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Watching TV nestled with my family is a major event.
My mother and sister are visiting me from Los Angeles, and I promised them that tonight I would come out of my study for the evening to spend quality family time in front of the TV. Destination TV is a major event for us as it unfolds in multiple parts. First we must all agree to watch whatever we start, for the duration of the piece. We then deliberate on old or new, repeat or fresh viewing, and finally, whether we want to watch something in English, or Japanese, if available.
I am trying to make the case for watching Space Jam: A New Legacy starring LeBron James but my sister is accusing me of only wanting to watch it because it’s so bad that we will soon ignore it and I can go back into my computer. I correct her: I want to watch it because it’s bad, so I can dunk on it on social media. The terrible quality of it is actually what will keep me pulled to it. Sister says nope to ironic viewing.
Since we’re talking about animation, we review the Ghibli catalog made newly available on HBO Plus. I want to watch Princess Kaguya but my sister says it’s too sad. A few days ago she texted me that she’d watched Minari and it was so sad that she couldn’t do anything the rest of the day. She was so depressed that she reminded me the next day not to attempt watching the movie. It would be too sad for me. She regrets watching it.
I told her how I have a running conversation with my friend Hannah where we name things we’d rather do than watch Minari. We’re both petrified of the emotional breakdown we might have from watching the full length film after the trailer obliterated us in two minutes. What would we rather do than watch Minari? Watch the Allen v. Farrow documentary, for example. Watch Human Centipede while eating dinner. Have a confrontational conversation with a republican relative. Confront our own fathers.
We finally decide on Ghibli Studio’s Tales from Earthseaby Ursula K Le Guin, but twenty minutes in, mom says the sub-plots are too confusing and we end up service-surfing again for something more straightforward. My mom and sister have just watched A Family (the yakuza film by Michihito Fujii, 2021), and think I would like it. Turns out I do. It’s straightforward gangster fare but gorgeously shot. We joke that my sister is the oyabun capo and Mom is the lowest ranking yakuza kozo. During the bloodiest scenes, my sister and I huddle toward each other and avert our eyes. We laugh because Mom continues to eat kaki no tane with no sort of gag or wince or disgust. She’s riveted, even.
Years ago in a “reimagining safety” workshop led by the Youth Arts and Self Empowerment Project, we were prompted with describing what we envision when we close our eyes and think of the word “safety.” It was clear and immediate to me: my mom, sister and I huddled in a bed, watching VHS recordings of Japanese dorama, or later, DVDs or videos of movies we’d rented. While in graduate school in New York City, my sister came to live with me briefly, and we spent every single night falling asleep watching Lord of the Rings (part 1) on my laptop from my mattress on the floor. It was a really tough time for both of us but especially her, and I will forever cherish those moments of tenderness without which I think we would’ve gone mad.
My favorite scene in Lord of the Rings is when Frodo is stabbed by a cave ogre and the fellowship all stop dead in their tracks, believing the hallowed hobbit to have suffered a fatal blow, only for Frodo to defrock his threadbare blouse and reveal a chainmail of impenetrable mythril. Gandalf gives a knowing smirk, and I say the same thing I say every time this scene unfolds: Frodo’s coming out. My sister always rolls her eyes. There I go being ironic again. That’s part of the ritual, too.