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

August 8, 2012

The Japanese Seasons: August

The traditional poetic name for August is Hazuki, "Leaf Month," as leaves are supposed to start falling - Risshu, the "Beginning of Autumn," comes around August 7 or 8. As the heat is at its greatest around this time, sultry and sweltering, it seems more a case of wishful thinking! But in Chinese philosophy, when Yang is at its highest, it already contains an element of Yin that from then on will grow, so it seems suitable - and thinking about autumn may actually bring some coolness. The name for the "lingering heat" after Risshu is "zansho," and this generally continues until early September.

The greatest national festival of August is the traditional, Buddhist-folkloric Bon Festival, held from 13 to 16 August (see my post about Obon). The festival itself takes place on August 15. Obon is the festival to honor the souls of the ancestors, who are supposed to return to their old homes and partake of offerings for a few days during this period. The festival starts with on Obon market around August 10. Here flowers and other decorations for the event are sold - a good place to see this market in Kyoto is near Rokuharamitsuji Temple. After the ancestors have been regaled with fruits, sweets, cakes, vegetables and flowers, and after a Buddhist service has been held at the home altar (often a Buddhist priest comes by for this), they are sent off again to their dark abode. Lanterns and small bonfires are lit to show them the way back to the netherworld (and these bonfires can take on a gigantic shape as in Kyoto on August 16).

Traditionally, Obon also is a time of family reunions as the living family members will return to their hometowns (now less so, as Obon has also become the period to take summer holidays and many Japanese travel abroad). There are several words connected with Obon. Bon-odori is the name of the dances held in many localities throughout Japan around the time of the Bon festival. The dancers are usually clad in yukata, and the rhythm is slow, fitting to a hot summer evening., "Toro" is the name for the lanterns used to light the way back for the spirits. Some temples or shrines, such as the Kasuga Taisha in Nara, lit up thousands of lanterns at Obon (called manto-e, a "Ten-thousand Lantern Festival"). Another custom is to set lanterns on graves, as is done in the huge Otani cemeteries of Jodo Shin Buddhism in the Eastern hills of Kyoto. At other locations, lanterns are put afloat on rivers, as happens in Arishiyama.

On August 24, Jizo Bon is held, a Bon festival for children where the Bodhisattva Jizo is worshiped as their guardian. This has the character of a quiet neighborhood festival.

August is also the period that many hanabi, fireworks are held all over Japan. They used to be for the repose of the dead and were therefore linked with Obon, but nowadays they have become purely amusement for summer evenings. The Sumida River fireworks in Tokyo are the most famous.

And, last but not least, August is also the month that the big summer festivals of Northern Japan take place, such as the Nebuta Matsuri of Aomori, as well as the dance festivals of Shikoku such as the Awa Odori in Tokushima.

A good old custom to get artificial shivers is to watch plays or films with ghosts in August - or play the parlor game of telling each other yokai stories. On this blog I have posted a list of the ten best Japanese horror movies to help you shiver!

The main flower for August is still the lotus, which I already discussed in my post for July. Another beautiful August flower is the fuyo (cotton rosemallow or hibiscus mutabilis) with its soft petals, in color white to deep pink.

There is a lot of delicious food in August. Hiyayakko, cold tofu eaten in square blocks with some soy sauce, bonito flakes and chopped spring onions, is so easily digestible that also those suffering from natsubate (summer fatigue - see my post) are fond of it. The same goes for the various cold noodles, not only the somen mentioned in my post for July, but also reimenhiyashi udon and hiyashi champon. Also good against natsubate and an important source of vitamin C is the bitter goya, a vegetable looking like a cucumber but in fact a gourd, that is used for example in stir-fried dishes.

The prime summer fruit - and even a symbol of summer - is the suika, watermelon, said to be good against summer fatigue and full of refreshing juices. Suika are part of the Japanese summer scene since 1640, when they arrived via China. Edamame, boiled soy beans in the pod, lightly dusted with salt, are a healthy appetizer with your sake in summer. They are not only delicious, but also help break down alcohol. August is a good time for very cold sake - for example a sake sherbet!

Also see the Event Calendar for August.

Japanese seasonal customs according to the months of the year:
January - February - March - April - May - June - July - August - September - October - November - December

August 6, 2012

Best Japanese Horror Films (Movie Reviews)

In the Edo-period, Japan must have been very ecologically-minded: how else could the custom come up of using ghost stories for a "natural chill" in August? On the other hand, without air-conditioner you have little choice but to create goose bumps in a natural way... The custom has remained - August is still the month that Kabuki exults in plays with ghosts, while in the cinema horror pictures rule the day. As this summer stands in the sign of "energy saving," I suggest you shut off the air-conditioner, open the windows (allowing you the hear the beautiful drone of the cicadas), poor yourself a glass of cool barley tea, pick up a hand fan, and sit down for a summer program of ice-cold horror movies! Even your blogger, a hardcore realist who denies the existence of ghosts and the supernatural, shivered so much he had an unexpectedly low electricity bill...

[The ghost of Oiwa manifesting herself as a lantern obake. From the series One Hundred Tales (Hyaku monogatari) by Katsushika Hokusai.]

To help you in your selection, here are the ten best Japanese horror movies (in chronological order). I have left out typical cult films - although these can be extremely chilling! - , because I have treated them in a separate post, Best Japanese Cult Films; and I have concentrated on classical films illustrating typical Japanese examples of the form supernatural horror takes. There is little J-Horror on my list as I believe J-Horror was a ludicrously overhyped phenomenon ("B-films of TV quality"), that has not produced many films of lasting value.

