Friday, May 23, 2014

In Hakone: part three

Part one here.

Part two here.

The first time I visited Japan, among many other wonders, I found myself in a toyshop in Harajuku that was populated not just with wild and wonderful Japanese products but also side orders of Western TV culture that had enhanced my own childhood but then apparently disappeared, like the shape-shifting Barbapapa and plucky little Krtek (The Mole). It was as if some of my earliest memories had been tucked away in a safe place on the other side of the world until I was ready to visit and retrieve them again. You see, Japanese people have many of the same cultural reference points that we do: it’s just that they approach them from a different angle, in a different order, with different priorities.

With that in mind, we arrive at The Museum of The Little Prince. My relationship with the original book has shifted over the years: I adored it at first, even though the edition I owned was a tie-in for the crappy 1974 movie; then grew away from it as I entered my teens because it was soppy and childish and possibly a bit Goddy; and eventually came to realise that it was actually a book about the pilot rather than the prince itself and that made it all feel OK. The narrator is an unwilling existential hero, hell-bent on isolation but at the same time desperate to get back to a childhood that probably wasn’t that great in the first place, Pooh via Camus.

(After all these years, I’ve only just noticed that the boa ate the elephant trunk-first.)

In other hands a museum dedicated to Saint-Exupéry’s work might have turned out to be a little tacky, with staff decked out in fluffy blonde wigs and an interactive game in which you try to kill the baobabs and save the rose. (I’ve just found out that there’s a new movie coming out next year and I hope it’s a complete disaster so they won’t be encouraged to build a Little Prince Theme Park. Oh God, Jeff Bridges is playing the pilot, which is perfect casting. Damn.)

Anyway, the Japanese museum isn’t that bad. There’s a lot about the author’s life, with plenty of photographs and manuscripts and a recreation of the New York room in which he started work on his novella. There are some statues of the main characters but they’re quirky rather than kitschy. You soon realise, though, as you sip on café au lait topped with cocoa stencils based on the illustrations from the book, that this place is less about The Little Prince or its author, more about an idealised notion of Frenchness — which is a little odd, as the book isn’t even set there. One you pass through the wrought-iron gates into a precisely coiffed garden you have a cute little courtyard of mocked-up shopfronts, including one of Saint-Exupéry’s own birthplace. And once you’re done, the gift shop is packed to gunwales with je ne sais quoi both echt and ersatz: imagine if the National Trust operated in Provence. That.

But in a way this is appropriate. If The Little Prince is about yearning for an unattainable state of innocence — that sort of childlike state that’s been hovering around wherever we go in Hakone — the Museum of The Little Prince encapsulates that state of mind, offering Japanese visitors a sensibility that probably never existed and certainly doesn’t now and most of them will never find out one way or another. I’m reminded of Paris syndrome, a condition identified by a Japanese psychiatrist among his compatriots who visited the city and found it to be a far more disturbing place than they’d imagined. Much safer to take a vacation in a purpose-built simulacrum of Paris, or maybe on an indoor beach.

Or you could just read a book instead.

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