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

December 31, 2016

The Year of the Rooster

2017 is the Year of the Rooster (toridoshi) in Japan (also translated as cock or chicken; the term denotes general barnyard fowl), the tenth year in the cycle of 12 signs from the Japanese (and originally Chinese) zodiac. The Year of the Rooster is represented by the Earthly Branch character 酉. The rooster is the only bird in the zodiac.

[Roosters by Ito Jakuchu - image from Wikipedia]

As is written in We Japanese, it is believed by the Japanese that the rooster has five virtues:

  • Its comb represents civilization
  • Its strong feet denote military strength
  • With an enemy it fights well, demonstrating courage
  • It calls friends out of goodwill
  • Watching for the dawn, it is faithful

In other words, the Year of the Rooster is generally considered as a lucky year and persons born in that year are according to fortune tellers generally intelligent and kind by nature.

[Shokoku - photo from Wikipedia]

Already since the dawn of history, there have been roosters and chickens in Japan. Although Japanese breeds now have been crossbred with western strains, there are also 30 breeds of what is known as the indigenous "Japanese rooster." The majority of these are not raised for meat or eggs, but are kept by fanciers as pets. Here are some of the best known ones:
  • jidori, an indigenous, primitive breed that resembles the red jungle fowl of SE Asia; it has a red body, with black tail and black breast;
  • shamo, developed from a game breed in Thailand; raised for cockfighting. The meat is also of excellent quality. 
  • shokoku, introduced from China in the Heian period; its feathers are silvery, golden or white and it has a long, flowing tail and an elegant posture. Was kept in shrines as a sacred breed.
  • onagadori, a striking, long-tailed breed developed in Tosa (now Kochi Pref.) during the Edo period. It is silvery, white or brown and its tail feathers, which grow longer every year, can reach 8 meters. They are therefore kept in special, elevated cages.
  • chabo, a diminutive chicken with short legs and a large head. Plumage colors vary widely.  
  • minohiki, a decorative breed whose neck and tail feathers are said to resemble a straw raincoat (mino).
  • ukokkei, fowl with a fluffy plumage like silk; can be white or black. Originates in China.

[Onagadori - photo from Wikipedia]

The rooster has played a prominent role in ancient Japanese culture. The bird came from China to Japan via Korea in the Jomon period (10,500-300 BCE). It is represented in haniwa pottery figures from the Kofun period (300-710 CE). The cock also plays an important role in the myth about the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu Omikami. When the Sun Goddess retired to a cave in anger at the violence of her brother, Susano-o, and the world was steeped in darkness, the cock's crow outside the cave made the goddess think that the day had dawned even without her presence (due to a rival?) - and this was how she was lured out of the cave by the other gods. At the Grand Shrine of Ise the cock is regarded as a messenger of the Sun Goddess, and in the shrine's precincts one often comes across freely roaming roosters.

In Japan there are many interesting folk beliefs about the rooster: its crowing at daybreak is believed to drive away the evil spirits of darkness that could roam freely during the night. The rooster has therefore become a talisman against evil spirits. (In Western countries, by the way, the cock is also a symbol of watchfulness, reason why it is often placed on weather vanes.)

In the Heian period, the court held regular cock fights, a sport which later also became popular among commoners. In later periods, certain decorative breeds of roosters were the subject of famous paintings (as the one by Ito Jakuchu above) and woodblock prints. 

What about chicken as food? It appears chicken was eaten in Japan until the Buddhist injunction against meat, which was proclaimed by successive emperors when ascending the throne since the 7th c., increasingly became stronger. So from the 10th century on also commoners virtually stopped eating meat (with the exception of fish), although the Japanese never were a fundamentalist people where religious injunctions were concerned. Besides a Buddhist, I suppose there was also a Shinto reason: meat from dead or slaughtered animals was considered as impure. But from the 16th c. on, this injunction again became gradually looser and after contact with the Portuguese and Dutch some Japanese also started eating chicken. But - like the rare consumption of other kinds of meat - it was more something for sick people in order to regain strength than part of normal cuisine. There was no meat industry in Japan until the Meiji period. In the case of roosters, we should also take into account that this bird was regarded as the messenger of Amaterasu and therefore sacred; even chicken eggs were avoided until the 15th c. (quail eggs were eaten instead). 

After Japan opened its doors to the West, the eating of meat and chicken became more common, but all the same remained relatively small scale. In the Meiji period a chicken cuisine was established in the Kansai. As Japanese chickens were not as rich in meat as Western strains, farmers mostly switched away from indigenous chickens. But the production of chicken meat remained low and it was only after WWII that this bird became a popular dish, after the introduction of American broilers. From that period also date now so popular chicken dishes as yakitori and tori no kara-age. A recent Japanese custom is to eat chicken at Christmas, a "new tradition" brought about in the early 1970s by a successful promotional campaign of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
[Written with information from Japan, An Illustrated Encyclopedia (Kodansha) and We Japanese (an old publication of the Fujiya Hotel), as well as the Japanese and English Wikipedia]

December 26, 2016

Meyami Jizo, Kyoto

The small temples of Kyoto are very interesting when you happen to stumble upon them, but usually they are not places to seek out on purpose. Meyami Jizo is different - I have often visited this small temple on Shijodori in Kyoto close to Gion with family and friends. The late afternoon or early evening is good time to come by, for when the lamps inside and outside are lit the small temple develops a sort of romantic radiance which it lacks in cool daylight.

[Meyami Jizo Temple, Kyoto]

Officially, the temple is called Chugenji and there is a legend behind its founding. In 1228, the Kamo River was overflowing because of incessant heavy rains. Seta Takamine, the official charged with controlling the river, was able to prevent a larger flood thanks to a divine message from the Bodhisattva Jizo. To express his gratitude, he therefore enshrined a seated statue of Jizo here at a spot close to the river and named it Ameyami Jizo or "Rain Stopping Jizo" - that was the origin of Chugenji.

There is also a theory that the temple was called Ameyami Jizo because people used to take shelter from the rain here - the temple after all stands on the eastern bank of the Kamo River, in the past outside the city proper, and travelers may have been caught by showers in what then was open land.

Anyway, in later times, when the city had grown and it was not necessary anymore to stop the rains or take shelter in the fields, the temple managed to remain in the hearts of the people by a simple but ingenious linguistic shift. "Ameyami" became "meyami," which has nothing to do with rains anymore but everything with eye disease (me is eye en yami is illness). So our "Rain Stopping Jizo" became the "Bodhisattva Who Heals Eye Complaints," a not insignificant task in a premodern society and even of importance today. And of course it was not only a matter of linguistics, people really believed prayers addressed to the Jizo were effective in healing their eye complaints and undoubtedly many stories of miraculous recoveries were passed on from mouth to mouth.

The main hall is occupied by a large, seated Jizo statue, dating from the Muromachi period, so it is younger than the original presumably installed here by Seta Takamine. Note the bald monk's head and the staff he carries as all Jizo statues. The temple also owns a great Thousand-armed Kannon statue in a room on your right when you stand in front of the Jizo hall. Further at the back, also to the right, you will find a jolly fat Daikoku.


And closer to the entrance, on the left, I saw this lovely small Jizo...

December 23, 2016

The Ako Incident and the Forty-Seven Loyal Retainers (Chushingura) in fact and fiction

As I wrote in my previous post about the seasonal events of December, the last month of the year is the season that traditionally the story of the Forty-Seven Ronin (also called Chushingura, "the Treasury of Loyal Retainers," after the title of the puppet drama) is performed in the puppet theater and the Kabuki, while on TV both older movie versions are shown as well as newly made TV films. Why December? Because the final act of the story took place on the 14th day of the 12th month of the year Genroku 15 according to the Japanese calendar (January 30, 1703, in the Gregorian calendar). It has become a typically Japanese year-end tradition like playing Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in concert halls around the country. December 14 is also the day of the Gishisai or Festival of the Loyal Retainers at Sengakuji Temple in Tokyo - Sengakuji is the temple where they and (some years earlier) their lord were buried after committing seppuku. On December 14, many people visit their graves and also come to watch a parade of persons dressed up as these 47 loyal retainers. In Ako in Hyogo Prefecture, the location of the castle of Lord Asano, a similar parade is held on that date, as well as at the Oishi Shrine in Kyoto's Yamashina.

