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

November 21, 2015

Judge Dee novels

In 1949, the Dutch Sinologue and diplomat Robert van Gulik translated an 18th century, anonymous Chinese crime novel under the title Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee. He found the original novel in a second-hand bookshop in Tokyo and hoped it would teach Japanese and Chinese authors of detective fiction something about their own rich tradition. When nobody took notice, Van Gulik started to write such detective novels himself, basing his character on the Judge Dee of the novel he had translated. (What Van Gulik perhaps didn't know was that there in fact already existed such a "homegrown" historical detective in modern Japanese fiction. Okamoto Kido had between 1917 and 1937 written a long series of stories featuring Japan's first detective, a trusted old Edo-period sleuth called Hanshichi, who because of the historical setting is comparable to Judge Dee. See my post about Hanshichi.)

Judge Dee (Di Renjie) was a real-life magistrate and statesman of the Tang court, who lived from 630 to 700. He was not a detective (detectives are a modern invention!), but the magistrate of a district, the smallest unit in the Chinese local bureaucracy, which forced him to execute many different duties in own person: head of the administration, head of police, and judge, to name a few (as you see, our modern "separation of powers" didn't exist in ancient China).

Between 1950 and 1968 Van Gulik would write 16 Judge Dee novels. Van Gulik wrote in English, but had the first novel (The Chinese Maze Murders) translated in Japanese by a Japanese friend, and made himself a Chinese translation. The Japanese translation is still available in Japanese bookstores, but as it proved difficult to inspire local detective authors to write about their country's historical heroes, Van Gulik finally resigned himself to writing for an international public in English. That was a good idea. Soon catching on in popularity, the novels were translated into many languages, including Van Gulik's native Dutch (partly by himself).

The first Judge Dee novel I read (a long time ago) was The Chinese Bell Murders, the second one Van Gulik wrote. I was immediately hooked and in high tempo read all the Judge Dee novels the local library had available. After that, I started collecting the missing volumes from second hand bookstores, both in Dutch and in English (at that time, they were out of print in the Netherlands; happily, later new editions appeared).

I was then still in high school, and had already made my decision to study Chinese and Japanese at university. The Judge Dee novels very much strengthened me in that resolve. Reading the novels almost felt as if living in a traditional Chinese city, visiting the market and the temples, the red light district and the Confucius Hall. The books have an original and authentic atmosphere, as nobody knew China better than Van Gulik, who lived there for long periods, was fluent in the language and also wrote many scholarly studies about Chinese culture. In the staunch Confucian Judge Dee, Van Gulik also tried to make us see what the values of educated people in traditional China were, and how their mind worked. We also get fascinating insights into China's material culture, law and punishment, and in human nature in general.

Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee was not translated in full by Van Gulik. He only took the first part, in which Judge Dee solves three cases when he was a local magistrate. And indeed, as a crime novel, that part can stand on its own. In reality, the Chinese original was not a crime novel at all, but a record describing the life of Judge Dee on two levels, first as a loyal servant of the Throne in the provinces, and in the untranslated second part at a high position in the capital, at Court, as a solver of various palace intrigues.

The original Judge Dee novel had one aspect Van Gulik borrowed in most of his own stories: the fact that Judge Dee has to solve several different crimes at the same time, usually three, which Van Gulik considered as more true to life than the single story line in the Western crime novel. But not all aspects of Chinese crime stories were fit for borrowing. Van Gulik rightly skipped such things as that the suspect is known from the start (the emphasis for the Chinese was on crime and retribution, not on suspense and detection) and that the truth is often revealed by supernatural means.

Van Gulik did copy the descriptions of the cruelty of the Chinese police apparatus, where suspects were exposed to severe torture to make them confess (and everyone who entered the magistrate's court was already more or less considered as guilty), although Judge Dee often showed his compassionate side. Van Gulik also included the in China mandatory description of the execution in his own novels (at least in the first five or so). This is also a grisly part (cutting criminals slowly in pieces and things like that), but was necessary in the Chinese context as the stories were after all meant as moralistic admonitions. Happily, there is nothing moralistic about Van Gulik's Judge Dee novels, which are only good fun...

If you have not read Judge Dee yet, I can warmly recommend these novels (both the ones Van Gulik wrote himself and the translation of Celebrated Cases). But be warned, they can be addictive...
Robert van Gulik, Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee (Dover Publications)

Wikipedia article with all titles of the Judge Dee novels.

November 13, 2015

Sake from Nagano Prefecture (Sake by Region)

Nagano Prefecture is landlocked and mountainous - nine of the twelve highest mountains of Japan can be found here. On the south side of the prefecture lie the Southern Alps, and on the north side the Northern Alps. One-fifth of Nagano consists of national parks. The prefecture is a popular destination for mountain climbers and skiers.

The capital Nagano is known for its famous pilgrimage temple, Zenkoji. In Suwa stands one of the oldest shrines of Japan, Suwa Taisha, with its boisterous Onbashira festival, and Matsumoto boasts one of the few original castles of the country.

The prefecture has many electric and optical industries. Agricultural products consist of fruits and vegetables and - beside sake - also miso and wine.

There are 81 sake breweries in Nagano Prefecture (2015), quite a high number. They vary in size from large to small and are mainly distributed in the Saku, Nagano, Suwa and Matsumoto areas. Due to the natural environment, the local market is rather fragmented.

Although small in number (about 50 persons in total), Nagano has its own brewers guilds: the Suwa, Otari and Iiyama toji.

The prefecture has developed its own sake rice called Miyama Nishiki. On the market since 1978, this has become the third popular sake rice in Japan, after Yamada Nishiki and Gohyakumangoku. It is suitable for mountainous areas.

The prefecture has also developed its own yeast for fragrant ginjo sake, called "Alps Yeast."

Usually, sake from Nagano has a full taste, with a plump sweetness to match the relatively salty local food. But recent ginjo sake from the prefecture has a lighter and dryer taste. All the same, sake from Nagano forms a great contrast to that from the neighboring prefecture, Niigata.

Some major breweries:
  • Chikumanishiki (Chikumanishiki Co., Ltd., Saku). "Brocade of Chikuma (name of the largest river in Nagano Prefecture)." Est. 1681. Uses four wells fed by subsoil water of the Chikuma River, soft with no iron content. Their Kizan sake (all junmai, since 1997) is full-bodied with a high acidity, even for the ginjo types. Uses Miyama Nishiki sake rice. Also makes a low alcohol (7%-8%) sake called Riz Vin 7. Brewery tours upon advance reservation. 15 min walk from Asama-guchi exit of Sakudaira St. on the Hokuriku Shinkansen. 
  • Hokko (Kadoguchi Sake Brewery, Iiyama). "Northern Light." Est. 1869, in the cold northern part of the prefecture where the Iiyama Toji hail from. Makes a dry Junmai sake and a sturdy genshu, to give two examples. English website.
  • Kikuhide (Kitsukura Shuzo, Saku). Est. 1675. Uses Alps yeast to produce highly fruity sake, which also has a rich flavor. Uses the local rice for its Junmai products and strives to bring out the umami of the rice. Also makes shochu under the brand name Mine, with Nagano grown buckwheat. Brewery tours possible upon advance reservation. Operates antenna shop for tasting etc. next to the brewery.
  • Kikusui (Kikusui Shuzo Co., Ltd., Iida). "Joy-Long-Water." One of the largest producers in Nagano, set up in 1946 through the mergers of 37 (!) smaller breweries. Uses famous water called "Sarugura no Izumi, "Spring of the Monkey Warehouse." Uses Alps Yeast to make smart ginjo sake. Large line-up, including a seven-year old Daiginjo Koshu. Also makes shochu and cider.  Operates showroom Suishokan (closed June-Sept.) where tasting is possible.
  • Masuichi (Masuichi-Ichimura Sake Brewery, Obuse). "Square One." Set up in 1755 by the Ichimura family, owners of the confectionery shop Obusedo. Iiyama toji. Brewery features a "teppa" counter where sake is sold by the measure (now for tasting). Also store and restaurant. Obuse is a magical town with several interesting museums. The company has revived the Edo-period custom of "Oke-brewing" in wooden vats, which leads to sake with a deeper and more complex taste. English website.
  • Masumi (Miyasaka Brewing Co., Ltd., Suwa). "Truth." Est. 1662. The company that developed the popular Association Yeast No. 7 ("Nanago") in 1946, at that time led by master brewer Kubota Chisato. One of the largest breweries in Nagano. Brews graceful sake and uses special sake rice even for regular sake. Its Daiginjo is called Sanka, "Mountain Flower." Active in exports. Extensive English and French website. Has opened a shop, Cella Masumi, next door to the brewery. Operates two breweries, the traditional one in Suwa, and a new facility at the foot of Mt Yatsugatake (Fushimi kura). 
  • Nanawarai (Nanawarai Shuzo, Kiso-Fukushima). "Seven Laughs." Est. 1892. Makes deep tasting sake, fit for its mountain location in the Kiso-Komagatake Highland, with much umami. Also well-known for its ginjo sakes (made with Alps Yeast), which are neither dry nor sweet and which have a pleasing acidity. Became well-known during the early Jizake boom.
  • Reijin (Reijin Shuzo, Suwa). "Beauty." Est. 1789. Offers a wide and unique range of koshu. Rather dry taste for Nagano sake. Daiginjo is called Nozomi, "Hope," made with Alps Yeast. Started selling daiginjo at early date of 1976. Pioneer also in junmai, which it started brewing in 1957. Individualistic brewery.
  • Shinanonishiki (Miyajima Brewery Co., Ina). "Brocade of Shinano (old name for Nagano Pref.)." Est 1911. Specializes in junmai sake and other premium products, pays special attention to the rice, much of which is organic (65%). All Miyama Nishiki variety. Soft subterranean water leads to mellow sake. 
  • Shuho Kikuzakari (Shinshu Meijo, Ueda). "Eminent Peak." Set up in late Edo period, after WWII joined with three more breweries to form new company. Makes excellent ginjo sake. Has interesting junmai made with extremely soft water called Kokuyo, "Obsidian." Employs toji from the small Otari guild.
When planning a brewery visit, check in advance whether the brewery accepts visitors and whether it is open on the day and time you plan to go, especially if a long trip is necessary to get there (see the brewery's website for tel. no or mail address). Note that brewery tours, if available, always have to be booked in advance. Many breweries, however, do not allow visitors in their production area, or only in certain seasons / for certain sizes of groups. In contrast, if a sake museum or brewery shop is present, this is usually open without reservation. 
Sake by Region:
Hokkaido/Tohoku: Hokkaido - Aomori - Akita - Iwate - Miyagi - Yamagata - Fukushima
Kanto area: Ibaraki - Tochigi - Gunma - Saitama - Chiba - Tokyo - Kanagawa
Shinetsu/Hokuriku: Yamanashi - Nagano - Niigata - Toyama - Ichikawa - Fukui
Tokai area: Shizuoka - Aichi - Gifu - Mie
Kansai area: Shiga - Kyoto - Osaka - Hyogo - Nara - Wakayama
Chugoku area: Tottori - Shimane - Okayama - Hiroshima - Yamaguchi
Shikoku: Tokushima - Kagawa - Ehime - Kochi
Kyushu/Okinawa: Fukuoka - Saga - Nagasaki - Kumamoto - Oita - Miyazaki / Kagoshima / Okinawa
Reference materials: Kikisakeshi Koshukai Tekisuto by Sake Service Institute (Tokyo, 2009); Nihonshu no kyokasho by Kimura Katsumi (Shinsei Shuppansha: Tokyo, 2010); Nihonshu no Tekisuto (2): Sanchi no Tokucho to Tsukuritetachi by Matsuzaki Haruo (Doyukan, 2005); The Book of Sake by Philip Harper (Kodansha International: Tokyo, New York, London, 2006); The Sake Companion by John Gauntner (Running Press: Philadelphia & London, 2000); The Sake Selection by Akiko Tomoda (Gap Japan: Tokyo, 2009).
The blog author Ad Blankestijn works for the Daishichi Sake Brewery and is an accredited sake sommelier and sake instructor. He also hosts independent sake seminars to propagate knowledge about his favorite drink. The above text reflects his personal opinion. 