What all Japanese horror films have in common is the presence of wronged females (or children in J-Horror) who have become revengeful ghosts, and the presence of a general atmosphere of creepiness rather than big shocks. Sex is not sinful - as in American teenage horror films - but something in which even the ghosts delight.
  • Ugetsu (Ugetsu Monogatari, 1953) by Mizoguchi Kenji and with Mori Masayaku, Tanaka Kinuyo and Kyo Machiko. Draws on two tales from Ueda Akinari’s "Tales of Moonlight and Rain" (Ugetsu Monogatari, 1776), from which it also borrows the title, plus the story "Décoré!" by Guy de Maupassant. During a time of civil unrest, a farmer works hard at pottery to give his wife and young son a better life. His brother-in-law harbors grotesque dreams of becoming a samurai. When they set out to sell pottery in the city, they leave their wives behind. This is dangerous, with armies and loose soldiers roaming the countryside. The wife of the potter is killed, her sister raped and forced to become a prostitute. In the fates of both women the costs of war and oppression are demonstrated; women in Mizoguchi's films are often pitted against a male-dominated world of ambition, aggression and focus on money. While in the city, the potter falls in love with the Lady Wakasa and starts living in her mansion - only to be told she is a ghost. She is beautiful and sinister at the same time, conquering by being distant and strange, a good example of the East Asian motif of the ghostly woman: "a man meets a beautiful woman, spends the night with her in a great mansion and the next morning wakes up on a lonely grave." Her remaining passion has brought the dead woman to life. To protect him from evil, a priest writes a Buddhist incantation on his body (as in the next film, Kwaidan). Although the film is far from a supernatural shocker, these scenes have a haunting quality. The potter returns to his village and is happy to find wife and child at home. But this is also an illusion: the next morning villagers inform him his wife is in fact dead (the same motif as in the first Kwaidan story). He has met another ghost, but now a gentle and forgiving one. In the final scene he prays with his son at her grave. His brother-in-law, in the meantime, has redeemed his wife from prostitution, and they are starting over again as farmers. The cost of experience is high, the cost of war is unbearable. One of the great Japanese films of all time. 
  • The Ghost of Yotsuya (Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan, 1959) by Nakagawa Nobuo and with Amachi Shigeru, Wakasugi Katsuko, Emi Shuntaro, Kitazawa Noriko and Ikeuchi Junko. A truly classical horror film, about the famous story from the Kabuki play by Nanboku Tsuruya, written in 1825. The samurai Iemon asks for the hand of Oiwa; when the father refuses, he kills him and covers up the murder with the help of his evil servant Naosuke, who wants to marry Oiwa's sister Osode. Iemon marries Oiwa, but they are poor and Iemon soon gets tired of wife and baby. Then he has the chance to marry the rich heiress Oume... but first Oiwa has to die... He not only gives her poison, but also invites a sucker to the house, so that he can claim to have caught her with a lover. The film starts like an ordinary jidaigeki from the 1950s, filmed in broad screen and with beautiful colors and solid performances. But there is "horror" here, too: the cruel cunning of Iemon, who with an impassive face kills those he thinks are in his way. He mistreats his wife and later gives her the poison with a cool face. But he gets his deserts when supernatural horror kicks in: the bodies of the disfigured Oiwa and her so-called lover have been hammered to a door and thrown in the river, but they keep coming to the surface, slowly turning around. And then there is Oiwa suddenly hanging down from the ceiling! She has the whitish-blue face of a Japanese ghost and also suitably long black hair. Like most other Japanese female ghosts she is motivated by "urami," spiteful revenge, and it is clear there is no happiness possible for Iemon and his new wife. Other famous versions of the story were made by Mori Masaki in 1956 and by Toyoda Shiro in 1965, but Nakagawa Nobuo tops them all.
  • Kwaidan (Kaidan, 1964) by Kobayashi Masaki and with Mikuni Rentaro, Aratama Michiyo and Watanabe Misako. Stylish supernatural fantasy, but thanks to its conscious theatricality far more artistic than an ordinary horror film. I first saw Kwaidan when I was teaching at Leiden University - a couple of times a year, the Japanese department could get a film via the Japanese Embassy. When after the movie I walked home along the dark, old canals, a church clock struck twelve and I unconsciously shivered... Four separate stories from the works of Lafcadio Hearn: (1) "Black Hair": A samurai divorces his wife to make a better match in another town. Years later he returns to his first wife - she has gorgeous black hair but there is also something strange about her... A very effective shocker. (2) "The Woman in the Snow": In a snowstorm, a woodcutter meets a "snow woman," a ghostly female from folklore, who spares his life and even marries him on the condition that he never tell anyone about her origin. Of course, the woodcutter forgets his promise... (3) "Hoichi the Earless": Hoichi is a blind biwa player, a performer of the Tale of the Heike. He lives in a temple at Dannoura (Shimonoseki), where the last of the Heike with the child-emperor Antoku tragically perished during their final battle. Eventually, he finds himself singing to the ghosts of the very heroes that are the subject of his song, which drains his life force away. The monks try to protect him by writing a holy sutra over his body to make him invisible to the ghosts. But they forget his ears... My favorite among the four stories. (4) "In a Cup of Tea": a writer tells the story of a samurai who keeps seeing a mysterious face reflected in his cup of tea. Later he fights a duel with this elusive opponent. A witty conclusion to a hauntingly beautiful film. 
  • Kuroneko (Yabu no naka no kuroneko, 1968) by Shindo Kaneto and with Nakamura Kichiemon, Otowa Nobuko and Taichi Kiwako. During a period of civil unrest, a woman and her daughter-in-law living in an isolated place are raped and murdered by a group of samurai, who also set fire to the house. After the killers have left, a black cat appears to lick the charred bodies... Afterwards, samurai passing through that area are found mysteriously dead with their throats torn out. We see what has happened to them: they are invited into the house where the two women live, regaled with sake and then killed while making love to the daughter. Meow! This is a combination of the motifs of "urami," grudge, from The Ghost of Yotsuya with the "ghostly woman" from Ugetsu. Then the son and husband, a fierce young samurai, returns from the war and the governor assigns him the duty to quell what is evidently a ghost. He encounters the two women in an eerily beautiful scene. They recognize each other - and although husband and wife still love each other, the women are "cat" demons the samurai has to kill, while from their side they have sworn to kill every samurai who visits their abode. The outcome can only be tragic, although there is also the brief bliss of love. Kuroneko offers no big shocks, but the atmosphere of the film is strangely haunting. Shindo uses the story to show the horrors of unnecessary wars and the terrible choices families may have to make in such a time. Extremely stylized and beautifully filmed in black and white. Shindo plays with light and dark like a Japanese Rembrandt. In the same style, Shindo also made the impressive Onibaba (see my post on this film).
