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

July 29, 2012

"The Women in the Dunes" by Abe Kobo (Book Review)

Published in 1962, The Woman in the Dunes is a surrealistic and sometimes even absurdistic novel that reminds one of Sartre and Beckett. It has been called "the most famous postmodern tale of a person who went missing."

The premise is as follows. A school teacher called Niki Junpei has taken a few days off to spend time on his hobby, collecting insects. For that purpose he visits a dune region in a remote part of Japan, far from Tokyo. (The area that immediately comes to mind are the sand dunes of Tottori, also used in the surrealistic photography of Ueda Shoji - although Abe seems to have had scenery from Yamagata Prefecture in mind).

Junpei passes through a village where some of the houses stand in deep sand pits. When he misses the last bus back to civilization, the locals suggest he stay the night in their village. They send him down a rope ladder into just such a sand pit. Here a young widow lives alone, battling with the sand that threatens to destroy her ramshackle dwelling. Every night she must dig away the sand that is hauled up by the villagers and then sold to the cities. If she stops digging, not only her house will be engulfed, but the sand will also threaten the other houses in the village.

Junpei listens without interest to her story - he thinks it has nothing to do with him, after all he will be leaving the next morning. But when the next day dawns, he discovers that the rope ladder has been removed. He has been trapped. The villagers tell him he must help the widow, as she needs the strength of a man to battle the ever-encroaching sand. Junpei has been caught like an insect.

At first, he rebels. He tries to escape, by various means, but fails to clamber up the steep walls. Another time, he makes it out of the pit, but gets lost in the dunes and is finally caught again. He then takes the widow captive, but that does not make things any better. For now the villagers, who in exchange for the sand used to provide the widow with water, food and other necessities, stop supplying them even with water. Going crazy with thirst in the hot, dusty pit, Junpei is forced to release her.

Eventually, Junpei adjusts himself to his captivity. He even becomes the widow's lover and more or less resigns himself to his fate. But he still tries to capture a crow to use the bird as messenger, to let the world know of his fate. Through the trap, he then discovers a way to draw water from the damp subsoil and becomes absorbed in his new task of engineering. He is elated to find that he can actually improve the environment in which he is forced to live.

At the end of the book Junpei gets the chance to escape, when the widow who is pregnant with his child, is suddenly taken to a hospital because of a problem with her pregnancy.  The villagers forget to remove the rope ladder, but now Junpei does not want to leave anymore.

I first read The Woman in the Dunes in the early eighties, when I studied in Kyoto. I bought it as a Tuttle paperback at the local Maruzen, a copy that still looks beautiful - Tuttle used good-quality paper - and has the added interest of containing illustrations by Abe Machi, the wife of the author. Back in Holland, in the mid-eighties, a Dutch translation was published, and I wrote a review for one of the major dailies. I would only see the film much later, after coming back to Tokyo and buying the DVD.

In the sixties, seventies and eighties, Abe Kobo was considered as one of the best contemporary Japanese authors. In one interesting aspect he resembles Murakami Haruki: both authors aim their work at a cosmopolitan public and do not try to be particularly "Japanese." A typical (originally left-wing) intellectual, a modernist who liked to experiment, Abe was very fashionable in his own time.

Thanks to that popularity, Abe has been well served by translators. Besides The Woman in the Dunes these are: Around the Curve (some of his early stories - he was an Akutagawa Prize Winner with The Crime of S. Karuma - see my post on the short stories of Abe Kobo); The Woman in the Dunes; The Face of Another; The Ruined Map; The Ark Sakura; The Box Man; Secret Rendezvous; Kangeroo Notebook; Inter Ice Age 4; and plays as The Man who Turned into a Stick.
The Woman in the Dunes is in all respects a perfect novel. The ideas, the setting, the story and the way it is told, the implications for the human condition, everything is in perfect balance.