September 24, 2015

Sake from Yamanashi Prefecture (Sake by region)

Although Yamanashi Prefecture has the image of being Japan's wine country, with its fresh water and cold winter climate, conditions for sake brewing are in fact also optimal.

It has much free nature too - with Mt. Fuji straddling the border with Shizuoka Prefecture. Almost one-third of all land in Yamanashi consists of national parks. Besides grapes, the prefecture is also a producer of other fruits and its water quality is more than excellent - 40% of all bottled mineral water sold in Japan comes from Yamanashi and not for nothing Suntory operates its Hakushu whiskey distillery in the prefecture.

On the other hand, conditions for rice growing are not very good in this mountainous prefecture. Not surprisingly, there is no Yamanashi sake rice, although some sake rice from neighboring Nagano, Miyama Nishiki, is grown here.

There are 15 sake breweries in Yamanashi (2015). They lie along the Kamanashi and Fuefuki Rivers, and their confluence, the Fuji River. Toji are from Echigo, but also from neighboring Nagano (Suwa toji).

Sake from Yamanashi is soft and medium dry - one would expect a much sweeter taste from a landlocked prefecture, but that is not the case, perhaps because the water is medium-hard, too.

Some of the main breweries are (in alphabetical order):
  • Shichiken (Yamanashi Meijo Co., Ltd., Hokuto). "Seven Sages" (goes back to a Chinese group of sages of the 3rd c. who met in a bamboo grove to drink wine). At the eastern foot of the Southern Japanese Alps. Area famous for its water. Contracts with local farmers for growing Miyama Nishiki sake rice. Charming buildings (once a retreat for the Meiji Emperor) with tasting area and restaurant. 15 min by taxi from Nagasaka on the Chuo Main Line. English website.
  • Shunnoten (Yorozuya Jozoten, Fujikawa). Est. 1790. The name "The Warbling of the Nightingale in Spring" goes back to a poem by Yosano Akiko, and is also the name of an ancient piece of Gagaku court music. Specializes in junmai sake, rice locally cultivated by contract farmers. Tasting area and gallery attached to brewery.
When planning a brewery visit, check in advance whether the brewery accepts visitors and whether it is open on the day and time you plan to go, especially if a long trip is necessary to get there (see the brewery's website for tel. no or mail address). Note that brewery tours, if available, always have to be booked in advance. Many breweries, however, do not allow visitors in their production area, or only in certain seasons / for certain sizes of groups. In contrast, if a sake museum or brewery shop is present, this is usually open without reservation. 
Sake by Region:
Hokkaido/Tohoku: Hokkaido - Aomori - Akita - Iwate - Miyagi - Yamagata - Fukushima
Kanto area: Ibaraki - Tochigi - Gunma - Saitama - Chiba - Tokyo - Kanagawa
Shinetsu/Hokuriku: Yamanashi - Nagano - Niigata - Toyama - Ichikawa - Fukui
Tokai area: Shizuoka - Aichi - Gifu - Mie
Kansai area: Shiga - Kyoto - Osaka - Hyogo - Nara - Wakayama
Chugoku area: Tottori - Shimane - Okayama - Hiroshima - Yamaguchi
Shikoku: Tokushima - Kagawa - Ehime - Kochi
Kyushu/Okinawa: Fukuoka - Saga - Nagasaki - Kumamoto - Oita - Miyazaki / Kagoshima / Okinawa
Reference materials: Kikisakeshi Koshukai Tekisuto by Sake Service Institute (Tokyo, 2009); Nihonshu no kyokasho by Kimura Katsumi (Shinsei Shuppansha: Tokyo, 2010); Nihonshu no Tekisuto (2): Sanchi no Tokucho to Tsukuritetachi by Matsuzaki Haruo (Doyukan, 2005); The Book of Sake by Philip Harper (Kodansha International: Tokyo, New York, London, 2006); The Sake Companion by John Gauntner (Running Press: Philadelphia & London, 2000); The Sake Selection by Akiko Tomoda (Gap Japan: Tokyo, 2009).
The blog author Ad Blankestijn works for the Daishichi Sake Brewery and is an accredited sake sommelier and sake instructor. He also hosts independent sake seminars to propagate knowledge about his favorite drink.

September 17, 2015

Modern Japanese Fiction by Year (1): 1885-1899, Beginnings

In 1868, at the beginning of the Meiji period, a complete transformation of Japanese society started, but that was not immediately true for literature, which continued very much in the old vein for almost two decades. We therefore begin our survey in the Annus Mirabilis of 1885 when finally the clarion call was sounded for a new literature.

Shosetsu Shinzui (The Essence of the Novel) by Tsubouchi Shoyo. A call upon writers to introduce elements of Western psychological realism. Until this time, Japanese literature of the Meiji period had consisted of a continuation of the humorous but frivolous gesaku fiction of the Edo period, of foreign novels in free adaptations and of political novels which were more a vehicle for propagating political ideals than literature (these political novels would remain popular through the late 1880s, until they disappeared naturally after having reached their purpose: the adoption of a constitution and establishment of a parliament in 1890). Shoyo advocated the autonomous value of the novel as a serious form of art, which should represent "the invisible and mysterious mechanism of human life." He emphasized the mimetic depiction of human feelings in contemporary society, portraying subtle, human feelings in ordinary, contemporary characters. The novel should not be a slave to didacticism, but art was important as an end in itself. Shoyo was the first to use the term "shosetsu" as a generic term for prose fiction - the Western novel stood for him at the apex as the "true shosetsu." This new novel should be written in a suitable, new style (in Shoyo's view, this was to be a modern style somewhere between the classical and colloquial style). Shoyo's essay can be understood as part of the larger drive in the 1880s to promote the rapid development and Westernization of Japan as a modern nation state. In Shoyo's view, the creation of a new literature worthy of the enlightened age was an important endeavor - a different assessment of the status of fiction writers than in the Edo-period when they had belonged to the demi-monde, or in early Meiji when they were journalists of sensational tabloids. Shoyo wrote his treatise with only superficial knowledge of Western literature, but it was not meant as a scholarly essay but rather as a "call to arms." His youthful enthusiasm managed to inspire a whole generation of writers, from Futabatei Shimei to Ozaki Koyo and Koda Rohan, however diverse these were in their literary attitudes. Koda Rohan, for example, said that nothing had ever given him such a jolt as The Essence of the Novel - "like tossing a rock into a quiet pond."
(Study: Origins of Modern Japanese Literature by Karatani Kojin, Duke University Press, 1993)

As a critic, playwright, translator and novelist, Tsubouchi Shoyo (1859-1935) ranks at the forefront of modern Japanese literary history. Born in Gifu, he graduated in English from Tokyo University in 1883 and became a professor at Waseda University (where the Tsubouchi Memorial Theater Museum is dedicated to him). Besides being a critic, Tsubouchi was also active as a modernizer of the theater (Shingeki). He is famous for his complete translation of Shakespeare, which he completed in 1928. Shoyo's own attempts to put his ideas about the novel into practice were less successful. That lines were never drawn very sharply is shown by Shoyo's own love of late Edo gesaku fiction, which influenced his 1885 novel The Characters of Modern Students, a work lacking in realism. His best and most modern work of fiction is the short story Saikun (The Wife, 1889), a description of an unhappy household seen through the eyes of the maid.

The Genbun itchi movement (unification of writing and speech) can also be dated to this year, as the term was popularized in 1885 by Kanda Kohei, a scholar of Western (Dutch) learning (it had in fact been first used by Maejima Hisoka, who in 1866 had pleaded for the abolishment of Chinese characters). There was a large disjunction in Japan between the spoken (kogo) and written languages (bungo). There were at least half a dozen distinctive literary styles, some based on Sino-Japanese, others on classical Japanese. Genbun itchi involved the invention of a new concept of writing as equivalent with speech. It was an effort at modernization similar to the Meiji constitution, but it would take until the beginning of the 20th century until a new style was found. There was opposition against it, for example by Koda Rohan, who claimed that speech changed too fast to be a model for writing, and in fact, except for Ukigumo of 1886, most modern literature in the 1880s and 1890s was written in some sort of neo-classical style. All writers, however, experimented with style, also for example a conservative writer as Ozaki Koyo, who popularized the use of "de aru" for the verb "to be." The switch was finally helped by the fact that from 1903 on all school textbooks were written in the genbun itchi style; and five years later - paralleling the rise of Japanese Naturalism - all novels, too, would be written in the genbun itchi style.
(Study: Karatani Kojin, Origins of Modern Japanese Literature; Tomi Suzuki, Narrating the Self, Stanford, 1996)

The first modern literary society, Kenyusha (Friends of the Ink Stone) is set up by the young Ozaki Koyo and others, all linked to Tokyo University (functions until 1903 when Ozaki dies). As a modern literary movement, the Kenyusha was the most important one that was active in the 1990s. Ozaki Koyo himself was a master storyteller who would become one of the most popular novelists of the late 19th c. Although he was inspired by Tsubouchi Shoyo's influential essay (especially its anti-didacticism and its serious approach to fiction), he based his flowery neo-classicist style on that of Edo period writer Ihara Saikaku who was rediscovered in this period, and limited his subject matter mostly to sentimental love stories with highly implausible plots and two-dimensional characters. He used the vernacular for dialogues, but resisted the genbun itchi style. He had a preference for traditional Japan and disliked the mania for European culture of his contemporaries. Ozaki Koyo entertained master-disciple relations with members of his group, which meant he taught them, helped them to get published (often initially under his own name) and generally sponsored their career. This type of master-disciple relation was normal in the Meiji-period (see below for the example of Higuchi Ichiyo). Kenyusha published various periodicals in the years of its existence, to which also non-Kenyusha members as Koda Rohan contributed. The many members of the group (including disciples of disciples) included Hirotsu Ryuro, Izumi Kyoka, Tayama Katai and Nagai Kafu.