[Incense smoke billowing over the graves of the 47 ronin in Sengakuji, Tokyo
- photo Ad Blankestijn]

The story of the Forty-seven Loyal Ronin is based on a historical incident, but also has inspired countless fictional media, from kabuki and bunraku to film, theater, novels and manga. That means it has been snowed under by fictional elements and unfounded interpretations. Below I will first look at the facts as they stand; after that we will consider the fiction in the form of Bunraku / Kabuki plays and 20th c. movies.

The Facts
The Ako Incident (Ako Jiken) occurred when a band of forty-seven former retainers of Asano Naganori (1667-1701), the late lord of Ako (in Hyogo - see this post), led by chief retainer Oishi Yoshio / Kuranosuke (1659-1703), raided the residence of Kira Yoshinaka (1641-1703), a direct vassal of the Tokugawa shogun, and assassinated him.

The assassination originated in another incident. Asano Naganori had been in charge of ceremonies such as receiving delegates from the imperial court to Edo castle. In the course of that task, on the 14th day of the 3rd month of Genroku 14 (21 April, 1701, in the Gregorian calendar), he drew his sword and lightly wounded Kira, who was the shogunate's chief protocol officer and therefore Asano's superior. Drawing one's sword in the shogunal palace was a capital crime and Asano was ordered to commit seppuku within that same day. His domain was confiscated by the shogunate and his retainers were disbanded and became masterless samurai (ronin).

Back to 1703. After the assassination of Kira, forty-six of the samurai (one had been sent back to Ako before the actual attack) marched to the grave of Asano in Sengakuji temple where they presented the enemy head to the last resting place of their lord. They also notified the shogunate of their deed, awaiting arrest. It took the authorities six weeks of debate before coming up with the judgement that the samurai were to be sentenced to death by seppuku. Thus they committed ritual suicide in March 1703, all forty-six, ranging in age from 15 to 77. Later their ashes were buried in the small graveyard of Sengakuji, next to those of their lord.

[Corner of the graveyard for the 47 Ronin at Sengakuji, Tokyo
- photo Ad Blankestijn]

Historical evidence about the incident is scarce. Why did Asano attack Kira in the first place? Why did the masterless samurai assassinate Kira? Why did they wait a year and half to do so?

The meagerness of facts has led to much speculation. Some seek the reason for the original feud between Asano and Kira in romantic competition about a woman; others in economic motifs (Ako was a small fief, but rich thanks to the salt industry), or again in psychological issues (Kira's purported arrogance). 

There is similar disagreement about the reason for the later attack on Kira's mansion. The modern popular view is that the Ako samurai were motivated by vengeance for the death of Asano, in line with "samurai duty." This is often linked with ahistorical concepts of Bushido - incorrectly, because "Bushido" was an invention from the late 19th century, by the philosopher Inoue Tetsujiro and others; around 1700, Bushido did not exist, the ideology of the samurai was Confucianism (I know this is against popular opinion, but please read the wonderful study Inventing the Way of the Samurai by Oleg Benesch if you still need to be convinced!). Moreover, the action by the Ako ronin was an anomaly: it was the only case in the long Edo-period of a lord being avenged by his retainers! Revenge killings (adauchi) occurred, but only in cases when the killing of a parent had gone unpunished - wholly in line with Confucianism. Confucianism does stress loyalty, but the most important virtue is filial piety, "loyalty to the own parents," rather then to the ruler. 

But even if lord-vassal vendettas had been the rule, the Ako Incident would not have fit the definition, because Kira did not kill Asano. Kira was merely the plaintiff in a case in which the shogunate condemned Asano to death. 

So rather than an exemplary manifestation of samurai behavior, the Ako Incident was unique and anomalous - and that is why it still continues to attract such a lot of interest. Various alternative motivations for the action of Oishi and his fellow ronin have been proposed. By the confiscation of the domain, the Ako retainers had lost their income and position, and perhaps they thought they could regain their former status by demonstrating their prowess via this martial deed. They may also have wanted to distinguish themselves in front of potential new employers. These views are supported by the fact that they did not immediately perform seppuku when offering Kira's head to the grave of their former master - they had no clear course of further action and seem to have waited for the reaction of society. And indeed, the reaction from the authorities took six weeks to formulate, so this was apparently not a clear-cut case.

[The grave of Oishi Kuranosuke
- photo Ad Blankestijn]

Fiction - Popular Performance Arts
The uniqueness of the case and the mysterious motivations of its protagonists, soon made this story of the "Tormented Lord" and his "Loyal Retainers" extremely popular as fictional material, although the action had to be transposed back several centuries and the identities of its actors had to be hidden as commentaries and plays about contemporary events and persons were forbidden by the shogunate. Between 1706 and 1892 about seventy Kabuki and puppet plays were written about this hot subject. 

The most famous of these became Kanadehon Chushingura, "Kana practice book Treasury of the Loyal Retainers," an 11-act bunraku puppet play from 1748 (a Kabuki version of the same play also soon appeared; in Kabuki it became customary to perform just a few selected acts and not the whole work). The "kana practice book" in the title refers to the coincidence that the number of ronin matches the number of kana syllables. In this play, the personal relation between Oishi and his lord is the central element; he takes possession of the dagger used by Asano during his seppuku and this becomes his keepsake, almost a fetish; in the end he will plunge the weapon into his lord's enemy. Kanedehon Chushingura also made the loyalty of the retainers a central theme and as the shogunate saw this as a desirable virtue, they allowed the Forty-Seven Loyal Retainers to become popular heroes - in 1703, the historical retainers had rather been seen as a threat to the state as they had upset the order in Edo. The virtue of loyalty was thereby promoted among commoners - samurai, by the way, did not visit Kabuki or the puppet theater, their form of theater was the Noh.

[Graves of the rank and file of the retainers in Sengakuji
- photo Ad Blankestijn]

In Kanadehon Chushingura the names of the protagonists have been changed and the story is transported several centuries back. Asano Naganori becomes Enya Hangan, Kira Yoshinaka becomes Ko no Morono and Oishi Kuranosuke Oboshi Yuranosuke. The division of the story is as follows (note the generous addition of fictional elements):

Act I: The Hachiman Shrine (Introduction in which Ko no Morono tries to seduce the wife of Enya Hangan)
Act II: The Mansion of Wakanosuke (Wakanosuke, a colleague of Enya Hangan, wants to kill Morono but is prevented by his retainer)
Act III. The Pine Corridor (The taunted Enya Hangan attacks Ko no Morono)
Act IV: Enya Hangan's Seppuku (The seppuku scene; with his dying breath Enya Hangan asks Oboshi Yuranosuke to avenge his death)
Act V: Musket Shots on the Yamazaki Highway (Kanpei, a former retainer of Enya Hangan who wants to join the vendetta, by mistake shoots a robber and finds a purse with cash)
Act VI: Kanpei's Seppuku (Kanpei mistakenly thinks in the previous scene he has killed his father-in-law and commits suicide)
Act VII: The Ichiriki Teahouse (Yuranosuke pretends to be debauched by making fun in Kyoto's licensed quarter)
Act VIII: The Bride's Journey (Konami, the betrothed of Yuranosuke's son Rikiya, travels to Yamashina)
Act IX: The Retreat at Yamashina (Yuranosuke's wife is against the marriage of her son with Konami, but relents when Konami's father Honzo commits suicide to atone for his act of restraining Enya Hangan in the past)
Act X: The House of Amakawaya Gihei (The ronin test the trustworthiness of Gihei, a Sakai merchant who will transport their weapons to Edo)
Act XI: The Attack on Morono's Mansion (The assassination of Morono, whose head is then carried to Hangan's grave)

Certain elements of this Bunraku / Kabuki play became standard to the story; others proved more extraneous. Central were acts III, IV, VII, and XI.

[The well where the Ronin washed Kira's head at Sengakuji, Tokyo
- photo Ad Blankestijn]

In the 19th c. the story of the Forty-Seven Loyal Retainers also was taken up by Kodan storytellers. Kodan evolved out of lectures on historical topics given to high-ranking nobles and samurai. Because of these origins it is usually performed sitting behind a lectern, and using wooden clappers or a fan to mark the rhythm of the recitation. In the Edo-period it became a popular form of entertainment. Kodan storytellers were mainly responsible for further developing the character of Lord Asano. He was turned into a sincere and pure youth (reason why in later films he is usually clothed in light blue), who suffers various humiliations because he refuses to give his mentor Kira a bribe. While in Kanadehon Chushingura Kira's lust for Asano's wife had been the impetus of the tragedy, the role of women became rather insignificant in the Kodan versions of the story and the theme of loyalty among men was further emphasized.   

