Sunday, September 2, 2012

Frilly-necked postcard

Yesterday, while browsing through old papers, I came upon this postcard:

As an Australian, I recognized immediately this fine photo of a dancing specimen of our celebrated frilly-necked lizard [Chlamydosaurus kingii]. It's not really dancing, but simply running speedily across the sand in the direction of the photographer, with its frills flattened by the airstream. Now, who would have sent me such a postcard, and why did I keep it in a box of precious old documents? Here's the other side of the postcard:

It was mailed to me from Tokyo, 28 years ago, on 1 September 1984. The message reads:
Erimaki tokage, la nouvelle idole of Tokyo, le Macintosh des lézards!
In English:
Erimaki tokage (frilly-necked lizard in Japanese), the new idol of Tokyo, the Macintosh of lizards!
And the postcard was signed by a great French filmmaker, 63-year-old Chris Marker, who was a good friend of mine at that epoch. He was in Japan to film the making of Akira Kurosawa's movie Ran, which resulted in Marker's documentary AK, released at Cannes in 1985. Here is one of the rare portraits of Chris Marker (who detested the idea of personal photos and biographical stuff):

During the three or four fascinating years that I spent at the Service de la Recherche de l'ORTF [French National TV Research Center] in the early '70s, private screenings of Marker's short movie La jetée [The Pier], created in 1962, were one of our staple foods.

Pierre Schaeffer—founder and chief of the center—often explained to us why Marker's cinematographic essay was a great milestone in the history of movie-making. And countless cinéastes have indeed been impressed by Marker's ground-breaking style expressed for the first time in that tiny masterpiece.

And what does all this have to do with frilly-necked lizards and Macintosh computers?

Japanese fascination with an Australian lizard was the outcome of a promotional project created by Mitsubishi Motors. Confronted with a vehicle called the Mirage, the people at Mitsubishi's ad agency found that this word sounded like the Japanese "tokage". So, the expression Erimaki tokage became popular overnight, in the typical way in which certain memes apparently proliferate in that country.

Soon, the Japanese transformed the image of the Australian lizard into a cute manga creature.

In Australia, of course, we're not accustomed to thinking of our native fauna as imaginative objects of adoration... maybe because we've become accustomed to seeing the real creatures up close.

We know that many of our exotic animals are not as friendly or cuddly as they might appear. On the other hand, Australians are no doubt happy to pocket yen from tourists who arrive Down Under with aims of seeing Erimaki tokage. I can imagine a version of the Paul Hogan ad:
"We got some visitors here who like lizards. I'll slip another frilly on the barbie."
By coincidence, the original ad I'm referring to (directed, not at Japanese, but at Americans) dates from the same year as Chris Marker's postcard, 1984. But it looks terribly old hat today.

And 1984 was also the year in which the Macintosh computer arrived on the scene. I've always thought that their celebrated commercial has a science-fiction style that vaguely evokes the Chris Marker movie.

Since Chris Marker was fond of sophisticated machines such as the Mac, he was rapidly brought into contact with the French branch of Apple Computer, whose director was Jean-Louis Gassée. At the same epoch, I had submitted to that company a project for a futuristic video application, while knowing full well that the current technology was not yet capable of supporting my project. Apparently Apple France gave Chris Marker a copy of my project—named Videoville—and that's how we became friends. Chris was tremendously impressed, like me, by the potential of the Mac, and we dreamed about the sorts of creations that might soon appear. However, not long after that time, I went out to Australia, and I lost contact with Chris.

A month ago, I was sad to hear of his death [obituary]. Many of the papers written about Chris Marker have mentioned his adoration of cats. At the time I knew him, the creature that fascinated him most was, not the cat (nor, of course, the frilly-necked lizard), but rather the owl. Inside his house in Neuilly, Chris Marker had a marvelous collection of all kinds of artistic representations of wise and less wise owls.

1 comment:

  1. Irony is that the "erimaki" generation of Mitsubishi Mirage (Colt hatchback in most export markets) wasn't sold in Australia, they just kept selling the prior generation with a facelift.