Ozaki Koyo (1868-1903) was born in Tokyo. He dropped out of Tokyo University and became a novelist at an early age - his first success was with Ninin bikuni irozange (Love Confessions of Two Nuns) of 1889. The same year he joined the Yomiuri Shinbun newspaper as literary editor; all his subsequent novels were serialized in this large national newspaper. 

Ukigumo (Drifting Clouds) by Futabatei ShimeiUkigumo has been called "the first modern Japanese novel" on the basis of its style and psychological realism, introducing a new spirit into Japanese literature. Futabatei believed that a novelist had the duty to uncover the truths unique to his time. In his case, this meant writing a realistic novel about the society he saw collapsing around him in materialism and lack of morals. This is also reflected in the title: Futabatei saw the Japanese of his time as "drifting clouds," buffeted by new technology and new ideas from the West, which had cut them loose from the moorings of their own civilization. To him, Japanese society in the 1880s had lost its moral center. This is demonstrated through the story of Bunzo, a serious and introspective young man from the provinces, who stands outside the mainstream of modern life but rigidly adheres to traditional values of honesty, sincerity and restraint as a sort of a "superfluous man" of the Meiji period. His unwillingness to compromise and toady to his superiors costs him his government job, which is perceived in a bad light by his aunt, with whom he lodges, and his aunt's daughter Osei (the first Westernesque femme fatale), with whom he is in love. Osei falls under the spell of the shrewd and aggressive Noboru (lit. "Rising"), Bunzo's friend, who is a glib talker on a fast track to advancement in the bureaucracy (he represents the spirit of Meiji). With his half-baked enthusiasm for democracy and admiration for the West, he is portrayed as a model of vulgar success. But Noboru has his sights set higher than Osei... The characters have a life of their own and are developed naturally. Futabatei's primary model and inspiration was Russian realism (especially Turgenev), of which he had made an extensive study. Except in the first chapters where he was still trying to find his way, Futabatei uses the vernacular, undoubtedly helped by his experience as a translator of Russian fiction. Futabatei's landmark novel was enthusiastically praised by his contemporaries for its innovative subject matter and style, and later re-discovered by the Japanese Naturalists.We should however note that it remained an exception, and had no direct influence on the writers of the mid-eighties and nineties, who, instead of trying to write a Russian-type novel, were more interested in a dialogue with the Japanese tradition.
(Translation: excerpts in The Columbia Anthology I; full translation by Marleigh Grayer Ryan, Japan's First Modern Novel: Ukigumo of Futabatei Shimei, New York: Columbia University Press, 1965; Study: Indra E. Levy, Sirens of the Western Shore: The Westernesque Femme Fatale, Translation, and Vernacular Style in Modern Japanese Literature, Columbia Un. Press, 2010).

Futabatei Shimei (1864-1909) was born in Tokyo and studied Russian at the Tokyo Gaigo Gakko foreign language school. He became known as a distinguished translator of Russian literature, especially his Turgenev translations were excellent - his translations of Sketches of a Sportsman would help the development of nature writing in Japan and greatly influenced Kunikida Doppo, Shimazaki Toson and Tayama Katai. Futabatei was a social critic who was constantly dissatisfied with his own work, and steadfastly refused to write for money. He saw literature as a sacred linguistic art for revealing the truth. As Ukigumo was written in a sort of vacuum - no one else was trying to do the same, the book was far in advance of its time - Futabatei fell silent for twenty years. After Ukigumo, Futabatei wrote only two more novels (at the time of the rediscovery of Ukigumo by the Japanese Naturalists), Sono omokage (In His Image aka An Adopted Husband) in 1906, and Heibon (Mediocrity) in 1907, but these were less successful. Shimei initially was a disciple of Tsubouchi Shoyo and Ukigumo was therefore first published under the name of his master.
(Study: Hiroko Cockerell, Style and Narrative in Translations: The Contribution of Futabatei Shimei, Routledge, 2014)

Koda Rohan writes Furyu Butsu (Love Bodhisattva aka The Icon of Liberty), a story of a Buddhist sculptor who seeks artistic perfection so that "Westerners with alabaster noses like statues" will not look in contempt at his country. He has rescued a young woman, Otatsu, from her uncle who wants to sell her into prostitution; later when he falls ill, Otatsu nurses him back to health and they fall in love. After she is called away by her father, he sculpts a statue of the Bodhisattva Kannon in her image. The statue is first normally sculptured with a dress, but the sculptor removes layer upon layer until it becomes a nude statue of the Bodhisattva. In a rage when he hears Otatsu is to marry a certain nobleman, he almost destroys the statue, but then it miraculously comes to life and Otatsu herself stands beside him, like in the Pygmalion legend... so perfect was his art. They then ascend to heaven as husband and wife. The story with its lofty theme (and a new view of love) had an immense impact, despite its lack of realism. It was written in an obscure neo-classical style. Rohan tried to reinvent the Japanese language and its literature for a new era without throwing away its Sino-Japanese heritage (he called the genbun itchi style "Russian style grammar," as the style became first and for all famous through Futabatei Shimei's translations from the Russian).
(Translation in The Columbia Anthology I)

Koda Rohan (1867-1947) was born in Tokyo and educated in the Japanese and Chinese classics. After graduation from a technical school, he turned to literature. Rohan was a Renaissance man, a towering figure who combined immense learning with strong principles - he has been called the last kunshi, Confucian scholar-gentleman. He captured the constructive idealism and vitality of the Meiji period and was a precursor of Japanese romanticism and symbolism. He wrote in a pithy, pseudo-classical style, modeled on that of the great 17th c. author Ihara Saikaku and full of classical allusions. His best fiction was written early in his career; the 1890s were called "the age of Ozaki Koyo and Koda Rohan" (Ko-Ro jidai). Rohan's stories always have an idealistic, didactic intent - he was much more serious than Ozaki Koyo. Later he turned away from the novel to concentrate on essays, and historical and scholarly works, such as commentaries on the haiku from the Basho school. He was awarded the Order of Culture in 1937. His philosophy was an interesting synthesis of Buddhist metaphysics, Daoist mysticism, Confucian activism, Western humanism and Japanese aestheticism. 
(Study: Koda Rohan by Chieko Mulhern, Twayne Publishers, 1977)

Maihime (The Dancing Girl) by Mori Ogai (1862-1922) is a romantic story based on the author's experiences as a foreign student in Germany. Written in the first person, it describes a love affair between a Japanese student in Berlin with Elise, a German dancer, and is innovative in Japanese literature of that time for its expression of personal emotions. Ogai delves deep into the psychology of his protagonist. The student even gives up his studies to support Elise and her mother, and leads a happy life with her, but is tracked down by a friend from Japan who urges him not to throw his future and his career in his home country away. The student then breaks with Elise (who is just then pregnant and goes out of her mind) and returns to Japan, although on the way back he is torn between guilt and regret. This last element seems cynical but is another theme that would occupy Ogai throughout his career as a writer: the clash between duty and self-fulfillment. Although composed in the neo-classical language, and despite its Romanticism (not something innate to Ogai, but rather picked up by him from German literature) qua intent the story is more modern than Futabatei's Ukigumo. It is about a man whose discovery of his inner feelings and individuality clashes with his place in the world and the allegiances that go with it - the larger question is of course the identity of the self. The story is partly based on Ogai's own experiences (his German girlfriend even followed him to Japan, only to be rejected by his family) - it was through the writing of this lyrical story that he found self-expression and self-understanding.

Mori Ogai wrote two more romantic stories in 1890-1891: Utakata no ki (A Sad Tale aka Foam on the Waves) and Fumizukai (The Courier). The first is the story of a Japanese painter in Munich, who is in love with a model; from her he hears the story of the "mad king" Ludwig II who was in love with her mother, as an interesting frame tale; the third tale is about a Japanese officer who is invited by a beautiful princess to climb a pyramid together, but instead of experiencing romance, he is asked to act as courier to carry a letter so that the princess - as he later learns - can join the court as a way to escape a loveless marriage. In both these tales the narrator remains an observer, although his experience as a bystander helps him grow in self-understanding. In all three stories Ogai used elements from his own life in Germany, from military maneuvers to aristocratic court balls, adding authenticity to his tales. In the 1890s, Ogai would be in the first place active as translator - his translation of the romantic novel The Improvisatore by Hans Christian Andersen exerted a great influence in Japan. He also set up an influential magazine which helped spread Romanticism.
(Translation of all three stories: Mori Ogai, Youth and Other Stories, ed. J. Thomas Rimer)

Mori Ogai (1862-1922) was born in Shimane as the son of a surgeon serving the Tsuwano clan. After graduating from the University of Tokyo Faculty of Medicine in 1881 (he was the first generation of students to study modern Western medicine with German professors), he became an army physician and as such, he was sent to Germany to study continental hygiene. He remained in Germany from 1884 to 1888. This experience gave Ogai an important exposure to German and other European literature, as is also clear from Maihime which was among others inspired by Goethe. After his return, Ogai founded a literary journal to introduce the philosophy and literature of European romanticism, particularly Germany, to Japan. He also became known as an important translator of European literature. In 1907, he was promoted to surgeon general and was appointed head of the Medical Division of the Army Ministry. During his whole life, he combined an active bureaucratic career with his literary work. From 1909, inspired by the success of Natsume Soseki, Ogai again started writing fiction, first contemporary short stories and novellas, and - after the death of Emperor Meiji in 1912 - historical tales and scholarly biographies of historical figures. Ogai experimented with different styles and in general cultivated a "distanced" narratorial technique. Different from Tsubouchi Shoyo's one-sided insistence on realism, Ogai insisted on the necessity of ideals in literature - in this, he resembled Koda Rohan. 
(Study: Mori Ogai by J. Thomas Rimer, Twayne Publishers, 1975)

Tai Dokuro (Encounter with a Skull) by Koda Rohan is the story of a young man who, after a terrible trek through the snow, takes refuge in a lonely hut in the mountains where he meets a beautiful woman who invites him to stay the night. After a bath and a simple meal, it is time to go to bed - but unfortunately there is only one bed. The woman offers it to her guest, the guest in his turn asks the lady to sleep in her own bed. When the lady proposes that they share the bed, the highly moral young man shudders and recites a Chinese poem warning against lust. They then decide to stay up both, and the young man asks the lady to tell him the story of her life. She was brought up in comfortable circumstances, she says, but on her deathbed, her mother gave her the injunction never to marry (the lady refuses to narrate the reason behind this injunction, but it might be that she had been taught the meaningless of the flesh). When a noble young man fell in love with her, she kept refusing him. When her suitor finally died, she felt real compassion and retired to this hut in the mountains. As dawn breaks, the house and the woman vanish suddenly and the narrator sees only a bleached white skull lying at his feet. Later he learns that a mad beggar woman (who may have been a leper) has strayed into the mountains about a year ago. He apparently has helped release her spirit - this is all in the eerie tradition and style of a Noh play (although her ghost is not a vengeful one). Now it is his task to tell her tale of Buddhist compassion and salvation to the world. The motif of this story (meeting a beautiful woman in a deserted spot, spending the night in her house, and discovering the next morning that she must have been a ghost) is a traditional one in East Asian literature. This story was much admired by Tanizaki Junichiro. The Buddhist rejection of lust and the ideals of love in this story are typical of Rohan.
(Translation: Pagoda, Skull & Samurai, 3 stories by Rohan Koda by Chieko Irie Mulhern, Tuttle Publishing)