That submissiveness became even more important in another genre which came up at the beginning of the 20th c., rokyoku or naniwabushi, a form of storytelling with shamisen accompaniment, often about sad subjects. All romantic interludes were cut and complete loyalty was stressed. This also fit the atmosphere after the Russo-Japanese war of 1905, when feudal loyalty was associated with loyalty toward the emperor. 

[Souvenir shop selling replicas of the drum used to sound the attack at Kira's mansion
- photo Ad Blankestijn]

Fiction - The Movies
This is also the period when the first film versions of Chushingura were made, often combining episodes from Kabuki and Kodan. Chushingura films were generally box office hits, they served to propagate the ideal of loyalty and self-sacrifice on a massive scale. In total about 70 film versions of the story were made in the 20th c. (mainly between 1907 and 1962), plus about 30 TV versions.

The first Chushingura film based on a Kabuki play was made in 1907, and Japan's pioneer director Makino Shozo shot his first (of many) Chushingura films in 1910, with Japan's first star actor Onoe Matsunosuke in the main role, that of the leader of the 47 Ronin, Oishi Kuranosuke. The whole movie (including the sub-stories) consisted of 130 film rolls, so it rivaled the large films of D.W. Griffiths in length. This is the oldest surviving version of the story, and the oldest surviving print of any Japanese feature film. A completely static camera just films scene by scene from a performance of Onoe's Kabuki troupe. Onoe starred in at least eight other versions of Chushingura, but these were all lost. In contrast to naniwabushi, Makino Shozo tried to attract women viewers by drawing out the parting scene between Oishi and his wife. But "male bonding" remained paramount, as can be seen in the "tender parting looks" exchanged between Asano, on his way to seppuku, and one of his retainers in many later film versions.

Some of the more important prewar film adaptations were the 1928 version by Makino Shozo, called Jitsuroku Chushingura (A true record of Chushingura), made to celebrate the 50th birthday of the director (although the negatives were destroyed by a fire, about an hour of this film has been restored from existent prints); the 1934 Nikkatsu version with Okochi Denjiro as Oishi; and the 1938 Nikkatsu version with Bando Tsumasaburo as Oishi.

[Gate of Sengakuji, Tokyo
- photo Ad Blankestijn]

Renewal in this period came from the popular novel, which had also picked up the 47 Ronin theme. The most famous of these was Ako Roshi or The Ronin from Ako by Osaragi Jiro from 1927. In line wth the liberal trend of the 1920s, Osaragi turned the loyalty of Oishi and his fellow retainers into anger at the injustice of their lord's death sentence, and interpreted the assassination of Kira as protest against a corrupt government. But also in nationalistic accounts of the story, it became common to describe Oishi's times as degenerate. And Osaragi's theme of upright men in corrupt times also appealed to rightists, who saw themselves in a similar position. Osaragi's novel, by the way, had much influence on Chushingura films from the 1950s and early 1960s. 

In 1934 another stage in the development of the 47 Ronin story was reached with the modern Kabuki play Genroku Chushingura by Mayama Seika ("Genroku" is the name of the period in which the incident took place). The author placed emphasis on historical accuracy and took for his central theme the fear of Oishi that his loyalty toward his dead lord could be construed as disloyalty toward the emperor (this theme was of course totally ahistorical, as the emperor in Kyoto did not play any role in the minds of samurai living around 1700). This was a new interpretation and one of the high points of the play is that Oishi is secretly told of the emperor's approval. Overjoyed, he is now determined to act on his decision. Heavily based on the naniwabushi version, Mayama in fact celebrated modern patriotism.

[Oishi's mansion in Banshu-Ako
- photo Ad Blankestijn]

This modern Kabuki play became the basis of the film made in 1941 and 1942 by Mizoguchi Kenji. The film shows its wartime origin in its sober and grave dignity. On top of that, Mizoguchi left out the final vendetta in the snow, as well as the tormenting scenes between Kira and Asano, which were Kodan additions. But in this way Oishi's loyalty was made into something unconditional and impersonal, simply directed toward anyone in a higher position. This is most dramatically illustrated when Oishi bows in front of the ancestral altar of Asano and is shot by an overhead camera as if bowing for some kind of god. After the assassination of Kira, he bows in the same way for the proclamation allowing him to commit seppuku. In other words, what we see here is total submission to authority - Mizoguchi has given perfect expression to Japan's wartime ideology. The military had demanded this film from Shochiku because the studio had failed to make a sufficient number of "national policy films." This internalized, ideological version of the famous story, however, flopped at the box office as Mizoguchi had left out the fighting scenes people enjoyed most. Despite the monumental visuals (which have made the film posthumously famous), I find it rather boring and certainly not one of Mizoguchi's best films.

How did the story of the 47 Loyal Retainers fare in Japan's democratic, postwar period? The large number of films on this subject made between 1952 and 1962 demonstrates that, while very few postwar Japanese would support the feudal virtue of loyalty toward a superior, Oishi's devotion to his dead lord was still considered as appealing. Many of the films were based on Osaragi Jiro's novel, and the element of criticism of a corrupt government was strong.

During the Occupation period (1945-1952) feudal subjects had been forbidden in films, so immediately after Japan was free from foreign authority, a veritable flood of such subject matter was released in cinema houses around the country. The popularity of period films remained strong until the early 1960s, when the genre moved to TV and yakuza took the place of samurai on the big screen.

[A restored corner tower of Ako Castle
- photo Ad Blankestijn]

Between 1952 and 1962 there were at least nine major productions of Chushingura films: four by the Toei studio, two by Daiei, two by Shochiku and one by Toho. As the Japanese knew this often repeated story by heart, most directors took a certain familiarity with the story-line for granted, although usually none of the famous scenes were entirely cut. In fact, the films made in this period are rather similar and also include literal remakes (sometimes by the same director and with the same group of actors).

Toei was a new studio especially set up to make period films. The company managed to gather many great period film actors under its umbrella and soon grew into the largest producer of films. It made the first film about the loyal retainers immediately after the ban on period films had been lifted, in March 1952 (Ako Castle (Akojo) by Hagiwara Ryo, with Kataoka Chiezo as both Asano and Oishi). The other Toei Chushingura movies were made by one and the same director: Matsuda Sadatsugu (1906-2003), a Toei genre director who was the son of pioneer director Makino Shozo and half-brother of the better-known director Makino Masahiro: in 1956 Ako Roshi (The Ako Retainers), based on the above mentioned "liberal" novel by Osaragi Jiro, with a screenplay by Shindo Kaneto; in 1959 Chushingura, and in 1961 a remake of Ako Roshi. Oishi was played either by Ichikawa Utaemon or Kataoka Chiezo.

In the 1956 version I especially like the scene where Ichikawa Utaemon is finally on the way to Edo for the vendetta; he hides his identity and pretends to be a certain "Tachibana Sakon." But to his consternation suddenly the real Tachibana Sakon appears in front of him (played by Kataoka Chiezo). The confrontation between the two great actors consists of a largely non-verbal "conversation," with as result that the real Tachibana Sakon clears the field to help Oishi.

[Ukiyoe depicting the assault of Asano on Kira in the Great Pine Corridor of Edo Castle]

Daiei was known for its magnificent period films as Rashomon and Ugetsu, and also the lavish color film The Gate of Hell. The Daiei Chushingura version of 1958, with Watanabe Kunio as director, shines through the large number of actresses taking part (typical for Daiei), albeit in minor roles: Kyo Machiko as a spy on behalf of Kira; Yamamoto Fujiko as Asano's wife; Kogure Michiko as the top-class prostitute (Taiyu) Ukihashi; Awashima Chikage as Oishi's wife; and Wakao Ayako as Orin, a carpenter's daughter who obtains a map of Kira's mansion for the assassins. Hasegawa Kazuo played Oishi and Ichikawa Raizo Asano. A solid classical version that however looses a bit steam after the first 30 minutes. An interesting scene is when Oishi brings Ukihashi, his new "girlfriend" home and asks his surprised wife to kindly clear out of the premises - despicable behavior that is even too much for the Taiyu Ukihashi! But Oishi wanted to demonstrate that he was totally debauched and not anymore interested in vengeance.

The 1962 Chushingura version by Inagaki Hiroshi made for Toho is usually considered as the best of these classical postwar versions. It is a lavish adaptation in two parts (Hana no Maki, Yuki no Maki), with Matsumoto Kojiro as Oishi. Sets and scenery are gorgeous. Lord Asano is presented as the incarnation of sincerity. The film pays much attention to the detailed political dealings between the very large group of characters, sometimes dropping the pace to a crawl, but ends with a riveting, climactic battle scene. Hara Setsuko played her last film role here, as the wife of Oishi. Among the all-star cast was also Mifune Toshiro, for whom a new subplot had been devised.