  • 100 Monsters (Yokai Hyaku Monogatari, 1968) by Yasuda Kimiyoshi and with Araki Shinobu, Fujimaki Jun and Gomi Ryutaro. In the Edo-period a parlor game was popular where people would gather on a steamy hot August night and tell each other ghost (yokai) stories. A hundred lanterns or candles would be lighted, and after each story one was extinguished. In the darkness that followed on the final story, a ghost was believed to appear... This is an example of the "natural chill" I mentioned in my introduction. Such yokai stories were also gathered in book form, often with illustrations. They range from the eerie (Rokuro-kubi, a snake-necked woman) to the goofy (Kara-kasa, a one-legged umbrella with a freakishly large tongue). Sometimes yokai have taken up abode with humans and help them, as is the case in this film. 100 Monsters tells about an evil developer using yakuza "jiage" techniques to kick poor people out of a nagaya, a long row house - such a nagaya also figures in the famous film Humanity and Paper Balloons. Such forced evictions were a reality in the Japan of the fast-growth period when the film was made. Of course, the yokai who live in a shrine that is first demolished, come to the rescue... Several other yokai stories have been deftly woven into the film, which is a fantasy rather than an outright horror film, although there are some creepy sequences. Ambiguity is maintained so that the appearance of the various monsters could be delusion rather than reality. The finale is a battle between the yokai and the villains, filmed in slow motion - it has a tongue-in-cheek carnavalesque atmosphere touching on the surrealistic. This film with its simple effects is much better than Miike Takashi's The Great Yokai War of 2005, which sinks under the weight of its computer-game CGI effects, and as a story is very childish. The director, Yasuda Kimiyoshi, also made the interesting Daimajin, about a giant statue coming to life and protecting villagers against an evil warlord. 
  • Ring (1998) by Nakata Hideo and with Matsushima Nanako, Sanada Hiroyuki and Otaka Rikiya. Japan's best grossing horror movie is in fact a B-production that has the looks of an ordinary TV film - although I appreciate the lack of CGI or buckets full of tomato juice. The idea is beautifully simple: persons who watch an unnerving, grainy video (and receive a phone call immediately afterwards) die exactly one week later with a freaked-out expression on their faces. Reporter Reiko investigates the "Case of the Cursed Video" with a little help from ex-husband Ryuji. And after Reiko accidentally watches the video, her quest becomes a race against time... The ghost, Sadako, with her long black hair hanging down in front of her face is in the tradition of revengeful females a la Oiwa, the well that plays an important role in the film is also nicely traditional as this was a popular place for suicide in traditional Japan. And the finale is blood-curdling - your TV screen will never be the same! Based on a sentimental and rather forgettable novel by Suzuki Koji. There are two sequels and a prequel, a Korean rip-off and an American remake plus its sequel... all equally worthless. In the not so far future people will not know anymore what a videotape is and then all these films will become incomprehensible. Nakata Hideo went on to make his own (Yotsuya) Kaidan version, which is not very special. 
  • Onmyoji: The Yinyang Master (2001) by Takita Yojiro and with Nomura Mansei, Ito Hideaki and Sanada Hiroyuki. Onmyodo, the Way of Yin and Yang, was a system of divination and magic based on various Chinese superstitions. In the Heian-period, members of the nobility based their daily lives on it - take for example the belief in "lucky and unlucky directions." Practitioners called Onmyoji had important court positions at that time - the most famous one is Abe no Seimei, the hero of our film. Onmyoji had the task to protect the capital from evil spirits. They could also manipulate Shikigami, small "servant ghosts" that could be called up from cut-out paper manikins - in the film, Abe has three female companions who are all Shikigami. The story tells how Abe no Seimei has a contest in magic with a competing Onmyoji, Doson, who is plotting the downfall of the Emperor, while unleashing a horde of yokai... Together with court noble Minamoto no Hiromasa Abe tries to save the court. Interestingly, Abe no Seimei is played with "foxy" looks by Kyogen-actor Nomura Mansei (who also appeared in Kurosawa's Ran as the blind flutist). He plays Abe as an elusive, ambiguous figure, an ironic intellectual - a far cry from the "All-American hero," reason perhaps why the film although very popular in Japan, fell flat abroad. That is a pity for - although with a weaker second half - it is a colorful extravaganza and a good evocation of the belief in the Way of Yin and Yang from ancient Japan. In Japan the film unleashed a many years long "Abe Seimei" fashion, also making the small Seimei shrine in Kyoto popular among the young. After Onmyoji 2, director Takita Yojiro would go on to make the Oscar winning Departures
  • Ju-On (2002) by Shimizu Takashi and with Okina Megumi, Ito Misaki and Uehara Misa. The theatrical cut of Ju-On is a rehash of two straight to video releases. Again we have revengeful ghosts, now a woman and her son (the most creepy little boy in film history) who were brutally murdered by the husband/father. They still inhabit the house where the tragedy took place and are not keen on visitors. So when a social worker visits the haunted house, the two fiendish ghosts lie in waiting for her. The woman has a special way of descending the stairs and the boy just stares... Yes, there is a sequel plus an American remake - this time with the Japanese director at the helm. Ju-On is an effective little shocker that is actually better than the much overhyped Ring
  • One Missed Call (Chakushin ari, 2003) by Miike Takashi and with Shibasaki Ko and Tsutsumi Shin'ichi. What starts as a rather conventional J-Horror movie about a death-messaging keitai - following in the tracks of Ring and ripping off the South Korean Phone - finds its real "Miike" groove in the second half and ends up being weirdly thrilling. Young people mysteriously start receiving voice mail messages from their future selves, foretelling the exact date and time of their death. To save themselves and their friends, Yumi and Hiroshi stubbornly investigate the deadly mystery. The film becomes interesting when Natsumi, the third person to get the death message, agrees to go on a trashy TV show with a cartoonish paranormal expert (a sort of yamabushi priest) that airs at the exact time of her predicted death. It gives Miike a welcome chance for a satirical jab at the exploitation of the public - even their death - by the rating's hungry media. And it is good fun, even though the heads literally roll over the studio floor. But it gets even better when our heroes visit an abandoned hospital and evil rises from its temporary grave, mobile phone in hand - though nonsensically plastic, Miike's furious female phantom does pack a punch. One Missed Call here leaves generic horror for cult territory. It is difficult to assemble the pieces in a rational way, but the murderous rampage is ultimately linked to a case of child abuse - the victimizer used to give her victim a red candy in the mouth, as was also the case with the keitai-dead. In the end she morphs into Yumi, who starts abusing her boyfriend Hiroshi with a kitchen knife - and then drops a red candy in his mouth. We could say that abuse and violence send ripples through society, even to the future, and will be endlessly repeated unless resolutely stopped. 
  • Exte: Hair Extensions (2007) by Sono Shion and with Kuriyama Chiaki, Osugi Ren and Sato Megumi. This film about "killer black hair" is a spoof on J-Horror and the tradition of ghostly females with long, black hair. A dead woman keeps sprouting hair and a goofy hair fetishist decides to make money out if it by selling "hair extensions" to a beauty shop (where Kuriyama Chiaki works as a walking shampoo ad). Being from a dead female with a deep grudge, the hair extensions start killing their wearers in interesting ways. Finally, the film enters cult territory when a sort of hairy womb appears to regenerate the protagonists. Some campy fun, and the death knell for Japanese horror (for the time being). After watching, you will feel as if your mouth is full of hair... See my more detailed post about this film. 