In the title of this post I almost wrote: "The Woman in the Dunes by Teshigahara Hiroshi" - so indelibly has the great prize-winning film by the Sogetsu-ikebana grand master lodged itself in my head. The film follows the book faithfully, it was adapted by Abe himself. Teshigahara was a great avant-gardist active as painter, sculptor, garden designer, tea house architect, theater director and of course ikebana  meister. He also made twenty films, of which eight were full-length features. Four of these were made with Abe, the first one, Pitfall, based on a script by the author, the other three on novels by him (the others are The Face of Another and The Ruined Map). As film, too, The Woman in the Dunes is a perfect masterwork. For the protagonists, Teshigahara found Okada Eiji and Kishida Keiko, and both melted completely into their roles. The music was composed by another avant-gardist, brilliant "classical" composer Takemitsu Toru. Takemitsu liked to write for the film and worked with almost all famous directors of the sixties.

Of course, the visuals are also spectacular, even although this is a black-and-white film. Teshigahara returns time and again to shots of the shifting sands, and the abstract compositions of sand and dunes become a fearful presence in themselves, the third protagonist of the film. While you watch the film, you feel the itch of imaginary grains of sand, and when you get up afterwards, you are almost tempted to brush the sand from your clothes!

Novel and film are two complimentary masterworks. If you have not enjoyed them yet, you have a great pleasure waiting for you.

[Revised October 2014]

July 22, 2012

Shinagawa Historical Museum - Omori Shell Mound (Museums)

The Shinagawa Historical Museum stands a short walk from Omori Station. It has a permanent exhibition in two rooms about the history of the part of Tokyo that today is called Shinagawa City.

[Shinagawa Historical Museum]

The ancient history centers on the Omori Shell Mounds and the Jomon pottery discovered there. This tableland at the coast was convenient for hunting and fishing and therefore settled from an early time.

About halfway between Omori Station and the museum you will have passed the Omori Shell Mounds Garden, where in 1877 Edward S. Morse undertook the first scientific archeological excavation in Japan. The shell mounds are from late and final Jomon (2500-400 BCE) and have delivered Jomon pottery, stone tools, bone article sand skeletons. Nothing remains of the 80 meter long site, but the garden contains a monument to Morse.

[Edward Morse examining a Jomon pot]

In later history Shinagawa’s function as the first post town on the Tokaido Highway occupies central position. An elaborate small-scale model of the post town takes central stage in the room (to see what is left of it: turn left from Shinagawa station, walk along the railway and cross this via the old iron bridge. You will then enter a shotengai shopping street which stands on the spot of the old Tokaido highway and its post station).

[Omori Shell Mound, Shinagawa, Tokyo]

There are displays about Shinagawa as a sightseeing spot in the Edo-period, centering on Gotenyama and its cherry-blossoms; about the Mt. Fuji cult; about Edo-period daimyo mansions; about fishing off the coast and the cultivation of seaweed in the bay when it was cleaner than today; and the coming of the railroads.

The second room focuses on more recent history and especially writers who lived in Shinagawa. There is also garden with a tea house, and in all this is a nice place to drop by, despite the lack of English.
Tel: 03-3777-4060
Hrs: 9:00-17:00; CL Mon (next day if NH), NH, NY (12/29-1/3)
From JR Oimachi St take a Tokyu bus bound for Ikegami or Kamata and get of at Kashima Jinja-mae stop. Or 10 min. on foot from the Sanno N exit of JR Omori St.

July 19, 2012

Japanese Masters: Ichikawa Kon (film director)

Ichikawa Kon (1915-2008; 市川崑) was born in Ise and educated at a technical college in Osaka. He was interested in animation and joined the local J.O. Studios. Later he moved to the feature film department and worked as assistant for, among others, Abe Yutaka. In the early 1940s, J.O.Studios merged with other film companies and became the large Toho. At Toho, Ichikawa Kon met translator Wada Natto (real name Mogi Yumiko), whom he married in 1948 and who would be the script writer for many of his movies.

Ichikawa's first film, Musume Dojoji (1946), on a Joruri subject, was forbidden by the U.S. military censorship that prevailed in Japan from 1945 to 1952, because it was deemed "too feudal." But he was fond of such literary subjects and in collaboration with his wife, between 1950 and 1965, produced his masterworks which were often based on contemporary novels. Wada had a great talent for adapting literature to the screen and she wrote 34 scripts in this period. Adaptations include Tanizaki's The Key and The Makioka Sisters, Kawabata's The Old Capital, Mishima's The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Soseki's Kokoro and I am a Cat, and Ooka Shohei's Fires on the Plain.

