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

July 14, 2010

Sake Files: Shirozake

Shirozake or, literally, "white sake," is the type of sake nowadays firmly associated with the Doll's Festival (Hina Matsuri) on March 3. But that is a relatively recent development and in the past shirozake was generally drunk by travelers.

That last reason may be because shirozake is very nourishing. Like the nerizake from ancient times, it can almost be eaten rather than drunk!

Shirozake is strictly speaking not "nihonshu," as it is made from a mixture of steamed glutinous rice, mirin, koji and shochu (distilled liquor). After maturing for a month, this mixture is then crushed in a mortar. It contains only 10% alcohol (but is considered as a type of liquor) and almost half of the pulpy mixture is a sweet rice porridge.

I am not so fond of porridge and in order to get into the proper seasonal "Hina" mood, I prefer to have a glass of daiginjo fruity sake with a petal of a plum blossom floating in it...
P.S. The largest and most famous provider of Shirozake in the Edo-period was Toshimaya, founded in 1596 and then located along the Kanda riverbank. The company still exists and has branched out into soy sauce and frozen foods. Although the brewery has moved to the suburbs (Higashi-Murayama City), it provides the Imperial House every year with Shirozake and also brews the Kinkon Masamune sake that is used at the Kanda, Hie and Meiji Shrines.

March 14, 2010

Japanese Film: "Tokijiro of Kutsukake: Lonely Wandering Knight" by Kato Tai

Tokijiro of Kutsukake: Lonely Wandering Knight (Kutsukake Tokijiro: Yukyo Ippiki)
Kato Tai (1966) with Nakamura Kinnosuke, Ikeuchi Junko and Atsumi Kiyoshi. Toei. Known as “Lone Yakuza” in English.


A matatabi jidaigeki from the years that even Toei – known for its clean jidaigeki in the 50s – had turned violent. We get the usually intense performance by Nakamura Kinnosuke as the hero Tokijiro and as a bonus an early Atsumi Kiyoshi (of later Tora-san fame).

The film is based on a play by Hasegawa Shin, the author who also invented the word “matatabi” in 1929. The first Tokijiro film was already made in 1929 with Okochi Denjuro; 7 more versions would follow before the present one, with actors as Kataoka Chiezo (1951), Kazuo Hasegawa (1953) and Ichikawa Raizo (1961). The name of the hero refers to the post town where he was born, Kutsukake, which happens to be today's resort town of Karuizawa. At the same time, “kutsukake” means “put on your shoes,” symbolically referring to all the wandering the hero has to do.

“Matatabi” are “ronin among the yakuza,” so to speak, they do not work for a fixed boss or belong to a gang, but instead travel around the country as lonely wolves. Usually they are gamblers - also the blind masseur Zatoichi was a matatabi. They live thanks to the jingi code of “hito-yado hito-meshi,” or “one night's lodging, one meal” which all yakuza have to provide for each other. But when they take off their waraji sandals at the entrance of a local boss's house, and accept the lodging and the food, they have to perform one task in recompense. This task can be a nasty one that the gang itself is unable or unwilling to do. It can also mean killing an innocent man. In the film, Tokijiro wants to get away from this yakuza life, but he simply can't – he has no income and needs the lodgings and the meals and so must continue with his lonely wandering, doing dirty jobs. We find the same dilemma in the ninkyo films of Takakura Ken and Tsuruta Koji which were also made by Toei.

The film starts on some comic notes provided by Atsumi Kiyoshi playing the “younger brother” (called “Asakichi of Minobu”) of Tokijiro. He visits a geisha house where he by mistake embraces the cat while waiting for the geisha who is gorging herself on food in the kitchen (judging that this is not such an important customer). This is a small but fine role by Shin-Toho glamor girl Mihara Yoko. But the story soon turns dark. When Tokijiro walks away from another dirty job, Asakichi wants to do his duty and they quarrel. Asakichi goes off alone and decides to fight, but as he is no more than an innocent peasant, he is cruelly killed. Tokijiro avenges him and continues on his dark journey.

Next Tokijiro stays with the Konosu gang and is told to kill a man called Sanzo of Muta (played by Azuma Chiyonosuke). Tokijiro kills the man he has no quarrel with and accepts the dying man's request to accompany his wife Okinu and young son Tachikichi to a town where family is supposed to live. He recognizes the wife and son – he already met them on the ferry, when she kindly gave him a persimmon. Okinu is a fine role played by Ikeuchi Junko, who regularly appeared in both comedies and jidaigeki in the 60s, before becoming a TV drama star.

But the family is dead and Tokijiro decides to bring them to his own town Kutsukake. But on the way Okinu falls ill – she has pneumonia in an advanced stage. They stay at an inn in Shimo-Nita (all the settings of the film are in Gunma Prefecture) and in order to pay for lodging and her medicine, Tokijiro has no other option than to work again for the local yakuza. They live happily like a small family, but as soon as Okinu is better, she suddenly disappears with her son. Obviously, she is mentally torn apart by the feeling of duty towards her dead husband (killed by Tokijiro) and her love for Tokijiro. A classical case of a giri-ninjo conflict.

A year later Tokijiro happens to meet Okinu and her son in Takasaki and as she is very ill he again takes them under his wing. But she dies while he is out working for her medicine. The inn-keeper's wife puts lipstick on her to show her as beautiful as possible - a scene that reminded me of Naruse's Ukigumo, where the husband puts lipstick on the lips of his dead wife, or even the recent Okuribito...

Fed up with all the killing he has to do, Tokijiro finally decides to change his ways and takes Tachikichi with him to start a new life. As killing is a second habit for him he even throws away his sword...

Towards the end of the film with its repeated scenes of the ill Okinu, the pace slows down too much - the first half is the best, also thanks to the humor of which I would have liked more in such a dark story. The swordplay scenes (satsujin/tate) are excellent - how could it be otherwise with Nakamura Kinnosuke. They have the realistic bloodiness that was common in the sixties but without overdoing it. The filming by Kato Tai has great atmosphere and is very stylish. Kato Tai also directed “Mabuta no Haha,” another famous jidaigeki set in the yakuza world, as well as several films in the Hibotan Bakuto or Red Peony series. He also made many ninkyo films.

January 8, 2010

Japanese Customs: Auspicious food for New Year (Osechi-ryori)

Here is a plate of New Year food, osechi-ryori, of which most items have an auspicious connotation.


Starting at the bottom and going around clockwise:
  • kazunoko or herring roe - the name sounds the same as "many children"
  • [Koya tofu, freeze-dried tofu - these are not typical]
  • the black pouches next to that: konbumaki or kelp rolls, sounds like "yoroboku" or "to enjoy oneself"
  • renkon or lotus root - the lotus is a flower symbolizing the process of enlightenment in Buddhism, as it rises up from the mud of the pond towards the light. With its spokes and holes, a slice of lotus root, as on the picture, also resembles the Wheel of the Law, an important Buddhist symbol. And finally, through these holes, the Japanese say, "you can see the future" ("saki ga mieru").
  • kinton, puree of sweet chestnuts
  • tazukuri, small dried sardines; "tazukuri" means "preparing the rice fields" and this term sounds like "otsukuri", which in its turn is another word for sashimi, raw fish. In other words, "tazukuri" is "sashimi for farmers", who could not eat real sashimi in the past as they didn't live near the sea...
  • datemaki, rolled omelet
  • and in the middle: red (pink) and white slices of kamaboko fish paste. The combination red and white is of course also auspicious, think about the "red and white" song contest on New Year's Eve at NHK TV
  • There was no space left on the plate for the black beans, kuromame, which sound like "mame ni ikiru", to have a healthy life.