Goju no To (The Five-storied Pagoda) by Koda Rohan again addresses the theme of art and how it can help achieve enlightenment. The story is about a competition between two master builders who both want to be in charge of constructing a pagoda for the Tennoji Temple in Edo. Such an endeavor is in itself a religious act, as the pagoda stands for the Buddha, his teachings through the Lotus Sutra, and the whole universe. Genta is a rich patrician of established social standing, Jubei is poor and socially inept (and has been the disciple of Genta). But he comes into his own as the great craftsman he is when he visits the abbot to present his plan. Although the abbot wants both men to cooperate on the project, Jubei is determined to execute the whole project on his own, and Genta finally yields (a Confucian virtue). Jubei's confidence in his own ability is not hubris or individualism (the pagoda is built by the teamwork of his whole crew) but ambition - willpower on the grandest scale in order to do good for mankind is what separates man from animal, according to the Confucian tenets of Rohan. Jubei builds such a sturdy pagoda that it even withstands the force of a terrible typhoon (the description of the typhoon is famous and was for many decades included in school textbooks). The forces of nature are personified as demons, but note that in Buddhism demons are the guardians of the Law whose mission it is to shepherd erring humans to salvation - intrinsic evil as an antithesis of the Good, as Satan in Christianity, does not exist. Finally Jubei wins even Genta's admiration. Again a story in which the ideals of art and goodness are triumphant. This novella is usually considered as Rohan's best work. Rohan's heroes are not brooding, introspective Meiji protagonists, but masculine heroes who battle with nature and apply their energies positively to their work. Tennoji is located in Tokyo's Yanaka area, but its pagoda unfortunately fell victim to arson (combined with a double suicide) in the 1950s.
(Translation: Pagoda, Skull & Samurai, 3 stories by Rohan Koda by Chieko Irie Mulhern, Tuttle Publishing)

Takekurabe (Child's Play aka Growing Up, lit. Comparing Heights), Nigorie (Troubled Waters) and Jusanya (Two Nights Before the Full Moon aka The Thirteenth Night) are three novellas published by Japan's first modern woman writer, Higuchi Ichiyo. The much acclaimed Takekurabe is a story of loss of innocence, about children growing up in Daionjimae, next to the Yoshiwara brothel district. Among them, the tomboyish, spirited Midori realizes the day her hair is done up in adult style that her childhood is over and that the harsh reality of life as a prostitute awaits her, like her elder sister who is already a celebrated courtesan. One of her playmates, the shy, bookish Nobu, the son of a priest, has fallen silently in love with her, but is so uneasy about his new affection that he can no longer speak to her. The pain of leaving childhood is described intelligently, but without any sentimentality. The style is based on Ihara Saikaku, especially in the descriptive passages. Nigorie is the story of the prostitute Oriki who is unable to forget Genshichi, a former customer, though his extravagance and neglect of his business has driven him and his family into poverty. The story ends with Genshichi killing Oriki and committing suicide afterward. This a modern, critical variant of the love suicides (shinju) in the plays of the Edo playwright Chikamatsu. Jusanya, finally, is a more serenely sad story: a woman who has married above her station and is mistreated by her cruel husband, returns by rickshaw to her parents' home, but they are unwilling to give up the advantages of having a rich son-in-law and persuade their daughter to go back to her husband. She also realizes that she could not leave her young son (in case of a separation, the children stayed with the father according to Meiji law). The rickshaw puller who brings her back happens to be a childhood friend, forced by circumstances to do menial labor. Takekurabe was filmed in 1955 by Gosho Heinosuke with Misora Hibari; Nigorie and The Thirteenth Night (together with another story, The Last Day of the Year), were filmed in 1953 by Imai Tadashi.
(Translation of all three stories: In the Shade of Spring Leaves by Robert Lyons Danly, W.W. Norton & Company; Study: "Their Time as Children, A Study of Higuchi Ichiyo's Growing Up," in Text and the City, Essays on Japanese Modernity by Maeda Ai, Duke Un. Press, 2004)

Higuchi Ichiyo (1872-1896) was born in Tokyo. Interested in literature, she entered a poetry academy, where she was nurtered on the Genji Monogatari and the waka of the Imperial anthologies. But contrary to her fellow students, her family was poor and she was forced to earn her own living by her father's death in 1889. She ran a shop selling household goods and cheap sweets in Daionjimae, in downtown Tokyo, right next to the Yoshiwara prostitution quarter (the setting of Takekurabe). In 1891, she became the pupil of Nakarai Tosui and started writing stories. Tosui was a popular gesaku-style newspaper novelist, but at least helped her publish her first stories. In 1892, Ichiyo had to end all contact with him due to (unfounded) rumors that their relation involved more than literature. Ichiyo was an admirer of Koda Rohan; she was also inspired by the writings of Ihara Saikaku - her style was classical but her content modern. She died in 1896 of tuberculosis, after having written her best stories in a miraculous period of just fourteen months, and being recognized and praised by the literary establishment, such as Mori Ogai. She is the first outstanding female writer in modern Japanese literature.
(Biography: In the Shade of Spring Leaves by Robert Lyons Danly, W.W. Norton & Company. Study: The Uses of Memory, The Critique of Modernity in the Fiction of Higuchi Ichiyo, by Timothy J. Van Compernolle, Harvard 2006)

Gekashitsu (The Operating Room, 1895) by Izumi Kyoka brought a new romantic voice on the literary scene. This short story is impossibly melodramatic, but very beautifully written in the neo-classical style. A countess must undergo a breast operation. She refuses anesthetic as she is afraid she will reveal "her secret" under its influence. The surgeon then agrees to operate without anesthesia. The countess bears the pain without flinching, but suddenly grabs the surgeon's hand and plunges the scalpel deep in her breast. In a flashback we learn that the countess and surgeon - then a medical student - met nine years earlier and fell in love but could not marry due to their difference in status. After the fatal operation the doctor, who has remained unmarried, commits suicide as well. This in itself crude plot was sufficiently unusual for Japanese readers to give it an air of glamour. The story is called kannen shosetsu (idea fiction) because it challenges conventional ideas of love by introducing a couple who die for their "illicit" passion. The story was filmed in 1992 by Bando Tamasaburo with Yoshinaga Sayuri as the countess.
(Translation: Japanese Gothic Tales by Charles Shiro Inouye, Hawaii Un. press)

Izumi Kyoka (1873-1939) was born in Kanazawa. In 1890 he went to Tokyo to become a live-in disciple of Ozaki Koyo. Izumi Kyoka has been called the supreme romanticist of Meiji literature. His stories often deal with the world of fantasy and the supernatural, or are set in the geisha world (these stories often contain interesting descriptions of contemporary Tokyo). Kyoka wrote in a densely, imaginistic style and is in the first place read for the literary excellence of his style, rather than plot - often there is no true story line, but rather a juxtapositioning of individual, almost pictorial scenes. His style owed much to Ozaki Koyo and Edo gesaku writers. As a writer he is often linked with the later Nagai Kafu and Tanizaki Junichiro because of their shared love of Edo culture and their depiction of life in the pleasure quarters. Kyoka was also active as a playwright in the Shinpa style. Later in life he retreated to Zushi, not far from Kamakura. Devoted fans of his work were Akutagawa Ryunosuke, Satomi Ton, Tanizaki Junichiro and, later, also Mishima Yukio and Shibusawa Tatsuhiko. For much of the 20th c. Kyoka was dubbed "a dropout of the modern age," but Mishima asserted that Kyoka was on the contrary too far ahead of his own time to be properly understood. It is indeed true that Kyoka (and also Rohan) look strikingly contemporary when seen from the perspective of the postmodern novel.
(Study: The Similitude of Blossoms: A Critical Biography of Izumi Kyoka by Charles Shiro Inouye, Harvard University Press, 1998)

One of the better Kenyusha writers was Hirotsu Ryuro (1861-1928), who is known for his grave (shinkoku) or tragic (hisan) novels emphasizing the dark aspects of society. He is now almost forgotten, but one of his stories still deserves attention: Imado Shinju (The Love Suicides at Imado), a sort of transposition of Chikamatsu to the realities of Meiji. Yoshizato, a top prostitute, has fallen in love with her customer Hirata, who however urgently has to return to his family in the provinces. She kept an other admirer, Zenkichi, whose infatuation has cost him his business, at a distance. But touched by Zenkichi's sincere love, although he is a rather clownish man, Yoshizato now allows him to stay a few days with her in the brothel, paying his bills herself. In the meantime she hopes that Hirata will come back. That doesn't happen and one day, Yoshizato and Zenkichi throw themselves together in the river. Written in a vivid colloquial style, this story is a superb evocation of the atmosphere of a Yoshiwara brothel. Regrettably, this excellent story has not yet been translated.

Gen Oji (Old Gen) by Kunikida Doppo is the first short story by this romantic author. Although Doppo would become known for his use of the genbun itchi style, this first story is still written in the neo-classical language. The story is based on materials Doppo gathered while working as English teacher in a small town in Kyushu, but the major inspiration was Wordsworth's pastoral poem Michael. Old Gen is a boatman who adopts a vagrant boy after the death of his own son. He attempts to communicate his fatherly feelings, but the wild boy is unable to respond. In the end Old Gen hangs himself, but the idiot boy still understands nothing. More than for its sentimental plot, the story is interesting for its nature descriptions, such as an effective evocation of a storm that wrecks the boat of Old Gen. One can say that Doppo tried to discover the meaning of life in nature, which is also clear from Musashino, a story written in 1898, about the landscape of Musashino in the outskirts of Tokyo. That landscape was not particularly famous or striking, but that was exactly the point, for Doppo saw beauty in ordinary things and ordinary persons. Musashino is a beautiful piece of impressionistic writing.
(Translation Old Gen: "Five Stores by Kunikida Doppo" (tr. Jay Rubin), Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 27 No. 3. (Autumn 1972), pp. 273-341)

Kunikida Doppo (1871-1908) was born in Choshi (Chiba) and studied English literature at the precursor of Waseda University. Inspired by the poetry of Wordsworth, in the mid-nineties he started writing lyric poetry. He was also a convert to Christianity. His early works include a diary (Azamukazaru no ki) and a new-style poetry collection. After an unhappy marriage that ended in divorce in 1896 (and that became the basis for the plot of Arishima Takeo's 1919 novel A Certain Woman), he withdrew from the community of Christian social reformers. Instead, he became a close friend of the writer Tayama Katai. In the late nineties, he started writing short stories, first collected in 1901 as Musashino. He became well-known for his lyrical evocation of natural scenes, although there is also a neurotic form of introspection in his work. A few of his later stories are often seen as precursors of Japanese Naturalism, but fundamentally Doppo was a Romantic. According to Karatani Kojin, Doppo was the first fully modern writer for two reasons: his descriptions of external nature, and his introspection, his internal consciousness (paired with the genbun itchi style). Other excellent stories by Doppo are Takibi (The Bonfire), Wasureenu hitobito (Unforgettable People), Gyuniku to bareisho (Meat and Potatoes), Jonan (Woman Trouble), Unmei ronsha (The Fatalist), and my personal favorite, the bittersweet Kawagiri (River Mist). Doppo died at age 37 of tuberculosis. 