This last war film also brought Ichikawa some recognition in the West, as did another war tale (based on a novel by Takeyama Michio) called The Burmese Harp. In 1965 Ichikawa made Tokyo Olympiad, a large documentary about the Olympics of the previous year.

After the middle sixties, Ichikawa's output declined. Tokyo Olympiad was in retrospect a sort of watershed. One reason was the gradual breaking up of the studio system - even big studios like Toho didn't have the resources anymore to make art films. In order to lure what audience they could to the cinema, films became more extreme in the use of violence and sex. Wada was not happy with this new tone and retired from script writing - and this was a great loss for the films her husband Ichikawa made.  In the second half of the sixties, the once so productive director only made one feature-length film, in the five years after that only three, among which the best was The Wanderers (1973).

In 1976 Ichikawa bowed to the demands of commerce and started his series of thrillers based on the popular murder mysteries by Yokomizo Seishi. Starting with The Inugami Family, he made five such films until the end of the 1970s, and three more later on. The last film he helmed (aged 87!) was in fact a remake of The Inugami Family (2006).

But in the 1980s, Ichikawa also made a sort of come-back with literary subjects. He filmed The Old Capital by Kawabata, Ohan by Uno Chiyo and, more notably, The Makioka Sisters by Tanizaki. He also remade his own The Burmese Harp. Besides more thrillers, in the 90s he also addressed a perennial Japanese subject in The 47 Ronin. 

Some of Ichikawa's best films are:
  • The Heart (Kokoro, 1955) 
    Adaptation of Natsume Soseki's famous novel about a student idolizing a guilt-ridden teacher.
  • The Burmese Harp (Biruma no Tategoto, 1956)
    Rather sentimental film about a Buddhist monk searching for the bodies of Japanese war dead. Based on a novel by Takeyama Michio. This compassionate anti-war film became the first work by Ichikawa Kon to attract attention in the West (Venice Film festival, Academy Award nomination for best foreign film). In 1985, Ichikawa remade the film in color with different actors. Criterion esssay one and two.
  • Conflagration (Enjo, 1958)
    Adaptation of Mishima Yukio's The Temple of the Golden Pavillion, about a novice who destroys the temple he loves to preserve its purity. With Ichikawa Raizo as the novice monk. This is one of Ichikawa Kon's best works.
  • Odd Obsession (Kagi, 1959)
    Adaptation of "scandalous" novel by Tanizaki Junichiro, an irreverent satire on aging and sexuality. With Kyo Machiko, Nakamura Ganjiro and Nakadai Tatsuya. Won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 1960.
  • Fires on the Plain (Nobi, 1959)
    The hellish experiences of a Japanese soldier lost in the mountains of the Philippines at the end of the war. Often considered as Ichikawa Kon’s masterpiece. Funakoshi Eiji plays the lost Japanese soldier. Note that being captured by the enemy was considered as a great dishonor at that time. Criterion essay.
  • Her Brother (Ototo, 1960)
    Family drama about a delinquent brother ill with tuberculosis. After a novel by Koda Aya, and with Kishi Keiko, Tanaka Kinuyo and Kawaguchi Hiroshi. Special mention at Cannes festival. Remade in 2010 by Yamada Yoji as a tribute to Ichikawa Kon. 
  • The Outcast (Hakai, 1962)
    Adaptation of Shimazaki Toson's well-known novel (translated as "The Broken Commandment") about the persecution of the burakumin underclass.
  • An Actor's Revenge (Yukinojo Henge, 1963)
    Period film about a Kabuki female impersonator (Hasegawa Kazuo) who seeks revenge for the death of his parents. All-star cast, great cinematography. Midnight Eye review, Senses of Cinema review. 
  • The Wanderers (Matatabi, 1973) 
    Satiric period film in which the yakuza code compels one of the protagonists to kill his father.
  • The Inugami Family (Inugamike no Ichizoku, 1976)
    Convoluted murder mystery with supernatural overtones, based on a popular novel by Yokomizo Seishi. Understated detective Kindaichi, a sort of Japanese Columbo, is played by Ishizaka Koji. Other Kindaichi films made in the following years were A Rhyme of Vengeance (Akuma no Temari-uta, 1977); Island of Horrors (Gokumonto, 1977); Queen Bee (Joobachi, 1978); and The House of Hanging (Byoinzaka no kubi kukuri no ie, 1979).
  • The Makioka Sisters (Sasameyuki, 1983)A Sensuously gorgeous film, a worthy adaptation of Tanizaki's masterful novel about the lives of four sisters from a traditional merchant family in the Kansai. The major plot consists of attempts to find a husband for the second sister. Criterion essay. Criterion Confessions review.
  • Crane (Tsuru, 1988)
    Based on a folk tale and with Yoshinaga Sayuri as protagonist. One snowy night a beautiful woman named Tsuru (Crane) visits a poor peasant and says she will become his wife...
  • The 47 Ronin (Shijushichinin no shikyaku, 1994)
    Ichikawa's take on Chushingura. With Takakura Ken and Miyazawa Rie. 
My personal favorites are: Conflagration, Odd Obsession, The Makioka Sisters and An Actor's Revenge.
Strictly Film School; Senses of Cinema.
Related posts:
Film director Kawashima Yuzo
Film director Masumura Yasuzo
Film director Okamoto Kihachi
Film director Gosha Hideo
"Tora-san" actor Atsumi Kiyoshi
Actor Morishige Hisaya
Actor Ueki Hitoshi
Actor and singer Kayama Yuzo