[Ukiyoe version by Yoshitoshi of the attack on Kira's mansion]

After 1962, only two major films on the subject of Chushingura were made in the rest of the century, simply because the period drama had moved to the new medium of television. That is where many Chushingura adaptations saw the light of day, in fact until the present times. Some major productions are the NHK drama Ako Roshi from 1964 (with Hasegawa Kazuo as Oishi); Dai-Chushingura with Mifune Toshiro by Asahi TV; the same company's 1979 version called Ako Roshi with Nakamura Kinnosuke; and the 1990 Chushingura with Beat Takeshi by TBS, to name a few.

The two feature films - the only ones remarkable in the last five and half decades - are Akojo Danzetsu (The Fall of Ako Castle), by maverick yakuza film director Fukasaku Kinji (Toei, 1978), with Nakamura Kinnosuke (Oishi), Chiba Shinichi and Watase Tsunehiko; and Shijushichinin no shikaku or Forty-Seven Assassins made in 1994 by veteran director Ichiwaka Kon. Fukasaku's film sparkles in the mob scenes, like his Battles Without Honor and Humanity film series, but for the rest his treatment of the story is remarkably conservative. More interesting is the film by Ichikawa, featuring Takakura Ken as Oishi, and based on a novel by Ikemiya Shoichiro, which provided a fresh perspective on the old story. For example, it starts in medias res, the story of Asano's seppuku is told in flashbacks; Takakura Ken's Oishi is cool and stoic, in contrast to the emotional performances by Kataoka Chiezo or Hasegawa Kazuo; he falls in love with a young woman (Miyazawa Rie) who joins him while he is lying low in Yamashina and even bears his child (no playing around with geisha or taiyu here) - therefore Oishi is torn between a new beginning or a violent finale to his life; Asano is not taunted by Kira for private reasons, but becomes the victim of an economic power struggle with the strong Uesugi clan (more convincing); Kira has defended his mansion with ninja-like traps, what leads to a riveting fight scene. Is the last major film version also the best? Contrary to other critics who are generally more negative about this film (they find that it is too far removed from the classical story), it gets my vote - together with the classical Inagaki version.
Partly based on information from Archetypes in Japanese Film by Gregory Barrett and Inventing the Way of the Samurai by Oleg Benesch, as well as Japanese Classical Theater in Films by Keiko I. Macdonald. 

December 18, 2016

Hyakunin Isshu (One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each): Poem 24 (Sugawara no Michizane)

Hyakunin Isshu, Poem 24

kono tabi wa
nusa mo toriaezu
Tamukeyama
momiji no nishiki
kami no mani mani

このたびは
幣もとりあへず
手向山
紅葉のにしき
神のまにまに

on my present journey
I couldn't bring sacred streamers
to Offering Hill
so perhaps this brocade of autumn leaves
is to the gods' liking...

Sugawara no Michizane (845-903)

[Brocade of colored leaves at Kiyomizu Temple, Kyoto 
- photo Ad Blankestijn]

A poem about the beauty of the autumn leaves at Offering Hill - a beauty typical for this place and its kami. It is a characteristic Kokinshu poem containing a witticism based on a pun between a placename (Tamukeyama) and the conceit of autumn leaves as brocade.

In the Kokinshu this poem is accompanied by a headnote which says: "Composed at Tamukeyama, when the Suzaku Retired Emperor made a trip to Nara." The Retired Emperor Suzaku was Emperor Uda (867-931; reigned 887-897); the trip in question, an elaborate excursion to Nara and Sumiyoshi, was made in 898.  

"Tabi" in the first line is a pivot word that refers both to "this time" and "at this trip," so I have translated it as "on my present journey." 

"Nusa" in line 2 refers to a wooden wand used in Shinto rituals which is decorated with many shide (zig-zagging paper streamers). They are usually white, but can also be gold, silver, or a mixture of several colors - as here where they are so to speak made of the autumn colors.  

[A nusa with white shide in the Kenkun Shrine in Kyoto
- photo Ad Blankestijn]

"Toriaezu," normally "unable to take properly," here means "unable to bring." Japanese commentators usually debate the why: could the poet not bring a proper offering because of the suddenness of Emperor Uda's excursion? This is very unlikely, considering the elaborateness of the procession. Or does Michizane mean that he could not bring a private offering as it was a public trip? 

"Tamukeyama," "Offering Hill," is not the famous Tamuke Hachiman Shrine in Nara's Todaiji, but Tamukeyama was a general name for hills where travelers made offerings to the gods for a safe journey. The poem's Tamukeyama would then perhaps be somewhere between Kyoto and Nara. 

To compare autumn leaves (koyo) to brocade (nishiki) was conventional. "Manimani" is "to the liking of."

[Kitano Tenmangu Shrine Kyoto 
- photo Ad Blankestijn]

Sugawara no Michizane (845-903) was an exceptional scholar of Chinese literature, an accomplished poet, as well as an important politician. He was born into a family of scholars, which in his time meant that they were specialists in the Chinese Classics, Dynastic Histories, etc. After passing the civil-service examination in 870, he entered the Japanese court. In 886 he was appointed governor of Sanuki Province on the island of Shikoku. Sugawara returned to Kyoto in 890 and next was promoted to a number of important posts by Emperor Uda, who used him to counterbalance the influence of the powerful Fujiwara family. By 899 he was made Minister of the Right (Udaijin), the second most important ministerial position, by Uda's son, the Emperor Daigo. But Emperor Uda had by now abdicated, and Michizane had lost his precious support. Emperor Daigo favored the Fujiwara, and in 901 Fujiwara Tokihira, Sugawara's rival, convinced the emperor that Sugawara was plotting treason. Sugawara was banished from the capital and demoted to a minor administrative post in Dazaifu on the island of Kyushu. 

[Dazaifu Tenmangu in Dazaifu, Kyushu
- photo Ad Blankestijn]

Following Sugawara's death there two years later, a series of calamities (storms, fires and violent deaths) were attributed to his vengeful spirit. To placate that spirit, Sugawara was posthumously reinstated to high rank; in addition, the Kitano Tenmangu Shrine was built in Kyoto where Michizane was worshiped as the deity Tenman Tenjin. Tenjin was originally a god of thunder related to agriculture, but since Michizane became Tenjin, this deity was transformed into the patron god of study, poetry, calligraphy and the performing arts. 

Michizane's writings include a history of Japan (written in Chinese) and two collections of Chinese poetry. There are also numerous local Tenmangu shrines throughout Japan - of which some, such as those in Osaka, Dazaifu, and Hofu are very famous - at which schoolchildren buy amulets for luck during the period of school entrance examinations in the spring. 


[Bull statue in Kitano Tenmangu, Kyoto 
- photo Ad Blankestijn]

Michizane is associated both with bulls and plum trees. Bulls because, according to legend, during Michizane's funeral procession, the bull pulling the cart bearing his remains refused to go any further than a certain spot, where later the Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine was built. Like other Shinto deities who employ animals as spirit messengers (Inari shrines have the fox, Hachiman shrines pigeons, Kasuga shrines deer, etc.), so the bull became the typical animal of the Tenmangu shrines and one often finds fine bull statues in the shrine grounds (always lying down, as Michizane's bull refused to continue on its way).

Plum trees (ume) became associated with Michizane because he was very fond of this tree, often eulogized in Chinese poetry, and wrote a famous poem from exile in which he lamented the absence of a particular tree he had loved in his garden in the capital. According to legend, that tree then flew to Dazaifu where it still stands in front of the shrine. Tenmangu shrines often have a park with plum trees. 

