death, so Simba has to run away. What will happen to an exiled Simba?
C. After some amount of time (years?), Simba runs into his old friend, Nala. Nala explains Scar is a horrible king and all the lions are dying, that Simba must come back. What will Simba do?
D. Simba, no longer a child, confronts Scar, and the two begin to fight. Who will win and how?!
Character tension is something like Batman. People love Batman. So of course someone made a Batman movie. And they made a sequel because people will go to the sequel because…well…because it’s Batman. But look at The Dark Knight. If you were to take an informal poll of why people re-watch that movies, I’m sure the top answers have something to do with “It’s Batman!” and “The Joker was so good. Heath Ledger, man.”
To see character tension in action, look at how Bane is used in Batman & Robin and then in The Dark Knight Rises. Are you that interested in watching more of Batman & Robin Bane? He’s a personality-less, grunting, green-skinned man-monster. Whereas if someone was releasing a short movie of Tom Hardy as Bane going on a series of blind dates…you would probably be interested. Honestly though, I do think it would be hilarious to see Batman & Robin Bane go on blind dates. But that would probably only be funny for a few minutes. While Tom Hardy Bane could entertain me for hours.
And style tension is when the look of a film draws you in.
Do you feel a difference in interest when you see the 1998 “Grumpy Old Man” Godzilla and the 2014 “Apex Predator” Godzilla?
How a movie look gets at its setting and production. Like the rich diversity of the worlds in the Star Wars movies versus something like Sunshine which has no off-world setting and instead takes place in a “generic spaceship”. The “richness” of Star Wars has tension for some viewers, as they want to see what the various locations will be, or enjoy seeing what new set and characters come next. While someone else might think the Star Wars movies look silly and rather enjoy Sunshine’s claustrophobia and the startling moments like:
Which gets at the other half of style: how a film is shot.
There are people who love Terrence Malick and movies like Tree of Life because they find his work poetic and beautiful. I freak out over There Will Be Blood every time I watch it because of the shot selection being so fucking gorgeous. Or 2001: A Space Odyssey! Any Kubrick. There are movies I will watch just because of the artistry of the shots. A similar thing in literature would be reading a book because you like the author’s word choice. Like this Don DeLillo sentence from Underworld:
“He drove into the spewing smoke of acres of burning truck tires and the planes descended and the transit cranes stood in rows at the marine terminal and he saw billboards for Hertz and Avis and Chevy Blazer, for Marlboro, Continental and Goodyear, and he realized that all the things around him, the planes taking off and landing, the streaking cars, the tires on the cars, the cigarettes that the drivers of the cars were dousing in their ashtrays–all these were on the billboards around him, systematically linked in some self-referring relationship that had a kind of neurotic tightness, an inescapability, as if the billboards were generating reality…”
I read every Don DeLillo book I can because I find his style amazing.
So those are, as I see it, the three main branches of narrative tension. And keep in mind: the tension is subjective. What one person finds interesting, like the insanity of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, someone else might hate.
Big in Japan won me over by appealing to me with all three branches of tension.
First, the plot tension is the kind of fun “what will happen” plot that drives my favorite comedy movies. Examples.
Set up Billy Madison as a 27 year old lovable fuck-up. Then have him have to go back and graduate from each level of school all over again. I want to see what happens.
Set up Happy Gilmore as a failed hockey player with a mighty slap shot and a lovable anger problem. Now make him a professional golfer who has no respect for the “traditions” of the game. I want to see what happens.
Have Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson crash weddings: I want to see what happens.
Have disgruntled, sarcastic Phil Connors get stuck reliving the same day, but stuck reliving it in small town Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Then have Phil be played by Bill Murray. I want to see what happens.
So Big In Japan’s plot has a band that isn’t popular in Seattle go to Japan to see if they can become popular. I want to see what happens. Especially because of the characters.
That dry delivery style is right up my alley. The super long list of costs cracks me up. The wife’s understated reactions. The transition from comedy to serious dialogue to emotional conflict to semi-resolution: that all works for me. There’s a lot packed into that 2 minutes clip. But that’s getting into style and I want to talk about characters.
Phil (Phil Peterson), from the clip, is semi-oblivious and hilariously observant all at once. Dave (David Drury) is semi-confused but always composed in that cool-guy kind of way, unless he’s on stage in which case there is no confusion and he is just raging. And Sean (Sean Lowry) is Raphael from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, semi-a-jerk but passionate and endearing. I’m intrigued by the plot because I want to see what happens when these three are set loose in Japan. And the film does not disappoint! The characters run all around Tokyo, and each one has his own adventures. So, for me, that was a prime combination of plot tension and character tension.
Style tension I already talked about a little bit. Aside from the comedic style (ranging from dry to outrageous), the mixture of comedy/serious dialogue/emotional conflict/micro-resolutions, another key facet of the style is the fact that we are following not just three characters but characters who make up a band. And they are in Tokyo. So not only do we get to see Japan, and see things in Japan that we might be unfamiliar with, we have multiple instances of getting to watch the band play. And they are an actual band: Tennis Pro
Not only are they an actual band, they are a band whose music I really like.
Combine the music, the cultural exploration in Japan, the comedy, the solid editing, shot selection and composition, the characters, and the plot: and you get what I had: a fucking great viewing experience.
I would really like to see Big in Japan combo packaged with Lost in Translation. That would be an interesting 1-2 punch.