August 2, 2012

Event Calendar for August

August is hot and humid in Japan, the time expats fly out to cooler climes, but early August is also the month of the great (and wild) summer festivals - the Nebuta Festival in Aomori, the Awa Odori dance festival in Tokushima, and many others. The middle of August is the period of Obon, the Buddhist All-Souls Festival when the ancestors return for a few days to the earth. In every locality Bon dances are held and at the end of Obon the souls are sent off by floating lanterns in rivers and bonfires on hills, such as Daimonji in Kyoto. And, finally, in late August, there is a number of great fire festivals...

July 31 - August 7, Chuzenji, Nikko: Tohaisai (Pilgrim's Festival), Futarasan Jinja
Midnight ascent of Mt. Nantai. Information in Japanese.

August 1 - 7, Hirosaki (Aomori Pref): Neputa Matsuri
Giant lantern floats are paraded through Hirosaki to the sound of drums and hand-gongs. English information.

August 2-7, Aomori: Nebuta Matsuri
Giant lantern floats, carrying images of warriors and fantastic creatures, make their way through the city to the sound of drums and flutes. Frenzied dancing in which everyone can take part. English information.

August 2, Nara
Viewing of the founder's image, of Priest Roben, in the Kaisando, Todaiji. 
Access: Todaji, Nara

August 5-14, Nara: Toka-e
Ten thousands of candles lit up in various venues in central Nara from 19::00-21:45: Kofukuji, Sarusawa Pond, Nara National Museum, Ukimido, Asajigahara, Kasuganomichi etc. See website.

August 6, Kyoto: Nagoshi no Shinji
At Shimogamo Shrine (18:30-). Men in fundoshi jump in the water to grab talismans.

