Reminiscence and free association: Japan, harmonicas, and Quincy Jones

"If you don't do something about it, you're going to have taco trucks on every corner." --Marco Gutierrez, 2016.

I'm one of those who likes to say "there are two kinds of people," although what two kinds those are may vary from day to day. Today I'm here to tell you that people can be divided into novelty seekers and novelty avoiders. This difference illuminates a lot of what we see in life, including our politics. (This post is not about politics, but there are many serious researchers [which I am not] who could tell you much about the connection.) I find the quote above (meant as a serious warning) a perfect illustration. Gutierrez clearly is not only a novelty-avoider but apparently cannot imagine that some people (novelty-seekers) find the prospect of a taco truck on every corner rather enticing.

As is often the case, I myself am a particularly interesting example.

I say this because over the arc of my life I have transitioned from being a novelty-avoider to a novelty-seeker--proof that we are not born destined to be one or the other. As a small kid, our family went to eat very occasionally to a Chinese restaurant. I was the one who insisted on ordering from the "American" section of the menu and would sit there eating a hamburger while the rest of the family gorged themselves on Chinese food. This, by the way, was the only time that I would have any interaction with Asian people, limited to looking at the waitress in the Chinese restaurant. Our environment was just extremely homogeneous.

I stubbornly refused to even try Chinese food until the age of fifteen, when I was finally coaxed into eating a bit, and it quickly became my favorite. A lesson to be had there.

My friends and I had only the vaguest concept of differences between countries of East Asia. We were really only aware even of the existence of China and Japan--and Vietnam as well, since there was a war going on there. But in our minds they were essentially indistinguishable. When it came to Japan, we could have named two special characteristics--they took off their shoes inside the house, and they ate raw fish (which in those days seemed incredibly bizarre).

That was a long time ago. Now I have a considerably deeper understanding and interest in things Japanese, which has enriched my life in many ways, some not at all obvious. Thinking back, I have realized that my first impressions of Japan came from the movies--from two particular movies. I have since rewatched both of these many times, and recommend both of them to people who enjoy low-key comedy.

The first is Teahouse of the August Moon (1956). Perhaps I'll have more to say about this one in the future.

The second is Walk Don't Run (1966), a unique kind of three-sided love story which takes place in modern-day (1964) Tokyo. It also happens to be Cary Grant's last movie, and it's good to see he was a smooth as ever.

In those days we had no VHS, no DVD, no streaming on demand, which means the only way I would see this movie is being taken by my parents to the movie theater. As a kid, I completely ignored the main plot of the movie, but some of the broader moments of comedy made an impression on me that I can still recall today--for example the romantic lead Jim Hutton taking a flying leap into a public bath. Those scenes are what I consciously recall. 

Several years later, in adolescence, other minor events triggered a serious fascination with things Japanese: the butterfly effect in action. It was then that I started studying the Japanese language. These two movies had vanished from active recall by then--I could not even have told you the titles.

Next event in the story: in 1983 I visited Japan for the first time. Yeah, it was great, and it fleshed out all kinds of rather superficial knowledge I had from books and photos. Fragrances, the feel of the air, all kinds of things you can only get from being there.  (Ah, here is the exception that proves the rule.)

And then in 1984: I hear Quincy Jones' song Velas on the radio for the first time. Super-mellow R&B, with the legendary Toots Thielemans on the harmonica. But I'm hearing something else in the music. To me this sounds like Tokyo--like walking on one of the urban backstreets at night. These are not the vast neon jungles you see in the movies, but tranquil, a mixture of shops and homes, passers-by but not crowded, with a balmy summer breeze. It's not the kind of place that tourists take pictures of, but in retrospect it's a fond idyllic memory. I did find one 1983 photo, and put it at the top of this post.

I couldn't account for this effect of the music--not yet

But one day shortly thereafter: I was browsing in a used record store. Once again, in those days we had no MP3's, no music streaming. Acquiring music depended on having the luck to come across it in a store. On that day I came across this:

As I have said, by this time I no longer remembered the title of this movie nor had thought about it for many years. So my first thought looking at this was: Hey, I know this movie! 

And then the next thing I noticed: It's Quincy Jones! 

And later I found: and Toots Thielemans!

Naturally I bought the record and listened--music I had heard just once eighteen years earlier, and never once thought about. 

Breezy cheerful R&B. That whistling is Toots Thielemans again. Not at all "Oriental" sounding, but it was embedded in my subconscious as "Japan" since age eight.

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