Ozaki Koyo starts serializing his most popular novel Konjiki Yasha (The Gold Demon) in the Yomiuri Shinbun. Ozaki was the most popular novelist of his day. His novels were serialized in the Yomiuri Shinbun, ensuring a wide readership. The Gold Demon was Ozaki's most popular novel, but it remained incomplete at his death in 1903. The book is filled with highly melodramatic scenes, and was so popular it was immediately adapted for the stage, but it has aged badly - no modern reader will enjoy the books' most famous scene, set at the beach in Atami, where the exasperated hero abuses his lover, and when she kneels to beg forgiveness, even kicks her. But the novel's depiction of the rise of aggressive merchant capitalism in Japan at the time is sociologically interesting.
(Translation: excerpt in The Columbia Anthology I; paraphrase by A. and M. LLoyd, Tokyo 1917 as The Gold Demon. Study: Practices of the Sentimental Imagination, Melodrama, the Novel, and the Social Imaginary in Nineteenth Century Japan by Jonathan E. Zwicker, Harvard U.P.)

Tokutomi Roka writes Hototogisu (The Cuckoo aka Nami-ko), about the grossly unequal treatment women received in Meiji Japan due to the supremacy of the family. It is a rather melodramatic tale about the breakup of a marriage in the privileged class, in which a wicked mother-in-law, a former rejected suitor and finally tuberculosis play out their nefarious roles. The novel was very popular - not only in Japan, for it was soon translated into several European languages. In 1901, Roka also wrote Omoide no ki (Footprints in the Snow), a fictionalized story about his own development as a writer, inspired in part by David Copperfield. It is full of lofty ideals, which appealed to contemporary readers, but like Hototogisu, does not rise above the limits of popular fiction. More than for his novels, Roka is interesting for his powerful eccentric individuality.
(Translation: Footprints in the Snow by Kenneth Strong, Tuttle Publishing)

Tokutomi Roka (1868-1926) was born in Kumamoto Prefecture. He was the brother of the historian Tokutomi Soho. Roka corresponded with Tolstoy and in 1906 even traveled to Yasnaya Polyana to meet the great man (he left an interesting record of this visit). From 1907 until his death, he lived in a farm house in Musashino (now Setagaya-ku, Tokyo), where he worked the land in the style of Tolstoy. The property now is a metropolitan park called Roka Koshun-en.

[Reference works used: Dawn to the West by Donald Keene (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984); Modern Japanese Novelists, A Biographical Dictionary by John Lewell (New York, Tokyo and London: Kodansha International, 1993); Narrating the Self, Fictions of Japanese Modernity by Tomi Suzuki (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996); Oe and Beyond, Fiction in Contemporary Japan, ed. by Stephen Snyder and Philip Gabriel (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999); Origins of Modern Japanese Literature by Karatani Kojin (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1993); The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature, 2 vols, ed. by J. Thomas Rimer and Van C. Gessel (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005 and 2007); The Fantastic in Modern Japanese Literature by Susan J. Napier (London and New York: Routledge, 1996); Writers & Society in Modern Japan by Irena Powell (New York, Tokyo and London: Kodansha International, 1983).]
Modern Japanese Fiction by Year (1): 1885-1899, Beginnings
Modern Japanese Fiction by Year (2): 1900-1909, The Flourishing of Meiji

September 12, 2015

Sake regions: the Kanto area

Although there exist several interesting, individual breweries here, the Kanto area generally speaking is not a major sake producing area. This despite the presence of towns like Sawara (Chiba) and Ishioka (Ibaraki) where in the Edo-period brewing was flourishing. The vast metropolis of Tokyo and its satellite cities have gradually filled up the Kanto plain and made this into an area of consumers, rather than producers. There are no Toji guilds in the Kanto, but traditionally one finds brewmasters from the Echigo guild (Niigata) here, and recently also from the Nanbu guild.

In line with the citified character of the area, the taste of sake here - although traditionally rich and umami-based - nowadays is mainly fresh, light and elegant.

Ibaraki: fresh, soft and a bit sweet (due to soft water)
Tochigi: sweet in the past, now relatively dry
Gunma: medium dry (sweet in the past)
Saitama: light and fresh
Chiba: several individualistic, sturdy sakes
Tokyo: light
Kanagawa: light and dry

Ibaraki is the prefecture with the largest number of breweries, Kanagawa the smallest (even nationwide). In Chiba prefecture one finds several individualistic breweries producing Kimoto sake, aged sake (Koshu) or junmai sake of which the rice has been milled only slightly.

In total there are 189 active sake breweries in the Kanto area (figures 2015).
Sake by Region:
Hokkaido/Tohoku: Hokkaido - Aomori - Akita - Iwate - Miyagi - Yamagata - Fukushima
Kanto area: Ibaraki - Tochigi - Gunma - Saitama - Chiba - Tokyo - Kanagawa
Shinetsu/Hokuriku: Yamanashi - Nagano - Niigata - Toyama - Ichikawa - Fukui
Tokai area: Shizuoka - Aichi - Gifu - Mie
Kansai area: Shiga - Kyoto - Osaka - Hyogo - Nara - Wakayama
Chugoku area: Tottori - Shimane - Okayama - Hiroshima - Yamaguchi
Shikoku: Tokushima - Kagawa - Ehime - Kochi
Kyushu/Okinawa: Fukuoka - Saga - Nagasaki - Kumamoto - Oita - Miyazaki / Kagoshima / Okinawa

September 11, 2015

September 10, 2015

Sake by Region Update: Tochigi and Gunma

Two new updates in the sake by region series have appeared on my site: Tochigi and Gunma, both in the Kanto area.

September 3, 2015

A History of Japanese Film by Year: Risk Avoidance (2010-2014)

Although the annual production of Japanese films scales new heights (408 in 2010, rising to 615 in 2014), unfortunately the quality of Japanese cinema is not commensurate to these voluminous figures. Instead, the number of artistic and intelligent films rather decreases. After all, more than 60% of Japanese films are anime aimed at below-twelve kids. Another large chunk is made up by the sheer countless teenage dramas (first love and all that heart-breaking matter), and another again by romantic comedies for young women. That leaves little space in the national cinema for serious works. 

But that is not all: also indies and serious films in this period are often limited, due to insufficient depth, the lack of a good narrative, and dearth of social vision; there are also problems with editing and cinematography, and in general too little critical stance. We could say that the creative wave that came up in the 1990s ("The New Wave of the Nineties") peaked before its time and that some directors who were part of the Wave didn't completely fulfill their high expectations. 

Japanese cinema is in the grip of risk avoidance, not only the mainstream (which always plays on safe and follows Hollywood-type investment models), but also indies and other independent films. Subjects are based on already popular manga, television drama, trendy novels and older films, and TV celebrities (who are not always good actors) are used as protagonists to get fans into the theater. The strange circumstance, that one after another great classical films (that in their original form are widely available on DVD) are being remade, is a good indication of the regrettable lack of creativity that plagues Japanese cinema today. 

But despite all this, Japanese cinema remains interesting as a window on Japanese culture and society. 

The best film of the year is Akunin ("Villain") by Lee Sang-Il. Although his Hula Girls showed the potential birth of a safe hack, Lee makes much good in this noir thriller based on an interesting novel by Yoshida Shuichi. It is a story about alienated and lonely young people who meet via dating sites. One young woman (Mitsushima Hikari) who uses these sites to earn money from the men she meets and who brags to her friends about her success in love, meets her destiny on a lonely road. The young man (an unresponsive Tsumabuki Satoshi, but in a way that fits his role) who inadvertent kills her (in fact, it is more like manslaughter) soon after meets the woman of his dreams (a very good Fukatsu Eri), and she the man of her dreams, but it is too late... He looks like a sociopath with his bleached hair, but is in fact a tragic anti-hero. We also have a grandmother (Kirin Kiki) who is cheated out of her savings by gangsters and a father (Emoto Akira) who wants to physically avenge the death of his daughter. An impressive exploration of society's ills. The film earned a much deserved Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film in 2011.

Haru to no tabi ("Haru's Journey," lit. "Journey with Haru") by Kobayashi Masahiro is a road movie in which a young woman, Haru (Tokunaga Eri), living in Mashike, Hokkaido, as a teacher, has just seen her school closed down due to the decline in population. She wants to find work in Tokyo, but these last five years she has been taking care of her widowed grandfather, Tadao (Nakadai Tatsuya), an embittered and angry man who has difficulty walking. They start a trip by train to find a family member who is willing to take grandfather in so that Haru can go to Tokyo. But Tadao has not made things easy as his past egoistic behavior has rather estranged him from his brothers and sister, as well as from his son (Haru's father - who in his turn has discarded Haru). This humanistic film is supported by an excellent cast: Otaki Hideji and Sugai Kin as Tadao's eldest brother and his wife; Tanaka Yuko as the wife of the second brother; Awashima Chikage as the sister who operates a ryokan in Naruko (Miyagi); Emoto Akira and Miho Jun as the younger brother and his wife; and Kagawa Teruyuki as Tadao's son / father of Haru. The film is not only the story of an estranged family, it is also the story of how the uneasy relationship between Haru and her grandfather softens and grows, so much that she finally even decides to return to Hokkaido with him.

Sweet Little Lies by Yazaki Hitoshi (of Strawberry Cakes fame), based on the novel by Ekuni Kaori, is the quiet but clinical story of the disintegration of a marriage, after just three years. Nakatani Miki plays a housewife who designs teddy bears as her hobby and Omori Nao is her IT-employed husband, who locks himself all his free time in his hobby room playing video games. Their emotional distance is so large that they communicate by mobile telephone even in their small apartment. Although they find it convenient to be married, there is no emotion, let alone love, between them and mentally they have little in common. So not surprisingly, when both in turn are aggressively approached by potential adultery partners, they swallow the bait of seduction: the wife with a musician, an arty type (Kobayashi Juichi) she meets in her teddy bear gallery, and the husband with a former schoolmate he sees at a class reunion (Ikewaki Chizuru). We then follow the parallel affairs and the games both play to keep up the deception. The end, however, is a surprise, because both decide to "return home" again...

How many 98 year old directors still make films (how many people reach that age)? Shindo Kaneto (in what would be his last film) has made an incisive anti-war film, Ichimai no hagaki ("One Postcard"), which earned a belated Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film in 2012. It is the tragedy of a peasant women who looses first one, then a second husband and her parents in law to the folly of war. With excellent performances by Otake Shinobu and Toyokawa Etsushi.