[Plum blossoms in Kitano Tenmangu, Kyoto 
- photo Ad Blankestijn]


[Kokinshu 420]
References: Pictures of the Heart, The Hyakunin Isshu in Word and Image by Joshua S. Mostow (University of Hawai'i Press, 1996); Traditional Japanese Poetry, An Anthology, by Steven D. Carter (Stanford University Press, 1991); Hyakunin Isshu by Inoue Muneo, etc. (Shinchosha, 1990); Genshoku Hyakunin Isshu by Suzuki Hideo, etc. (Buneido, 1997); Ogura Hyakunin Isshu at Japanese Text Initiative (University of Virginia Library Etext Center); Hyakunin Isshu wo aruku by Shimaoka Shin (Kofusha Shuppan); Hyakunin Isshu, Ocho waka kara chusei waka e by Inoue Muneo (Chikuma Shoin, 2004); Basho's Haiku (2 vols) by Toshiharu Oseko (Maruzen, 1990); The Ise Stories by Joshua S. Mostow and Royall Tyler (University of Hawai'i Press, 2010); Kokin Wakashu, The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry by Helen Craig McCullough (Stanford University Press, 1985); Kokinshu, A Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern by Laurel Rasplica Rodd and Mary Catherine Henkenius (University of Tokyo Press, 1984); Kokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1994); Shinkokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1995); Taketori Monogatari-Ise Monogatari-Yamato Monogatari-Heichu Monogatari (Shogakkan, 1994). 
Hyakunin Isshu Introduction - Poem 1 - Poem 2 - Poem 3 - Poem 4 - Poem 5 - Poem 6 - Poem 7 - Poem 8 - Poem 9 - Poem 10 - Poem 11 - Poem 12 - Poem 13 - Poem 14 - Poem 15 - Poem 16 - Poem 17 - Poem 18 - Poem 19 - Poem 20 - Poem 21 - Poem 22 - Poem 23 - Poem 24 - Poem 25 - 

December 15, 2016

Hyakunin Isshu (One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each): Poem 23 (Oe no Chisato)

Hyakunin Isshu, Poem 23

tsuki mireba
chiji ni mono koso
kanashikere
waga mi hitotsu no
aki ni wa aranedo
    
月見れば
千々に物こそ
悲しけれ
わが身ひとつの
秋にはあらねど

when I view the moon
I feel the sadness
of a thousand things
yet it is not autumn
for me alone

Oe no Chisato (fl. 889-923)

[Oe no Chisato]

When viewing the moon, the poet experiences the sad feelings brought about by autumn. 

The idea that autumn was a season of sadness (and, for example, not of joyful harvesting) was introduced by Chinese poetry and had become conventional in the early Heian-period (in the course of the 9th c.). It was often combined with feelings of loneliness. 

It is perhaps not coincidental that the present poet, Oe no Chisato, was one of the most famous poets in Chinese of his day; he also created a bridge between Chinese and Japanese poetry by writing the Kudai Waka in 894, where he composed 110 waka poems each based on a line of Chinese shi-poetry. 

Although not part of the Kudai Waka, also for the present poem a Chinese origin has been suggested: in the Yanzilou sanshou, three jueju by Bai Juyi (772-846) which were also included in the Japanese anthology Wakan Roeishu. The first of these was probably alluded to by Oe no Chisato and is as follows:

滿窗明月滿簾霜
被冷燈殘拂臥床
燕子樓中霜月夜
秋來祇為一人長

The bright moon fills my window, frost fills my curtains
My blanket is cold, the lamp's last light brushes my bed. 
In Swallow Tower, the frosty moonlit night,
Since autumn came, is for me alone drawn-out.

[Bai Juyi]

Bai Juyi wrote these poems about Panpan, a singing girl who after her patron (a minister) died, remained true to him and never married - she continued living alone in a tower called Swallow Tower on his estate. Although the poem by Oe no Chisato was in later times read as a lament by the poet himself, from this link with Bai Juyi it is clear that the speaker of the poem was intended to be a woman, the singing girl. Oe however turns the meaning of the last line on its head: Where the Chinese says that "since autumn came, the frosty moonlit night is long for me alone," Oe maintains in contrast that "it is not autumn for me alone."

Oe no Chisato was a nephew of Yukihira (poem 16) and Narihira (poem 17). He was a Confucian scholar and waka poet and flourished around 889 to 923. Ten of his waka were included in the Kokinshu.

[Kokinshu 193]
References: Pictures of the Heart, The Hyakunin Isshu in Word and Image by Joshua S. Mostow (University of Hawai'i Press, 1996); Traditional Japanese Poetry, An Anthology, by Steven D. Carter (Stanford University Press, 1991); Hyakunin Isshu by Inoue Muneo, etc. (Shinchosha, 1990); Genshoku Hyakunin Isshu by Suzuki Hideo, etc. (Buneido, 1997); Ogura Hyakunin Isshu at Japanese Text Initiative (University of Virginia Library Etext Center); Hyakunin Isshu wo aruku by Shimaoka Shin (Kofusha Shuppan); Hyakunin Isshu, Ocho waka kara chusei waka e by Inoue Muneo (Chikuma Shoin, 2004); Basho's Haiku (2 vols) by Toshiharu Oseko (Maruzen, 1990); The Ise Stories by Joshua S. Mostow and Royall Tyler (University of Hawai'i Press, 2010); Kokin Wakashu, The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry by Helen Craig McCullough (Stanford University Press, 1985); Kokinshu, A Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern by Laurel Rasplica Rodd and Mary Catherine Henkenius (University of Tokyo Press, 1984); Kokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1994); Shinkokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1995); Taketori Monogatari-Ise Monogatari-Yamato Monogatari-Heichu Monogatari (Shogakkan, 1994). 
Hyakunin Isshu Introduction - Poem 1 - Poem 2 - Poem 3 - Poem 4 - Poem 5 - Poem 6 - Poem 7 - Poem 8 - Poem 9 - Poem 10 - Poem 11 - Poem 12 - Poem 13 - Poem 14 - Poem 15 - Poem 16 - Poem 17 - Poem 18 - Poem 19 - Poem 20 - Poem 21 - Poem 22 - Poem 23 - Poem 24 - Poem 25 - 

December 7, 2016

Kanzake - the season of warm sake

Years ago when I started making promotion for sake, the main "enemy" was the wrong image of the brew caused by the piping hot sake served in all too many restaurants, not only abroad, but also in Japan. For this hot sake, the cheapest kind of regular sake was used, the one with additions of sugar and flavorings, which after imbibing may cause a headache the next day - so a beverage not really successful in winning friends for sake. In Japan, I mostly used to meet this beverage at bonenkai (year end parties) when restaurants try to keep prices as low as possible and party goers drink as much as possible to steep the past year in forgetfulness... I have heard this stuff designated as "jet fuel" and that is a very apt evaluation!

[Sake warmer (yukanki) made from Shigaraki ware. Hot water is poured into the large pot, then the tokkuri is placed in it until the sake has the right temperature. In this way, you can warm your sake at the table!]

So in order to position quality sake as something radically different from this fuel-type sake, we mainly promoted sake as a beverage that had to be drunk cold, and that was right as we were often dealing with ginjo-type sake. Serving cool is after all the right way for (most) ginjos and daiginjos, nigori sake, shiboritate, sparkling sake, unpasteurized or half-pasteurized sake, and so on. But there is also sake which is delicious when drunk warm!

These are in the first place junmai sakes (junmai-shu); and also honjozo and regular sake (yes, there is also quite drinkable regular sake (although I prefer junmai-shu), as long as you check the label and stay away from those to which sugar and flavorings have been added!). And as a general rule, sakes made with the kimoto and yamahai methods are particularly suitable for drinking warm (sometimes even the ginjo's).

[Daishichi junmai kimoto "CLASSIC" is an excellent sake to drink warm]

But an important point here is: what is warm? As you can see from the fact that I on purpose use the more neutral term "warm" instead of "hot," many sakes - especially the better junmai sakes - should be drunk lukewarm, something between 40 and 45 degrees Celsius, so a comfortable temperature that lies just above body temperature. At this temperature sake gets a heart-warming roundness and friendliness. Sakes which cold or at room temperature may have seemed a bit "difficult" or "harsh," at this temperature open up and show a most amiable character.

So the term "hot sake" is not really very good and I propose we start using the more fitting Japanese term "kanzake." "Kan" 燗 itself already means "warmed sake" or "warming up sake;" "kan wo suru" means "to warm sake" and "kanzake" is the normal term for "warmed sake."

Another point is how to warm your sake. The best way by far is bain-marie: just put the tokkuri with the sake in a container with hot water (not boiling or on the fire) and use a kitchen thermometer to check the temperature of the sake inside.

Kanzake is also the time to use your tokkuri (earthenware or porcelain sake bottle) and choko (sake cups). These are very nice for kanzake, but not very suitable for cold sake (a ginjo or daiginjo should have more space to breath and develop its aroma, so here a glass like a wine glass is best; and I like to drink my junmai-shu when cold from earthenware or glass cups that are larger than the usual choko). Collecting such tokkuri and choko from different areas of Japan (which all have their own type of earthenware) is great fun, even more so when using them for your winter kanzake!

