An Exciting Life Samuraised

June 16, 2015 / Features

By Alex Reeves

An unlikely advertising evangelist's adventures, from the Paris suburbs to every corner of Japan.

Growing up a hippie in the uneventful suburbs of Paris, Jean-Christian Bouvier had a burning wanderlust. But nobody would have guessed that over 40 years later that desire for adventure would see him touring to the remotest islands of Japan showing commercials from around the world to paying audiences.

For over ten years the APA Collection has been a part of Jean-Christian’s travelling show. That’s why the trade association have chosen him as the champion of their recent ad for the APA Show, which you may have seen in Campaign.

Depicting Jean-Christian rowing across a tempestuous sea, the copy reads:

A TRUE STORY…
Every year without fail, Jean-Christian Bouvier rides the waves of the East China Sea to show the 41 inhabitants of a remote Japanese island the latest APA Collection…

Also shown in New York, Paris, Milan and 385 major cities around the world.

So how did he end up in such a bizarre position? It began when he finished school and realised he didn’t want to work for a bank or an insurance company. Mostly, he wanted to see the world. “I was a kind of hippie,” he says, but he was more dedicated to travelling than your average ‘70s globetrotter. The French word for it is routard. “I’m more of a routard than a hippie. The hippie would stop in Kathmandu. The routard would go further to Japan.”

He left France and trekked for the best part of year until he was in Japan. On his arrival he fell in love with the country. Having travelled through some of the poorest countries in the world to get there, the exotic environment, paired with a good standard of living was enchanting. He felt at ease there. But Japan had other draws “Like everybody, I fell in love with a young Japanese woman,” he says. “It’s not original, but it’s true.”

Once he’d returned to Paris (on the Trans Siberian Express, no less) real life kicked in. He soon took his first teaching job in Vietnam, travelling there in the midst of the war. France still had national service and Jean-Christian saw the chance to avoid going into the army by teaching there. He was posted to the French high school in Saigon, where he taught a mixture of French ex-pats and middle-class Vietnamese children.

The best part of his year there was the teaching itself. “I really loved it, especially with the cute Vietnamese classes,” he says. He remembers once asking them to write an essay on whether they prefer chopsticks or a knife and fork. “The answer was all about the nice feeling of the chopsticks in hand. The way you could choose the food and delicately pick it up and pride of their culture – all written in almost perfect French.”

It was 1975. For weeks everybody knew the North Vietnamese (Bodoi) Army were advancing on Saigon. Jean-Christian listened for the rockets at night. “I learnt that the rocket you hear is not for you. You only hear the ones that go above you. The problem is you wait for the next one, the one you will not hear coming.”

As the South Vietnamese regime disintegrated, his life got very strange. “Life was getting more and more surrealist,” he says. As the piastra (the local currency) lost 99 per cent of its value, Jean-Christian suddenly became rich thanks to the US dollars in cash he kept under his pillow. He bought hundreds of LPs by the boxes and his first Japanese Nikon cameras with several lenses. “In the evenings we would discuss the rumours and wait and wait and wait, drinking excellent French wines bought on the street for almost nothing,” he says.

“It was not a very glorious way to be a part of it, I know,” he admits, “But to my defence I don’t know what else we could have done.” Till the end they kept on teaching as if nothing was going to happen. “The policy was to stay, to hope for the best and be ready for a new Vietnam when the war is over.” He couldn’t bear to abandon his Vietnamese pupils.

“The last months were surrealist; the last days (or last weeks?) were hectic!” The young teacher watched as American helicopters evacuated embassy staff and South Vietnamese allies. One crashed not far from his home. Soon he and his colleagues were the last foreigners left in Saigon.

Finally the Bodoi Army rolled into the city, meeting no resistance. Jean-Christian’s enduring memory of it is silence. No cheering or shouting. The people of Saigon watched the tanks and trucks loaded full of exhausted, young soldiers pass through the streets. “I think for most people it was a feeling of relief: ‘Whatever happens tomorrow, it’s finished. The war is over.’”

One week later he went to see a Russian film in a theatre downtown. Watching newsreels of the Bodai Army entering Saigon, he was appalled to hear that the resigned silence had been dubbed over with rapturous cheering.

By the end of July he had returned to France and was soon reunited with his extensive record collection, as well as his Japanese girlfriend. It wasn’t long before they got married and soon their first son was born. He had to get serious. “I decided that I had to work to satisfy my mother and my young wife at the time and the easiest way was to be a teacher,” he says.

Still infected with wanderlust, the plan was to teach French around the world, staying for a few years in a country before moving on to another. “Teaching French would allow me to keep travelling,” he thought.

The first post he landed was in Fukuoka, a large city in the south of Japan. The plan was to stay for two or three years and move on to teach in another country. But he didn’t stick to the plan.

