Westerners who grew interested in Japan during the past 30 years will remember one point of early contact with the culture: Japanese commercials. Television advertisements from the Land of the Rising Sun have long offered the rest of the world a source of uncomprehending astonishment and mystified laughter. What a weird place Japan is, many must think to themselves as they gaze upon spots involving dancing dogs and salty snacks or brush fire and high blood-pressure tea. But as foreign observers tend to discover — and as I have had reconfirmed while visiting the country for the past week — Japan may have many qualities, but pure weirdness isn’t among them. Artifacts that strike the rest of us as weird emerge according to logic, albeit a logic of their own. This goes double for the most prized Japanese commercials of the bunch: those starring American celebrities.
Here on Open Culture, we’ve featured Woody Allen for Seibu and James Brown for Nissin. Please enjoy, at the very top of this post, the eccentric Nicolas Cage playing his American-ness to the very hilt. When pachinko machine manufacturer Sankyo recruited Cage, they went all-out, getting him square-dancing in the middle of a lonely southwestern highway with a pack of metal ball-headed aliens. Right above, we have Paul Newman flashing a smile and pointing his finger not once, but two times, in a 1980 commercial for Maxwell House. And speaking of eccentricity, below you’ll find perhaps the most oblique example of the American actor-starring Japanese commercial I’ve ever come across: Dennis Hopper for Tsumura. Sofia Coppola satirized all of this, of course, in Lost in Translation, but the exchange of Japanese corporate money for a dose of devil-may-care American panache could hardly make better business sense.