December 5, 2016

Hyakunin Isshu (One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each): Poem 22 (Fun'ya no Yasuhide)

Hyakunin Isshu, Poem 22

fuku kara ni
aki no kusaki no
shiorureba
mube yama kaze o
arashi to iuran
    
吹くからに
秋の草木の
しをるれば
むべ山風を
あらしといふらむ

as soon as it blows
autumn grasses and shrubs
whither - this must indeed be
why the mountain wind
is called "the wrecker"

Fun'ya no Yasuhide (? - 885)


[Grasses of autumn - susuki grass
- photo Wkipedia]

This is a rather artificial poem, written at a poetry contest ("at Prince Koresada's Residence"), playing upon the fact that the kanji for "arashi" 嵐 (storm) is written by combining two other kanji, that for "mountain" written above that for "wind."

Various kanji and word games were popular in Chinese poetry of the Six Dynasties period (220-589), and became known in Japan through the authoritative anthology of Chinese literature, the Wenxuan ("Selections of Refined Literature," ca. 530, Monzen in Japanese), which was required reading for the Japanese aristocracy of the Heian period. By the time of the compiler of the Hyakunin Isshu, however, such playful poetry had completely lost favor and a greater seriousness was expected from poets, so probably on purpose in the Hyakunin Isshu version of this poem the word "arashi" is not written in kanji, but in hiragana script, and moreover, Fujiwara no Teika interpreted "arashi" as the noun of the verb "arasu," "to wreck, to ravage." In that way, a poem that originally was based on a rebus-like ideograph play, was transformed into a lament about the desolate feeling of weather-beaten autumn fields. My translation follows this second meaning.

[Fun'ya no Yasuhide]

Fun'ya no Yasuhide was counted as one of the Six Poetic Immortals, although only six of his poems have been transmitted to us. He lived around the same time as Narihira (poem 17) and legends have it that he was involved in a relationship with Ono no Komachi (poem 9) - in reality, nothing is known about his life. The preface to the Kokinshu criticizes his word games as "Yasuhide used words skillfully, but his words do not match the content. His poetry is like a merchant dressed up in elegant clothes."

[Kokinshu 249]
References: Pictures of the Heart, The Hyakunin Isshu in Word and Image by Joshua S. Mostow (University of Hawai'i Press, 1996); Traditional Japanese Poetry, An Anthology, by Steven D. Carter (Stanford University Press, 1991); Hyakunin Isshu by Inoue Muneo, etc. (Shinchosha, 1990); Genshoku Hyakunin Isshu by Suzuki Hideo, etc. (Buneido, 1997); Ogura Hyakunin Isshu at Japanese Text Initiative (University of Virginia Library Etext Center); Hyakunin Isshu wo aruku by Shimaoka Shin (Kofusha Shuppan); Hyakunin Isshu, Ocho waka kara chusei waka e by Inoue Muneo (Chikuma Shoin, 2004); Basho's Haiku (2 vols) by Toshiharu Oseko (Maruzen, 1990); The Ise Stories by Joshua S. Mostow and Royall Tyler (University of Hawai'i Press, 2010); Kokin Wakashu, The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry by Helen Craig McCullough (Stanford University Press, 1985); Kokinshu, A Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern by Laurel Rasplica Rodd and Mary Catherine Henkenius (University of Tokyo Press, 1984); Kokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1994); Shinkokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1995); Taketori Monogatari-Ise Monogatari-Yamato Monogatari-Heichu Monogatari (Shogakkan, 1994). 
Hyakunin Isshu Introduction - Poem 1 - Poem 2 - Poem 3 - Poem 4 - Poem 5 - Poem 6 - Poem 7 - Poem 8 - Poem 9 - Poem 10 - Poem 11 - Poem 12 - Poem 13 - Poem 14 - Poem 15 - Poem 16 - Poem 17 - Poem 18 - Poem 19 - Poem 20 - Poem 21 - Poem 22 - Poem 23 - Poem 24 - Poem 25 - 

October 31, 2016

Hyakunin Isshu (One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each): Poem 21 (Sosei Hoshi)

Hyakunin Isshu, Poem 21

ima komu to
ihishi bakari ni
nagatsuki no
ariake no tsuki wo
machi-idetsuru kana

今来むと
いひしばかりに
長月の
有明の月を
待ち出でつるかな

just because you said 
"I'll come right away"
I have ended up waiting
for the wan crescent of the moon
in the morning sky of the Ninth Month

The Buddhist Priest Sosei (c. 844-910)

Sosei Hoshi by Kano Tan'yu, 1648

The complaint of a woman who has waited a long night for her lover who didn't show up. 

Although the writer is a man, this poem has been written from the point of view of a woman. That is clear from the fact that in the Heian-period women almost never left their houses; it were the men who came visiting, also in the case of (secret) love affairs. As her lover has told her he will come soon, she keeps waiting for him during a long, autumnal night, hoping that he will appear, but all she finally sees is the "ariake no tsuki," the moon that it left in the sky while it is already getting light in the early morning. Ironically, this was the time that lovers usually would leave and head for home.

Such a "morning moon" only appears after the sixteenth day of the lunar month, when the moon is waning - so it is not a full moon but a crescent. "Nagatsuki" refers to the Ninth Month of the lunar calendar (mainly our August), when the nights are long and the moon is beautiful. 

The only point where interpretations may differ in this poem, is how long the woman has been waiting. Kokinshu scholars agree that the woman has been waiting one night, as in my translation above; but Teika, the compiler of the Hyakunin Isshu may have read it more narratively, in the sense that she has waited several months.

Sosei, who had the title "hoshi," Buddhist Priest (lit. "Master of the Law"), was the son of Archbishop Henjo, the author of Poem No. 12 in the Hyakunin Isshu. He is one of the Thirty-six Poetic Immortals and is well-represented in the Kokinshu and other imperial anthologies.

[Kokinshu 193]
References: Pictures of the Heart, The Hyakunin Isshu in Word and Image by Joshua S. Mostow (University of Hawai'i Press, 1996); Traditional Japanese Poetry, An Anthology, by Steven D. Carter (Stanford University Press, 1991); Hyakunin Isshu by Inoue Muneo, etc. (Shinchosha, 1990); Genshoku Hyakunin Isshu by Suzuki Hideo, etc. (Buneido, 1997); Ogura Hyakunin Isshu at Japanese Text Initiative (University of Virginia Library Etext Center); Hyakunin Isshu wo aruku by Shimaoka Shin (Kofusha Shuppan); Hyakunin Isshu, Ocho waka kara chusei waka e by Inoue Muneo (Chikuma Shoin, 2004); Basho's Haiku (2 vols) by Toshiharu Oseko (Maruzen, 1990); The Ise Stories by Joshua S. Mostow and Royall Tyler (University of Hawai'i Press, 2010); Kokin Wakashu, The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry by Helen Craig McCullough (Stanford University Press, 1985); Kokinshu, A Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern by Laurel Rasplica Rodd and Mary Catherine Henkenius (University of Tokyo Press, 1984); Kokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1994); Shinkokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1995); Taketori Monogatari-Ise Monogatari-Yamato Monogatari-Heichu Monogatari (Shogakkan, 1994). 
Hyakunin Isshu Introduction - Poem 1 - Poem 2 - Poem 3 - Poem 4 - Poem 5 - Poem 6 - Poem 7 - Poem 8 - Poem 9 - Poem 10 - Poem 11 - Poem 12 - Poem 13 - Poem 14 - Poem 15 - Poem 16 - Poem 17 - Poem 18 - Poem 19 - Poem 20 -

September 27, 2016

Hyakunin Isshu (One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each): Poem 20 (Prince Motoyoshi)

Hyakunin Isshu, Poem 20

wabinureba
ima hata onaji
Naniwa naru
mi o tsukushite mo
awamu to zo omou

わびぬれば
今はた同じ
難波なる
身をつくしても
逢はむとぞ思ふ

In dire distress, 
our reputation tossed about 
like a channel buoy at Naniwa -
as it doesn't make a difference anymore, 
I must see you again!

Prince Motoyoshi (890-943)

[Sumiyoshi Shrine, Osaka (Photo Ad Blankestijn)]

A passionate love poem that can be read in two ways: "I want to meet you, even if it costs me my life," or "I want to meet you, as it doesn't make a difference anymore - our reputation is anyway ruined!"