Caterpillar by Wakamatsu Koji is an even fiercer anti-war statement, based on a story by Edogawa Ranpo that was also filmed in Rampo Noir (2005), of a war veteran (Kasuya Keigo) who is just a torso and a battered head, like a caterpillar. He can see, but not hear or talk. The ugly lump of flesh of the medal-decorated war hero is considered as a military god by the village from which new men are constantly leaving for the killing fields, until only women, children and the elderly are left behind. But our amputee can only eat, sleep and have sex (he still functions below the waist, although his wife has to do all the work). The wife (Terashima Shinobu in a Berlin Silver Bear winning performance) first is shocked, then decides to stand by her man and care for him, but gradually realizes that she also can exploit her husband's condition and so take revenge on him for his brutish behavior towards her in the past. To pester him, she starts pulling him in a cart through the village, where everyone has to pay their respects to the "war god"...

Tsumetai Nettaigyo ("Cold Fish") by Sono Shion is a return to extreme violence and gore by this provocative director in a film about bullying - not at school but in society. The weak and unsuccessful fish store owner Shamoto (Mitsuru Kukikochi), who is despised by his slutty (second) wife (Kagurazaka Megumi) and rebellious daughter, is sucked up into the orbit of the powerful and unscrupulous Murata (a tour de force performance by Denden). Of course, Murata's fish store Amazon Gold is many times larger than Shamoto's and he employs sexy girls to entice customers. As one of these, Murata also hires Shamoto's disobedient daughter and next seduces his wife. He also does other things: when someone gets in his way, Murata kills him and then cuts up the body and incinerates the parts - something Shamoto is forced to participate in. The first to go is Murata's business partner, for Shamoto will take the place of the poor man - after helping cut up his body in a church. During this all, Shamoto is bullied by the stronger and more successful entrepreneur and his wife, who is his partner in crime (Kurosawa Asuka). In the end something snaps in him, and then he takes a terrible revenge on Murata and all others who have used him as a doormat... showing that the bullied do not become heroes, but are just as mean and vile as their oppressors, as they can only imitate them. There is not inconsiderable gore, but it is all cartoonish. This is not a horror movie, but a (very) black comedy about social breakdown.

Heaven's Story by Zeze Takahisa is a film full of anger, frustration and feelings of revenge - and it lasts four and a half hours, divided into nine episodes. The film follows family members of murder victims and shows how their lives were changed by these terrible events; the film also shows in Babel-like fashion, how the lives of a dozen people intersect over a period of ten years, connected as they are by murder and loss. Revenge will of course create new painful reverberations in this net of connections. The film is as dark as previous work by this initial pink film director, such as Raigyo. A massive monster of film that does not wholly succeed in its high aims, but is still an interesting experiment, showing that there is at least one director left who dares to take risks.

Okan no yomeiri ("Here Comes the Bride, My Mother!") by woman director Oh Mipo starts out in a fresh way. A mother (Otake Shibobu) one day comes home and introduces a young guy with bleached hair (Kiritani Kenta) as "the bridegroom" to the daughter in her twenties with whom she lives together (Miyazaki Aoi) - not a man for her daughter, but for herself. This causes the daughter to start sulking, despite the efforts of the groom to ingratiate himself by being friendly to her. So the first part of the film consists of quiet comedy, before entering into darker territory: Tsukiko, the daughter, is in fact sitting at home - the only thing she does outside is walking the dog - like a hikikomori because she was stalked and harassed by a male colleague in the office where she used to work. Then we get a plot twist which unfortunately spoils the film by dousing it in melodrama: the mother is revealed as having a terminal illness and her boyfriend who knew this is just marrying her to make her last days happy... Why does the director need such a trashy plot twist to justify the second marriage to a much younger man of the mother, as if women in their forties have no right to make new choices in their lives? A disappointment, despite the setting in Kyoto along the Keihan line.

Noruwei no mori ("Norwegian Wood") by Vietnamese/French director Ahn Hung Tran, based on the popular novel by Murakami Haruki, is beautifully filmed (thanks to the richly saturated images of cinematographer Pin Bing Lee), but hampered by the simplistic and sentimental love story that lies at its basis. It is about sub-twenties who are suffering from sexual and emotional angst. Kizuki commits suicide for the silly reason that he is unable to perform the act with his girlfriend Naoko. Naoko looses her mental stability because she blames herself for this and is put away in a mental hospital; she will finally commit suicide as well. Toru, Kizuki's best friend, is in love with Naoko, who still loves Kizuki, but he also meets the forward Midori (the only person who seems to be in charge of herself in this film) and, typically indecisive, finds himself shuttling between both of them. Despite the good performances (especially Kikuchi Rinko of Babel-fame as Naoko), this is mainly a juvenile tearjerker lacking the humor of the original novel.

Kitano Takeshi makes Outrage, a conventional yakuza flick as they are made by the dozen for the straight-to-video market in Japan. It was clearly aimed at a segment of his foreign audience that craved more yakuza films from him, but all he comes up with is a dull and tired story. On top of that, we by now have had enough of Kitano's signature sudden bursts of violence, with chopsticks rammed into eyes or ears. After three autobiographical films which became increasingly trivial, Kitano apparently unashamedly tried to go for the foreign box office. As they liked it in Cannes, Kitano even made a sequel, Beyond Outrage (2012), that gives addicts to cheap violence more of the same (and is marginally better). Instead of "Glory to the Filmmaker," this should be called "The End of a Filmmaker." Kitano Takeshi made some excellent films in the 1990s, starting with Violent Cop, and leading to such highlights as Sonatine and Hana-Bi, with in between more peaceful films as A Scene at the Sea and Kids Return, but in the new century seems to have lost his way, despite his one-off commercial success with Zatoichi.

The same is unfortunately true of Tsukamoto Shinya. Tetsuo the Bulletman is a dull remake of his Tetsuo and Tetsuo II, frenetic and genuinely disturbing films made on a zero budget about 20 years ago. Tsukamoto offers nothing new and, despite the now much larger budget, makes a much lesser and in fact unnecessary film, adding an unconvincing back story to a plot that should have remained mysterious. He ruins his film even more by trying to appeal to a foreign audience by employing an unconvincing American actor as his protagonist.

Another unnecessary movie is Jusannin no shikyaku ("Thirteen Assassins") by Miike Takashi. What is the use of remaking excellent classical films? Doesn't this stem purely from a lack of creativity? The original film by Kudo Eiichi simply can't be improved upon, and Miike's almost shot-by-shot remake is just another piece of evidence of the sad lack of ideas in Japanese cinema in the second decade of the 21st century.

Ototo ("Her Younger Brother") by Yamada Yoji was advertised as a tribute to the then 81-year old Ichikawa Kon, who in 1960 made a famous film of the same title. It is not a remake so much as meant to be an homage to the veteran director. Yamada only borrows the idea of a sister covering for the mistakes of her rowdy brother, in fact the situation he had already borrowed in his Otoko wa tsurai yo films. So this is rather a "remake" of Tora-san, but unfortunately Shofukutei Tsurube (a popular rakugo artist and TV personality, who did a better job in Dear Doctor) is no Atsumi Kiyoshi and the film gets bogged down in sentimentality and tears (the rowdy brother has to die a lonely death), despite the efforts of Yoshinaga Sayuri as the sister and Aoi Yu as her daughter.

Kokuhaku ("Confessions") by Nakashima Tetsuya is a safe journeyman product, based on a popular thriller by Minato Kanae. Like the novel, the film is hopelessly unrealistic, with countless plot holes, but I bring it up here for the insight it offers into Japanese society. The little daughter of a female teacher (Matsu Takako) has been killed by two underage pupils in her class. As the law can't do much, she decides to take revenge by herself and laces the school milk of the two kids with the AIDS virus (conveniently, her boyfriend has AIDS). Although neither of them becomes ill, as a result one boy turns into a hikikomori obsessed with avoiding contact with others so as not to infect them; he eventually kills his mother. The other boy still comes to school but is bullied by the rest of the class as an AIDS victim (the film here shows the sad workings of Japanese society where victims are sometimes bullied). This boy is an inventor (he also had invented the electrical shock purse that killed - or at least stunned - the little girl) and now makes a bomb with which he is planning to blow up himself including the school at the graduation ceremony. The teacher has read his webpage on which he announces this plan (!) and removed the bomb. Instead, she has put it in the university building where the boy's mother works (he hankers after his mother who has discarded him), so when the boy activates the bomb with his mobile phone, he blows up his own mother. The end. The biggest plot hole is of course that there seems to be no police to arrest a teacher who has tried to kill two of her own pupils. And by re-planting the bomb, she becomes a mass-murderer herself - but such niceties are never addressed. The reason I bring up this film is that it was so popular in Japan it was even sent in officially to the Academy Awards - although it is unimaginable that a film about a teacher killing her own pupils would ever win an Oscar. But the movie aptly reveals the feelings of revenge against criminal youths in Japan.

Byakuyako ("Into the White Night") by Fukagawa Yoshihiro is a crime story based on a popular novel by Higashino Keigo. It is a well-made film, shot in a dark and minor mode, focusing on character development and therefore justifiably taking its time. It shows how the murder of their parents by two children (one of them abused and mistreated by both victims) follows the main characters throughout their lives, leading again and again to new crimes. It also shows the utter and altruistic devotion of a boy and young man to the beautiful girl he once saved, and whom he keeps helping, even onto his own death. His love is never requited and is of a kind you'll only find in Japanese culture. The film also shows how different the characters of both protagonists are, he (Kora Kengo) totally unselfish, but cruel on her behalf, she (Horikita Maki) from the start calculating, using the people around her for her own purposes and not allowing anyone to cross her. And, for more than two decades, we also follow the police officer (Funakoshi Eiichiro) who ultimately discovers the truth. The crime is initially shelved, but he keeps doggedly coming back to it and gradually unravels the web of lies, even after he has already been pensioned off.

Aburakasu no Matsuri ("Abraxis") by Kato Naoki is wonderful film about Jonen, a young Buddhist priest and family man - priests are allowed to marry in Japan - who used to be a rock guitarist (played by actual rocker Suneohair). As he is struggling with inner doubts and demons, his spiritual mentor suggests that he once more holds a concert. Jonen decides to reunite for that concert with his old band, but instead of going to Tokyo, selects the grounds of his temple in a quiet coastal town in Fukushima for the concert (the film was made just before the earthquake and tsunami). He has posters made and puts these up himself all over the town. Suneohair gives a sensitive portrayal of Jonen and shows off his guitar playing in a celebration of non-conformity. An excellent feature film, showing the small happenings of daily life, based on a novel by Zen priest / author Genyu Sokyu. Note the sake that Jonen drinks in the film: Daishichi!

