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

February 29, 2012

Japanese Masters: Ifukube Akira (composer)

Ifukube Akira (1914-2006; 伊福部昭) was a Japanese composer of classical music who is perhaps best known among the general public for his filmscores for the Godzilla movies.

Ifukube was born in a small village in northeastern Hokkaido, on the fringe of Japan, where his father was mayor. The population was half Japanese, half Ainu. Ifukube studied both violin and shamisen, and was impressed by the improvisational music of the aboriginal Ainu population. The violin would remain his favorite instrument. Later, when he went to secondary school in Sapporo, he had a deeper encounter with Western classical music and especially fell in love with Stravinsky and De Falla (he never felt close to classical composers as Mozart and Beethoven, whom he considered as too different culturally). It was Le Sacre du Printemps that motivated him to deepen his knowledge of European music. In 1932, Ifukube also befriended Hayasaka Fumio, a self-taught composer who was of the same age, and their talks about European classical music must have been very stimulating.

Ifukube studied forestry at Hokkaido University and taught himself composition in his free time. His first composition - at the age of 19 - was the Piano Suite of 1933 (later orchestrated as "Japan Suite" in 1991; also a version for 20-stringed Koto exists; the Suite was dedicated to the American pianist George Copland). Ifukube was the first composer to use Japanese folk music in compositions based on European techniques. In this first work there is an extensive use of ostinati (short motives repeated over and over again), a technique that would characterize all Ifukube's work. Ifukube used a scale that was basically pentatonic, to which he would add one or two notes not used by the melody. To create a harmonic texture he would often use double musical lines, simple counterpoint or canonic sections.

In 1935 followed the Japanese Rhapsody for orchestra which won first prize in an international contest for young composers organized by Alexander Tcherepnin. It consists of two parts, Nocturne and Fete, and was performed in Boston in 1935, conducted by Fabien Sevitzky. Tcherepnin was so fascinated by Ifukube's style, that during his Japan visit he went especially to Hokkaido to meet him. There is an interesting contrast between the graceful folk tunes and the "Aboriginal" quality called up by the ostinati, the doubling of the melody and the use of open fifths in the harmony. The music is very rhythmic, with a prominent place for the percussion section.

After graduation, Ifukube worked as a forestry officer and lumber processor. One frequently played work from this time is Triptyque aborigene for chamber orchestra (1937). This piece was inspired by Akkeshi Forest where Ifukube worked as a ranger. There are three movements: Payses (the hard-working women of the countryside); Timbe (the name of a lonely cliff); Pakkai (an Ainu drinking song). The work is written in a naive style and combines the energy of folk music with the structural and instrumental patterns of European music.

During the war years, Ifukube composed two more interesting works, the Symphony Concertante for piano and orchestra (1941), considered lost but in 1997 found back in the NHK archives, and the Ballata sinfonica (1943). The Ballata is in two parts, an Allegro Capriccioso in fast dance rhythm and an Andante Rapsodico resembling a dirge.

After the war, Ifukube moved to Tokyo where he started teaching  music at the precursor of the present Tokyo Geijutsu Daigaku in Ueno. Works from the immediate postwar years include the ballet Salome (1948), based on Oscar Wilde's play of the same name, the Rhapsodia Concertante per Violino et Orchestra (Violin Concerto No. 1; 1948) and Drumming of Japan (1951).

At this time, he also composed his first film score – over the next 50 years, 250 more would follow. Most famous is the music he wrote for various Godzilla and other Toho monster movies, starting with the original Godzilla in 1954. Ifukube was introduced to Toho by his friend and colleague Hayasaka Fumio. Ifukube also created Godzilla's typical roar (a leather glove striking the loosened strings of a double bass) as well as its threatening footsteps (by striking an amplifier box). In 1971 Ifukube stopped writing film music, but he was lured back in the nineties to do more scores for the new Godzilla films then being made. The music of his kaiju scores found a concert home in three Symphonic Fantasies, composed in 1954 and 1983. Especially the first Fantasy is very effective. Film tunes also return in the Ronde in Burlesque for wind orchestra (1972).

Also in 1954, Ifukube wrote the Sinfonia Tapkaara in three movements, an homage to the wide land of Hokkaido. In 1961 followed Ritmica Ostinata for piano and orchestra. Two further works were written for his favorite instrument, the violin: in 1978, a second violin concerto, and in 1985 a violin sonata.

One of Ifukube's most ambitious works was Gotama the Buddha for mixed chorus and orchestra (Shaka, 1989). The songs are in Pali, the ancient Indian language in which the oldest Buddhist texts were written. This was a difficult work to write, because of its extended form - Ifukube had to find his own solution for the construction of such a longer work, as he never employed the "European" sonata form.

Ifukube also wrote for traditional Japanese instruments, in the first place the twenty-stringed Koto. A good example is the Eclogue Symphonique pour Koto a vingt cordes et Orchestra (1982). Also short works Ifukube wrote for the lute or the guitar were transposed for the Koto.

In 1975, Ifukube became President of the Tokyo College of Music. In 1987 he retired to become president of the College's ethnomusicology department. He trained younger composers as Mayuzumi Toshito and Akutagawa Yasushi and also published extensively on music theory.

Ifukube's own favorites among his compositions are: Japanese Rhapsody, Sinfonia Tapkaara and Gotama the Buddha.

February 27, 2012

Japanese Masters: Kawashima Yuzo (film director)

Kawashima Yuzo (1918-1963;川島雄三) came from Mutsu in Aomori and was educated at Meiji university in Tokyo. He entered the Shochiku Studios in 1938 and became an assistant to the great classical director Kinoshita Keisuke. Kawashima made his first own film in 1944, and continued after the war at Shochiku with a number of comedies. These were second features (the second and least important film on a bill of two) and not very well received.