August 5-7, Akita: Kanto Matsuri
Kanto are enormous poles with side beams on which numerous lanterns hang. More than 150 of such heavy contraptions are balanced by young men through Akita City. English information.

August 6-8, Sendai: Tanabata
Main streets and shopping arcades in Sendai are festively decorated for the festival of the meeting of the stars of the Cowherd and Weaver girl. In other locations, Tanabata is usually held in July. English information.

August 7, Nara: Ominugui
Annual ceremonial cleaning of the Great Buddha image by 120 monks and lay people. Early in the morning: 7.00-9:30, temple open 7:30. 
Access: Todaiji, Nara

August 7-10, Kyoto: Rokudo-Mairi and Pottery Fair
"Six States of Existence Pilgrimage" is held in the area of Rokuharamitsuji and Chinkoji. Vendors sell goods from stalls set up in the streets around the temple. In Chinkoji, worshipers visit the temple to ring the bell to call their ancestors back from the other shore for the Bon festival. In the same period, in Gojo-dori, a pottery market is held.

August 8-10 and 16, Kyoto: Manto-e in Rokuharamitsuji
Memorial services are held and wicks are lighted on dishes of oil representing the souls of ancestors being called back (evenings at 20:00). On Aug. 16, in contrast, the path to the other world is lighted back by the same ritual.

August 9-12, Kochi: Yosakoi festival.
Yosakoi teams with naruko clappers dance through the streets. Popular festival imitated by many other cities in Japan.

Mid-August, Kyoto: Rokusai Nembutsu in Mibudera
Lion dances and pantomime for Obon.

August 12-15, Tokushima: Awa Odori
People clad in yukata dance in the streets of Tokushima to the music of shamisen and small gongs. This is Tokushima's version of Bon Odori, the Bon Dance.

Aug. 13-16, Nationwide: Bon Festival
Buddhist festival in honor of the dead, celebrated every year between August 13 and 16 (a month earlier in the old calendar). It is believed that the souls of the dead return to earth during this period and visit their family home. The houses are cleaned for this occasion, and food and drink are set out in front of the family altar. Lanterns are placed everywhere in the evening, specially on the seashore and shores of lakes and rivers to welcome the dead. Dances are performed at local temples and shrines throughout rural Japan, which are referred to as Bon Odori. After the feast is over, the dead are conducted back to the spirit world. Sometimes bonfires are lit on hills, or lanterns are set adrift on rivers or the sea (toro-nagashi).

August 14-15: Mandoro, Nara
Mandoro Ceremony at the Kasuga Shrine. 3,000 lanterns are lighted at 19:00.
Access: Kasuga Taisha, Nara

August 15: Manto Kuyo-e, Todaiji, Nara
2,500 lanterns are lit in front of the Great Buddha Hall and a religious ceremony is held. 19:00-22:00.

August 15: Nara Daimonji Okuribi
Nara Bonfire, best seen from Sarusawa Pond or Tobihino Field. Lasts just 10 min from 20:00.

August 14-16, Kyoto: Manto-e
Thousand of lanterns are lit on the graves in the huge Higashi-Otani Cemetery near Maruyama park (20:00-). The cemetery belongs to Higashi Honganji. Of the same nature is the Sennichi-mairi observance in Kiyomizudera.

August 15, Hanase (Kyoto Pref.): Hanase Fire Festival
In a dark field hundreds of small torches are lighted around a huge, central one called matsuage, which is finally set afire.

August 16, Kyoto: Daimonji
Between 20:00 and 20:20 five fires are started on hills around the city: two in the shape of the character for Dai, Great (the best Dai character is on the hill above Ginkakuji); one in the shape of the boat (reminder of the voyage to China of Priest Ennin); a torii gate (symbolizing the Atago Shrine) and the characters for Myoho or Wonderful Law, pointing at Nichiren. It is difficult to see them all due to the many high buildings in Kyoto nowadays. Best places are in the northern part of Kyoto - for the Dai I advise the banks of the Kamo River. Later there are Bon dances at several locations in the town.

Aug. 23-24, Kyoto: Jizo Bon
Festival held in several Kyoto neighborhoods for Jizo, the guardian of children.

Aug. 23-24, Nara: Jizo-e Manto Kuyo at Gangoji
English information
Users of this list should always recheck events with local tourist offices, websites etc, as this information is very much prone to change!

August 1, 2012

Best Japanese Cult Films of the 1960s-1970s (Movie Reviews)

The Japanese film scene positively bristles with cult films, especially when seen with a Western eye (which admittedly picks out the cult films for the art house circuit and neglects the majority of ordinary films). From monster films to extreme violence, from pure and unalloyed camp to kinky productions - the Japanese have it all. It even seems that during the last decades most directors were specializing in cult films - the whole oeuvres of, for example, Miike Takashi, Tsukamoto Shinya, Sono Shion, but also many older films by Suzuki Seijun, Nakagawa Nobuo, Ishii Teruo, and so on... So Japan is a paradise for cult. In two posts I will give my selection of the best Japanese cult films.

See my posts on Cult Films and Classical Cult Films at Splendid Labyrinths for a definition of the genre and some more examples from Japan.

