Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

October 17, 2014

Two Basho Huts in Kyoto

Matsuo Basho made frequent visits to Kyoto, but today only two physical monuments remain: The “Hut of Fallen Persimmons” in western Kyoto, owned by his haiku disciple Kyorai, where Basho wrote his Saga Diary, and the “Basho Hut” on the flank of the eastern mountains set up by enthusiastic follower Buson to commemorate the haiku master.

West: The “Hut of Fallen Persimmons” 
To the west of Kyoto lie the scenic areas Arashiyama and Sagano. They were already popular with aristocrats of the Heian-period, who came here for outings or built their summer villas among the bamboo groves. Since the 17th century, the Hozugawa River at Arashiyama has been spanned by the Togetsukyo bridge, making traffic easier. Not far from the bridge stands the Tenryuji Temple with its famous landscape garden. In Sagano one also finds such temples as Daikakuji, a former imperial villa, Nisonin, where Fujiwara Teika compiled the tanka anthology A Hundred Poems by a Hundred Poets, and Seiryoji with its exotic Shaka statue.

Basho's student Kyorai owned a cottage here, which bore the poetic name of “Hut of Fallen Persimmons” (Rakushisha). Mukai Kyorai (1651 - 1704) was one of Basho’s major disciples. The son of a wealthy physician from Nagasaki, and well-to-do himself, he was able to play host to Basho and other haiku poets when they visited Kyoto. His poetry faithfully observes the principles of Basho and the Master even said he was “in charge of haiku in Western Japan” (Basho himself lived in Edo, in the East).

Rakushisha, Kyoto
[Rakushisha, Kyoto]

Here is the story how the cottage received its remarkable name. Kyorai had about 40 persimmon trees in the garden of his Saga cottage. In autumn, their fruit had ripened to a shiny orange. Too much to eat on his own, Kyorai sold his persimmons. However, the night of the day before the fruit was going to be picked, a gale blew over the Arashiyama area - a name that itself means 'Stormy Mountain' and presumably was given for good reasons! All the fruit was destroyed and Kyorai had to pay back the advance money he had received from the merchant. The loss of the persimmons was seen by Kyorai as a humorous lesson not to strive after worldly gain. On top of that, it led to a Satori experience: through the branches of the trees, now bare, Kyorai had an excellent view of Arashiyama. He saw the mountain in a way he had never seen it before. The storm and Stormy Mountain proved not to be unconnected. Here is the haiku he wrote about it:
“master of persimmons” -
so close to the tree tops
Stormy Mountain 
Basho visited Rakushisha three times: in 1689, 1691 and again in 1694, a few months before his death. During his second visit, which took place during the months April and May, he wrote the Saga Nikki or “Saga Diary.” In contrast to Basho's usual travel accounts, this is a real diary, with exact dates, about his fifteen day sojourn in the Rakushisha. Apparently, it was a pleasant and relaxed stay, interspersed with boating on the nearby river, as well as temple visits. Almost every day, local disciples and others came to visit Basho. In between, the poet did a lot of reading - he mentions the books he brought with him, such as the works of the Tang-poet Bai Juyi and the Tale of Genji.

Rakushisha, Kyoto
[Rakushisha, Kyoto]

The cottage is still there, not far from the foot of Mr. Ogura where the Niosonin Temple stands, and right next to the Hinoyashiro, the tomb site of an imperial princess, daughter of Emperor Saga (8th c.). Or, I should rather say that the cottage is there again, because the original dwelling fell into ruin after Kyorai’s death. In the late eighteenth century, Basho followers bought the present site and erected a structure that is thought to resemble Kyorai's original dwelling. It indeed serves eminently to recall the past atmosphere of haiku-gatherings in the beautiful surroundings of Sagano. The bamboo hat and straw raincoat hanging in the wall of the cottage used to indicate that the occupant was at home.

Today, Rakushisha is a tasteful monument to Kyorai and Basho. Besides tourists, Basho fans and haiku enthusiasts come here, with a reverent look on their faces, some silently mumbling haiku. The most famous haiku Basho himself wrote here is:
summer rain
on the wall traces
of torn poem cards
Basho wrote this poem when he was about to leave Rakushisha. Having enjoyed the serene life in the countryside of Sagano and feeling sorry to leave, the poet wanders around the rooms. The rains mentioned in the haiku are the rains of the rainy season, when the monsoon from the south brings weeks of damp and wet weather. The “poem cards” are shikishi, square pieces of cardboard on which one could write a haiku, but could also paint a picture. They were glued to the walls and are a reminder of haiku sessions Basho has held with his visitors in the “Hut of Fallen Persimmons.” The fact that they are peeling, in some cases only leaving traces (perhaps caused by the damp weather) is a fitting symbol for the fact that Basho's “session” in Rakushisha is over: he has to “peel” himself loose, too!


East: the Basho Hut in Konpukuji Temple 
The other Basho spot lies right at the other side of Kyoto, in the northern part of the Eastern Hills. Konpukuji (“Temple of Golden Bliss”) stands close to Shisendo, in a quiet area which until not too long ago was countryside. It was founded in the second half of the 9th century by the priest Enchin, who enshrined a Kannon statue here. Later the temple fell into ruins until it was rebuilt in the 17th century by a priest called Tesshu. At that time it also became a Rinzai Zen temple. It is just a small temple, consisting of only one modest hall, but it is famous among haiku lovers for the Basho Hut (Basho-an) that stands on the low hillside at its back.

Ironically, it is not certain Basho ever really came here. It is a mere tradition that, during one of his many visits to Kyoto, he spent some time in a small cottage in the grounds of Konpukuji, and the above-mentioned priest Tesshu therefore gave that humble dwelling the name "Basho-an." The cottage had fallen into ruins when Japan's second great haiku master, Buson (1716-1784), paid a visit here in 1760. In 1776 he started to rebuild it, with the aid of the then priest, Shoso, a work that was only finished in 1781.

Konpukuji, Kyoto
[Konpukuji, Kyoto]

From 1776 on, Buson would regularly come here in spring and autumn with his disciples to hold haiku sessions. Buson also wrote a haibun about the hut, called “A Record on the Restoration of the Basho Hut in Eastern Kyoto.” He expresses his longing for this “deeply hidden place,” “where green moss has covered all traces of footsteps,” but that at the same time is not completely cut off from the world, as one can hear dogs barking across the fence, and even buy tofu nearby. There is an echo here from Basho's Genju-an, a haibun about a hut near Ishiyama at Lake Biwa where Basho lived for a few months after his trip along the “Narrow Road.” At that time, Buson was already famous as both a painter and a poet.

The cottage (even today still looking very new, so probably many times restored) stands on the hill at the back of Konpukuji. It sports a straw roof and is in fact quite spacious. It is a warm and sunny place, with dense vegetation even in winter. Beside the Basho Hut stands a stone monument dedicated to Basho, carrying an inscription that relates his life. This stele was also put up by Buson. Higher up the hill is a cluster of graves, with the main one that of Buson himself. Buson loved the place so much, that he asked to be buried here, at the side of the Basho monument, near the Basho-an in Konpukuji, a wish that was respected by his disciples.
when dead let me lie
next to my Basho stone
withered pampas grass

How to get to Rakushisha: 10 min. on foot from Arashiyama Station on the Keifuku Dentetsu Line.
How to get to Konpukuji: 10 min walk from Ichijo-Sagarimatsu-cho bus stop (bus 5 from Kyoto St). (Closed 1/16-31 and 8/5-20)

October 16, 2014

"A Portrait of Shunkin" by Tanizaki Junichiro (1933)

A Portrait of Shunkin (Shunkinsho) is the most celebrated novella by Japan's greatest 20th century author, Tanizaki Junichiro, and like The Bridge of Dreams it is a story of an ideal world that is artificially (even monstrously) kept intact. The story is set in Doshomachi, the pharmaceutical district of Osaka (see my post about this area) and tells about Shunkin, the daughter of a pharmaceutical dealer and her servant / pupil Sasuke. Despite its dramatic character, the story is told in a classical, distanced manner, and is written in an almost hypnotically beautiful prose style (with very little punctuation as in classical Japanese). By the way, this use of a classical style was not a "return to traditional Japan" by Tanizaki, as is often asserted, but rather a Modernistic stylistic device used to give an impression of authenticity to the story.

[Tanizaki in 1913]

The tale is told by an unnamed antiquarian (living around the time the story was written, so the early 1930s) who has obtained a copy of a biography of Shunkin who lived in the late Edo to early Meiji periods (her life is given as from 1829 to 1886). This biography, which is rather a hagiography so that the narrator also warns against trusting it too much, is the main source of the story; the narrator either retells it (adding his own thoughts) or quotes it directly ("sho" in the Japanese title Shunkinsho is not a portrait, but a commentary on a text, and that is exactly what the narrator provides); to this he appends the personal remembrances of an old servant of Shunkin and Sasuke, obtained via an interview, as well as a brief account of a visit to their graves, sitting next to each other in a temple in Osaka. Shunkin's grave is larger, as Sasuke even after he became a great master on the shamisen himself, always treated her as his teacher. All these narratives are in a different register: the biography is in the classical style used in the 19th century, the servant speaks in Osaka dialect, etc., - subtleties which are difficult to bring out in translation.

Besides using different registers, Tanizaki also uses the in Japan all-important titles deftly: Sasuke does not allow his own pupils to call him "Master" (oshisosan) because that is his designation for Shunkin; the narrator, however, refers to him as "Kengyo," the most exalted, official title for a shamisen master and one that Shunkin never attained.

Sasuke, who was four years older than Shunkin, became her special servant when she was eight (just after she had become blind due to an infection) and he was twelve. Musicians were often blind people in traditional Japan, and as Shunkin was already interested in music, she now became a dedicated player of the koto and the shamisen. It was Sasuke's task to take the blind girl everyday to her music lessons.