The poet, Prince Motoyoshi (Motoyoshi Shinno) was the eldest son of Emperor Yozei (poem 13). In the Tales of Yamato (Yamato Monogatari, mid-tenth c.) he appears as a suave and famous lover. In the Gosenshu (951) and other anthologies he has twenty poems. The present poem has an interesting head-note in the Gosenshu: "Sent to the Kyogoku Lady of the Wardrobe after their affair had come out." The lady in question was Fujiwara no Hoshi, daughter of Tokihira, and concubine in the service of Emperor Uda whom she bore three sons. But she also had an affair with Motoyoshi which became public knowledge. To have a relation with one of the wives of the Emperor was a form of sacrilege - as is shown in the Genji, where Genji makes the Emperor's wife Fujitsubo (who was also his stepmother) pregnant with a son, such relations could well break up the "unbroken line" of Imperial succession! Piquantly, one of the wives of Motoyoshi was a daughter of Emperor Uda, demonstrating how near-incestuous relations among Heian aristocrats often were when seen from a modern point of view - again, exactly as is described in the Genji. It was a small world, indeed.

This poem works with a pivot word (kakekotoba): mi o tsukushite mo means "even if it consumes my body," but also refers to a kind of channel-marker indicating the waterway for boats (miwotsukushi). And as the name "Naniwa" indicates, we are again at sea in Osaka. 

An important question is what "ima hata (= the modern mata) onaji," "now the same," refers to. One interpretation is that it refers to mi wo tsukushite mo: the poet doesn't mind whether he lives or dies, so great is his distress. A second interpretation links it to "na" in "Naniwa" (which then also has to be a pivot word): "na" is "name" in the sense of "reputation." The whole poem then should be understood as the lady worrying about further damage to her (or both their) reputation, and therefore reluctant to meet her lover again. This last interpretation is the most convincing according to Mostow as it fits in with the anecdotes about Motoyoshi and the Fujitsubo story in the Genji, and also accords with the pictures and illustrations in later ages based on this poem.

[Gosenshu 960]
References: Pictures of the Heart, The Hyakunin Isshu in Word and Image by Joshua S. Mostow (University of Hawai'i Press, 1996); Traditional Japanese Poetry, An Anthology, by Steven D. Carter (Stanford University Press, 1991); Hyakunin Isshu by Inoue Muneo, etc. (Shinchosha, 1990); Genshoku Hyakunin Isshu by Suzuki Hideo, etc. (Buneido, 1997); Ogura Hyakunin Isshu at Japanese Text Initiative (University of Virginia Library Etext Center); Hyakunin Isshu wo aruku by Shimaoka Shin (Kofusha Shuppan); Hyakunin Isshu, Ocho waka kara chusei waka e by Inoue Muneo (Chikuma Shoin, 2004); Basho's Haiku (2 vols) by Toshiharu Oseko (Maruzen, 1990); The Ise Stories by Joshua S. Mostow and Royall Tyler (University of Hawai'i Press, 2010); Kokin Wakashu, The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry by Helen Craig McCullough (Stanford University Press, 1985); Kokinshu, A Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern by Laurel Rasplica Rodd and Mary Catherine Henkenius (University of Tokyo Press, 1984); Kokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1994); Shinkokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1995); Taketori Monogatari-Ise Monogatari-Yamato Monogatari-Heichu Monogatari (Shogakkan, 1994). 
Hyakunin Isshu Introduction - Poem 1 - Poem 2 - Poem 3 - Poem 4 - Poem 5 - Poem 6 - Poem 7 - Poem 8 - Poem 9 - Poem 10 - Poem 11 - Poem 12 - Poem 13 - Poem 14 - Poem 15 - Poem 16 - Poem 17 - Poem 18 - Poem 19 - Poem 20 -

June 20, 2016

Ozu Yasujiro (Great Auteur Film Directors 4)

Ozu Yasujiro (1903-1963) has been called the "most Japanese" of Japan's film directors, but I believe such a designation can only lead to a misunderstanding of his art. After all, I can't say that Ozu is more Japanese than for example Mizoguchi Kenji, Naruse Mikio or Imamura Shohei.

The films Ozu made fall all in the category of home dramas (shoshimin eiga), which are of course Japanese in their details and sensibility, but (in his case) also universal in their meaning so that the whole world can enjoy them. And the very characteristic style Ozu forged during a lifetime of film making, is not so much "typically Japanese" as "typically Ozu" - also in Japan nobody else comes close to Ozu's style.

As in the case of other great directors, Ozu has been variously positioned both as a radical Modernist and as a conservative nationalist and even as a Zen poet (probably from the Western viewpoint that "simplicity is Zen") - but he transcends all these limiting qualifications.


What are the characteristics of Ozu's films?

1. The family as central subject ("home drama")
Ozu's forte was a detailed, sensitive portrayal of the daily lives of average people. His films fall in a genre that in Japanese is called shoshimin-eiga," "films about ordinary people" or "home drama," which includes the emergent middle class which also formed the public for these films.

Although set in a particular Japanese environment, and imbued with Japanese sentiments, these are problems human beings all over the world face in their lives: the struggle for self-definition, individual freedom, disappointed expectations, the impossibility of communication, separation and loss brought about by the inevitable passages of marriage and death.

Shoshimin-eiga was the brand of the Shochiku studio, which introduced it in the 1920s (inspired by American cinema of the 1910s and 1920s) and kept making such films after Ozu's death with director Yamada Yoji (on a very different level!). Other important shoshimin-eiga directors who were contemporaries of Ozu were for example Gosho Heinosuke, Shimazu Yasujiro, Shimizu Hiroshi and Naruse Mikio.

In their best prewar films these directors presented the family (mostly lower middle class and sometimes also blue collar) in a tense confrontation with society; after the war, this social criticism is lost and, like the whole of Japan, the families represented become more well off, rising to upper middle class.

Ironically, Ozu as Japan's iconic home drama director, never had a family himself - he never experienced college, office work or marital life.

2. Stoic acceptation of life's various stages
There is a secondary theme in Ozu's work, too, that of a "rite of passage:" life consists of several stages and we have to move on, even if that means leaving loved ones. Home drama is thus a genre about change - about the inevitability of life's changes, signified by birth, marriage and death, and of the tensions between generations, as well as the impact of modernity which threatens the stability of the home (in the Japanese case, the loss of authority of the father and consequent dissolution of the Meiji-period family system). Accepting life's changes is also a form of transcendence.

3. Distinctive "Ozu"-style
Ozu exerted total control over all aspects of every production. His films never are a haphazard presentation of Japanese customs, but through his superb cinematic technique they can be understood cross-culturally. Ozu's distinctive style was polished during his long career, and the following are the main features according to Japanese film critic Sato Tadao:
  • The low-angle shot. Ozu positioned his camera just above the floor or ground (the cameraman had to lie flat on his belly). This has been compared to the view the Japanese have when sitting on tatami mats, but is in fact lower than that - it is not a cultural matter but an idiosyncrasy of Ozu.
  • The stationary camera. Almost no crane shots or dolly shots.
  • The arrangement of characters. When two or more charachters appear in the same shot, they are often facing the same direction and assuming the same pose.
  • The avoidance of movement. Not only do Ozu's characters almost never show any aggression, their general movement is also restricted so that they almost never walk across a shot.
  • The full-face shot of the speaker. Profile shots of characters delivering a line are very rare, for when a characters speaks, Ozu normally brings the camera around so that he or she faces it almost head on. 
  • The stability of the size of camera shots. Ozu never took close-ups and never used telescopic or wide-angle lenses. 
  • Linking by means of cutting alone. Except in some early films, no dissolves, fade-ins or fade-outs.
  • Curtain shots. Ozu used to insert shots of inside or outside scenery between sequences. 
  • Tempo. Ozu matched tempo to the actual time it took characters to walk out of the room, go upstairs via a staircase, etc.
  • Choreographic acting directions. Ozu's characters are always calm and deliver their lines at a measured rate. It is as if Ozu wanted to make perfect still-life pictures on film.
To this list can be added: the elliptic story line (certain major events are elided, such as the marriage ceremony in Late Spring); Ozu's interest in the interaction of characters, not in plot, so the stories are consciously slight; the refusal with some exceptions to use non-diegetic music; and a studio-based style, Ozu usually avoids location shooting because there is too much contingency.

Finally, there is the well-known disregard for eye-line matches, but that is not typical of only Ozu's style, we also find it in other major Japanese directors of the same period, especially Naruse. This is a cultural trait, as in Japan it is considered uncomfortable to look at length into someone's eyes during a conversation.