Here are the ten best cult films from the 1960s and 1970s (in chronological order):
  • Hell (Jigoku, 1960) by Nakagawa Nobuo and with Amachi Shigeru, Mitsuya Utako and Numata Yoichi. Japanese hell is Buddhist in origin, and although not eternal, punishment is very cruel indeed (based on Chinese corporeal punishments as flaying alive and sawing in pieces). Such a hell was not originally part of the Buddha's teachings, but was added in China before Buddhism reached Japan. Nakagawa Nobuo (of Yotsuya Kaidan fame) was inspired by ancient jigoku-zoshi (hell scroll paintings) he saw in temples. The first hour of the film plays in the normal world, the last 40 minutes is a grand tour of the nether regions - interestingly filmed on a large stage without any props, as the studio (Shin-Toho) was almost broke - but that spareness serves to make it more convincing than cardboard devils would have done. The film tells about the intertwined lives of various people with crimes on their conscience. The protagonist, a rather passive college student, for example feels morally responsible for the death of a drunken yakuza in a hit-and-run accident and for the fact that his girlfriend died in a taxi crash; he has a friend who is a sort of Mephistopheles (there is clear Faust influence in the film), a shadowy alter ego, enticing him to evil. At the same time, the mother and sister of the yakuza are on his tracks to kill him. The father of his girlfriend committed a crime against his comrades in the war; the director of a run-down old people's home almost starves the inmates to death or serves food that has gone bad; a sleazy doctor helps him cover his traces, etc. The bodies keep piling up and finally all arrive in Hell. This is not only a grand-guignol finale, the apex of "ero-guro-nansensu" (erotic-grotesque-nonsense), but Nakagawa imparts a serious message as well: those who are legally innocent, can still be morally guilty - for example by neglect, by passivity and refusal to speak out, by just letting things happen. The film demonstrates that these people are not free from Buddhist retribution... and perhaps should not go completely scot-free in the normal world, either. Jigoku attained immediate cult status upon release in Japan - the critics either loathed it or loved it. 
  • The Embryo Hunts in Secret (Taiji ga mitsuryo suru toki, 1966) by Wakamatsu Koji and with Yamaya Hatsuo and Shima Miharu. One of the most claustrophobic films ever made - almost the whole film takes place in one, tiny room that seems even smaller because of the violence occurring. The meager budget was one of the reasons, this independent film was actually made in Wakamatsu's production office. A middle-aged department-store manager takes a young, pretty employee to his apartment. What starts as a rather straightforward date soon erupts into sinister violence, as after giving her a sleeping pill, he binds her to the single bed and keeps her imprisoned for several days. Periodically he whips her or applies other forms of torture. All the while we hear soothing classical choral music. He asks intimate questions but also talks about his own relations with women, his mother with whom he had an oedipal relationship and who hanged herself, his wife who left him to have a child (he didn't want children). We are shown flashbacks about the past as well. The woman apparently looks like his wife and he tries to make her his slave. But in his dreams he imagines she is tormenting him "just like all the other women in his life." In one such dream, he is shown curled up in the fetal position, crying for his mother, after which the captured woman appears to console him with a lullaby. Here the sadomasochist fuses with the "passive male with a mother complex" who wants to return to the forgetfulness of the womb. Gradually the woman seems to be getting more passive, but that is show, for she is waiting for her chance - at the end she breaks free and takes revenge. The static location is enlivened by dramatic framing and editing and innovative camera angles. Called "fascinating in its austere and brutal poetry," and also "a perverse fairy tale that tries to recapture the world of childhood innocence," this film is extremely difficult to watch. 
  • Tokyo Drifter (Tokyo nagaremono, 1966) by Suzuki Seijun and with Watari Tetsuya, Matsubara Chieko and Nitani Hideaki. The story is a conventional yakuza potboiler, but Suzuki transforms it into a frenzied fantasia with eye-popping visuals, lurid colors, and weird camera angles. And then there is that goofy enka sung by Watari Tetsuya... A reformed yakuza hitman is unable to enjoy his new life as he has to keep on the run from his old rivals who are still eager to assassinate him. Even his beloved boss, a kind father figure, betrays him. The film works as a fierce satire on yakuza ideals (yakuza films were a popular genre in the 1960s) and a revolt against the dumb genre films the intelligent and artistic director was forced to make (he would be fired after his next film). One might call it a struggle for individualism - interestingly, also the story could be interpreted in that way. Tokyo Drifter reaches new heights of surrealism and absurdity in Suzuki's work, the mise en scène is highly stylized: color provides major symbolism throughout the film, such as the psychedelically yellow bar where Matsubara Chieko is a singer, or the final fighting scene on a white stage, with also Watari Tetsuya in white but his opponents in black. Arguably the best film by "enfant terrible" Suzuki Seijun. 
  • Black Lizard (Kurotokage, 1968) by Fukasaku Kinji and with Miwa Akihiro, Kimura Isao and Matsuoka Kikko, as well as Mishima Yukio in a cameo. This deliciously campy film is dominated by Japan's most famous drag queen, Maruyama Akihiro (now Miwa Akihiro, popular in Japan thanks to countless TV appearances), who - at that time in the prime of youth and beauty - gives a shining performance by playing the notorious female criminal "Black Lizard." Based on a 1934 novel by Edogawa Rampo and its theatrical adaptation by Mishima Yukio, who was rumored to be the lover of Maruyama Akihiro. The film's protagonist is Akechi Kogoro, a detective patterned on Sherlock Holmes, who appears regularly in the stories of Edogawa Rampo. The plot is deliciously nonsensical: the Black Lizard kidnaps the beautiful daughter of a jeweler in order to obtain the "Star of Egypt" diamond. Akechi has been hired to thwart her. While they are dueling with their wits, the two adversaries start to respect each other. The finale plays out in the secret lair of the Black Lizard on a remote island, where she keeps an eerie collection of naked human dolls (including a muscled Mishima). Although difficult to obtain (there seems to be no DVD release, I recorded it decades ago from Japanese TV), the film has gained a steady cult following. It is my favorite Fukasaku Kinji film. 