Sasuke is very devoted to the meek and gentle-looking Shunkin and also develops an interest in music. He practices the shamisen secretly at night, sitting in a cupboard, and when that is discovered and he proves to have talent, it is decided that Shunkin will become his official teacher. Shunkin is a very strict and even cruel teacher for Sasuke, but he is totally devoted to her, even masochistically, in both his subservient roles. He follows her like a shadow and even ministers to her in the toilet ("she never has to wash her hands afterward"), something glossed over in the prudish English translation. When, after finishing her own studies, she sets up shop as an independent teacher, Sasuke accompanies her and starts living with her. That their relation secretly must encompass something more, becomes clear when the unmarried Shunkin has a baby, although both refuse to confess who is the father (the baby is immediately sent away for adoption).

Shunkin is nor only very beautiful, she also has a vivid character, and therefore she is a popular guest at social gatherings. But then - in the year she is 36 and Sasuke 40 - a terrible accident happens: at night, someone - probably a thief who panicked, or a pupil with a grudge - throws scalding hot water in her face which as a result is disfigured by scars. Sasuke says he can't endure looking at her destroyed countenance and therefore blinds himself by pricking with a needle through the pupils of both his eyes. Now he shares the same world as his beloved Shunkin. He remains her dedicated servant and even continues calling himself her pupil, although he has by now become a master on the shamisen in his own right. The apogee of sadomasochistic devotion!


Osaka, Doshomachi
[Detail of a monument in the grounds of the Sukunahikona Shrine
in Osaka's Doshomachi district, dedicated to Shunkinsho.
It shows the beginning of Tanizaki's manuscript.]

That is the story, as a casual reader will pick it up. But there are always many false bottoms in Tanizaki's literature, especially here. In the first place we have to note that the story has several layers of unreliability:

- As the narrator, a sort of local historian, notes, the Life of Mozuya Shunkin, the biography which is his main source for the story he tells us, is rather unreliable. It displays strong hagiographic tendencies, and on top of that the person who is praised most is not Shunkin, but rather Sasuke who is always presented as an example of the highest and most self-sacrificing devotion (note that Sasuke was the one who had The Life compiled). In other words, it is more "A Portrait of Sasuke" than of Shunkin...
- But also the narrator is not objective, and he, too, is on the side of Sasuke - note that after Shunkin's death, Sasuke became a much more famous musician than Shunkin had ever been, and the narrator may have been influenced by Sasuke's greater renown,
- The only other source is a maid who served Shunkin and Sasuke later in life - obviously, this maid was not present during the crucial events that took place earlier in the lives of the two artists.

Faced with so many uncertainties, we should ask ourselves if everything we read is true:

- Was Sasuke really unselfishly devoted to Shunkin?
- Was Shunkin really exceptionally cruel to Sasuke (note that teacher-pupil relations in the arts and crafts in traditional Japan - and even occasionally today - contain a certain amount of, if not outright cruelty, at least harshness)?
- Remember that when Sasuke became Shunkin's servant, he was twelve and she eight; although girls are earlier ripe than boys, with such an early age difference, initially Sasuke most have been more dominant.
- Considering their formal relation, how could Sasuke be the father of Shunkin's child, if he was not in a controlling position (he is the only one who can be considered, as Shunkin led a secluded life and had no other, private contacts)?
- Who threw the hot water in Shunkin's face? The story about a thief or pupil with a grudge looks very weak, intruders usually don't have the leisure to boil a kettle of water...

Here follows the most probably explanation, based on The Secret Window, Ideal Worlds in Tanizaki's Fiction (Harvard, 1994) by Anthony Hood Chambers:

Sasuke must have been the one who dominated Shunkin, instead of being controlled himself by a cruel and sadistic mistress. Outwardly, he played the servant and pupil who was masochistically dedicated to his mistress, but behind the scenes he, the older one, pulled the strings. When we follow these lines, Sasuke becomes rather repugnant, for wasn't Shunkin in that case little more than his sexual playmate whom he had completely in his power? More monstrous is that Sasuke himself may have been the one who threw the scalding hot water in Shunkin's face, to destroy her beauty out of jealousy, because he didn't want to share her with others at parties and gatherings, where she was admired for her beauty and where he was pestered and lost control over her. Destroying her beauty meant that she could not go out anymore and he would again have her completely in his power. By blinding himself and so for outsiders (and Shunkin) playing the perfectly devoted servant - and perhaps also on an unconscious level doing penance for his crime -, he finalized and stabilized his control over her. However warped it was, Sasuke had created a sort of private "ideal world."

The meaning we thus discover in the story is the opposite of what it seemed at first sight. As Anthony Hood Chambers puts it in The Secret Window: "Sasuke has molded a woman to dominate his fantasy life as his "ideal woman," and when he has maneuvered her right to where he wants her, he throws himself at her feet. When she has outlived her usefulness, he creates an idealized mental image to replace her." Instead of a masochistic slave, controlled by Shunkin, Sasuke was himself the sadistic keeper and even gaoler of Shunkin.

One passage of the story indeed gives a strong hint of Shunkin as Sasuke's prisoner. Shunkin liked to keep birds, nightingales and larks, and these captivated song birds are indeed an apt symbol for her own position as a musician who was the prisoner of Sasuke. Once, when one of her larks flew up to the clouds and didn't return, she seemed to follow his flight into the free azure longingly with her blind eyes...




September 4, 2014

"The Bridge of Dreams" (Yume no Ukihashi, 1959) by Tanizaki Junichiro (Book review)

Tanizaki Junichiro wrote several top class novellas, such as The Reed-cutter (Ashikari), Arrowroot (Yoshino-kuzu) and A Portrait of Shunkin (Shunkinsho), but my favorite is The Bridge of Dreams, although also for an extra-literary reason: it is set in Shimogamo, a beautiful area in Kyoto where I lived in the 1980s. Tanizaki himself had lived next to the Shimogamo Shrine from 1949 to 1956 - his residence was called Sekisontei and he used this as the basis for the house and garden in The Bridge of Dreams. In this story, published in 1959, two of Tanizaki's major obsessions are perfectly united: the search for a lost traditional Japan and the search for a lost mother, who combines the maternal with the seductive.

This is also what the title points at: the "(Floating) Bridge of Dreams" is the name of the final chapter of the Genji Monogatari, and here meant as a reference to the whole novel, which starts with the affair the protagonist has with his stepmother Fujitsubo. And the title is of course also a metaphor for the dreamlike quality of life and of the world of love.

Shimogamo New Year 2007
[Bridge in the Shimogamo Shrine, Kyoto]

The story is set in the womb-like enclosed environment of a traditional house and garden where three people live: a father, his wife Chinu and their young son Tadasu (named after the forest of the Shimogamo Shrine). It is an isolated but perfect world, the ideal retreat, full of literary and historical allusions, on which the story is wholly focused - daily activities that fall outside this estate are usually not mentioned. The garden stands deep in a grove and is far removed from the dusty world. You reach it, of course, by crossing a narrow stone bridge.

Here Tadasu lives in the warmth and security of his mother's embrace, a dim, white world:
"The mingled scents of her hair and milk hovered there in her bosom, around my face. As dark as it was, I could still dimly see her white breasts. She would sing while I drifted off into a peaceful sleep, still clutching her breasts and running my tongue around her nipples. Gradually I would slip into the world of dreams."
By the way, the most conspicuous image of the pond garden is the water mortar, a bamboo tube that fills with water from a small stream where the father (and after growing up also Tadasu) used to cool his beer. When the pipe is full, it tips of its own weight and hits a flat stone with a characteristic clacking sound. Empty, it sways up again and the process repeats itself. Such devices were originally employed by farmers to scare away wild boars, but from the 17th century they were as ornaments incorporated in gardens, like the famous Shisendo garden in Kyoto - an enclosed hermit garden with which Tadasu's estate has many elements in common. When Tadasu went to sleep, the distant, rhythmic clack of this water mortar would mingle with the voice of his mother singing a lullaby and would penetrate his dreams. It became therefore strongly associated with memories of his mother.

But humans are mortal and when Tadasu is only five years old, his mother dies. After a while, his father remarries and now something strange happens: he has his new wife impersonate the deceased one. She has to take the same name, Chinu, wear the same type of clothes and allow Tadasu to sleep with her in the same way he did with his own mother. She also plays the koto and practices calligraphy, like Tadasu's first mother. And so the idyllic life in the enclosed paradise garden continues even after the intrusion of death, the stepmother conflated with the real mother... When he nurses on his stepmother's breast, Tadasu again hears the clack of the water mortar - everything is again the way it used to be...

What happens further is not so clear, for Tadasu is an unreliable narrator - what he tells is true, but he doesn't tell everything. Time passes and when he is eighteen years old and at high school, Tadasu learns that his stepmother is pregnant. A boy, Takeshi, is born, but the baby is soon sent away by his father to be brought up by farmers. A weird scene happens in the seclusion of a small tea house in the garden, where the stepmother has Takeshi suck the milk from her breasts, heavy so soon after giving birth. As a grown-up man, he is allowed to enter the milky white world of childhood again, now mixed with a decidedly erotic element...

Later that year, Tadasu's father - who had been ill since more than a year before - dies and asks Tadasu to take good care of his (step-) mother. In other words, Tadasu is asked to take over the role of the father. By now, Tadasu has learnt his stepmother's real name, and also that she was a geisha before she married his father. In order to keep up appearances (there is after all an outside world) Tadasu marries the daughter of their gardener, Sawako - but it is clear he is more interested in his stepmother.

A few years pass. Then the stepmother dies - she had a weak heart and was frightened by a centipede, while undergoing massage by Sawako. Tadasu now separates from Sawako and seeks out his half-brother, Takeshi, whom he decides to bring up himself. But he has to sell the large estate and instead moves to a smaller house near Honenin temple - not accidentally a place just as secluded as the first one.