In order to improve his opportunities, in 1955 Kawashima moved to Nikkatsu, where he received better treatment and indeed made his best films, such as Bakumatsu Taiyoden (1957), which was voted the "fifth best Japanese film of all time" in an influential poll of the film magazine Kinema Junpo. In the early 1960s, he also worked for other studios and made some literary adaptations. He worked hard - before his sudden death in 1963 (Kawashima suffered from ALS), he made 51 films (during a career of only 19 years). Kawashima was the mentor of Imamura Shohei who worked under him as assistant director.

Kawashima is perhaps the greatest unknown in the West of all Japanese film directors I can think of, and one who least deserves it. His films are quirky, original, satirical, iconoclastic - and great fun. Kawashima's films are about people trying to survive in a world without morals. Kawashima was a forerunner of the Japanese New Wave and the connection between the classical directors of the fifties and the angry young men of the sixties. In fact, one of his last films, Beautiful Beast, which has been filmed from interesting angles in a claustrophobic environment, is very close to the New Wave.

In Japan, if only for the everlasting fame of Bakumatsu Taiyoden (that never made it to the West, yet), Kawashima is an established name and my local DVD rental shop even has a "Kawashima section." There is still a lot to discover, but that, after all, is one of the pleasures of Japanese film.

Selection of films:
  • Burden of Love (Ai no onimotsu, 1955)
    Burlesque social satire about a government minister who advocates birth control (we are in the baby boom years here), even as all women in his family become pregnant one after the other. Kawashima's first success after his move to Nikkatsu.
  • Our Town (Waga machi, 1956)
    An account of an Osaka suburb from the Meiji-period to the 1930s. Adept handling of a large number of characters in this comedy.
  • Suzaki Paradise: Red Signal (Suzaki paradaisu: Akashingo, 1956)
    Satire set in Tokyo's seamy milieu of bars and brothels. A young couple has fled to Tokyo to marry. Looking for income and a roof above their head, they end up in the Suzaki brothel area - the woman only works in a bar at the entrance to the district, but even that makes her man madly jealous.
  • The Shinagawa Path (Bakumatsu Taiyoden, 1957)
    Witty account of events in a brothel where reformers gather around the time of the Meiji restoration. Typically, they are interested in money and other things, rather than politics. A hustler (Frankie Sakai) who can't serve his debt is taken into custody by the owner of the establishment and has to work his debt off. Title also translated as "Sun Legend of the Last Days of the Shogunate." Script by Imamura Shohei and Kawashima Yuzo.
  • Room to Let (Kashima ari, 1959)
  • Hilarious portrait of Osaka low life. 
  • Shadow of a Flower (Kaei, 1961)
    Touching study of the unhappy lives of bar hostesses, notable for the sympathy for their pain.
  • Women Are Born Twice (Onna wa Nido Umareru, 1961) 
    Sensitive look at the condition of women after WWII, seen through the eyes of the geisha of a downtown area of Tokyo. Subtle delineation of character.
  • The Temple of the Wild Geese (Gan no tera, 1962) 
    Film version of the novelistic masterwork of Mizukami Tsutomu about the destructive love triangle between a lecherous priest, an ex-geisha and a novice. Set in a Kyoto temple and full of atmosphere.
  • Elegant Beast (Shitoyakana kedamono, 1962)
    Parents with two grown-up children make a living as fraudsters, turning to crime out of fear that the former years of utter poverty will return. Deceit, lies and surveillance determine the film. In Kawashima's hands the family becomes a symbol for Japan itself. Completely filmed inside the apartment of the parents, with many interesting camera angles (like Rear Window). Modernist style. With Wakao Ayako. The script was written by Shindo Kaneto. Review in Slant Magazine.
French retrospective held in 2003; portrait in French.
Also see A Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors by Alexander Jacoby (Stone Bridge Press, 2008) - an important resource.
I would recommend Elegant Beast, Temple of the Wild Geese, Women are Born Twice, Suzaki Paradise and The Shinagawa Path as the best of Kawashima's movies - with the exception of Temple of the Wild Geese, these are also the films that Imamura Shohei recommended for a retrospective at the Rotterdam Film Festival. 

February 24, 2012

Sake from Yamagata Prefecture (Sake Regions)

Yamagata Prefecture is famous for the Mogami River, the mountain temple Yamadera near the capital Yamagata and the mysterious area of the Three Dewa Mountains and its yamabushi. But it also has a large central basin and the Shonai coastal plain where from olden times rice cultivation has been important. Sakai has always been a major trading port for commerce with, for example, the Kansai area. Other important towns are Tsuruoka, the gateway for pilgrims to the Dewa mountains, which used to have more than 30 sake breweries in the past, and the castle town of Yonezawa.

Yamagata's sake breweries are mostly small and traditional, but large in numbers (49 in 2015) and they all have a good and steady quality. Many of them have a long tradition. In other words, thanks to the presence of so many excellent, small sake houses, the prefecture has become a sure haven for jizake fans.

The brewing system is interesting: instead of working with a toji, many breweries work with teams made up from local farmers, where natural leaders take the lead, instead of having a toji (although there are also some breweries which employ Nanbu toji).