Kiseki ("I Wish") by Koreeda Hirokazu is a joyful film about two brothers, small boys, who have been separated because of the divorce of their parents: Koichi lives with his mother in Kagoshima and Ryunosuke with his father in Fukuoka. Their greatest ambition is to reunite their estranged parents. Then they hear the Shinkansen route is being extended from Hakata to Kagoshima. This will not only bring them closer together, but they also believe that a miracle will occur when two Shinkansen trains pass each other in opposite directions. While not reaching the dizzying heights of Still Walking, this is a delightful film with excellent performances.

Household X by Yoshida Koki is a story about alienation and the breakup of a family. A mother on the verge of a breakdown (Minami Kaho), her husband who is only nervous about losing his work (Taguchi Tomorowo) and their uncommunicative son and "freeter" (Kaku Tomohiro) live "together apart." That there is little communication between them is underlined by the fact that they are almost never filmed together. A simple but heart-rending family tragedy.

Tokyo Koen ("Tokyo Park") by Aoyama Shinji, the director who has previously given us Eureka and Sad Vacation, is a youth film about a boy whose hobby is photography and who likes to take stealthy pics of women in parks. This setting seems a bit like Antonioni's mysterious Blow Up, but Aoyama only tells a dull tale about a man asking the youth to photo-stalk a woman (apparently his wife) and her kid through Tokyo's parks. The mystery is too thin to keep viewers interested for a full two and a half hours; the rest of the film is filled with rather boring discussions the boy has with his dead room mate (yes, he has a problem coming to terms with his grief), with his girl friend, a gay barman and with his stepsister who is secretly in love with him. The acting is bad - the protagonist (Miura Haruma) is played totally unconvincing - and the cinematography is as humdrum as your daily TV show.

Also Hiroku Ryuichi makes a film that is inferior to his best ones as Vibrator and It's Only Talk. Keibetsu ("The Egoists", lit. "Contempt"), although based on a novel by Nakagami Kenji, one of Japan's greatest postwar authors, is a sort of "pink" melodrama that flounders due to the incredibly mawkish plot. Moreover, one of the protagonists, Kora Kengo, sports such a weird colored hairstyle that is impossible to take him serious. He plays a gambler (originally the scion of an important local family who has gone astray) who has to flee Tokyo because of his debts. He takes his pole-dancing girlfriend with him (Suzuki Anne), and returns to his hometown (Shingu in the novel), hoping to lead a normal life. That is difficult as the locals look down upon them (the "contempt" of the title) and his family rejects his girlfriend as a suitable marriage partner. Their hot love affair therefore finally descends into self-loathing and ennui. Of course his past also catches up with him and in a long scene that takes its cue from Godard's Breathless, he is killed in the local deserted shotengai. A sentimental love story, played out on the template of doom, without redeeming elements.

Himizu (lit. a sort of mole) by Sono Shion is a brutally violent story based on a cruel manga, to which he has added a background story borrowed rather opportunistically from the 3.11 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, which happened earlier in the year. In other words, this is not a film about the disaster and its human tragedy, but we have a director who (mis-)uses the disaster to make his film more topical. Accidentally, the movie itself is also a total disaster: caricatures of people are killing each other, fighting each other, shouting at each other, and continually hyperventilating. Every inch of the film is blown up. All the usual Sono Shion elements are there, but - besides that we are getting tired of even more weird sects or scenes of meaningless violence - this time it doesn't work. (In his Kibo no kuni ("Land of Hope") of 2012 Sono tries a more serious approach to the Fukushima disaster, but that later attempt plays out like an overblown TV drama and was selected as the worst film of the year 2012 by Eiga Geijutsu).

Ichi Mei ("Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai")  by Miike Takashi again leaves one with the big question: why try to remake one of the undisputed masterpieces of Japanese cinema that everyone can find on DVD (Harakiri by Kobayashi Masaki)? This is truly an excess of the postmodern remake bubble and evidence that many film makers in Japan have no original ideas anymore. It is a flat and ineffective version (who cares for 3D?), with the annoying overuse of CGI many contemporary films suffer from. The best that be can said is that this crappy remake will hopefully inspire some viewers to seek out the 1962 original - which is truly one of the great films of Japanese cinema.

Kazoku no kuni ("Our Homeland") is the first feature film of Yang Yong-hi, made after a series of documentaries in which this director explored issues in her Korean/Japanese family. The film is based on a little known fact of contemporary history: the emigration to North Korea of many Koreans living in Japan (who today still are split in adherents of the South and the North) in the 1950s-1970s, lured by false promises of the Communist paradise. Director Yang follows the story of Sonho (Arata Iura) who as a teenager was sent to North Korea by his father, an ardent supporter of the North, and also staff member of the North Korean culture center, a quasi embassy. Now Sonho is allowed to briefly return to Japan to seek medical care for a serious illness. He meets his family - his father, his mother who runs a small cafe, his younger sister who is a teacher (and the center of the film, played by Ando Sakura), and his uncle - but is all the time under the strict supervision of a North Korean security agent who traces his every step. Sonho would like to persuade his sister to move to North Korea, but has no chance as she rightly hates the regime. And then, out of the blue, after just a few days with his family and one initial medical check-up, without explanation Sonho receives the order to immediately return to North Korea (where he has left his own family behind), although he had permission to stay in Japan for three months. This is not a perfect film (interestingly, the Koreans in the film are even more non-verbal than Japanese usually are, and because of this the film looses something in expressiveness), but it deftly brings out the tensions caused by history in the relations of a family. Winner of the Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film.

Helter Skelter by Ninagawa Mika is just such a colorful spectacle as the director's previous Sakuran, but it is also more lacking in content and often just plays out as a gorgeous fashion show. Top model LiLiCo (a perfect Sawajiri Erika), the most popular model in Japan, is adored by millions of fans, has in fact turned into an arrogant and narcissistic bitch - as her manager Michiko (Terajima Shinobu) knows all too well. But only her stylist Kinji (Arai Hirofumi) and her agency director Hiroko (Momoi Kaori) know another secret: the beautiful shell of the super star is artificial, created by hundreds of beauty operations. Then one day, dark spots appear in LiLiCo's face - is her beauty beginning to peel off? This happens just when a rival, Kozue (Mizuhara Kiko), starts challenging her top status... Not only wonderful eye-candy, but also excellent performances all around.

Yume uru futari ("Dreams For Sale") by Nishikawa Miwa is unfortunately a much lesser film than her previous work as Yureru or Dear Doctor. It is the story of a married couple, Satoko (Matsu Takako) and Kanya (Abe Sadao), whose restaurant burns down. Needing money to build a new place, and after the husband has accidentally received a large sum of money for his equally accidental one-night stand with regular customer Reiko (Suzuki Sawa), the wife comes up with a nifty scam whereby Kanya has to make up to lonely unmarried women and con them out of their savings by pretending to love them. Kanya is indeed able to lend the willing ear these solitary souls crave for. His first victim is prim Satsuki (Tanaka Lena), and there is still comedy here, but afterwards the film drifts into melodramatic territory when the new victims are obese Olympic weightlifter Hitomi (Ebara Yuki), abused prostitute Kana (Ando Tamae), and divorcee with a young son Takiko (Kimura Tae). Not surprisingly, Kanya gets emotionally involved with his victims, spending more and more time with them, and the marriage starts to crack (Satoko in contrast discloses her underlying selfishness by the joy she takes in the suffering of other women) - until a few contrived plot twists bring Kanya in jail and Satoko working at a fish market to pay back the money they have "loaned." The film not only wavers between comedy and melodrama, but also has totally unwarranted moments of knockabout farce, in which the protagonists' exaggerated performances are in the worst tradition of over-acting.

That Miike Takashi has lost his magic touch was already clear from his delving into remakes. Aku no Kyoten ("Lesson of Evil" - in the studio's wrong English called "the Evil" - are there no people left in the Japanese film industry who are capable of checking the grammar of a simple English phrase?), based on a novel by Kishi Yusuke, is a revolting film about a psychopathic teacher who kills off scores of his high-school pupils (and has an affair with one of them). The director revels in one shot after another of blood-smeared pupils or exploding chests - Miike apparently doesn't realize that such crimes are all too real elsewhere in the world. As is usual with him, he refuses to confront his material from a moral point of view, but just makes a slasher gore film as pure "entertainment." But alas, the plot is full of holes and the actors are hamming away in a terrible fashion.

Pekorosu no haha ni ai ni iku ("Pecoross’ Mother and Her Days") by Morisaki Azuma is the story of the sixty-two year old Yuichi (Iwamatsu Ryo), a Nagasaki-born baby-boomer with a shiny bald head (leading to the nickname "pecoross," a small onion), who is a "bad" salaryman who spends most of his days stealthily drawing manga or making music. He lives with his son Masaki and his eighty-nine year old mother Mitsue (Akagi Harue) who the last ten years, since the death of her husband, is suffering from dementia. This is described not with disgust as in some other films, but with humor and sweet sorrow. Mitsue goes out to buy sake for her dead husband, or sits all day waiting for Yuichi to comeback from work at the parking lot of his car. As she keeps going out on her own, it becomes unwise to leave her alone in the house, so Yuichi decides to entrust her to the care of a nursing home. Mitsue, however hates that, and keeps to her room like a hikikomori, drawing further and further back into herself and into her past life (which we get in flashbacks). She even imagines that her little daughter, who died at a young age, is coming to visit her... Based on an essay manga by Okano Yuichi. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film. The director, Morisaki Azuma, is himself 87 and therefore the oldest active film maker in Japan. Surprisingly, he has made a light and heart-warming movie about a serious subject. It is regrettable this wonderful film is not better known.

Soshite Chichi ni Naru ("Like Father, Like Son") by Koreeda Hirokazu is a breakthrough to the mainstream for this director, although to do so, he unfortunately makes several compromises and delivers a film that is rather below his best work. The strength and interest of his best film Still Walking was the lack of an all too obvious plot, the feeling of just looking in on a day in the life of an ordinary family. In this new movie, Koreeda introduces a Hollywood-type plot that is just too obvious from the beginning, and that leads to an iron conclusion we can see coming from afar. Moreover, the acting of protagonist Fukuyama Masaharu, who is originally a singer, is just below par - the kids in the film do a better job. Fukuyama plays a career yuppie who suddenly is informed officially that his six-year old son has accidentally been switched at birth with another baby, who is the son of a poor but laid-back family. Should they be switched back? The question is nature versus nurture, with the father opting for the bloodline (moreover, he already thought his son was too weak to be his real offspring) and the mother for the life lived together, for the shared culture. As the opinion of men still prevails in Japan, the kids are temporarily switched back to the real parents, but of course that doesn't work out. We knew so from the very start. But despite its flaws, this film is well worth watching.

Sayonara Keikoku ("The Ravine of Goodbye") by Omori Tatsushi, based on a novel by Yoshida Shuichi, is about a difficult subject that some might find offensive: a woman, Kanako (Maki Yoko), has been raped by fellow student Shunsuke (Onishi Shima) in high school, something which destroys her life as she can not keep future boyfriends or even hold a job. So when 15 years later she meets her rapist again, she starts living with him. Shunsuke is burdened with guilt, Kanako can't escape her past - she should not be considered as a victim fallen under the spell of her victimizer, but rather as a woman who in Shunsuke finds a refuge from the world outside. Moreover, she has power over him. This story is presented obliquely, as it comes out gradually through the investigation by two journalists of the murder of a child of a family living next door in which Shunsuke may have been implicated (the journalists are played by Omori Nao and Suzuki Anne).