July 3, 2012

Event Calendar for July

Until July 17: Bell Flower Viewing at Tentoku-in, Tofukuji, Kyoto
Tentoku-in is famous for its bell flowers (kikyo), set in a dry landscape garden. 
Access: Kyoto City Bus #208, get off at Tofukuji; or Keihan line to Tofukuji. 

July 7, Tanabata (Star Festival), nationwide
Celebrates the meeting, just once a year, of two lovers, Kengyu (the star Altair, personified as a cowherd) and Shokujo (Vega, as a weaving girl), who are on the other days separated by the Milky Way. Wishes are written on colorful strips of paper and attached to bamboo poles. The biggest one near Tokyo is held in Hiratsuka (around the station). A good place to visit in Kyoto is the Kitano Tenmangu Shrine (special Tanabata dance at 13:30).

July 6-8, Tokyo: Morning-Glory Market in Iriya, Tokyo
The blue or purple morning glories (asagao) are a symbol of summer. You see them everywhere in Japan, potted in alleys in downtown Tokyo, or in the private gardens of Kamakura or Kyoto. Held in the grounds of Shingenji Temple in Taito-ku. Every year 120,000 morning glories change owner at the fair which is held from dawn to dusk.
Access: Iriya Kishimojin (Shingenji Temple), Taito-ku, Tokyo. Hibiya Subway Line to Iriya St., and then walk 1 min.

July 7: Water Festival at Kibune Shrine, Kyoto 
At 10:00: prayers to the Deity of Rain. At 13:00, Tanabata.
Access: Eizan Railway from Demachi-yanagi to Kibuneguchi.

July 9-10, Tokyo: Hozuki-Ichi (Ground-Cherry Fair), Sensoji, Tokyo
Bright orange Hozuki plants are on sale in the grounds of Sensoji in Asakusa 
Access: 5 minute walk from Asakusa Station on Ginza Line.

July 9-11: Narita Gion Matsuri, Narita
Floats, carts, and portable shrines parade through Narita. Festival highlight is the parade on the last day when floats are pulled up the steep slope to Shinshoji's main hall.
Access: JR Narita or Keisei Narita St.

July 9-12: Pottery Market at Senbon Shakado Temple, Kyoto 
Market from 10:00 to 20:00. On the 10th at 14:00 a "Pottery Memorial Ceremony" will be held.
Access: Kyoto City Bus #50, get off at Kamishichiken.

July 14, Nachi (Wakayama Pref.): Fire festival, Kumano Nachi Shrine
During the annual festival of the Nachi Shrine, twelve portable shrines are purified by fire (torches) and water, in the form of the mist spraying from the Nachi waterfall.
Access: At Kumano Nachi Taisha, 30 min by bus to Takii-mae from Kii-Katsuura on the Kisei main line.