The ambiguous story leaves us with several questions - the reader has to act as detective:
  • Was the death of Tadasu's stepmother homicide? Did Sawako kill her out of jealousy - Sawako who after all was a disparate element in the household, and who was treated very coldly by Tadasu? Was that the reason Tadasu decided on a separation?
  • Whose child was Takeshi? Was he really Tadasu's half-brother, or was he his son? There are some hints that Tadasu's custom of cuddling up to his stepmother and suckling her breasts when he was a young boy, continued also when he grew up and then developed into outright lovemaking... On top of that, the father was already ill when the child was conceived. In addition, this would explain not only why the baby was sent away but also why Tadasu later decided to bring the boy into his house and take care of his upbringing.
  • And, finally, the most radical interpretation: was it perhaps Tadasu himself who killed his stepmother rather than Sawako (the killing was of course in either case indirect, by dropping a centipede on her to frighten her)? There are indeed some hints that Tadasu was getting tired of her as she was getting plump and therefore was losing the image of his original mother... (while in Takeshi, Tadasu found the face of his mother again). Another fact supporting this interpretation, is that the negotiations for the separation from Sawako took two years and also that Tadasu had to sell his estate - in other words, he probably had to pay a large amount of money to Sawako and her family to buy their silence about the real events.
But the story does not give us any clear clue to the right interpretation, and in that vagueness lies its beauty. Life is a dream and dreams can be wild and convoluted, shimmering like a chimera...

P.S. Perhaps we can also see the secluded estate as a symbol for a traditional Japan that had been lost in the 20th century, a loss finalized by postwar Americanization.
The Bridge of Dreams has been translated by Howard Hibbett in the collection Seven Japanese Tales (together with six other works by Tanizaki, including "A Portrait of Shunkin"), published in various editions by both Tuttle and Vintage. The novella is discussed in The Secret Window, Ideal Worlds in Tanizaki's Fiction by Anthony Hood Chambers (Harvard University Press, 1994). The interpretations mentioned above are based on Chambers.

August 31, 2014

Issa’s haiku in Obuse (Nagano): Chestnuts

Obuse is a small, attractive town with enough places to visit to warrant a day excursion from Nagano. Thanks to rows of old warehouses, it preserves a classical atmosphere and is nice to wander around in - everything can be seen on foot from the station.

Nowadays, Obuse is perhaps most famous for the Hokusai Museum, which displays about 40 scrolls and screens painted by the master (rather than his ukiyo-e) as well as two large festival floats he decorated. Hokusai's connection with Obuse came about later in his long life, when the prosperous Obuse-merchant Takai Kozan invited him to come and stay. Nearby the Hokusai Museum is also the house of Kozan, with Hokusai's studio and also paintings of demons on display by Kozan himzelf. A third museum in the town is the modern Obuse Museum, which has a wing dedicated to modern Japanese-style painter Nakajima Chinami, who is famous for his meticulous renderings of cherry blossoms and cherry trees. And, finally, a fourth one is the Japanese Lamp Museum, which houses a fascinating collection of lighting devices from the past.

[Hokusai painting on the ceiling of Ganshoji Temple in Obuse - Photo Wikipedia]

The other thing Obuse is famous for is rather sweet: chestnut cakes and chestnut candies. You will find factories in old storehouses and shops throughout the town. Two famous names are Chikufudo and Obusedo. Chestnuts are intimately linked to Obuse's history, as it was the Muromachi-period warlord Ogino Jorin who brought chestnut tress from Tanba and planted them in the Mabukawa Delta, a place with acid soil and therefore perfectly suited for this purpose. These chestnuts were so good that they were sent as presents to the shogun.

Haiku poet Issa, whose hometown was Kashiwabara, not far from Obuse, wrote the following "chestnut haiku:"

nobody picks it up
a wonderful chestnut
so big 
hirowarenu | kuri no migoto yo | okisa yo
Issa 


This haiku stone stands in front of Obuse Station. 

August 24, 2014

"The Gate" by Natsume Soseki (Book review)

The Gate (Mon), published in 1910, is one of Natsume Soseki's most delightful novels, thanks to the warm-hearted portrait of the happy love for each other of a married couple. There are countless novels in world literature about adultery and broken marriages, but how many are there of couples who are simply happy together?

No that the life of this couple, Sosuke and Oyone, is easy. They live in a sort of gentile poverty, Sosuke earns just enough as a low-ranking civil servant to make both ends meet. They rent a rather dark and cheerless house in Tokyo, and have no contact with family, no friends or acquaintances. Their solitary existence is wholly uneventful. You could almost say that they live as recluses in the big city, their gate always closed.

Engakuji, Kamakura
[Gate of Engakuji Temple in Kamakura - as Soseki had connections with Engakuji, this is probably the temple that plays a role in The Gate - see below]

This seclusion has been caused by a dark spot in their lives. When he was a promising student at Kyoto University, Sosuke had a good friend, Yasui. One year after the summer holidays, this Yasui suddenly set up house with a quiet young woman - the author does not make clear whether she was his wife or his girlfriend - and Sosuke also got to know her gradually. This young woman was Oyone. She and Sosuke fell in love and she broke with Yasui to marry Sosuke. This caused a scandal in the university town - these were strict times in which students were supposed to be models of society - and Sosuke was forced to leave university, ending his prospects for a flourishing career. He was also ostracized by his family and, to get away from scandalous rumors, moved with Oyone to Western Japan. Yasui voluntarily left the university to establish himself as a sort of adventurer-business man in Mongolia. Only after several hard years could Sosuke get his present government job and return to Tokyo, the city where he and Oyone were born.

The joint betrayal of Yasui has left both Sosuke and Oyone with a feeling of guilt. They have remained childless, although they would have liked children. Oyone has had three miscarriages, and they ascribe this fate to the "wrongdoing" which was involved in bringing them together. But their shared feeling of guilt also forms a strong bond and they are happy with each other. Their love is the one abiding element in their lives.

Natsume Soseki gives detailed descriptions of their daily life, the halting conversations they have together, and the Tokyo scenery of the late Meiji-period. The atmosphere of their almost featureless days is unfailingly conveyed, but never gets boring thanks to the superior writing. Of course, readers who are looking for dramatic plots are at the wrong address, Japanese literature is not about plot but about atmosphere. That being said, drama is smoldering quietly below the surface of this novel, all connected to the betrayal that has connected Sosuke and Oyone. For example, after the event Sosuke has become sluggish and a procrastinator - he has even allowed his uncle to strip him of part of his inheritance without speaking up. His younger brother, Koroku, who is still at university, used to be financially supported by that uncle, but the money now stops and Koroku comes to live with Sosuke and Oyone, disturbing their quiet routine. Again, it takes time until a solution is found. On a positive note, the solitary Sosuke has come to know their wealthy landlord, Sakai, an extroverted and generous person, who lives on the hill behind their house and has a large family. Sosuke is often invited for a talk by this landlord and that leads to a small drama: Sakai invites him to a dinner where also a man called Yasui, recently returned from Mongolia, will be present...

Sosuke is completely shaken by this news and to avoid the dinner runs off to a Zen monastery in Kamakura, hoping by meditation to find some way out of his anguish. But already in the early 20th century, Zen was so far from the daily lives of ordinary Japanese, that Sosuke had no idea what was waiting for him in the temple. After struggling for ten days in vain with a koan, on a meager diet, he again leaves in despair. He has been unable to open the symbolical three gates of enlightenment (Sangedatsumon), those of emptiness, formlessness and inaction.

But although enlightenment is not waiting for him, nor the worldly success of his neighbor Sakai, he is happy to be quietly home again. Miraculously, most problems, small as they were, have evaporated as non-occurrences: Yasui has returned to Mongolia without causing trouble, a solution has been found for Koroku (who becomes a shosei, a student lodger in the house of the landlord) and although a restructuring is undertaken in the ministry, Sosuke's job is spared and he even gets a small rise.

In the final pages of the novel Sosuke is back with Oyone and settles down again in a quiet vein behind their own gate. Spring is in the air, Sosuke who has just been to the hairdresser, tells Oyone that other customers were talking about hearing the first bush warbler of the year.
Gazing through the glass shoji at the sparkling light, Oyone's face brightened. "What a sight for sore eyes. Spring at last!"
Sosuke had stepped out on the veranda and was trimming his fingernails, which had grown quite long.
"True, but then it will be winter again before you know it," he said, head lowered, as he snipped away with the scissors.
This is a novel without illusions, but filled with a gentle compassion.

Read The Gate in the excellent new translation by William F. Sibley, published by New York Review Books (and replacing the older translation by Francis Mathy in Tuttle Books). Of the Japanese original many editions exist, and it is also available as a free etext at Aozora.  

August 22, 2014

Hyakumanben, Kyoto

"Hyakumanben" is the crossing between Imadegawa and Higashi-oji streets, near Kyoto University, and there couldn't be a stranger name: "one million times."

In fact, the name belongs to the temple standing in the northeastern corner of the crossing: Chionji, and that means the "one million times" has a religious intent. In 1331 a plague struck Kyoto and all supernatural means to stop it were ineffective, until the priest Kuen of Chionji chanted the "Namu Amida Butsu" incantation one million times... Emperor Godaigo afterwards gave that name to the temple and now it is the designation of the whole neighborhood.

Hyakumanben, Kyoto
[The spacious grounds of Hyakumanben Chionji]

"Namu Amida Butsu" means "I take my Refuge in the Buddha Amida" and chanting this brief prayer, with faith, was essential to ensure rebirth in the paradise of the Buddha Amida. This was the religious revolution caused by Honen, who considered modern people to be too decadent to be able to reach enlightenment by meditation or other forms of hard practice. In Jodo or Pure Land Buddhism, believers have to chant this so-called "Nembutsu" as many times as possible, the more the better - thus the one million times to stem the plague. Honen's disciple Shinran further simplified the practice, by posing that one recitation in one's lifetime, if done with faith, was sufficient - that is now common in Jodo Shin Buddhism, the New Pure Land sect.

The temple came only to this spot long after the "hyakumanben" event - it was moved here in 1661 from its original location north of the imperial palace - it seems to have been a jinguji, a temple of the Kamo Shrines. The link with Pure Land Buddhism was made because Honen once stayed there when in the capital for missionary work.

Hyakumanben, Kyoto
[The giant prayer beads]

Chionji is a relaxed temple that makes its spacious grounds often available for secondhand book markets or handicraft markets (on the 15th of every month). There are no great statues or gardens here, but it is a nice place for a casual visit. The main hall is interesting for the huge prayer beads (juzu) hanging along the walls, all around the large building. They are used for the memorial services for Honen.