Fune wo Amu ("The Great Passage") by Ishii Yuya is an office drama, set at a publishing company, about the making of a dictionary called "The Great Passage." The small dictionary team has to fight against many odds to complete their ten-year task, such as the danger that the project will be canceled. The protagonist is new member Matsuda Ryuhei, an emotional nerd whose coming of age story this is (his name is "Majime," which means "serious" but is written with different kanji). Shishido Jo plays his extroverted colleague, and it is nice to see Kato Go and Ikewaki Chizuru in small roles, while Miyazaki Aoi is a suitable love interest as the granddaughter of Majime's landlady. In fact, this is a typical Shochiku film promoting all-Japanese values: diligence (even when the task is boring and sheer endless), perseverance ("gambaru"), perfectionism (when one small miss is found, the group spends day and night rechecking all materials), excellent teamwork and "wet" human feelings. It is therefore interesting for the insight it provides into Japanese culture and the values that ideally drive the Japanese.

R100 by Matsumoto Hitoshi (of Big Man Japan fame) has an interesting premise but fails to make the most of it by undermining its own story but not taking it serious enough. A man working as sales manager in a department store, living alone with his young son as his wife is in hospital, joins a mysterious SM club, where the rules are rather different: the membership is for a whole year and cannot be canceled, and what is more, the "playground" is everywhere - wherever the man is, he can suddenly be attacked by a vicious dominatrix swinging her whip through the air, or placing a well-aimed a karate kick in his face. When this escalates and the man is even attacked at his workplace or in the hospital when he visits his wife, things get badly out of hand. In the end, he seeks refuge in the farm of his father-in-law, where a large group of leather-clad women approaches like an army of zombies... Filmed in bleached colors, which are almost black and white. The title is a joke about the rating: not R15 or R17, but "R100."

Kyoaku ("The Devil's Path") by Shiraishi Kazuya is a well-made crime drama about the omnipresence of evil in everyday society. A dogged but tired young reporter (Yamada Takayuki) is contacted by a death row inmate, the yakuza Sudo (Pierre Taki), who seven years ago has committed various murders at the instigation of his boss, a real estate agent called "sensei" (Lily Franky). That boss went scot-free and Sudo now seeks revenge. So he confesses to a series of nihilistic crimes which have not yet been discovered, such as the live burial of a victim and ramming another man into an incinerator. Most sickening for its casualness is the third murder of an elderly man, with the complicity of his family and (initially) the victim himself, in order to pay off a debt with his life assurance. The man is first fed lots of shochu and finally slowly killed by electric shocks from a stun gun, while the killers are rolling on the floor from laughter. This removes any sympathy we may have felt for Sudo, putting his confession in a cynical light. The reporter struggles against his boss who at first doesn't believe in the importance of the article he is writing, and also against his family situation, where his wife is unable to continue caring for his mother suffering from Alzheimer. Performances are excellent, especially Lily Franky, who, expertly cast against type, appears as a demon in human guise. An unembellished study of human nature at its most evil, the only flaw in this film is the cinematography, which doesn't rise above the level of a TV movie.

The remakes roll on, and it gets even more ridiculous. One of the best films ever made in the world is Tokyo Story by Ozu Yasujiro. It is the perfect masterpiece. Yamada Yoji has had the audacity to remake this in a modern setting as Tokyo kazoku ("Tokyo Family"). The new film is dull and plodding and not even good when we forget it is a remake. Compared to Ozu's immortal masterwork, Yamada's film is an ant trying to be a unicorn. Designated as "worst film of the year" by the Eiga Geijutsu magazine.

Soko nomi nite hikari kagayaku ("The Light Shines Only There") by Oh Mipo is the tragic story of three young people set in Hakodate. Tatsuo (Ayano Go) is traumatized because he has caused an accidental death of a colleague in his job as stone worker - he now spends his days playing pachinko and his nights drinking; his new friend Takuji (Suda Masaki) is on parole after stabbing a man; and his sister Chinatsu (Ikewaki Chizuru) provides for the family by working as a prostitute. Tatsuo and Chinatsu set tentative steps towards a relation, but it is clear that luck will not be on their side. A grim film, but as there are no strange plot twists, much better than Oh's previous comedy. Not only the acting, but also the cinematography (by Kondo Ryuto) are first class.

Kami no Tsuki ("Pale Moon") by Yoshida Daihachi stars Miyazawa Rie as Rika, working at a bank where she is in charge of wealthy customers to whom she has to make home visits, and unhappily married to a busy salaryman. She thinks she has found something more in life when she meets the young nephew of one of her clients, a student half her age, and starts an affair with him. Unfortunately, the bland boy is played by a juvenile who considering his non-existent acting, still has to go to Theater School. But also from the side of Miyazawa there is not a single spark of screen passion, so their relation is unconvincing, to say the least. Rika is more like an elder sister or surrogate mother, also when she starts stealing money out of the accounts of her clients, first to help the boy through college, later to buy him increasingly expensive presents. Yoshida nowhere makes plausible why she would take such a high risk, nor what she gets out of it. The boy leaves her finally in the lurch for a girl his own age and Rika's embezzling is caught by her shrewd supervisor, Ms Sumi (played by Kobayashi Satomi), a colleague who supports the system although she has reached a dead end in her career. The direction by Yoshida is dull like a TV film, the story is predictable, and even Miyazawa Rie, who elsewhere is a forthright presence, seems nervous and uncertain. This film is unfortunately too flawed to be a statement about the empowerment and liberation of a forty-year old woman in stratified Japanese society.

Miike Takashi makes Kuime ("Over Your Dead Body"), a dull version of the classical ghost story Yotsuya Kaidan that has already been filmed countless times. Although this a not a straight remake as Miike introduces a new perspective by presenting the play in the form of a rehearsal by actors whose lives start running parallel to those of the protagonists of the play, the film never comes to life. The reason is that Miike forgets to fill in the lives and characters of the contemporary actors - we mainly see them in their luxury cars riding to and from the studio - and for the rest we have to watch a rather boring rehearsal. As regards Yotsuya Kaidan, I advise you to watch the version Nakagawa Nobuo made in 1959.

Miike Takashi also makes Kamisama no iu-tori ("As the Gods Will"), an old-fashioned splatter-fest based on a manga about "killer dolls:" a Daruma doll, a Maneki-neko cat, four Kokeshi dolls, a wood-carved ice bear and even a set of Matrioshka dolls. It is another gleeful carnage of high-school teenagers, although this time the story is so cartoonish and silly (taking its cue partly from Gantz) that it is less offensive than Aku no kyoten. But isn't this all old hat?

Another director who surprisingly has lost her magic is Kawase Naomi. Futatsume no mado ("Still the Water") is for the first time set outside Kawase's native Nara Prefecture, on Japan's southern island of Amami-Oshima. It is a coming of age story that unfortunately is overshadowed by boring touristy images of various festivals and songs and dances. Instead of making a film like a documentary, as many directors who started filming in the 1990s did, including Kawase herself, Kawase here just inserts documentary elements in a feature film, without proper justification. Her first work, Suzaku, remains my favorite among her films.

The remake machine rolls on. This time the perpetrator is Lee Sang-Il, who made the excellent The Villain (2010) discussed above. Now he derails by remaking Clint Eastwood's Western The Unforgiven in a late Edo samurai setting. Again, the original (as all originals) is much superior, and Lee has ended up making another unnecessary film. There are so many historical novels in Japan, was there really no original story to be found?

The remake merry-go-round takes another swing. Another famous film gets the treatment, this time Ichikawa Kon's Nobi, based on a novel by Ooka Shohei, remade by Tsukamoto Shinya. Where Ichikawa's artful and humanistic work was a "horror of war" film, Tsukamoto's giallo product is a mere "war horror" film, with stacked corpses, decapitated heads and other splatter effects. When the subplot of cannibalism kicks in, we are finally and truly in zombie-land. Tsukamoto plays the lead character, inviting a negative comparison with the excellent Funakoshi Eiji of the earlier film. More than that, this awful movie almost invites a reevaluation of Tsukamoto's earlier work as a director.

A History of Japanese Film by Year:
1896-1909 - First Stirrings
1910-1919 - Development
1920-1929 - Art Films and Nihilistic Heroes
1930-1939 - Social Realism and Shoshimin-Eiga
1940-1949 - Censorship during War and Occupation
1950-1954 - Golden Age of the Classical Studio System
1955-1959 - Taiyozoku and other Youth Films
1960-1964 - The New Wave
1965-1969 - Independent Productions
1970-1974 - Sex and Violence
1975-1979 - Decline and Stagnation
1980-1989 - Disintegration of the Studio System
1990-1994 - The Rise of Indies
1995-1999 - Revival
2000-2004 - Postmodern Peak
2005-2009 - Cinematic Bubble
2010-2014 - Risk Avoidance
[Reference works used: Currents In Japanese Cinema by Tadao Sato (Tokyo, 1987); The Japanese Film: Art and Industry by Joseph L. Anderson and Donald Richie (reprint Tokyo, 1983); A Hundred Years of Japanese Film by Donald Richie (Tokyo, 2001); Japanese Film Directors by Audrie Bock (Tokyo, 1985); A Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors by Alexander Jacoby (Berkeley, 2008); A New History of Japanese Cinema by Isolde Standish (New York, 2005); The Japanese Period Film by S.A. Thornton (Jefferson & London, 2008); Eros plus Massacre, An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema by David Desser (Bloomington and Indianopolis, 1988); Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema by David Bordwell (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1988); Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema by Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto (Duke University Press: Durham, 2000); The Waves at Genji's Door by Joan Mellen (Pantheon Books: New York, 1976); Japanese Classical Theatre in Film by Keiko I. Macdonald (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994); From Book to Screen by Keiko I. Macdonald (M.E. Sharpe: New York and London, 2000); Reading a Japanese Film by Keiko I. Macdonald (University of Hawai'i Press: Honolulu, 2006); Behind the Pink Curtain, A Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema, by Jasper Sharp (Fab Press: Godalming, 2008); Contemporary Japanese Film by Mark Schilling (Weatherhill: New York and Tokyo, 1999); The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film by Tom Mes and Jasper Sharp (Stone Bridge Press: Berkeley, 2005); Kitano Takeshi by Aaron Gerow (British Film Institute: London, 2007); Iron Man: the Cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto by Tom Mes (Fab Press: Godalming, 2005); Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike by Jasper Sharp (Fab Press: Godalming, 2003); Nihon Eigashi by Sato Tadao (Iwanami Shoten: Tokyo, 2008, 4 vols.); Nihon Eigashi 110-nen by Yomota Inuhiko (Shueisha; Tokyo, 2014). All images are linked from Wikipedia.]