Yamagata's breweries also work together to promote the prefecture's sake, for example by creating common "prefectural" brands, such as "Funamaezake" for unpasteurized Shiboritate sake, or "Yamagata Seisei" for low-alcohol sake. The most famous example is the junmai ginjo "Dewa 33": here not only the local sake rice, "Dewa Sansan" has been used, but also local Yamagata yeast and even proprietary koji from the prefecture. The prefecture has also developed the KA yeast for ginjo sake and plays an active role in supporting its breweries via its technology and research centers.

Sake rice used is often Miyama Nishiki or the famous but rare Kamenoo sake rice. The local sake rice Dewa Sansan took 10 years to develop and was first cultivated in 1996 - it is suited to Yamagata's hot summers and cold winters.

Sake from Yamagata is generally crisp and clean, but with a full depth of flavor and aroma - in other words, it also has  plenty of  "body;" at the same time, each small  brewery has its individual characteristics. In general, the breweries from Yamagata excel in ginjo sakes.

Some of the main breweries are (in alphabetical order):
  • Benten (Goto Shuzo, Takahata-machi, Higashiokitama-gun). Founded in 1788. Dedicated to small lot production of high quality sake. Named after the Goddess of Music and the Performing Arts, Benzaiten, one of the Seven Deities of Good Fortune. Produces its Benten sakes with a large variety of sake rice brands, from Dewasansan to the legendary Kamenoo sake rice, and from the local table rice Tsuyahime to Bizen Omachi sake rice. 
  • Chiyokotobuki (Chiyokotobuki Toraya Co., Ltd., Sagae). Brand name means "Long Life for a Thousand Generations." Est. 1696. Sagae (close to Yamagata City) has water of the quality of the famous Miyamizu (underground water of the Sagae River which in its turn consists of the ice water of Mt. Gassan). Uses only local Yamagata rice. Makes Junmai sake with the Yamahai method and also has an interesting Ginjo Koshu in its lineup. Also makes wine (both from the cherries cultivated in Sagae and from grapes).
  • Dewazakura (Dewazakura  Sake Brewery Co., Ltd. , Tendo). "Cherry-blossoms of Dewa" (Dewa is the ancient name for Yamagata). Named after the cherry-blossoms on local Mt. Maizuru. Est. 1891. The Oka brand is a long-seller among ginjo sakes, and was in the past instrumental in developing the fledgling ginjo market. Much of this brewery's sake is sold unpasteurized (to that purpose, all aging tanks have cooling attached). The brewery also operates the Dewazakura Art Museum, with many works on the theme "sakura." Tendo is just north of Yamagata City and famous for its hot springs and the production of shogi (Japanese chess) pieces. The brewery is a 15 min. walk from Tendo Station. 
  • Eiko Fuji (Fuji Shuzo, Tsuruoka). "Glorious Fuji." Est. 1788. The Oyama district of Tsuruoka where this brewery is located was once called the "Nada of Tohoku." Now only four breweries are left, among which Eiko Fuji is one of the most venerated. Founded by a member of the family of the warlord Kato Kiyomasa. Uses No. 10 Yeast which has almost no acidity.
  • Kudoki Jozu (Kamenoi Shuzo Co., Ltd., Tsuruoka). "Good in seducing the heart and mind," a name which does not refer to a pick-up artist, but to the ability of the warlord Hideyoshi to manipulate people to his advantage. Established in 1875. More than 70% of total production is junmai ginjo sake. President also acts as the Toji. Labels in easy to recognize ukiyo-e style. Uses Yeast No. 10 for an elegant taste. 
  • Toko (Kojima Sohonten Co., Ltd., Yonezawa). Est 1597. Patronized by Uesugi lords of Yonezawa. Brewery now 23th generation owner. Operates sake museum "Toko no Sakagura" in city of Yonezawa (small entrance fee, also tasting corner). Take a 5-min taxi or a junkan bus to the Omachi 1-chome stop.
  • Juyondai (Takagi Shuzo Co., Ltd., Murayama). "Fourteenth Generation." Est. 1615. Does not pasteurize its sake and therefore only produces a limited quantity. Also does not press its sake, but uses natural drip method. Difficult to find but popular among connoisseurs. 
  • Take no Tsuyu (Take no Tsuyu Sake Brewery, Tsuruoka). Est. 1858. Located in the temple town at the foot of Mt Haguro, one of the Three Sacred Dewa Mountains. Company named "Take no Tsuyu," "Des on the Bamboos," because the brewery stands in a bamboo forest. The name for the junmai ginjo of the company, "Hakurosuishu" compares the white dew to pearls. Uses only locally grown rice.  In this company, too, the owner also works as toji.   
  • Hatsumago (Tohoku Meijo, Sakata). Est. 1893. The present brand-name, ”First Grandchild," was selected when the first grandson was born to the owner. One of the largest brewers in Yamagata, with two facilities in Sakata. Makes its sake according to the Kimoto method. Operates a "Museum of Sake" where also tasting is possible (15 min taxi from JR Sakata Station). A plant tour is also possible, but in contrast to the museum, advance reservations are required.
  • Taruhei (Taruhei Shuzo, Naka-Komatsu, Kawanishi-machi, Higashi-Okitama-gun). Ages its sake in wooden kegs, which adds a deep cedar-wood flavor; also rather high in acidity. Does not filter the sake with charcoal, so amber colored. Uses Sumiyoshi brand for dry junmai sake, and the Taruhei name for more richly flavored sake. Junmai more than 80% of output. Its dryness is interesting, as here it is not obtained by adding alcohol. The brewery operates a small ceramics museum, the Kikusui Handicraft Museum, but is itself not generally open to the public (museum must also be arranged in advance). A 15 min. walk from Uzen Komatsu St on the Yonesaka line.  
  • Yonetsuru (Yonetsuru Sake Brewery, Ltd., Takahata-machi). Started sake brewing in the Genroku period (1688-1704). Uses no toji, but Yamagata system of teamwork with local farmers. Employs brewers the whole year, in summer they change into rice farmers cultivating the sake rice Yonetsuru uses. Brewery developed new rice strain Kissui. Was the first to make ginjo sake in Yamagata. Brewery tour possible upon advance reservation from April to October (when the brewery is not active). Also tasting and shop. Half an hour by taxi from Yonezawa.
Yamagata Sake Brewers Association
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
Hokushinetsu: 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.