Hyakumanben, Kyoto
[Shinshindo]

Being close to Kyoto's major university, Hyakumanben is a nice area with small student cafes and bookshops. My favorite place is Shinshindo ("Notre Pain Quotidien"), a bakery and student cafe where you sit on simple benches at long and heavy wooden tables, scarred by years of use. It is a favorite student haunt, a nice place to write or study. Lots of space to spread out books and newspapers, although now you see most professors and students staring at the screen of their smartphone or tablet. There is also a small shady garden at the back where visitors can take their coffee. The menu is simple and you have to order your coffee with or without milk - they put it in for you (no customizing here), but the atmosphere is nicely nostalgic.

The cafe was founded in 1930 by Tsuzuki Hitoshi, the first Japanese to study for two years authentic French baking in Paris. Do not confuse this academic cafe with the chain of Shinshindo coffee shops you find all over central Kyoto - these are nothing special, although they apparently share the same founder.

Hyakumanben, Kyoto
[The entrance of Kyoto University close to Hyakumanben]

(Revision of a post that has briefly appeared some years ago on a previous version of Japan Navigator)

August 8, 2014

To the Heart of Daimonji (Daimonjiyama, Kyoto)

Daimonji is the mountain in eastern Kyoto boasting the huge character for "Dai", "Big" that plays the central role during the "Gozan Okuribi" festival on August 16 when it goes up in a huge blaze at eight o'clock sharp. During that festival five huge bonfires are lit in the evening on Kyoto's eastern and northern hills. In mid-August the spirits of the deceased return to the earth for a brief visit. They are welcomed with offerings on the Buddhist home altars, but on the 16th they must depart again and the fires are meant to guide them back to the other world. The 446 m. high mountain looms up behind the Silver Pavilion, but you don't have to be satisfied with looking at it from groundlevel. It is relatively easy to climb and, standing in the heart of the "Dai," you will have a magnificent view of the old capital.

Daimonjiyama, Kyoto
[View of Kyoto from Daimonjiyama. The green patch in front is Mt Yoshida with Shinnyodo, the one behind that Gosho, the old palace; the narrow one on the right is the Shimogamo Shrine]

I had been there before, many years ago, so long that I could not remember the path up the mountain anymore, nor the stone steps near the top. And in my memory the "Dai" was a grassy field, while in present-day reality it appeared to be rather overgrown and the face of the hill much steeper than I thought.

At the point where I stood was an altar dedicated to Kobo Daishi (774-835), the founder of Shingon Buddhism and perhaps the most famous Buddhist cleric Japan has known. He is credited with all kinds of inventions and too numerous temple foundings to be true and to my surprise also with establishing the custom of the Daimonji fires. Apparently he had a vision of the Amida statue of Jodoji (the temple that stood here before Ginkakuji was built) flying up into the air with a flash of light, so he started lighting the annual send-off fires in commemoration. This is clearly nothing more than a pious legend, but Daimonji still starts every year at 19:00 by lighting lanterns and chanting sutras at the Kobodaishi Hall. The light from the lanterns is then used to light the fires on the mountain.


Daimonjiyama, Kyoto
[The center of Daimonji with the altar of Kobo Daishi]

There are in fact two more explanations of the origins of the Daimonji bonfires. The second explanation also smacks of the legendary, if only because an important historical figure is involved, Ashikaga Yoshimasa (1436-1490), the founder of Ginkakuji. Yoshimasa reputedly started the custom to commerate the death of his son, who was killed in battle in 1489. He had one of his retainers engrave the character Dai on the hillface behind Ginkakuji and set it ablaze in August 16 to send off the soul of his son. It is true that you have a great view of Mt Daimonji from the area north of the old Kyoto Imperial Palace (Gosho), where the Ashikaga shoguns had their "Palace of Flowers", but Yoshimasa was at that time already living in his Higashiyama mansion, now Ginkakuji, directly below the hill from where he could not see the Dai shape. Moreover, this would be only a one time event and does not explain how the bon fire came to be celebrated annually by the whole city, not only here, but also by fires in various other shapes on Kyoto's hills.

Thus we turn to the third explanation, that the Daimonji Okuribi festival was in fact started by the townspeople of Kyoto. Even here an Imperial Prince, Konoe, makes his appearance as calligrapher of the character Dai. Japan is a hierarchical society where apparently everything has to be linked to someone of importance in order to be important enough to consider. But we do not need princes or priests to understand Daimonji. This third explanation is the right one: Daimonji and the other bonfires on Kyoto's hills originated among commoners, among ordinary townfolk. A supporting fact is, that there is no official account of its origin, despite that the court chronicled all other seasonal activities.

Of course, the Gozan Okuribi is part of the Bon festivities which cover a week in mid-August and which were first recorded for the 16th century. This is the time the souls of the ancestors are welcomed back to the earth, to be regaled with food and incense. In the end, they are sent off again with small bonfires in the streets and by hanging out countless lanterns. So O-bon has always been a Festival of Light, of Ten-thousand Lamps (Manto-e). The step to lighting large bonfires on the hills, where all could see them, instead of small ones in the city itself, seems a natural one - it was also made possible by the rise of neighborhood associations who would built those fires together. This blowing up of the Festival of Light may also have been motivated by fear of angry spirits due to the many wars in the Muromachi period, such as the devastating Onin War in the late 15th. c.

Daimonjiyama, Kyoto
[The fires are built on these stones]

The first mention of Daimonji comes from a diary dating from 1603. In the mid of the 17th c., when Japan was at peace and tourism became a popular pastime, the large bonfires on the hills of Kyoto became famous - but by then the origin had already been forgotten. This is also the period the theory about Ashikaga Yoshimasa first appeared.

Another mystery is the character Dai, "large." Why this character? Is it a human with outstretched hands? Or the halo of the Buddha Amida? The answer can be found in Rokuharamitsuji, a beautiful old temple in central Kyoto, where during O-bon many small lights in the Dai-shape are lighted. According to this temple, the Dai represents the four elements Earth, Fire, Water and Wind, plus a fifth one, Air, and so stands for all of Nature, for respect for the ancestors and fear for of the natural forces around us.

The character Dai that has been encrusted on the hill face is huge. The horizontal stroke measures 80 meters across, the longer vertical stroke is a full 160 meters. This is the first fire to be lit during the festival, exactly at 20:00. In the past the fires would be built in pits, now the wood is carefully piled up on stone foundations. It takes 600 piles of firewood, 100 piles of pine tree leaves and 100 piles of straw to light Daimonji. Mixed in are gomagi, pieces of wood on which people write a wish - you can buy a gomagi in the morning and afternoon of the festival in front of Jodoji Temple, next to Ginkakuji.

Daimonjiyama, Kyoto
[View of Kyoto against the setting sun]

Daimonji has found its way into the hearts of the people of Kyoto, as is shown by several beliefs that have come up concerning it. For one thing, you should try to catch the reflection of the bonfire in your sake cup and then make a wish - that wish will certainly come true. Another belief is that the remnants of the fires, small pieces of charred wood, become powerful amulets. Many people therefore climb up Daimonji to find them on the day after the festival.

Dusk is falling, I have to hurry to get down the mountain... I start walking after one last look at the city, peaceful in the rays of the setting sun...
Mt Daimonji can be freely climbed, except on the day of the festival. The path starts at the back of Ginkakuji. In front of Ginkakuji, facing the hill, turn left; take the first right; and the first right again; you are now at the back of Ginkakuji. Where the valley ends, a path to the right leads up the mountain. The steps can be quite steep; the last section is a stone staircase. Wear good shoes and don't go when the path is too wet and slippery.

Best places for viewing the Daimonji bonfire are from the northern part of Kyoto, for example along the Shimogamo River, near the Shimogamo Shrine, etc.

The other bonfires are: the charachter Myo on Mt Mantoro and the character Ho on Mt Daikokuten - together these form the words "Wonderful Law," pointing to the Buddhism of the Nichiren sect; a ship sailing with souls towards the Pure Land of the Buddha on Mt Funayama; a smaller character for Dai on Mt Okita; and the shape of a torii-gate on Mt Mandara, symbolizing the Atago Shrine in northwest Kyoto.

August 6, 2014

Kyoto Imperial Palace (Gosho)

From 794, when Kyoto was founded as Heian-kyo, to 1869, the Emperor of Japan lived in Kyoto, encircled by not only his household and courtiers, but also a whole government apparatus. What is now an almost empty green zone, used to be the busy economic, political and ritual focus of the city. It is amazing that so little is left of it, the wooden structures without heavy foundations just have faded away, together with the people who lived and worked here. Another surprise are the frailty of the defenses - just a simple wall - demonstrating how little contested the imperial position was during Japan's long history. There has been only one attack, in 1864, on the Hamagurimon outside the palace proper, and that was not aimed at the emperor as the assailants only wanted to offer him a petition.

Gosho, Kyoto
[The Shishinden, seen through the vermillion corridor]

Despite those peaceful circumstances, the present palace is not the original one. Fires and earthquakes took their repeated toll and the original 9th c. palace, which stood two kilometres to the west (a stone monument points incongruously at its location in what is now the busy Senbondori shopping street) was definitely abandoned in the mid-14th century. As that original palace was for a long time already in bad shape, provisional palaces (satodairi) had sprung up all over the city, as living and ceremonial quarters for the homeless court, and the present Imperial Palace was one of those, called Tsuchimikado-Higashinotoin-dono. Originally a residence of the Fujiwara family, close relatives of the imperial family, it became the one and only palace at the ascension to the throne of Emperor Kogon in 1331.

That does not mean we are now looking at the original 14th c. structures, far from it. Fires continued consuming wooden structures, the palace underwent numerous reconstructions. The last great fire raged in 1854 and almost all present buildings date from 1855.

Gosho, Kyoto
[Shin-Kuruma-yose, a porch built in 1914 for the Emperor's car]

There are a great number of structures inside the long earthen wall that encloses the palace proper. In the first place there are six gates in the wall, it depended on your status where you could enter. The imposing main gate, Kenreimon, in the south wall was only for the Emperor himself. Kenshunmon on the lower east side was originally for imperial messengers, the Gishumon on the east side was for ministers, court nobles and close family members of the emperor, the Seishomon also on the east side for children of the royal family but it also served as a sort of service entrance. The final two gates, on the upper east and north sides gave entry to the residence of the empress.