  • Horrors of Malformed Men (Kyofu Kikei Ningen, 1969) by Ishii Teruo and with Hijikata Tatsumi, Yoshida Teruo and Kagawa Yukie. This film is never shown in Japan, not because it is considered too pornographic like In the Realm of the Senses, but because of its so-called "political incorrectness." The film presents people with physical deformations, played by Butoh actors. and that is apparently a no-go zone in Japan (what then about the American film Freaks, where everything is for real - see my post about Classical Cult Films in which this film is discussed?). Perhaps sensitivity is so high in Japan because the position of physically or mentally challenged people here seems in fact rather difficult, while in a country like the Netherlands, where people with various handicaps are fully accepted by society, no such hypersensitivity exists. The unavailability of the film in Japan (it has been released on DVD in the U.S.) is a pity, for it is good madcap fun, and the presence of the founder of Butoh, Hijikata Tatsumi, makes it a valuable document. At the same time the film is much tamer than its reputation would let you believe. The first part is the best: a man suffering from loss of memory escapes from a mental asylum. A folk song from the Hokuriku area sounds familiar to him so he travels to Noto. In a newspaper, he sees an obituary of a wealthy estate owner who looks exactly like him - he decides to impersonate the man, pretending to have suffered from suspended animation. This places him into some difficult situations - he discovers he has not only a wife, but also a mistress, and in a picture album he sees at the last moment the man he is impersonating was left-handed. The father is hiding out on an uninhabited island where he performs atrocious surgeries to turn normal human beings into monstrosities ("malformed ones"). The scenes on the island with Hijikata sliding among bare rocks are surrealistic, but there is no horror. Avant-garde theater meets B-exploitation flic. To make things worse, suddenly detective Akechi Kogoro appears as Deus ex Machina (his existence had not been announced earlier in the film) to explain the complicated family relations, and then everything ends with literally a big bang. Malformed Men combines exploitation, perverse family relationships and experimental performance art into one bizarre and sadistic whole. 
  • Blind Beast (Moju, 1969) by Masumura Yasuzo and with Funakoshi Eiji, Midori Mako and Sengoku Noriko. A blind sculptor kidnaps a young fashion model and keeps her in his Dali-esque cavernous studio, where each wall is covered in plaster sculptures representing parts of the female anatomy - huge breasts, legs, lips. On the studio floor lie two gigantic nude torsos, serving as a sort of couches. It is the artist's dream to sculpt the perfect female form - his sense of touch is very well developed, he has also worked as a masseur - , the only problem was to find a suitable model. The young woman has been kidnapped with the help of the sculptor's mother, who also acts as prison guard, stopping the fashion model when she tries to escape. But when the sculptor drops the ominous words "my mother is the only woman for me," she shrewdly uses her charms to drive a wedge between son and mother. She succeeds admirably and with mum safely under the kitchen floor, the artist is sort of sexually liberated, so that he can find the inspiration for his ideal masterpiece. From her side, the woman has started to love him, too. They loose themselves in ever more transgressive sex, finally cutting off each others limbs and dying in ecstasy - a story that with its strange sado-masochistic relationship reminds one of In the Realm of the Senses. Visually inventive, this is another tale of madness and obsession after an original story by Edogawa Ranpo. A true classic of erotic horror. Also see my post on Masumura Yasuzo
  • Double Suicide (Shinju: Ten no Amijima, 1969) by Shinoda Masahiro and with Nakamura Kichiemon, Iwashita Shima and Komatsu Hosei. Based on the puppet play by Chikamatsu Monzaemon from 1720. The film starts with modern bunraku actors preparing for the play; we also hear a phone call about preparations for the film. After the credits the film switches to real actors, but the puppeteers (kuroko) remain present, as if still manipulating the characters of the story. We are even shown the anguish of the puppeteers, who are unable to change the tragic course of the story. This is not a gimmick, but rather symbolizes the fact that humans are seldom free - certainly not in Edo-Japan, but aren't we even today often manipulated by social pressure? The paper merchant Jihei falls in love with the courtesan Koharu, but can't afford to redeem her from the brothel. In the Edo-period, where all marriages were arranged, this was the only situation where love could freely occur, but it was socially frowned upon - different from just a visit to a courtesan - as it could lead to the destruction of one's finances and family. Jihei therefore is torn between giri (the rules of society) and ninjo (his passion), which the film shows as mutually exclusive. An ironic twist is, that his wife, who doesn't want to loose him, desperately tries to raise money for him so that he can buy Koharu free - she is even willing to sell all her kimonos. Incidentally, both courtesan and wife are played by Iwashita Shima, as if to show that men always pursue the same type of woman. As wife, the actress has applied ohaguro, black tooth-dye, which was done by all married woman in the Edo-period but is seldom shown in films as it looks rather eerie to us. Finally the two lovers conclude a double suicide pact to escape the rigid rules of Japanese society. Their last lovemaking takes suitably place in a graveyard. Shot in austere black and white, this is strictly an avant-garde movie. Walls and even floors are covered with images from woodblock prints. The artificiality also serves to distance the audience in a Brechtian fashion. Criterion essay