February 21, 2012

Japanese Masters: Mizukami Tsutomu (novelist)

Mizukami Tsutomu (1919 - 2004; 水上勉) was a literary author of fiction who often straddled the border of pure literature and more popular genres. More than ten of his novels were made into films, a sure sign of his popularity in his own country (strangely enough, these films mostly remained outside the Western "Japan canon"). When I lived as researcher in Kyoto in the early 1980s, I often saw his books in bookshops and on shelves of friends. In the West, he is almost unknown - it was only in 2008 that, coincidentally, translations appeared in both English and German of his masterwork, The Temple of the Wild Geese, and in English also of his novel Bamboo Dolls of Echizen. This neglect is strange, for Mizukami's greatest work has a certain obsessiveness in common with Tanizaki and Kawabata, and gives atmospheric depictions of the world of priests and geisha in Kyoto, as well as the poor countryside of the Wakasa area. It has also strong folkloristic elements.

By the way, the author's name can also be read as Minakami - that was in fact the pseudonym he used as a writer, but as he himself was not strict about it and "Mizukami" is the  pronunciation now usually used in Japan, we will keep to Mizukami.

Mizukami was born as the son of a shrine carpenter in the Wakasa region of Fukui Prefecture, on the Japan Sea coast above Kyoto. In his early teens, he became a novice in a Kyoto temple (a subtemple of Shokokuji), taking his vows in 1930. But the young Mizukami had a difficult time in the Zen establishment, moving from temple to temple. In 1932 he entered the Tojiin and went to nearby Hanazono Middle School, but had quite a turbulent relationship with the head priest whom he considered as corrupt. He left in 1936, after graduation.

Mizukami then entered Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto to study Japanese literature, but dropped out due to financial problems. It took a long time to get on his feet - he had thirty-six different jobs in this period, from vagrant peddler to clerk in a geta shop and manager of a mahjong parlor (which of course gave him the  life experience useful for a writer). Study with the author Uno Koji (1891-1961), known for his naturalistic novels in a personal style, led to his first autobiographical novel (The Song of the Frying Pan, 1948), but Mizukami was unable to support himself by writing for at least another decade. His breakthrough came in 1959 when he published an extremely popular mystery, Mist and Shadow. It was detective fiction with a social theme, a genre initiated by Matsumoto Seicho (Ten to Sen). In 1961 Mizukami wrote The Fangs of the Sea in the same vein, a mystery novel about the Minamata Disease, caused by environmental pollution, that won him the Mystery Writers' Club Prize. His most enduring popular work in this genre was Straits of Hunger from 1963.

Mizukami used the financial security provided by these mystery novels to step back into pure literature. The Temple of the Geese (1962) was based on his own temple experiences and won him the prestigious Naoki Prize - it has been filmed by Kawashima Yuzo and is generally considered as his masterwork. The years of literary and social apprenticeship now paid off.

In The Yugiri Brothel at Gobancho (1962) Mizukami wrote about a young girl from a poor family who is sold to become a geisha (Gobancho was a geisha district in Nishijin, Kyoto). In the same novel, he treats the burning of the Golden Pavilion from a different point of view than Mishima Yukio had done. Local color is very strong in The Bamboo Dolls of Echizen  ("Echizen" is the traditional name for Fukui Prefecture where Minakami was born), which won very high praise from Tanizaki in 1963. Minakami also excelled in the genre of the literary biography. His biography of his literary mentor Uno Koji won the Kikuchi Kan Prize in 1971, and his study of the 15th c. eccentric Zen-master Ikkyu was awarded the Tanizaki Prize in 1975.

Mizukami started only in his early forties as a full-time writer, but his output was tremendous: he wrote between 5 and 10 books a year, in the 1960s even 15. Already in 1968 his Selected Works were published by Shinchosha in six volumes. In 1976-78 followed his Collected Works in 26 volumes (Chuo Koronsha), and again in 16 volumes in 1995-97. Besides fiction (both high-brow and middle-brow, and often a mix of both), he also wrote travel essays, autobiographical reminiscences and popular books about Buddhism. Kyoto and its temples were a favorite subject. His travel essays were collected in 1982-83 by Heibonsha in eight volumes. Mizukami wrote in a beautiful literary style, but in his dialogues he also used dialect elements.

Here are some of his major works:
  • The Temple of the Wild Geese (Gan no Tera, 1961). 
    Mizukami used thriller techniques in this semi-autobiographical novel, set in a Kyoto temple called "the Temple of the Wild Geese" because a famous painter has decorated the sliding doors with these birds. The story centers on Jinen, a thirteen-year old novice with a mysterious background. The orphaned son of a beggar, he has a grotesquely formed head and is generally unhappy and ashamed of his past. The priest of the temple, Jikai, has taken an ex-geisha from Gion, Satoko, into the temple.  In modern Japan, priests are allowed to marry, but playing around with geisha is of course a sign of lewdness in a priest. On top of that, Jikai is a notorious tippler. The lonely Jinen develops a crush on Satoko, and she does not completely discourage his youthful fancy. The unlikely love triangle leads to a brutal climax - Jikai disappears. Has he really departed on a walking tour of penance, as Jinen says? A story with great psychological depth and written in a beautiful style.