July 15, Fukuoka: Hakata Gion Yamakasa, Kushida Shrine
Floats decorated with large dolls are set up in the city from July 1. The festival climaxes with a race (Oiyama) on the 15th, when hundreds of people wearing traditional costumes run with the seven one-ton floats through the city. Spectators standing along the streets throw water on them as they pass.
Access: Kushida Jinja, 10 min from JR Hakata Station.

July 16-24, Kyoto: Gion Matsuri, Yasaka Shrine
Originates in 9th c. when the festival was first held as protection against an epidemic. On July 17, gorgeously decorated floats are pulled through the center of Kyoto. The night(s) before the 17th, the floats are lit up with lanterns in the locations where they have been built up (Yoi Matsuri). There are two types of floats: hoko are towers on wheels, with a mast sometimes reaching to a height of 30 or 40 meters, pulled by a large number of persons; yama are smaller and carried by long poles on the shoulders of a group of bearers. See my Gion Festival Dictionary.
Access: central Kyoto (Hankyu Karasuma, Hankyo Shijo Kwaramachi, Keihan Shijo and Sanjo, various subway).

July 22, Miyajima (Hiroshima): Itsukushima Jinja Kangen Sai
Main festival (Kangensai) of the Itsukushima Shrine on scenic Miyajima island near Hiroshima. During this sea festival, colorful boats with musicians and dancers pass under the famous torii in the water, calling the courtly life of the Heian period to mind. From 16:00-23:00. There is also a lantern parade on the island.
Access: JR Sanyo Line from Hiroshima St to Miyajimaguchi St; 10 min ferry to Miyajima; 10 min walk from pier to shrine.

July 25: Shishigatani Pumpkin Service at Anrakuji, Kyoto
Pumpkin service and public viewing of the temple's treasures; visitors are given cooked pumpkin as a way to keep illness away (500 yen)
Access: Kyoto City Bus #5, get off at Kinrinshakomae; 9:00-15:00.

July 26-29, Kyoto: Mitarashi festival, Shimogamo Shrine
Purification festival dedicated to the goddess of water enshrined at the Shimogamo Shrine, held annually in the 3rd week of July (17:30-22:30). Take off your shoes, receive a candle and wade through the refreshingly cool water to the rack where you can place the candle on. After that, everybody receives a drink of spring water to ensure health in the hot summer.
Access: From Kyoto St bus 205 to Shimogamo Jinja-mae; or 10 min walk from Demachi-Yanagi on the Keihan line.

July 23-24, Nara: Jizo-e
Jizo-bon ceremony at Fukuchi-in (from 17:00) and Jizo-e at other temples, in honor of Jizo Bosatsu, the patron of children.
Access: In Nara-machi.

July 24-25, Osaka: Tenjin Matsuri, Tenmangu Shrine
Greatest festival of Osaka. On the evening of the 25th, a fleet of boats carrying portable shrines proceeds upstream over the Yodo River.
Access: Near Osaka Tenmangu St on the JR Tozai line.

July 31, Kyoto: Sennichi-Mairi at Atago Shrine
The night of the 31st many people walk up Mt Atago to visit the Atago Shrine (home to the Deity of Fire Protection). It is believed such a visit is equivalent to 1,000 ordinary visits. A special ceremony at the shrine starts at 21:00 (and the next morning at 2:00).
Access: Kyoto Bus to Kiyotaki, then a 4 km hike; bring a flashlight.

End of July, Tokyo: Sumida River Fireworks Display
In Sumida Park along the Sumida River. Expect large crowds (about one million) for this most popular of summer fireworks festivals. Some 20,000 rockets are fired from two separate bases along the river, in a competition between rival firework companies. 

July 2, 2012

Most popular posts on my three blogs in June 2012

The most often viewed posts on my blogs in June 2012 were:

Japan Navigator
Concrete rocks - Review of Tschumi's "Mirei Shigemori"
Basho’s Journey: Bleached bones on the Narrow Road (Book Review)
A Giant Bookcase - Shiba Ryotaro Museum, Osaka (Museums)
The Three Sen Houses of Tea (Kyoto Guide)
Tanizaki and Ashiya

Splendid Labyrinths
Cult films (Film Reviews)
Musical Films (Film Reviews)
Don Quixote
Best Short Stories by Arthur Schnitzler
Forbidden Pre-Code Films

Japanese Food Dictionary
Goya chanpuru

July 1, 2012

The Japanese Seasons: July

July is also called Fumizuki, based on the custom that people used to write on the occasion of the Tanabata festival on the seventh of this month. Another name is not surprisingly Tanabatazuki.