  • School of the Holy Beast (Seijugakuen, 1974) by Suzuki Norifumi and with Takigawa Yumi, Yamauchi Emiko and Watanabe Yayoi. A highlight of the Japanese exploitation cinema, by Suzuki Norifumi, the most intelligent (Tokyo University graduate) director of the genre. A young woman hears her mother died of suicide in a convent so she takes up the habit and goes undercover. In the convent she discovers a stinking pit of sin run by a dictatorial Mother Superior with a sinister hairy priest. Vice, violence and flagellation rule the day: "God has given us the whip!" Suzuki filmed his B-stories on an A-level, widescreen and with startlingly beautiful use of color and space. Beauty and cruelty are also mixed in the most famous scene where the naked protagonist is bound with barbed wire and flagellated with thorny roses - the red petals, mixed with her blood, fly off the stems and float through the frame. Nunsploitation as you have never seen before! There are no religious taboos in Japan so Suzuki could pull out all blasphemous stops. Religion is revealed as hypocrisy, the nuns and priest derive lascivious pleasure from the suffering of others. Why would a Japanese make such a film, considering the very minor position of Christianity in the country? Although Catholicism had been very successful in the 16th c., especially in Kyushu, it was eradicated in the 17th c. as a danger to the state - the Tokugawa shoguns had seen correctly that conversion was followed by colonialism elsewhere in the world. To prove they were not Christians Japanese were forced to trample on religious images (fumi-e) - in the film this custom recurs in a rather interesting way. In other words, an anti-Christian rhetoric was cultivated in the Edo-period, and this has never completely died out. Moreover, Nagasaki was the center of Christianity in 16th c. Japan (even completely ruled by the Jesuits), so Suzuki brings out the irony that it became one of the two cities destroyed by the atomic bomb dropped by a Christian nation: the priest in the film has been in the atomic blast which has burned the skin on his back and therefore he now sees God as a monster. 
  • Pastoral: To Die in the Country (Den'en ni Shisu, 1974) by Terayama Shuji and with Suga Kantaro, Takano Hiroyuki and Hara Sen. Terayama Shuji was one of Japan's most important avant-garde poets of the postwar period. He was also active as director and this dreamlike film, about his own youth, is his masterwork. The location is the remote Shimokita Peninsula of Aomori Prefecture, around Mt. Osore which in folklore marks the entrance to hell. Blind mediums called itako summon the souls of the dead here. The film tells about an adolescent boy trying to escape his overprotective mother and the traditional values of the superstitious countryside, but also pays attention to budding eroticism - he is in love with the married woman next door - and to his brush with the frightening world outside in the form of a visiting circus. People are larger than life: most characters have white faces like in Kabuki, gossiping women wear sinister eye patches, a dwarf inflates the body of a fat circus lady with the help of a bicycle pump. The clocks in the village are chiming incessantly. Halfway through the film, we suddenly meet the protagonist as a middle-aged man, who lives in Shinjuku, and is making a film about his youth. He returns to his native village and confronts his own younger self. In the film he is making he has pretended things were more beautiful than in reality (the boy escapes with the woman next door). Now he shows events in another way, but there is no guarantee this is more real. Can one change one's past? Are all memories of one's youth true? Are we perhaps unconsciously beautifying our own biographies? 
  • In the Realm of the Senses (Ai no korrida, 1976) by Oshima Nagisa and with Fuji Tatsuya and Matsuda Eiko. A highly controversial film about an obsessive sexual relationship, that still is forbidden in Japan in its uncensored form, but also a serious study of possessive love. Although the two protagonists do not much else but engage in sex, the camera is never voyeuristic on behalf of the audience - this not a "pink movie." Instead, the filming is cold and clinical and this explicit film is in fact the least erotic movie you can imagine. Based on a shocking incident from 1936, in which a woman called Abe Sada killed her lover by erotic asphyxiation and then cut-off his penis. Abe was imprisoned after a frantically reported court case and released after six years. She became both a symbol of a woman dangerous to men and a feminist icon. The film leaves the biographical details out and concentrates on the power dynamics in the love relation between the servant Sada and her master Kichi. Initially, Kichi is aggressive and Sada passive, but gradually as the "bullfight" (the "korrida" of the Japanese title) progresses, these roles are reversed. In the end, Sada makes love to Kichi with a knife between her teeth. Sadomasochism increases but is only indirectly willed - the intention is rather the indefinite prolongation of pleasure. Each episode of the film - set in the rooms of various inns as a sort of theatrical spaces - centers on a different sexual encounter or game, such as a mock marriage in the presence of a group of geisha that develops into an orgy. The film is different from Oshima's previous work as there seems no overt political intention here. However, while the protagonists are huddled together under their futon, outside soldiers are shown marching to the war front as Japan is sinking into fascism. The obsession of the country meets the obsession of the lovers: while Sada and Kichi pull each other down into a morbid and death-obsessed "love" tunnel without exit, so also the country is sucked into a spiral with destruction as only possible outcome. It is not an easy film: I found it just as claustrophobic and difficult to watch as The Embryo Hunts in Secret. But one can't deny its cult status.