Inside the precincts, the building order is one of increasing privacy from south to north. In other words, we first have the hall of state for official receptions, then the living quarters of the emperor himself, and at the back the residences of his empresses and concubines.

Gosho, Kyoto
[In line in front of the Shishinden]

The main official structure and most imposing building of the palace is called Shishinden. Here annual rituals were held and it was also used for enthronement ceremonies - lastly so for the Showa Emperor. Behind the thrones are panels with illustrations of Chinese sages. It stands turned toward the south, the direction in which emperors and rulers always faced in China. The hall has a thatched roof made of very thick layers of cypress bark. The Dantei, the South garden in front of the Shishinden was also used for ceremonies and is a solemn expanse of white gravel with a cherry tree to the right and an orange tree to the left of the hall.

The Shodaibu-no-ma is a series of three waiting rooms, in which visitors were divided according to rank - the lowest had to be content with the Room of Cherry Trees, while those of top rank were allowed to feed their self-esteem in the Room of Tigers.

The Seiryoden faces east instead of south and although this used to be the emperor's residence in Heian times (still visible because of the sliding doors that could partition the room into private spaces), later it came to be used for ceremonies. In the center of this hall a throne has been placed as well. The Kogosho was a ceremonial hall for the use of the crown prince - it dates from only 1958 as the old one burned down due to a piece of fireworks that landed here by mistake from outside the palace.

Gosho, Kyoto
[Shishinden]

Ogakumonjo is a study room, also used for poetry parties, and the Otsune-goten, finally, was the emperor's residence, containing fifteen rooms and thus quite spacious. Like the Seiryoden, this building faces east, towards the rising sun, the land of Amaterasu, in mythology the imperial ancestor.

Farther north of this are the quarters of the empress and her court ladies, but these are never shown to the public.

Gosho, Kyoto
[The classical garden]

In front of the Kogosho and Otsune-goten stretches a large, classical landscape garden (Oike-niwa), with a pond and stone bridges and shady pine trees. Apparently, the Meiji Emperor missed this garden most of all after the move to what had been the shogun's castle in Tokyo.

Although situated right in the middle of the busy city, the palace is extremely quiet and peaceful and visitors take home a whiff of the solemnity that still imparts it.
Access: Kyoto Gosho is administered by the Imperial Household Agency and open to the public in the form of guided tours. Written permission has to be obtained in advance - see here for the procedure. In addition, Gosho is open to the general public for five days in spring and in autumn - at that time no permits are required. Get there by the Kyoto subway, Imadegawa or Marutamachi St.

July 30, 2014

Matsumoto Seicho’s "Zero Focus" and Noto

One of the first Japanese novels that I read in the original language was Zero no Shoten (Zero Focus) by popular mystery author Matsumoto Seicho - it is thirty years ago that I found a copy in a secondhand bookstore in Kyoto. I especially enjoyed the atmosphere of the story: after the husband of a young newlywed disappears on what was supposed to be a brief business trip, the young woman, Teiko, travels from the comforts of Tokyo to snowy Kanazawa to search for him. Gradually she unravels the threads of the double life he led...

Years after reading the novel, I saw the film version Zero Focus by Nomura Yoshitaro on Japanese TV. It is a film noir as ever there was one, with strong hints of Hitchcock, and here, too, the atmosphere is great. During a second trip to Kanazawa, Teiko visits the Noto Peninsula, which in the film appears as a snowbound landscape full of dangers. Sheer cliffs tower over raging seas, dilapidated houses cling to rocky slopes, and the snow keeps falling relentlessly. If anything, the last scene where Teiko confronts the murderer on this cliff has been drawn out too long, there are too many flashbacks while she challenges the woman behind the mystery to a confession. But I can easily imagine Nomura Yoshitaro liked this landscape so much he just went on filming here...

Yase no Dangai, Noto
[Yase no Dangai Cliff, Noto]

Since then, I have had the chance to visit Noto and finally I could stand on the same cliff as Teiko in that dramatic last scene, 50 meters above the sea: Yase no Dangai. It was a beautiful summer day, and the sea was a calm field of green-blue. No raging waves, no violent storm, no snow. The only things that reminded me of the danger of the place were the many signs warning against suicide. The bodies of people who jump down here from the cliff are carried far away by the tide. Think about the faces of your parents.

Matsumoto Seicho Poem, Noto 
[Matsumoto Seicho Poem, Noto]

Matsumoto Seicho also came here, of course, and he left the following poem that has been carved on a stone near Ganmon, a little bit to the south on the same rocky coast:
sagging clouds
alone facing
the raging waves
I feel sadness
first trip to Noto

kumo tarete | hitori takereru | aranami wo | kanashi to omoeri | noto no hatsutabi

Read more about places to visit in Noto in Ten Best Scenes on the Noto Peninsula.

July 26, 2014

Ten best scenes on the Noto Peninsula (Travel)

"The fancy took me to go to Noto," wrote astronomer Percival Lowell in his travel book Noto (1891) - and off he went, to a place at that time virtually unknown. The man who would later discover the canals on Mars and speculate about intelligent life on the red planet, seems to have enjoyed wild places and inconvenient travel. Unfortunately, Lowell's travel account spends more time telling us about the hazards of the trip to Noto, than about the beauties of the peninsula itself.

Noto coast
[Cliffs on Noto's Sotoura West Coast]

Noto is an axe-shaped peninsula, with a rugged and eroded (but beautiful) west coast and a more indented, sheltered east coast. Most places to see are on the west coast. Noto's charms are low-key but authentic, and the scenery is unspoiled by billboards or pachinko halls - instead you will find sleepy fishing ports, villages huddled together for protection against wind and waves, and a quiet agricultural inland. The best means of transport is a car (can be rented at Noto airport, or in Kanazawa if you travel from the capital of Ishikawa prefecture) - bus service is spotty and the trains only go as far as Wakura Onsen since the unfortunate demise of the line to Wajima. There are also tour buses. Also in the case of public transport the best basis for setting out to Noto is the city of Kanazawa.


Here are the 10 best spots in Noto:


  • 1. Sojiji (officially: Daihonzan Sojiji Soin). Soto Zen temple with attractive halls in a meditatively green garden. The buildings are from the Meiji-period, after a fire destroyed the old ones, but the atmosphere is authentic. The temple was founded in 1321 and stands in the town of Monzen ("before the gate," the town traditionally catering to the needs of a temple). With Eiheiji, Sojiji used to be one of the two head-temples of the Soto School, but after the fire in 1891 the main temple was rebuilt in Yokohama; Noto's Sojiji was also rebuilt and sitting far from the hustle and bustle of the world, still is a strict training centre for Zen monks. If you reserve in advance it is possible to stay overnight in the shukubo, take part in a Zen session and have a vegetarian meal. [0768-42-0005]
Sojiji Temple, Monzen
[Sojiji Temple]

  • 2. Wajima Lacquer Art Museum. Wajima is the cultural heart of Noto and its most interesting town, although the (in)famous Morning Market with elderly women hawking everything conceivable is a tourist trap. Most of all, Wajima is a capital for lacquerware (urushi) and you can see the best laquerware in the Wajima Lacquer Art Museum [0768-22-9788], both the local Wajima Nuri, as well as some stunning modern lacquer art. You can see craftsmen at work in another facility, the Wajima Lacquerware Center [0768-22-2155]. Another place to visit is the Kiriko Kaikan, a hall housing the giant and colorful paper lanterns used in Noto's festivals. Those festivals are held in summer in various places in Noto.

  • 3. Gojinja Daiko. Wild, thunderous drumming by men wearing demon masks and seaweed wigs, said to commemorate a ruse to scare off the army of an invading warlord by villagers pretending to be a huge army. The main festival is on July 31 in Nabune, but all summer you can see short performances in front of the (disused) station of Wajima. (You can see such drummers in action in the samurai film Goyokin by Gosha Hideo - see my post about Samurai Films).


Shimo Tokikuni-ke, Noto
[Shimo Tokikuni-ke and its magnificent thatched roof]

  • 4. Shimo Tokikuni-ke and Kami Tokikuni-ke. Two magnificent traditional (Edo-period) farmhouses. The local Tokikuni family claims descent from a Taira clan noble exiled here in the late 12th c. Most impressive are the immense thatched roofs. Shimokuni-ke has a nice garden. Kamikuni-ke is the richer house of the main branch of the family, even sporting a curved entrance gable. Both houses stand close together in Sosogi. [0678-32-0075, Shimo Tokikuni-ke]

  • 5. Myojoji. Nichiren sect temple in a contemplative environment near Hakui. Founded in 1293, the fine buildings date from the early 1600s when the temple was restored by the Maeda clan. Especially lovely is the five-storied pagoda; the best place to view it is from the shoin, with a small traditional garden in between. [0767-27-1226]

Glass Art Museum, Noto
[Futuristic structures of the Notojima Glass Museum]

  • 6. Notojima Glass Art Museum. More than the glass, it is in the first place the hypermodern architecture of contemporary architect Mozuna Kikko that attracts visitors to this museum. The plan hints at something cosmical. The exhibition features glass from all over the world, including Japanese artists as the internationally renowned Fujita Kyohei; outside also stand various scultptures. The museum faces Toyama Bay on picturesque Noto Island. [0767-84-1175]

  • 7. Coast of Noto Kongo, Monzen and Sosogi. Dramatic views of impressive sea cliffs created by the pounding waves of the Japan Sea. Ganmon is a deep grotto in a rock that projects into the sea; Yase no Gankai, a periously overhanging cliff 50 meters above the roaring waves. There are also two "wedded rocks" as in Ise. Several narrow inlets sheltered by high cliffs are said to be places where Yoshitsune, when on the run for his brother Minamoto no Yoritomo, hid with his boat. Some of these cliffs will be familiar to viewers of Japanese TV thrillers, where the last scene in which the criminal confesses is often set at such a dramatic point - a convention started by Matsumoto Seicho (in Zero no Shuten, a story in fact set in this area).