    The English translation was made by Dennis Washburn and published by Dalkey Archive Press in 2008 (also includes Bamboo Dolls of Echizen);  the German translation was made by Eduard Klopfenstein, also in 2008.

    The Temple of the Wild Geese was filmed in 1962 by Kawashima Yuzo (another Unknown Master) in vibrant black-and-white. Wakao Ayako plays the role of Satoko. Jinen is older than in the book, he is in Middle School and looks about eighteen - this makes the love triangle more probable.

  • The Yugiri Brothel at Gobancho (Gobancho Yugiriro, 1963)
    A young woman from a poor family in Fukui is sold to the Yugiri geisha house in Nishijin, Kyoto. A rich merchant wants to be her lover, but she is already in love with a local boy who has become a novice in the Temple of the Golden Pavilion. Out of frustration he in the end sets fire to the priceless structure...

    The Yugiri Brothel at Gobancho was filmed in 1963 by Tasaka Tomitaka (another Unknown Master).

  • Bamboo Dolls of Echizen (Echizen Takeningyo, 1963)
    A young bamboo craftsman, Kisuke, takes his father's prostitute Tamae as a wife and insists on treating her as a mother - the two never become lovers. The story has weird Freudian overtones. Cared for by Tamae, Kisuke becomes a renowned craftsman, a maker of the bamboo dolls the region is famous for. Part folk tale and part social realism, set in the isolated rural scenery of Fukui Prefecture. Lots of local color, often of a primitive and ghostly nature.

    Bamboo Dolls of Echizen was translated by Dennis Washburn and published by Dalkey Archive Press in 2008 in the same volume as The Temple of the Wild Geese.

    Bamboo Dolls of Echizen was filmed in 1963 by Yoshimura Kozaburo (yes, another Unknown Master!) as a stylish melodrama. 
Anthologies of Japanese literature in English contain two further short stories by Mizukami: The Showa Anthology (2) contains "Mulberry Child" in the translation by Anthony H. Chambers, and Autumn Wind contains "Bamboo Flowers" in the translation by Lane Dunlop.

Films other than those mentioned above based on novels by Mizukami Tsutomu include: Mist and Shadows (Kiri to Kage) was filmed in 1961 by Isshi Teruo; The Story of Echigo (Echigo tsutsuishi oya shirazu) was filmed in 1964 by Imai Tadashi, and stars Mikuni Rentaro; Straits of Hunger (Kiga kaikyo, also titled "A Fugitive from the Past" in English) was filmed in 1965 by Uchida Tomu - a study of the dark underbelly of postwar society; Shadow of the Waves (Namikage) was filmed in 1965 by Toyoda Shiro; Clouds at Sunset (Akenegumo) in 1967 by Shinoda Masahiro; the same director also filmed Ballad of Orin (Hanare goze Orin) in 1977 - protagonist in both films was Iwashita Shima; and Father and Child (Chichi to Ko) by Hosaka Nobuhiko in 1983; in the same year followed The Legend of the White Snake (Hakujasho), another and more erotic take on the love triangle between a lustful priest - second wife - and novice, here with Koyanagi Rumiko.

February 18, 2012

Japanese Masters: Ueki Hitoshi (actor, singer, comedian)

Humor doesn't travel very well, it is often said, and you would certainly think so when looking at the Japanese film scene. While Kurosawa and Ozu have become worldwide household words and many samurai and yakuza genre films have been brought out with English subtitles, comedies seem to have a hard time breaking through the cultural barrrier. The only exceptions are the long series It's Hard Being a Man with Atsumi Kiyoshi as Tora-san (1969-1995), or a few films by Itami Juzo. But there seem to be no comedies from the 1960s that have been graced with subtitles and favored with a release outside of Japan. That is all the more regrettable because such films can tell you a lot about daily life in Japan, both at home and in the office. The Toho company was very actice in the humorous film genre, with as iconic actors Ueki Hitoshi and Morishige Hisaya. Here, we will look at the films made by Ueki Hitoshi.

Ueki Hitoshi (1926-2007) was a comedian, actor and singer representative of the Japanese post-war miracle. Born in a family of priests in Mie Prefecture, immediately after the war he started his career as a singer and guitarist in Tokyo. He first became famous as a member of the Crazy Cats, a comic jazz band, with Hana Hajime and Tani Kei. Their act was full of crazy gags a la Marx Brothers. Ueki and The Crazy Cats became a big hit on TV as well. One of Ueki's most famous songs was Suudara bushi, from 1962, with the nonsense text "I know it, but I can't stop."

Ueki made his film debut in Masamura Yasuzo’s remake of The Woman Who Touched the Legs (1960), but his breakthrough came with his own feature, the classic comedy The Age of Irresponsibility in Japan (Nippon Musekinin Jidai, 1962). We of course also find his fellow-cats, Hana Hajime and Tani Kei, here (as well as in most other Ueki Hitoshi films). This film, in which Ueki played a wayward salaryman, exactly suited the spirit of the times. Thanks to the hard work of its people, Japan was back to prosperity. The 1960s were the time of consumerism, of TVs, cars and "my homes." It was just before the Tokyo Olympics and the nation felt confident about the future. It was even possible to work a bit less hard and enjoy life.

