Sometimes I think the only real advantage of American celebrity would be the offers to act in Japanese television commercials. We’ve previously featured James Brown pitching Nissin noodles, Harrison Ford’s Japanese-speaking spots for Kirin Beer remain beloved pop-cultural artifacts, and evidently Jodie Foster sends cosmetics and coffee flying off the shelves. Sofia Coppola even built her film Lost in Translation around a Hollywood actor, portrayed with unforgettable resignation by Bill Murray, visiting Tokyo to shoot a Suntory Whisky ad. Above you’ll find a series of commercials from the early eighties for the Japanese department store Seibu, featuring none other than Woody Allen. He arranges his desk, paints calligraphy, wincingly receives some kind of moxibustion treatment, and makes a purchase from a vending machine emblazoned with a picture of himself, all while a singer (as far as my limited Japanese allows me to understand) rattles off a list of durable and edible goods.
When these spots first aired, many Japanese viewers didn’t recognize Allen. According to a contemporary Lakeland Ledger article, Seibu’s marketers planned it that way, intending to introduce him to Japan themselves as a representative of their sensibility : “Responding to the decline in the youth market, Seibu wanted the store represented by ‘an adult’ [ ... ] With his multiple talents, Mr. Allen seemed ideal to personify Seibu’s multiple features.” In each of these clips, Allen presents (and the singer sings) the Japanese phrase “おいしい生活,” which I read as “delicious life,” which the Ledger article translates as “tasteful life,” and which one YouTube commenter translates as “delicious lifestyle.” (“The sweet life” might convey a similar idea.) For evidence of this campaign’s cultural impact, look no further than Japan’s title for the Woody Allen film, released nearly twenty years later, that we know as Small Time Crooks: おいしい生活. Woody, you’ve done London, you’ve done Barcelona, you’ve done Paris, you’ve done Rome — hasn’t the time come to take your camera to Tokyo?