Logan Paul’s Japan travelogue is part of a troubling tradition: White men othering foreign cultures

If you were one of the unfortunate millions to have subjected yourself to YouTuber Logan Paul’s trip to the so-called Japanese “suicide forest” of Aokigahara, you probably asked yourself why. Why did you watch the video? Why does anyone find this sort of thing entertaining? Why didn’t Paul’s crew shut their cameras off and run away screaming? Or maybe you didn’t interrogate yourself — Paul’s videos are immensely popular, after all. If you’re over a certain age, there’s no point in trying to understand the appeal of manically paced YouTube clips wherein a well-coiffed man-child runs around throwing things and screaming mild obscenities.

The outrage over the video was swift, even for modern standards of outrage. Even some of Paul’s 15 million YouTube subscribers took issue with the casualness with which he apparently exhibited a corpse for public consumption. Paul deleted the video and posted an apology via another video, which is de rigueur for YouTube stars. Apologies are part of the economy of that industry. Often times, like with PewDiePie’s apology for racially insensitive comments, the monetization setting is turned off so that the offending figure can’t profit from their indiscretion.

Still, the benefit is in attention, the aura of the “bad boy,” which is intrinsic to the format. When Paul goes overseas, he’s expected to do something outrageous, like smuggle his little person friend into France illegally — which can be seen in the video titled “SMUGGLING A DWARF TO PARIS IN A SUITCASE! (and it worked).” It all seems apocalyptic and stupid, but scenarios like this have been fodder for entertainment for decades.

Men (mostly white, mostly approximating something resembling ruggedness) have trudged out into the world, seeking to tame the exotic through the art of the travelogue documentary. Paul’s forest video no doubt dehumanizes at least one dead Japanese person, but his other videos from his overseas trip manage to dehumanize plenty of living people, too — and those clips are part of a long lineage of similar-minded works.

That these sorts films were usually directed or hosted by a white man was a function of the 20th century social hierarchy. That was who made movies, period. But it was also a reflection of a certain artistic Manifest Destiny in Western documentarians, casting their eye toward the perceived mysteries of faraway lands. Rather than conquer other countries through military might, the subconscious aim was profiting off of their “weirdness.” The more foreign, the better.

One of the most popular documentaries of the film industry’s nascent era was 1922’s silent Nanook of the North, a look at life in the Canadian Arctic that may or may not have been mostly staged. Its director, Robert J. Flaherty, used that film’s box office success to fashion a career out of making semi-fictional depictions of foreign lands. That sensibility is reflected in narrative cinema, too — you don’t have to look any further than the massively successful James Bond series. Put aside the action, the sex and the conspicuous consumption, and what you have left with is a series of postcard-worthy shots of places like Cuba, Russia, the Bahamas and Japan.

Back in the early days of cinema, travelogues and nature films were often interstitial material between features — a bit of education before the tawdry Hollywood melodrama. On the dark side of that were films like 1962’s Mondo Cane — directed by Italian filmmakers Gualtiero Jacopetti, Paolo Cavara and Franco Prosperi — an exploitation anti-masterpiece. It chopped together shocking footage of dogs being slaughtered and cult rituals interspersed with mundane scenes of people in places like Singapore, Papua New Guinea and Australia going about their business. Unlike Nanook of the North, the film has no plot, no characters and no drama. It is, like the Logan Paul videos, strictly spectacle. And the spectacle paid off: Mondo Cane became an underground success, despite it being pretty clear that some of the scenes in the film were staged.

“We found a dead body in the Japanese suicide forest…,” the subtly named Logan Paul video that has since been deleted, is just the natural evolution of travelogues and grindhouse fodder like Mondo Cane. In fact, plenty of video content on the internet could be classified as such. Vice Media became a multibillion-dollar empire in part by sending young Westerners into other countries to document atrocities and war crimes. The audience can identify with the hosts’ incredulousness at the way the rest of the planet lives, but also aspire to their fearlessness. Part of Paul’s appeal is that he’s bland enough to be anyone, but rich enough to not be you. That makes him ideal for the travelogue genre.

Even the high-end travelogue hosts like Anthony Bourdain have something of the everyman to them, but Paul isn’t relatable. He’s a cipher, a video game character that spits on command. The other videos from Paul’s Japan voyage (fronted by a clip called “KICKED OUT OF JAPAN! (i’m sorry)”) are the fully vapid version of a Bourdain or Vice doc — heartfelt pleas to respect Japanese culture followed by smash cuts to Paul and the crew running through an open-air market, screaming.

He tried the same thing in the forest video, couching his exploitation in respectful words, hushed tones and lip service to a higher cause. But he knows that he has to deliver the goods. “Dumb Americans have arrived! Hi,” he says in the “KICKED OUT OF JAPAN” video, releasing himself from the shackles of moderation. In a sense, this is the purest form of Western travelogue. Stripped of the pretense of education, it’s strictly an opportunity to see a guy make faces at something you don’t understand.

If you can’t afford to fly yourself out to an exotic mall, a slum or a conflict zone, there are still plenty of ways to shock people on the internet. Some of the most popular YouTube videos involve the host swallowing or regurgitating something disgusting, making slime out of household products, putting children in mortal danger for a laugh.

Because the internet has made the world a smaller, more thoroughly documented place, it takes more than a skinned dog or a slow-moving train to shock people out of their stupor. Privileged Logan Paul couldn’t just go to Japan to fart on things. More was required. Paul obliged, doing something so heinous and so lacking in empathy that he had to record a navel-gazing apology. He’s still famous and still beloved by millions of people. The line has moved yet again, so that the next generation of Logan Pauls can try to cross it.