That is exactly what Ueki's salaryman-type does. He is "genki," optimistic and energetic. While his colleagues sit yawning at their desks, he storms into the office, cries "Work, work," and starts working the phones to make a sales appointment with a big voice and smile - his toothy grin became his trademark. He is the archetype of the ideal salaryman. But he also has an "irresponsible" side: he doesn't care for small rules and procedures, sets his own time, jumps the hierarchy and uses very unusual methods to be successful. He brazenly says what he thinks. Any real-life salaryman who would have tried to act like Ueki, would have been out on the streets in seconds. But it sure gave satisfaction to see one guy on film break all the office rules! It gave the real salarymen of Japan the motivation to continue their grinding work.

The Age of Irresponsibility in Japan was so popular that more films were made with Ueki at high speed. There was another  "irresponsibility" film, Nippon Musekinin Yaro, the Irresponsible Guy of Japan (also 1962). Another group Ueki films was created round the title "Nippon Ichi no XX Otoko," "the Best XX Man of Japan," starting with Nippon Ichi no Iro Otoko, The Most Sexy Man of Japan, and followed by Nippon Ichi no Gomasuri Otoko, The Greatest Flatterer of Japan (1965) and Nippon Ichi no Gorigan Otoko, The Greatest Pusher of Japan (1966). In total ten of these films were made, until 1971. In all these films Ueki plays basically the same type of salaryman, and that was also true for a third series of films with the word "Crazy" in it. While all above-mentioned Ueki films contained musical numbers (Ueki suddenly singing and dancing in the streets, a la Bollywood), in the "Crazy Series" the Crazy Cats band comes on stage and the music is more elaborate.  A good example is Honkon Kureeji Sakusen, Hong Kong Crazy Strategy (here, 14 films were made until 1971).

Finally, there is a fourth series, in which the salaryman character of Ueki is transported to the past and runs around as a crazy salaryman-samurai. A good example is Horafuki Taikoki, The Bluffing Hideyoshi. In total, four films were made. Besides these series, in the same period, Ueki also appeared in a number of other comedies. So the 60s can rightfully be called the crazy, irresponsible Ueki Hitoshi age!

Director of many of these films was Toho comic genre director Furusawa Kengo (and to a lesser degree Furosawa's colleague Tsuboshima Takashi). A popular female counterpart (or “madonna” as the Japanese say) was Hama Mie, know in the West because of her role in James Bond's You Only Live Twice (1967).

In the 1970s, the tide turned and Ueki Hitoshi lost his comic appeal. He had some quiet years as far as cinema was concerned, but in the 1980s again appeared in many films, often in very different roles from the comedies of the 60s. He played for example a very serious supporting role as General Fujimaki in Akira Kurosawa’s Ran (1985). In the 90s his popularity was back, now mixed with nostalgia as his films started to appear on DVD. Like the ideal grandpa, still always smiling, Ueki was a frequent guest in TV shows and also was asked for almost countless TV commercials. He also continued making films, almost until his death in 2007 - the last film in which he appeared was Maiko Haaan, in which he played an elderly company owner from the Nishijin weaving district.

Ueki Hitoshi's comedies are symbolic of Japan’s postwar white collar age and form great time capsules of Japanese homes and offices in the 1960s. They are the ideal films about salaryman life. Why are they not better known outside Japan?

February 15, 2012

Japanese Masters: Masumura Yasuzo (film director)

Masumura Yasuzo (1924-1986, 増村保造) first attracted my attention thanks to the several films he made based on novels by Tanizaki and Kawabata. He was an older contemporary of Oshima Nagisa, and is seen as an iconoclastic precursor of the New Wave in Japan.

Born in Kofu, Masumura was from an early age interested in film. As a high-school student he three times went to see Kurosawa's Sugata Sanshiro. He studied law at Tokyo University, but dropped out to become an assistant director at the Daiei studio's because he needed money - he would return to college and graduate in philosophy in 1949. Next, he won a scholarship to a famous film school in Rome (the Centro sperimentale di cinematografia), and after graduating, worked on the Italian-Japanese co-production of Madame Butterfly. He returned to Japan in 1953.

From 1955, Masumura started working at Daiei for Mizoguchi Kenji (assisting wih the last three films of this great director) and after that, on three films for Ichikawa Kon. Although Masumura later was critical of Ichikawa's films, his work displays a considerable debt to the older director - if only in the frequent choice of literary sources. Masumura made his first film, Kisses, in 1957. He stayed with Daiei until the demise of the company, and made about three films a year, to a total output of 58 films.

Masumura's films are characterized by visual inventiveness and dark satire, they often are a strong indictment of social injustice, and an unsentimental look at what it means to be human. You could say that his films, usually by borrowing the vocabulary of the genre film, show the cruel beauty of life. Social realism of the type he learned in Italy, was not suitable for Japan with its regimented society and lack of individual freedom, he says - that is why he opted for exaggeration and over-the-top depiction. If I would have to characterize his work in one word, I would choose "obsession." The fact that he often used literary sources, from Saikaku and Chikamatsu to Tanizaki and Kawabata reveals a classical streak that links him to his "teacher," Ichikawa Kon.