Sunset, Noto coast near Monzen
[The sunset at the coast near Monzen is the most beautiful in Japan]

  • 8. The sunset from the Sotoura west coast, especially from the area near Monzen, is reputedly the most beautiful in Japan. You look right to the west from here and can watch the blazing sun sink into the sea until the last flicker of light is gone. The red light seems to create a path on the waves that leads directly to the Pure Land of the Buddha Amida... (some people seem to take that literally, so at Yase no Dangai there are many signs warning against suicide!).

  • 9. Senmaida ("thousand rice fields"). In a hillside overlooking the sea tiny, terraced rice fields have been carved out, the smallest (it is claimed) only the size of a hat. They are at their most beautiful in spring when the fields are filled with water.
Senmaida, Noto
[Senmaida]

  • 10. Keta Shrine. One of the greatest shrines of the Hokuriku region, in Hakui. Stands near a sacred primeval forest where nobody may enter at the seashore. Founded in the 8th c., the present buildings date from the mid 17th c. The main hall presents a picturesque scene.
See the English website Tourism Ishikawa for more information about travel in Noto and Ishikawa Prefecture!

July 18, 2014

"A Cat, a Man and Two Women" by Tanizaki Junichiro (and other Japanese cat literature)

That the Japanese are great cat-lovers is obvious to any visitor here. This feline infatuation springs not only from the fact that cats are elegant and mysterious, but above all finds its origin in the feeling of iyashi, of peacefulness, that cats impart, and that makes you forget your daily worries. And, of course, as Japan is also the "country of cuteness," you'll stumble everywhere over cat bags, cat mugs, cat plates, and countless other daily items with feline images.

Cat in Kobe
[Cat on a Kobe street - photo Ad Blankestijn]

Although we find some great cats in ukiyo-e - for example those by Kuniyoshi - cats really came into their own as protagonists in modern Japanese literature. The first famous literary cat is the unnamed feline of I Am a Cat (Wagahai wa Neko de Aru) written in 1905 by Natsume Soseki (1867-1916), one of Japan's greatest 20th c. novelists. The satirical story is narrated by a cat living in the household of a teacher of modest means and abilities. From a rather haughty point of view, the cat listens in on the discussions between the teacher and his family and friends: the cat is convinced that his master is selfish and lazy, if not a fool, and that he himself is a sort of special royalty - as cats indeed often think.

The poet Hagiwara Sakutaro (1886-1942) wrote the surrealistic short story The Town of Cats (1935) where a traveler in a strange town suddenly has a vision that all the roads around him are filled with cats - nothing but cats wherever he looks, something he finds horrifying. Obviously, here the cat is not a messenger of peace but rather a harbinger of the uncanny. (Did Murakami Haruki think of this story when he wrote about his own "cat town" in 1Q84?).

The cat also appears in crime fiction, such as in the popular whodunit Neko wa shite ita (1957) by Niki Etsuko (1928-1986), about a series of murders in a clinic where a black cat called Chimi is mysteriously involved. Another, even more famous example is the "Mikeneko Holmes" series ("Holmes, the Tortoiseshell Cat") by bestselling author Akagawa Jiro. The police detective in these popular books cannot bear the sight of blood and has phobias about heights and women, so it is a good thing that an intelligent cat comes to his rescue. Holmes stalks the crime scenes with feline composure, offering hints that lead to the solution and in fact doing all the detective work.

Cats also figure in contemporary novels. One example is Tama ya (Oh, Tama!) by Kanai Mieko, about an afflicted young man, his circle of bohemian friends and a pregnant cat that he is forced to take in. Another feline adventure is The Guest Cat (Neko no Kyaku) by Hiraide Takashi about a couple of freelancers working at home, who are visited by a small cat of the neighbors and end up falling in love with the "guest cat" they call Chibi.

Shinto cat - Umemiya Jinja
[Cat in a Shinto shrine - Photo Ad Blankestijn]

But the best literary treatment of the feline phenomenon is without a doubt A Cat, a Man and Two Women (Neko to Shozo to Futari no Onna) written in 1935-36 by the masterful Tanizaki Junichiro (1886-1965). This is a charming, comic novella with a female tortoiseshell cat called Lilly as the absolute star. The male protagonist, Shozo, is a weak-willed man who is utterly in love with his cat Lilly - he loves her more than any of the two women who figure in his life. At the beginning of the story he is playing with Lily on the veranda of his house, sharing his mackerel with her and having her leap up to get the fish. His wife Fukuko clearly resents the close bond between her husband and his cat. Fukuko is Shozo's second wife - his young, new wife. The chastened ex-wife, Shinako, has been chased away by Shozo's scheming mother, who also lives in his house (the family has a shop) and in fact rules it with an iron hand.

So when a letter arrives from Shinako offering to take Lily off their hands, Fukuko is very much in favor, as is the mother... and Shozo is such a weak, submissive person that he agrees to give away his beloved Lily (only asking to be allowed to keep her for one more week). But after Lily is gone, Fukuko realizes with a shock it must have been a trick of Shinako: where Lily goes, Shozo also goes - isn't Shinako trying to get her husband back? Didn't Shinako in fact hate Lily? (That may be so, but when Lily comes to stay with her, Shinako develops a deep attachment to Lily and takes good care of her.) What will happen - will Shozo stay with Fukuko or go back to Shinako? I will not give the end away, which anyhow is rather open, but only remind you of the fact that Shozo loves Lily more than his two wives!

This is a humorous story which also provides an interesting glance at life in the Osaka-Kobe area in the 1930s (the story is situated in Ashiya), something which Tanizaki would do on a much grander scale in his masterwork, The Makioka Sisters (Sasameyuki).

But above all it is a very perceptive and touching story about the relation between a cat and the people around her, demonstrating Tanizaki's great understanding of feline behavior (Tanizaki was a great cat-lover himself) - and that all expressed in his usual, beautiful language.

[Kunisada - Image Wikipedia]

Some Japanese cats in translation:

A Cat, a Man and Two Women by Tanizaki Junichiro has been translated by Paul McCarthy and published by Kodansha International and Harper Flamingo Books in 1990. Unfortunately, out of print today.

I am a Cat (3 vols) by Natsume Soseki has been translated by Graeme Wilson and Aiko Ito in 1972 and is still in print (Tuttle Books).

The Town of Cats by Hagiwara Sakutaro has been translated by Jeffrey Angles in Modanizumu, Modernist Fiction from Japan, by William J. Tyler; another translation called Cat Town will be published in November of this year by the New York Review of Books (by Hiroaki Sato).

Oh, Tama! by Kanai Mieko has been translated by Tomoko Aoyama and Paul McCarthy and is available from Kurodahan Press.

The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide has been translated by Eric Selland and is available from New Directions.

July 14, 2014

Miyako Odori and other dance performances of Kyoto's Flower Towns

There are five  different "Flower Towns" (kagai) or geisha districts in Kyoto.

Gion Kobu - the foremost of Kyoto's Flower Districts, named after the Yasaka Shrine ("Gion-san"). The most traditional of the five. Dance and music training is in the classical Inoue-school. The major public performance is the Miyako Odori in April.

Gion Higashi - originally formed one flower town with Gion Kobu, but became independent in 1881. Follows a different dance school, the Fujima School. Performance called Gion Odori is held in autumn.

Both Gion districts were popular with pilgrims visiting the Gion shrine/temple complex (now Yasaka Jinja); they were also close to the Tokaido which enters Kyoto over Sanjo Bridge, just north of the area.

Maiko Spring Dance (1) Miyako Odori
[Miyako Odori]

Miyagawacho - on the east bank of the Kamo River, between Gojo and Shijo. The riverbank here was from the early 17th century on an area of tea-houses and theaters. The famous Okuni performed the first Kabuki here. Wakayagi School. Kyo-Odori dances are staged for a few weeks in April. Miyagawa-cho is close to Gojo Bridge, and was frequented by pilgrims visiting Kiyomizu Temple.

Pontocho
- along a very narrow street (with a great atmosphere) on the west bank of the Kamo River between Shijo and Sanjo. It developed in the early Edo-period after a new embankment was built here. Symbol is the plover, a bird associated with the Kamo River. Onoe School. The Kamo Odori is held for a whole month in May. Pontocho was close to the Tokaido Highway.

Kamishichiken - Developed in the Muromachi period and is therefore the oldest Flower Town in Kyoto. Was built with wood left over after a reconstruction of the Kitano Tenmangu Shrine, next to which it is located. The name means "Upper Seven Houses." The symbol of the town is a string of dumplings, offered to Hideyoshi when he held his Great Tea Party in the shrine. Hanayagi School. Performance called Kitano Odori in April lasts just a few weeks. Kamishichiken, of course, catered to visitors of the popular Kitano Tenmangu Shrine.


Gion during Miyako Odori 2008
[Gion district with lantern and poster advertising the Miyako Odori]

As you see, all Flower Towns have there public dance performances, held in their own theater. This is of course a modern development. Geiko and maiko only used to perform at small parties, for guests, and not on a public stage. The tradition started in 1872 in Gion, and was a bright idea of Prefectural Governor Hase Nobuatsu and Vice-Governor Makimura Masanao.

At that time, Kyoto was in decline. Three years before the capital had been moved to Tokyo and the new Meiji Emperor and his court had departed Kyoto, leaving an empty shell behind. To promote the city, the Prefectural Government organized an exhibition to showcase the art, culture and industry still thriving in Kyoto. To attract people, the Governor and Vice-Governor requested Mr. Sugiura, the representative of the Gion district and owner of the restaurant "Mantei" (now Ichiriki) to stage a public dance performance by geiko and maiko. Mr. Sugiura asked the help of the master of the Kyomai dance school, Ms. Inoue Yachiyo III, and together they devised a highly stylized group performance based on the "Kamenoko Odori" dance from the Furuichi district in Ise.