And indeed, Tanabata or the Star Festival is an important event this month. This festival goes back to a beautiful Chinese legend, about a Cowherd Star and Weaver Girl Star, who were in love but could not meet because they were separated by the River of Heaven (our Milky Way). So once a year, on 7/7, magpies would join their wings together and build a bridge over which the lovers could cross and meet each other... Nowadays, it is an uncomplicated festival where people (often children) write wishes on colorful strips of paper and tie these to branches of bamboo especially set up for this purpose.

Gion Matsuri 2010

Tanabata is quiet and demure, quite different from the more lively Gion Festival (Gion-e) held in Kyoto this month. In fact the Gion festival is much more than only the parade of floats on July 17 - there are numerous events during the whole month of July. This a great time to be in Kyoto. Everywhere in the city you hear the Gionbayashi from loudspeakers, the music of the festival which fits perfectly with the hot and humid weather. I find it has a hypnotizing quality. And it is fun to visit the Yoi-Matsuri on the night before the float parade, clad in a light summer kimono and carrying a fan.

Although in the solar calendar squarely a summer month, in the old lunar calendar July is regarded as the first of the three months of autumn. Can it get more weird? In fact, the peak of the heat falls around July 23, called Taisho (Great Heat)! A word you hear often around that date is "dog days," in Japanese doyo. There are several "doyo no ushi" days around July 20, and it is custom to eat unagi, eel, on these days, for the necessary stamina.

As weather phenomena go, summer clouds (natsu no kumo) are cumulonimbus clouds and look like piled up mountains, so they are also called kumo no mine, "peaks of clouds" - a favorite subject in haiku written during this month. On the other hand, yudachi or evening showers are welcome for the refreshment they bring. In that case a rainbow or niji may appear - another symbol of summer.

If you are a sportive type, you may feel like climbing Mr Fuji - nowadays the climbing season starts on July 10. In the past when the climbing was also a pilgrimage, one spoke more poetically of Fuji-mode.

An old custom is Mushiboshi: during a fine day, clothes, paintings and books are taken out and aired to prevent them from being damaged by worms (mushi). At Daifukuji and Tofukuji in Kyoto this day is an opportunity to bring out normally hidden temple treasures.

Hokongoin Temple, Kyoto

The flower of July is the lotus (hasu), which in fact blooms from July through August. It is important to go and see them in the morning as later in the day they close down. Temples with great lotus ponds are Hokongoin and Kajuji in Kyoto, or Toshodaiji in Nara. Another important flower is the blue or purple asagao or morning glory, a symbol of summer. You see them everywhere in Japan, potted in alleys in downtown Tokyo, in gardens in Kyoto, and even just along the road, cared for by unseen hands.

Typical July vegetables are uri (gourds) and nasu (eggplant). Pickled as tsukemono, nasu are great with sake.

Talking about food, chimaki is a traditional confectionery served during the Gion festival: mochi of glutinous rice are steamed and then wrapped in bamboo leaves.

Somen are refreshing summer noodles and in Kibune north of Kyoto one eats then seated on kawadoko, platforms built over a small river. At Hirobun, the thin noodles are delivered via open bamboo pipes through which water flows (nagashi-somen). Very cool! Another Kyoto summer specialty is hamo, "dagger-tooth pike conger", and indeed a fierce fish that survives the long trek from the Inland Sea to Kyoto's kitchens. It contains countless small bones and takes a special technique to prepare, but it has a subtle taste.

And of course the umeshu (plum liquor) you have made the previous month is now delicious, enjoyed with a big chunk of ice in it. A traditional summer snack is tokoroten, small cubes made from the gelatin (kanten) of seaweeds, eaten with soy sauce, vinegar and mustard and served ice-cold.

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