Some of his major films are:
  • Kisses (Kuchizuke, 1957)
    Known for its handheld, fluid camerawork, this first film is a cruel story of youth as Oshima would also make a few years later. A boy and girl meet in prison where they happen to visit their respective fathers. They decide to spend the day together and, after successfully gambling on a bicycle race, head for the beach.
  • Giants and Toys (Kyojin to Gangu, 1958)
    A critique of the Economic Miracle and more vicious than the "Company President" films made around the same time by Morishige Hisaya. Still, there is no lack of humor in the endeavor of a sweets company to make an unknown girl with bad teeth into the star of their new commercial campaign. After a story by Kaiko Takeshi.
  • Afraid to Die (Karakkaze-yaro, 1960)
    A mean yakuza film in the first place remarkable for having author Mishima Yukio in the main role. He plays a yakuza who has wounded the boss of another gang, and whatever he does, can't escape revenge. As befitting for Mishima, the death scene is the highlight of the film.
  • Passion (Manji, 1964)
    This is a famous story by Tanizaki Junichiro, translated into English as "Quicksand." A bored middle-aged housewife (Kishida Kyoko of The Woman in the Dunes) falls obsessively in love with a young model (Wakao Ayako). When her husband and the fiance of the model also join the fray, we have the four arms of the Buddhist swastika and an emotional quicksand. By far the best among various films based on Manji.
  • The Hoodlum Soldier (Heitai Yakuza, 1965)
    A cynical look at life in the barracks of the Japanese army in Manchuria as a miniature version of Japan itself with its suffocating hierarchies. The cruelty that characterized certain divisions of the Imperial Army leaps off the screen in the continual beatings that small-time sergeants enforce on their inferiors. The hoodlum soldier of the title is played by Katsu Shintaro, his good-willing mentor Akira by Tamura Takahiro. In the end, when told they will be sent to the killing fields of Leyte, they desert by stealing a train. Review on Midnight Eye.
  • The Red Angel (Akai Tenshi, 1966)
    A young angelic nurse played by Wakao Ayako serves in China during the war years. She is raped by her patients and when she complains, sent to the front lines. It is like a gruesome version of MASH. Amid the carnage, she falls in love with a morphine-addicted surgeon (Ashida Shinsuke). She also provides comfort to a soldier whose arms have both been amputated. A strange, but very human and engrossing film, perhaps Masumura's masterwork.
  • The Wife of Seishu Hanaoka (Hanaoka Seishu no Tsuma, 1967). Based on a novel by Ariyoshi Sawako ("The Doctor's Wife"), this is a period film about the first doctor (played by Ichikawa Raizo) who performs surgery using general anesthesia. His loving but neglected wife (Wakao Ayako) offers herself as a guinea pig for his experiments. Another study in obsession.
  • Blind Beast (Moju, 1969)
    A blind sculptor kidnaps a young fashion model and keeps her in his Dali-esque warehouse filled with huge sculptures of female body parts. His dream is to sculpt the perfect female form. Visually inventive, this is another tale of madness and obsession, after an original story by Edogawa Ranpo. Review on Midnight Eye.
  • Love Suicides at Sonezaki (Sonezaki Shinju, 1978)
    Based on the classic Joruri play by Chikamatsu, with Kaji Meiko ("Lady Snowblood") in the main role. A period piece that is lurid, bloody and gorgeous at the same time.
Other interesting films are The Precipice (Hyoheki, 1958) with Yamamoto Fujiko and based on a novel by Inoue Yasushi; The Woman who Touched the Legs (Ashi ni Sawatta Onna, 1960), a comedy about a female pickocket (Kyo Machiko) and a remake of a film by Ichikawa Kon; A False Student (Nise Daigakusei,  1960) based on a story by Oe Kenzaburo; The Life of an Amorous Man (Koshoku Ichidai Otoko, 1961) based on a novel by Edo-period master Iharu Saikaku; A Wife Confesses (Tsuma wa Kokuhaku suru, 1961), an existential film with Wakao Ayako; Tattoo (Irezumi, 1966) based on the well-known short story by Tanizaki, and again with Wakao Ayako; Love for an Idiot (Chijin no Ai, 1967), again an obsessive film based on a Tanizaki novel, translated into English as "Naomi"; Thousand Cranes (Senbazuru, 1969), based on the eponymous novel by Kawabata Yasunari, and with Wakao Ayako and Kyo Machiko.

February 13, 2012

Sake from Miyagi Prefecture (Regional Sake)

Miyagi Prefecture forms the central part of Tohoku, and its capital Sendai, built by Date Masamune who established his castle here in 1604, is the largest city in northern Honshu with more than a million inhabitants. Although the western side of the prefecture is mountainous (including the famous Zao range), there is a large plain around Sendai. A famous scenic spot near Sendai is Matsushima, 260 tiny, pine covered islands in a shallow bay. There is a lot of fresh seafood from the Pacific coast with its many excellent ports as Shiogama and Ishimaki, while the central plain is a rice growing area.

Although the number of breweries is not as high as in Akita or Yamagata (25 in 2015), many of them concentrate on quality sake (about 80% of the total, against 25% nationwide) and especially junmaishu (more than 26%). Rice used consists in the first place of the famous food rice types Sasanishiki and Hitomebore, but also the Kura no Hana sake rice has been developed in more recent years. The taste of Miyagi sake is refined and probably the driest among the six Tohoku prefectures - due to both the extensive use of food rice (instead of sake rice) and the matching with local seafood.

Although most have overcome the disaster, breweries in Miyagi were hard hit by the earthquake and tsunami of March 2011.

