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

December 26, 2011

Japanese Customs: The Zodiac

That the years in Japan are associated with the animals of the Oriental Zodiac can escape no one who sees their effigies on New Year cards, posters and calendars and who is amazed at the tremendous amount of clay dolls of the Animal of the Year sold in department stores and temples. By the way, 2012 will be the Year of the Dragon.

In the past, these animal signs were also associated with directions of the compass, seasons, days and (double) hours.

The Japanese zodiac consists of the following twelve animals, and rotates in the order given below:
  1. Rat (Ne) - the first year of the cycle. Symbol of industry and prosperity on account of its hoarding abundant supplies of food. The rat is also associated with Daikoku, one of the Seven Deities of Good Fortune, as it is shown gnawing on the rice bales on which the deity usually stands. Hours: 23:00-01:00. Direction: North. (2008, 2020)
  2. Ox (Ushi) - patient and faithful, as well as an emblem of spring and agriculture (ploughs were pulled by oxen). A lucky year. Associated with Sugawara Michizane, the deity of the Tenmangu Shrines, who road an ox when driven into exile. Hours: 01:00-03:00.  (2009, 2021)
  3. Tiger (Tora) - the king of the land animals, symbol of awe and terror, but also short-tempered. Tigers never existed in Japan, but were rather common in China. Hours: 03:00-05:00. (2010, 2022)
  4. Rabbit (U) or Hare (Usagi) - Smooth talking, but also an emblem of longevity. A fortunate year. Reminds people of the legend of the Hare in the Moon, pounding rice cakes, or the myth of the Hare of Inaba.  Hours: 05:00-07:00. East. (2011, 2023)
  5. Dragon (Tatsu) - Most important mythical animal in folklore. In contrast to the Western dragon, the Chinese/Japanese one is associated with benevolent constructive forces, as well as good health and energy. Hours: 07:00-09:00. (2012, 2024)
  6. Snake or Serpent (Mi) - Emblem of cunning, but also of the ability to increase money. Regarded with feelings of veneration due to its kinship with the benevolent dragon. The animal of Benten, one of the Seven deities of good Fortune.  Hours: 09:00-11:00.  (2013, 2025)
  7. Horse (Uma) - wild freedom. Represents the element of fire. An ancient animal in Japan.  Hours: 11:00-13:00. South. (2014, 2026)
  8. Sheep (Hitsuji) or Goat - art, elegance and passion. Symbol of a retired life. Not very numerous in Japan. Hours: 13:00-15:00. (2015, 2027)
  9. Monkey (Saru) - Clever and skilful. Symbol of trickery. Very prominent in fairy tales, as Momotaro. Hideyoshi, who rose from commoner to the highest status in the land, was born in the year of the monkey. Think also of the three Koshin monkeys "seeing no evil, hearing no evil, speaking no evil."  Hours: 15:00-17:00. (2016, 2028)
  10. Cock (Tori) - valor and watchfulness, a lucky year. Associated with the Sun myth and the Ise Shrines.  Hours: 17:00-19:00. West. (2017, 2029)
  11. Dog (Inu) - loyal and protective.  Hours: 19:00-21:00. (2018, 2030)
  12. Wild Boar (I) -  reckless courage and stubbornness.  Hours: 21:00-23:00. (2019, 2031)

December 1, 2011

Japanese Film: "Days of Youth" (1929) by Ozu Yasujiro

Days of Youth (1929, Wakaki Hi) was Ozu's 8th film and his first full-length feature film. It is also the first film by Ozu that has been preserved intact. Ozu started his life as director making several "student comedies" with nonsensical gags and this is one of them. The influence of American films is noticeable (for example Harold Lloyd's Girl Shy and The Freshman), although even in this early film Ozu is already Ozu. The film is carefully composed, with interesting parallels and symmetries. There is for example a great shot of the long, smoking chimney of a mountain hut, which is followed down, into the hut, to the stove and a kettle with boiling water. But the camera work is rather different from late Ozu - it is very dynamic as befits the outdoor subject. The script was written by Ozu together with Fushimi Akira, one of the best Shochiku script writers of that time.

The film starts and ends (in reverse) with something we are not used to in Ozu films - a long pan from a station, a university with sports grounds (Waseda) to a quiet residential street. This brings us to the second-floor lodgings of Watanabe Bin (Yuki Ichiro), a crafty rogue of a student who spends his time "girl hunting" in a rather ingenious way. He glues a notice on his window that the room is for rent, hoping that a nice female student will knock on his door. Of course, if one does, he has to move out, but he will take his time for the removal and come back regularly for things he has "forgotten." When a male student wants to rent the room, he tells him that "he himself has just rented them and still has to take the notice down."

This is how Watanabe manages to meet Chieko (Matsui Junko), who happens to be already friends with shy and bookish fellow student Yamamoto Shuichi (Saito Tatsuo), whose character is symbolically indicated by his "Harold Lloyd glasses." When Watanabe has given up his rooms for Chieko, he moves in with the reluctant Yamamoto - keeping him effectively from studying for the impending exams.

After the exams, halfway the film, the "student film" turns into a "ski film," as Watanabe and Yamamoto travel for a ski holiday to Akakura in Nagano. There they meet Chieko again and they compete for the girl - with Yamamoto usually the patient butt of Watanabe's jokes. Chieko actually happens to be there for a miai (arranged marriage) with the ski teacher, so both students have to return to Tokyo without success in love. They have also flunked their exams - and everything starts anew as Watanabe again sticks a "for rent" notice on the window.

It may surprise viewers to find such a lot of skiing in an early Ozu film. Skiing had been introduced to Japan about twenty years earlier and is credited to one Theodor von Lerch, an Austrian major, who taught skiing to the Japanese army at Joetsu in Niigata in early 1911. It soon became popular and Ozu used to ski every winter around the time the film was made. He usually went to the same place where the film is shot, Akakura, where the parents of his cameraman Mohara Hideo ran the Takadaya Hotel (shown in the film) - the cameraman was also an expert skier, as is clear when seeing the hand camera work on skis in Days of Youth. Ozu was still young when the film was made, 25, and we can imagine him having fun in the snow with his colleagues.

This obviously is not the film to start your Ozu experience with, but after you have seen the great films and want to know what Ozu's origins were, Days of Youth is quite interesting.