Kamogawa Odori, Pontocho
[Kamogawa Odori in Pontocho]

A traditional Japanese orchestra and singers were added and in March 1872 the the first Miyako Odori, or "Dances of the Imperial Capital" were performed to great acclaim. This performance become the prototype of all subsequent Miyako Odori of the Gion Kobu (and in a wider sense of the dance performances of the other Flower Towns as well), and the choreography is still the exclusive domain of the Inoue Kyomai dance school - now headed by Inoue Yachiyo V. In 1873 the "Miyako Odori" moved to the more spacious premises of the Gion Kobu Kaburenjo Theater.

The Gion Orchestra (1) Miyako Odori
[The Jikata singers and shamisen players at the Miyako Odori]

The style of the Miyako Odori is classical and dignified and is the best way to see the country's top geiko and maiko in their beautful kimono's!

P.S. I took the above pictures of the dance performances about 25 years ago. Unfortunately, nowadays it is no longer allowed to take pictures.








July 8, 2014

Best Samurai Films

On my other site, Splendid Labyrinths, I have been looking at several film genres, such as Pre-Code Film, the Screwball ComedyNoir Film and Neo-Noir Film. On this site I have discussed Japanese Cult Films, Japanese Horror Films and Yakuza Movies. Here we will have a look at the Japanese genre that is popularly called the "Samurai Film."

Samurai Film is often compared to the American western, but was in fact much more important for the Japanese: until the early 1960s, at least half of all annual film production in Japan consisted of period films.

In Japan, samurai films are called jidaigeki or chambara. The first category, "period films" usually consists of the more serious and artistic films, while chambara films (so called after the sound swords make when clanging on each other) are often considered as B-films. The problem is that jidaigeki is not a genre - it only points to films of which the story is set before 1868 - this can also be a film version of the court novel Genji Monogatari!



So for "samurai films" we have to look for another defining genre element: the incorporation of a choreographed (sword) fight called "satsujin" or "tate" in Japanese. Besides that, the hero usually is a samurai, a ronin (masterless samurai), or a pre-modern yakuza. In other words, one or more fights, usually with swords, are central to the genre. Films lacking such scenes are not "samurai films."

"Satsujin" sounds like the Japanese for "murder," but is a different word, written with different characters, literally meaning "killing formation." The same character combination is also pronounced as "tate." The usual translation is "staging (or mise-en-scène ) of a sword fight." These mise-en-scènes were initially based on Kabuki, and next borrowed from the more realistic Shingeki theater. But until the end of the fifties they remained quite stylized - it is Kurosawa Akira who liberated the sword fight scenes from convention and started a trend of realistic violence which is typical of the samurai movies of the 1960s. The choreography of such fight scenes was in the hands of specialists.

In this definition, artistic period films such as Ugetsu Monogatari (Mizoguchi), humorous films as Bakamatsu Taiyoden (by Kawashima Yuzo), realistic drama as Humanity and Paper Balloons (Yamanaka), or period horror films as Yotsuya Kaidan, are not samurai films and will therefore left out of the list below.

What are the best samurai films? A selection of ten films:

1. Miyamoto Musashi aka Samurai (Miyamoto Musashi, 1954-56) by Inagaki Hiroshi, with Mifune Toshiro, Mikuni Rentaro and Yachigusa Kaoru. In three films Inagaki follows the exploits of Japan's greatest legendary swordsman, based on the popular novel by Yoshikawa Eiji. The first film is rather sentimental, but Mifune Toshiro shines in an explosive performance. The story improves in Part Two, Duel at Ichijoji Temple and Part Three, Duel on Ganryu Island. Read more about the historical Miyamoto Musashi here. Inagaki's epos is the archetypal samurai film, one that everyone who is even slightly interested in the genre, should see. It is also quite well-known outside Japan, thanks to its inclusion in the Criterion series and the winning of an Academy Award. Inagaki was a specialist in Musashi: he made his first Musashi series in the 1940s, so that the present one is in fact a remake of his own film. Much less known is that there exists another great Musashi series, this time five films, made by director Uchida Tomu for the Toei studios in the early sixties with Nakamura Kinnosuke, who also gives a great performance. I found him better as the young Musashi (Mifune looks a bit too mature for the role), and as good as Mifune in the final two films. Unfortunately, by spacing out the tale over five films, the 2nd and 3rd do not have such strong story lines, but on the other hand they do incorporate more elements from the novel and have more space for character development. By the way, you may notice in the Inagaki film that there is an episode where a village that is frequently attacked by armed robbers, hires a group of samurai for protection. That is the story germ that Kurosawa borrowed from the novel and built up into his superb Seven Samurai!



2. Bloody Spear at Mt Fuji (Chiyari Fuji, 1955) by Uchida Tomu, with Kataoka Chiezo, Tsukigata Ryunosuke and Kitagawa Chizuru. This film was the comeback of Uchida Tomu - who already had started his directing career long before the war - , after many years of captivity in the Soviet Union. Bloody Spear is also remarkable for the fact that Kataoka Chiezo, who was Toei's greatest star actor and would later become one of the company's directors, plays a "servant" instead of a samurai master (but of course he is the real hero). And its finale contains one of the most supremely choreographed fight scenes (satsujin) of all samurai film. The story is a sort of picaresque road movie, a samurai and his servant (Gonpachi) who carries a large spear, are on their way to Edo over the Tokaido. On the road, they encounter many colorful people: a traveling singer with her child, a father taking his daughter to be sold into prostitution, a pilgrim, a policeman searching for a notorious thief, and a suspicious man the officer has his eyes on - all these different stories will play out in the film. Gonpachi is also followed by an orphaned boy who wants to become a samurai and who brings some comic relief to the film, for example when a group of samurai sits blocking the road to enjoy the view of Mt Fuji, keeping all travelers waiting, and the boy relieves himself in the tall grass next to their banquet which sets them running off to evade the stench. The point is that the servant Gonpachi is more intelligent and brave than his master the samurai, who also cannot hold his liquor and anyway is rather foolish. This leads to tragedy at the end of the film, when the master gets into a brawl with a group of samurai and is killed by them. Gonpachi arrives too late to save him, but in his fury takes on the group of samurai with only his large spear as weapon... A well-judged blend of comedy and violence.

3. Yojinbo (1961) by Kurosawa Akira, with Mifune Toshiro and Nakadai Tatsuya. Kurosawa made many superb samurai films and it is difficult to choose one here. Seven Samurai is objectively seen probably the greatest film made by this famous director, but I opt here for Yojinbo because of its sardonic antihero played by Mifune Toshiro (take alone the way he scratches his back at the beginning of the film!), setting the tone for the samurai film of the sixties and also heavily influencing spaghetti Westerns (if not giving rise to the genre). It tells the story of an anonymous ronin, portrayed by Mifune Toshiro, who arrives in a small town where competing crime lords vie for supremacy. Locale is established at the start when a dog runs across the screen carrying a severed hand in his mouth. The two bosses each try to hire the deadly newcomer as a bodyguard (yojinbo). But by deftly switching sides, the wily ronin turns the range war between the two gangster groups to his own advantage and manages to rid the terror-stricken village of corruption. The gangsters (and citizens who are in league with them) in both groups are depicted as grotesque monsters made of flesh in this black comedy. By the way, the story of a town torn apart by warring factions and the hero who cynically agitates them further, so that they destroy each other as so much fighting insects, was probably lifted by Kurosawa from a famous American novel: Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett. In 1964, Yojinbo was remade as A Fistful of Dollars, a spaghetti western directed by Sergio Leone and starring Clint Eastwood. In short, Yojinbo is one of the most influential and entertaining samurai films of all time! Finally, I can't leave out mention of two other Kurosawa samurai films: Tsubaki Sanjuro, a sort of humorous sequel to Yojinbo, which has the earliest instance of over-the-top violence that would become characteristic of later samurai films: an impossible "fountain of blood" in the final killing; and The Hidden Fortress, another funny samurai film with two bumbling peasants and a run-away princess, to which George Lucas payed homage in his first Star Wars film.

4. Harakiri (Seppuku, 1962) by Kobayashi Masaki, with Nakadai Tatsuya, Mikuni Rentaro and Iwashita Shima. Stark, deep-cutting film that exposes the moral emptiness at the heart of Bushido, made by Kobayashi Masaki of Kwaidan-fame. It is 1630, there is peace under the Tokugawa government. A suffering ronin who has lost his job as samurai because of the peace, comes to the Ii manor requesting to be allowed to commit ritual suicide on the property - but actually angling for a position and hoping to be hired by them. However, they coolly preside over his cruel and agonizingly painful death - he has to disembowel himself with a bamboo sword, because he has no better left. His father-in-law, a great performance by Nakadai Tatsuya, decides to take revenge by shaming the Ii clan before their retainers. He also comes to the manor requesting to be allowed to commit seppuku (harakiri) - but when preparing himself, he tosses the topknots of three of the major retainers of the Ii clan in front of their leader - he has disgraced two of them who cowardly surrendered, and killed the third one. The clan head now sets his retainers upon the ronin who kills several more of them. His bold defiance of feudal authority - and the ultimate brittleness of the feudal system - is symbolized when he tears apart a yoroi, a ceremonial piece of armor, decorated in the hall of the mansion. How cynical a power the Ii are is emphasized when at the end they don't kill him by the sword, but give up the samurai code and call in a couple of guns... The clan reports all the deaths of its retainers as due to "illness," in order to avoid loss of face for being vanquished by a single ronin. In other words, Bushido was just a hypocritical pretext serving those in power - it did not have any intrinsic value. (Somebody should have told Edward Zwick who in his terrible The Last Samurai reveals himself as a latter-day believer...).
P.S. You can still see the Ii Castle in Hikone (Shiga Prefecture, a day trip from Kyoto); there is also an interesting museum.