Some of the main breweries are (in alphabetical order):
  • Ichinokura (Ichinokura Co., Ltd., Matsuyama, Osaki City). Established in 1973 through the joint-venture of four historical breweries. By shifting to premium sake, it has built a strong base in Japan as a popular drink in izakaya restaurants. Uses various types of rice from Miyagi and always polishes the rice to at least 63% (7 percent more than necessary for premium sake). Also makes low-alcohol sake Himezen and the sparkling, light nigori Suzune. 
  • Katsuyama, brands: Akatsuki, Den, etc. (Katsuyama Shuzo, Sendai). Founded in 1688, and the only purveyor of sake to the Date lords of Sendai still in existence. Produces only junmai type sake. Interview with the president of the company, Mr Isawa Jihei, who is wine sommelier and looks at sake like wine, to be enjoyed during dinner. Also operates the kaiseki restaurant and wedding hall Shozankan (this used to be the brewery's guesthouse).
  • Urakasumi (Saura Co., Ltd., Shiogama). Established in 1724. Originated as producer of sake for the historical Shiogama Shrine, close to scenic Matsushima. Brand-name comes from a classical poem written by Minamoto no Sanetomo. Pioneer in producing ginjo sake. Developed a new yeast that is now Association Yeast No. 12. Operates a sake gallery (shop selling sake and accessories, as well as offering tasting for a small fee) next to the brewery. Brewery tours possible upon advance reservation, but only outside of brewery shown, not the actual brewing area.
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
Hokushinetsu: 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.

February 6, 2012

Sake & Food Pairings (3): Tempura

Tempura is one of the top favorites among Japanese dishes, also for non-Japanese. What is more delicious than to have prawns, fish and vegetables served in those wonderful golden clouds of deep-fried dough? So it is a good thing tempura goes well with sake, and the choice this time is easy. When you remember that one of the properties of junmai sake is to cleanse the mouth from oily foods, the choice is soon made. Of course, good tempura is not really very oily, but it has been doused in a bath of hot oil. A great variety of ingredients is used, but we do not have to worry about that when making the sake pairing, as the golden dough makes everything equal.

The thing to pay attention to when eating tempura, by the way, is absolute freshness. Tempura should be eaten within minutes (if not seconds) after being fried. If you wait too long, it gets sodden, as is sadly the case when you get tempura donburi-style on rice. That is why specialist tempura restaurants serve the tempura not everything at the same time on a big plate, but bit by bit.

The only thing to pay attention to when making pairings is the way the tempura is eaten. There are two ways: with some salt (often flavored with green tea powder), or by dipping in tentsuyu (3 parts dashi, 1 part mirin, 1 part soy sauce), to which grated radish has been added (daikon-oroshi). The first way is how Japanese connoisseurs eat tempura, the second way is more common and easier to combine with sake.

In the first case (salt) I would suggest a sweetish sake, for example as made on the Inland Sea coast of Okayama or Hiroshima (Hiroshima has soft water which makes the sake  sweet). And to add some zest to the dryness of the flavored salt, perhaps a fresh type like a Shiboritate.

But most people will use the tentsuyu dipping sauce, which I think is a good idea (despite what connoisseurs may think!), as the daikon adds sweetness to the umami of the sauce (no, Japanese radishes are not spicy!), creating a perfect combination with the tempura. When pairing, the sturdier junmai sakes are best, those with a somewhat higher level of acidity. Also Kimoto and Yamahai type junmai sakes will be perfect thanks to the slight touch of bitterness and higher acidity. They are a "melting accompaniment to the delicate oiliness of good tempura" as Philip Harper phrases it in The Book of Sake (Tokyo, 2006).

Finally, I would suggest to try the junmai warm, at about 40 degrees Celsius, for even more melting goodness.

February 3, 2012

Japanese Customs: Setsubun

Setsubun literally means "seasonal division" and used to refer to the day prior to the first day of spring (risshun), summer (rikka)  autumn (risshu) and winter (ritto) in the lunar calendar. Today, however, it is only used for the festival held on the day prior to risshun, because this is the most important as it marks a new start. In that respect, it is comparable to New Year's Eve - as a kind of "Spring's Eve." It falls on either February 2, 3 or 4 in the solar calendar (this year Feb. 3).

Rituals on Setsubun have to do with chasing out evil influences as a sort of spiritual or ritual house cleaning before the start of Spring.  These are the rituals:
  • Tsuina or oni-yarai. Originally held on New Year's Eve and introduced from Tang-China, this is an exorcism rite. Participants hold bows and clubs made from peach wood and symbolically chase away figures wearing demon masks.
  • Mame-maki. Bean-scattering ceremony. The scattering of roasted soy beans to expel evil spirits began in the 15-16th centuries and in popular folklore became linked with the above Tsuina ceremony. Participants shout "Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!" ("Out with the demons and in with good luck"). The bean scattering is done by a toshi otoko, a male family member born in the same Zodiac year (nowadays, happily, toshi onna also can take part). 
  • Yaikagashi. Heads of sardines are struck on holly branches and hung over doorways to drive out the demons. 
  • See here for the modern custom of eating Ehomaki, "Lucky Direction Sushi Rolls."

Many shrines and temples hold Setsubun events. Often famous persons from TV, show business or sports (sumo!) will take part, and in Kyoto there are bean-throwing maiko. Here are the major ones:
  • In Tokyo: Asakusa Kannon, Kanda Myojin and Hie Jinja. 
  • In Kyoto: Mibudera (Setsubun Kyogen performances), Rokuharamitsuji (demon chase and bean throwing), Yasaka Jinja (bean throwing by maiko), Yoshida Jinja (demon chase and fire festival), Shogoin (mamemaki and demons) and Rozanji (a very theatrical demon chase with a thousand-year history).   
  • In Nara: Horyuji (Shuni-e ceremony in the Saiendo, red, black and blue oni are driven away by Taishakuten), Gangoji Gokurakubo (firewalking), Kofukuji (Bishamonten chasing demons at Tokondo).
[Check all dates and times in advance, as Setsubun dates vary per year. Some events are in the evening]