Coming from a small flat shared with his mother in the Parisian suburbs, he appreciated his new life in quite a big house in Fukuoka. The city was big, but not sprawling, a 20-minute drive from beautiful beaches and impressive countryside. He was contented and his career as a routard was postponed for the foreseeable future.

Originally he taught French Literature, which indulged his self-confessed inner snob. “I was very happy teaching French Literature in a department of Japanese students who couldn’t really speak French. But at least they were studying literature!”

With few teaching hours, Jean-Christian had a lot of freedom. He did a lot of windsurfing, reading and began translating Japanese texts into French. “I wanted to have an intellectual link with my country,” he explains. He translated children’s books, detective stories, theatre, the books his fluency in Japanese allowed. In ten years he had translated almost 50 books.

After 14 years he moved to a smaller university. Sadly, they didn’t care about French literature so he had to teach French as a foreign language. As he was a foreigner they also asked him to teach a class in Japanese called International Communications. When he asked what it was and they said they didn’t know. It was a new class and he could do what he liked with it. Baffled, he accepted the challenge.

A fan of theatre, Jean-Christian started doing things in the new class like comparing productions of Don Giovanni from around the world. He’d gather ten versions and show his students the same song performed ten different ways.

This is when advertising crashed into his life like a freight train. “Up to this point I’d had no contact with advertising at all and, I’m sorry to say, no interest in it either,” he says. But he found a VHS tape that changed his life. It was full of old Japanese commercials and it intrigued him. Many of them featured famous foreigners. One that stands out for him is Orson Welles advertising Nikka Whiskey. “I was amazed to see that a genius like Orson Welles would do advertising,” he says. Another featured famous man’s man Charles Bronson advertising a men’s cosmetic brand called Mandom.

Realising they could be useful tools for examining culture, Jean-Christian started including commercials in his classes. “It was a real hit when I started to use advertising,” he says. Classes of 30 or 40 students grew to over 200. It worked too well in his opinion. “I thought my Don Giovanni classes were better than my classes on advertising!” he says.

It was a revolutionary idea. People studied commercials in Japanese universities, but it was always in marketing departments. Jean-Christian’s classes were the first to analyse ads from a cultural perspective, using them as windows on the societies that made them.

Having started out with no interest in commercials, Jean-Christian soon found himself in the role of a specialist, writing about advertising in magazines and always looking to expand his collection of vintage commercials. This led him to Jean Marie Boursicot, the first man to convince people to pay to watch commercials as part of La Nuit des Publivores – Night of the Ad Eaters – a six-hour late-night marathon of commercials from around the world, interspersed with music and other entertainment.

Jean-Christian asked if he could buy some of this huge collection for use at his small Japanese university. Boursicot refused, but noted that nobody was running the show in Japan. If he wanted to start exhibiting it in Fukuoka he could have the collection.

Jean-Christian returned to Japan thinking he’d have to look elsewhere for commercials to use in his classes. Then on his 50th birthday he received a surprise. Five of his friends, all teachers from Fukuoka, clubbed together and gave him an envelope full of yen to bring this crazy ad bonanza to their city. He was overwhelmed.

Protective of his tapes, Boursicot brought them personally to Japan and CM Festival was born in Fukuoka, showing 500 commercials from the most obscure countries, from Montenegro to Angola, punctuated by live music, magicians and circus performers. Running from 11pm to 5:30am, the night is full of drinking, laughing and pachi-pachi-clapping, a celebration of all cultures from around the world coming together through advertising.

It was an immediate success in Fukuoka and after only two years managed to sell out a 1000-seat theatre in Tokyo two nights in a row. What began as a hobby was fast becoming a big commitment. Jean-Christian started to travel around Japan with his show, still supporting himself through teaching.

After six years CM Festival became his full-time job. It was around this time that he went to London, met APA Chief Executive Steve Davies and arranged to include the APA Collection in his festival. The existing show had a good spread of weird commercials from non-western countries, but fewer from more developed industries. “We needed to have the best produced commercials,” says Jean-Christian. “It’s an important part of the show. We still have funny commercials from all over the world but the APA Collection has the quality.”

Favourite British commercials among the Japanese audiences include those made by Japanese brands like the very famous Honda Cog and Sony Balls. “They were amazed that a Japanese company would make such wonderful commercials and not show them in Japan,” says Jean-Christian. “They are still surprised.”

The festival now travels to every corner of Japan and audiences vary from the party of 150 Dentsu employees who come to the Tokyo show every year to the locals of Miyako Jima, a small island in Okinawa with only one 100-seat theatre left.

No matter where Jean-Christian and his mad show goes, audiences are overwhelmingly made up of normal people from outside the advertising industry who just enjoy the show. “Some people are groupies who come every year,” he says. “It’s funny and unusual and there’s an old Frenchman who runs the show with a lot of young, energetic musicians and stuff. We don’t make money on food and drinks. We try to make people happy. And it works. Many people come again. I do it because I love it.”

If you want Jean-Christian to tour your work around Japan, entries for the APA Collection are now open.

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