5. The Tale of Zatoichi (Zatoichi Monogatari, 1962) by Misumi Kenji, with Katsu Shintaro. The first in a series of 25 (which are evenly good), starring Katsu Shintaro as a blind masseur, gambler and swordmaster. Zatoichi is not a samurai (on the contrary, he is an outcast, the lowest stratum of society), so he is not allowed to carry a sword - he therefore uses a cane sword (shikomi-zue), a sword hidden in his stick. And, although he can not see, he is an expert with the sword, lightning fast in pulling it out of his stick and cutting with it, relying on his ears and other senses: he can cut a candle in two after throwing it into the air, splitting even the wick! (After turning the room into blackness in this way, he will mutter: "Darkness is my advantage.") As a gambler and masseur who travels along Japan's highways, his status is that of a yakuza and he has to pay his respect to the gangster bosses in the towns he passes through. The gambling gives rise to various comic scenes: the other players think they can cheat or win easily as Zatoichi can't see the dice, but they are very mistaken - even more so, when they try to strip him of his earnings... But Zatoichi is also a good and wise man who protects the weak. In each film, he comes across someone who needs his help - often a helpless woman, to serve the love interest of the film, somewhat like the "madonnas" in Tora-san. The set-up is often copied from Yojinbo: two rival gangs making a village unsafe. Although formulaic and based on a fixed template, this is a series full of fun. Some special installments are Zatoichi meets Yojinbo (yes, with Mifune Toshiro) and Zatoichi and the One-Armed Swordsman with wuxia hero Jimmy Wang Yu from the Shaw Borthers Studios in Hong Kong. The original series ran from 1962 to 1973, with in the initial years often three new films a year. After that, the story ran for 100 installments on TV. In 1984 Katsu Shintaro made a single "remake," just called Zatoichi. The present century (where originality in film has become scarce) has witnessed several more remakes by other directors, of which the most important is Kitano Takeshi's pastiche Zatoichi (2003), but of course the original series is vastly superior. Director Misumi Kenji was one of the more interesting specialists in chambara, besides Zatoichi also known for Lone Wolf and Cub (Kozure okami). His films are far better than the average swordplay movie thanks to his depth of characterization, attention to historical detail and the visual flamboyance he brings to the screen.


6. Thirteen Assassins (Jusannin no shikyaku, 1963) by Kudo Eiichi, with Kataoka Chiezo. When you Google for "Thirteen Assassins," the results are spammed by Miike Takeshi's 2010 remake of this film - so much so, that the original film by Kudo Eiichi, which is vastly superior to Miike's weak pastiche, does not even show up in the results. Forget about Miike, and watch the tight and impressive original, filmed in stark black-and-white and 'Scope. A film about the arbitrary abuse of power and the violent measures necessary to oppose it. A sadistic daimyo (feudal lord) is guilty of rape and murder, but as he is the Shogun's younger brother, the matter is hushed up - even though one of his own vassals commits ritual suicide to bring attention to the crime. But instead of being punished, the daimyo is even going to be promoted to a higher position, from which he can wreak more havoc. Open punishment is anyway out of the question - it would bring shame on the Shogunate as the criminal is a family member. So in deepest secrecy the council of ministers decides to have the daimyo assassinated. Thirteen men are called together for a desperate mission they know they will not (and will not be allowed to) survive. When the daimyo is on his way from Edo back to his fief in Western Japan, with a large retinue of samurai, the Thirteen Assassins under the leadership of the elderly samurai Shimada Shinzaemon turn a small mountain village into an elaborate maze of booby traps and camouflaged fortifications. The daimyo, however, has been forewarned and a terrible carnage is the result... This is the film on which the reputation of Kudo Eiichi rests, together with two similar movies, The Great Melee (Daisatsujin, 1964) and Eleven Samurai (Juichinin no samurai, 1967). All three films are examinations of the fine line between legitimate and tyrannical authority and shine because of their austere composition, reminding viewers of the ritualistic quality of Harakiri.

7. Sleepy Eyes of Death: Sword of Seduction (Nemuri Kyoshiro: Joyoken, 1964) by Ikehiro Kazuo, with Ichikawa Raizo. A series of 12 eccentric films (of which this one is the best), made by the Daiei Studios between 1963 and 1969, about a nihilistic sword hero, half-Japanese half-Portuguese, "the son of a Portuguese priest who assaulted his Japanese mother during the Black Mass." Total pulp, and rather politically incorrect - take for example the sword technique of Nemuri Kyoshiro, who is skilled in stripping women of their clothes with one swipe of his mighty weapon. This installment features three interwoven narratives on the theme of addiction: a cunning and vile merchant smuggling opium from China, a sadistic princess, the Shogun's daughter, who hides her face behind a Noh mask and enjoys seeing her addicted but purposely drug-starved court ladies writhe in pain, and finally the Christians, practicing a forbidden religion and hated by Nemuri Kyoshiro, who tell him that "the Virgin Shima" knows more about the circumstances of his birth... The fourth film of the series, here Nemuri is fully unleashed as the nihilistic bastard he is - this is perhaps the first Japanese film in which the protagonist cuts down an unarmed woman. It is quite a feat of Ichikawa Raizo that viewers still feel drawn to him - he definitely has lots of charisma. The visuals are bold, with expressionistic camera angles and overt symbolism. Interesting is also the superimposition showing the trajectory of Nemuri Kyoshiro's sword when he performs his famous "full moon cut." A delightfully trashy film, in many ways ahead of its time, in others (the attitude towards women) today way behind the times... Ikehiro Kazuo was one of Daiei's most flamboyant chambara directors. Many of his films were contributions to long running series, such as the present one, where he contributed two more installments. The stylized plots in Nemuri Kyoshiro allowed Ikehiro's imagination free rein, leading to his most memorable work.

8. Sword of Doom (Daibosatsu Toge) (1966) by Okamoto Kihachi (see my post about this director), and with Nakadai Tatsuya and Mifune Toshiro. Dark film about a sociopathic samurai who is a murder-machine. Again featuring Nakadai Tatsuya in a fantastic act. He plays a gifted swordsman, living during the turbulent final days of the Shogunate, who kills without remorse and without mercy, a way of life that ultimately leads to madness. Tsukue Ryunosuke was the first nihilistic protagonist in the samurai genre. At the start of the film, he comes across an elderly Buddhist pilgrim who is tired and kneels in front of a stone image, praying for death... and with one swipe of his sword he cuts him down. Tsukue suffers from a sort of "sword-rage," going completely berserk, especially in the final scene in a burning courtesan house, where the maelstrom of killing lasts almost ten minutes. Based on a hugely popular novel by Nakazato Kaizan, which was filmed several times, for example by Daiei with Ichikawa Raizo and by Toei with Kataoka Chiezo. Okamoto Kihachi made the most modern and nihilistic version. The abrupt ending (originally a continuation was planned - the earlier films were all trilogies) in fact fits very well to this essay in absurdist violence. Okamoto Kichachi was a specialist in action cinema and the intensity of his direction conveys with great clarity the theme of how Bushido values could be easily misused as a cover for individual psychopathy.  

9. Goyokin (1969) by Gosha Hideo (see my post about this director), and with Nakadai Tatsuya, Tanba Tetsuro and Asaoka Ruriko. Another film in which Bushido is exposed as a hollow platitude to cover the criminal acts of despicable men. The film also shows the sympathy for the underdog which is a recurrent feature in Gosha's work. The cash-strapped Sabae clan has its fief on the lonely and snowy Japan Sea coast, where the ships carrying the gold from the mines on Sado Island (the personal property of the Shogun - the film's title, Goyokin, literally means "Official Gold") pass regularly by. Three years earlier, the clan leaders have sank one of these ships to steal the gold and repair their own finances - and they have murdered the local fishermen who were used to retrieve the loot. Nakadai Tatsuya plays a guilt-ridden samurai who was unable to stop the massacre at that time. Now, the cynical clan government is again planning to sink a ship and steal the Shogunate's gold - and of course, again, kill the villagers they force into helping them. Magobei (Nakadai) wants to stop this at all cost and faces off with the clan's evil chamberlain (Tanba Tetsuro), who wants to use a fake bonfire (which functions as a modern lighthouse) to lure the ship to the jagged rocks and its destruction. Great scenes in snowy landscapes and a riveting climax with the bonfire, around which the eerily masked villagers dance to the tune of huge Taiko drums. A lush and finely crafted film, with striking visuals.



10. Twilight Samurai (Tasogare Seibei, 2002) by Yamada Yoji, with Sanada Hiroyuki and Miyazawa Rie. Beautiful film about the passing of the samurai age. Sanada Hiroyuki plays the poor samurai Seibei who works as clerk for a small han in northern Japan; Miyazawa Rie shines as his love interest Tomoe. Iguchi Seibei is nicknamed Twilight (Tasogare) because he always has to go home at dusk, after work, and never has time to go drinking with his colleagues - like a modern salaryman. This is because of family circumstances: his wife has died and he has to take care of two young children and an aging, almost senile mother. He would like to marry Tomoe, the sister of a friend, but  feels he cannot take a new wife because of his poverty. He is heavily in debt, and dresses shabbily - he tends his vegetable garden to earn some extra cash. This film shows the everyday reality of the lives of many samurai in the poorer parts of Japan, who were part-time farmers. Another point the film makes is that samurai were not the fighting machines the movies have turned them into: they were rather boring government officials, high and low, and worked in the bureaucracy of the clan, or the national one of the Tokugawa in Edo. But in Twilight Samurai, the clan tries to uphold feudalism even when its time is past, which spells tragedy for unheroic but brave and upright Seibei. He is a capable swordsman and when a renegade samurai barricades himself in a house in the town, Seibei is blackmailed by the clan leaders into a last stand for the "honor" of the clan, although he has no desire to fight - he would rather tend his garden and care for his family. The fight in the house is claustrophobic and very anti-heroic - you can physically feel the tiredness and the despair. This film is the best of the three well-crafted and inspired samurai movies veteran helmer Yamada Yoji (of Tora-san fame) has made late in his career. The other two are The Hidden Blade (Kakushi ken oni no tsume, 2004) and Love and Honor (Bushi no ichibun, 2006). Like Tasogare Seibei, these films also focus on ordinary people and Yamada Yoji deftly deflates the cinematic myth of the samurai. In Twilight Samurai (which symbolically is also the twilight of the samurai as a caste) he has shown us the reality of the "last samurai" - a far cry from the false and mawkish myth-making of Edward Zwick's inflated Hollywood product.

There are many more great samurai movies, but I will keep that for another post sometime in the future!