Ozu's life and career can be divided as follows:

1. From Nonsense Comedy to Social Realism (1927-1937)
Ozu Yasujiro (1903-1963) was born in downtown Tokyo, but educated in Matsuzaka in Mie Prefecture and in Nagoya. He was a fiercely independent character, who never submitted to authority (unless they wanted him to do what he already wanted to do) and who found various ingenious ways to skip school and the military. When his family returned to Tokyo in 1923, he joined the recently founded Shochiku studios against the opposition of his father. He became assistant director and was, among others, trained in "nonsense" comedies, often not more than strung together gags. His debut was in 1927 with a period drama, but from 1928 on he became a comedy director (inspired, among others, by Hollywood's Ernst Lubitsch). The black humor satire I Was Born, But... from 1932 is considered his first masterpiece. In this period, Ozu made 37 films, of which 17 have been preserved. Except the last two, all films are silent ones.

2. The War Years and their Aftermath (1941-1948)
Because of the disruption by the war (Ozu himself had been drafted from September 1937 to July 1939, and lived again from 1943 to the end of the war in occupied Singapore), in this period Ozu only makes four films, two during the war, and two in the Occupation period. Due to censorship during the war, one of his scripts had to be discarded, and the other films, especially There Was a Father (Chichi ariki) bear the marks of wartime in an emphasis on patriarchal social order. In contrast, the two first postwar films depict the scars left by the war: war orphans in The Record of a Tenement Gentleman (Nagaya shinshiroku) and the economical plight of women whose husbands take a long time to return after the war has ended (A Hen in the Wind / Kaze no naka no mendori).

3. The Great Mature Films (1949-1962)
In this period Ozu makes 13 films, about one per year. These are the great years of the collaboration with script writer Noda Kogo, as well as numerous great actors and actresses, educated in Japan's studio system. There are no really weak films in this period. From the first film in this period, Banshun, on, Ozu's subject is the loss of traditional family values, especially the care family members used to have for each other, and which used to be more important than personal gratification.

Although Tokyo Story from 1953 is now considered as one of the best films ever made in the world, Ozu as a director was late in breaking through outside Japan. During his life, his films were not even entered in international film festivals. Only when Tokyo Story was shown in New York in 1972, almost ten years after his death, it won the hearts of viewers. Instrumental in the breakthrough of Ozu was the unflagging advocacy by Donald Richie, whose detailed study on Ozu was published in 1974, finally convincing critics that this quiet filmmaker was one of cinema's finest artists.

Ozu died on his 60th birthday. His grave at Engakuji in Kamakura bears no name - just the character mu ("nothingness").

Here are Ozu's ten best films:

1. I Was Born, But... (Umarete wa mita kedo..., 1932)
The greatest film ever made about the hierarchies imposed by company life, which clash with other hierarchies. This was Ozu's 24th film, shot from November 1931 to early April 1932. Two small boys have to learn to live with the fact that their father (Saito Tatsuo) is not a great man, but simply a company employee ("salaryman"), who has to be obsequious to his boss (Sakamoto Takeshi). The worst moment comes when the boss gives a show for the neighborhood of a home movie he shot in which the father is shown clowning to please his superior. The boys ask why their father has to behave so silly, and why they can't beat up the boss' kid when they are stronger? In the end, of course, they have to learn something of the ways and compromises of the adult world. A serious comedy, funny and devastating at the same time, that teaches us to accept life as it is. Technically, in this film also Ozu's systematic low-angle frontality begins to appear. See my detailed post about this film.

2. The Only Son (Hitori musuko, 1936)
Ozu finally changes to sound in The Only Son, an example of Japanese "neo-realism" avant-la-date. This was Ozu's 36th film, shot from April to September 1936. A mother (Iida Choko) has slaved to send her son (Himori Shinichi) to college in Tokyo. After she has not heard anything from him for a long time, she unexpectedly visits him, using up all her savings. She finds him poor, a teacher at a night school, living in eye-sore suburbia, with wife and child (the existence of both also new to her!), and wholly disillusioned. The mother's hope that he would advance in his career has not been fulfilled. But he borrows money to entertain his mother and she returns to the countryside where she still pretends to her friends to be proud of him. A moving work about the disappointments of family life, and the essential loneliness of human beings. The first film in Ozu's fully established mature style. Interesting is the use of off-screen sound: when we are in the living room of the son's house, we constantly hear the clicking of the machinery of a nearby textile factory.

3. Late Spring (Banshun, 1949)
A masterpiece on the peaceful life of a middle-class family, in which the most ordinary things happen in a moving way. This film (Ozu's 42nd, shot from May to September 1949, and the first of his long collaboration with scriptwriter Noda Kogo) that laid the groundwork for all other twelve films from Ozu's mature period. A daughter (Hara Setsuko) lives with her widowed father (Ryu Chishu). He wants her to get married and have a life of her own, she wants to stay at home and look after her father - I suspect her attitude stems more from amae (indulging herself) than from oya-koko (filial piety). In the end, the father pushes her into marriage by falsely pretending he himself is also getting married again (something the daughter considers as repulsive). After she has married, he sits alone in the now empty house, feeling sad. Interesting is that the wedding ceremony - which in a Hollywood film would have formed the grand finale - is entirely left out. We even never get to see the bridegroom! Set in a quiet residential area of Kamakura, this film which came out four years after the end of WWII, and is imbued with an iconography of "Japaneseness" (Zen gardens, Noh Drama, the tea ceremony) made audiences feel that peace indeed had come to Japan and that the worst chaos of the postwar years was over. Seasons are important in Japan, so this film literally takes place in late spring, a season of quiet before the rainy season starts with its violent rains; similarly, the film describes the daughter's quiet content of unmarried life with her father before the start of the stormier existence of a late marriage. See my detailed post about this film.

4. Early Summer (Bakushu, 1951, lit. "Wheat Harvest Season")
The 44th film, shot from June to September 1951 at the Shochiku Ofuna studio, Ozu's homebase. Chronicles three generations of the Kamakura-based Mamiya family, which is seeking a promising match for the eldest daughter, Noriko (Hara Setsuko). But Noriko has firm ideas about how and to whom she will give herself and surprises her family when she abruptly opts for a childhood friend, a poor doctor going to be posted in far-off northern Japan. Noriko fulfills her family's wishes, but also tears them (willfully?) apart by her perverse choice. For after she moves away, the extended family lacks her contribution to the household income and has to split up. The grandparents have to leave and move to the countryside of Nara - they are resigned to their own lonely fate. Although the story superficially resembles Banshun, and Hara Setsuko plays the lead in both films, this is a completely different film, with a much darker atmosphere. Noriko's brother Shoji, who was killed in the war, is something of an unseen presence. At the end of the film the grandparents view a field of wheat - the innumerable ears of wheat are like the souls of dead soldiers, waiting to transmigrate to new life. Read my detailed post about this film.

5. Tokyo Story (Tokyo monogatari, 1953)
The 46th film, shot from July to October 1953. An elderly couple (Ryu Chishu, Higashiyama Chieko) from Onomichi in western Japan visits their preoccupied children in Tokyo (the son has a busy medical clinic, the daughter a hairdressing salon), but they are clearly a burden and packed off to Atami. Like the mother in The Only Son, the parents are not satisfied with their children's life in Tokyo. But there is no dramatic tension, as the parents' attitude is one of resignation and tolerance. Back home, the mother dies, and now it is the turn of the children to visit the town where they were born. The only child genuinely affectionate is the widowed daughter-in-law (Hara Setsuko); she is also the only one who understands the feelings of the widowed father. She offers to stay with him now that he is alone, but he refuses - he accepts life as it comes. See my detailed post about this film.

6. Equinox Flower (Higanbana, 1958)
Equinox Flower is Ozu's 49th film (shot from May to August 1958) and his first color film. A daughter (Arima Taeko) wants to make her own choice of marriage partner; the despotic father (Saburi Shin) opposes, but the mother sympathizes and the father is finally won over. The film shows how later in his career Ozu became increasingly sympathetic with the younger generation. Also, with its satire, pure comedy and deep irony, this is a much lighter work than Ozu's previous films, which tended to become a bit darker. The film contains one of the best later roles by Tanaka Kinuyo, while also typical Japanese kimono beauty Yamamoto Fujiko makes an appearance. By the way, Ozu choose the more subdued Agfa color film (in contrast to the popular Eastman color film) - probably, he also liked the red color of Agfa. 

7. Floating Weeds (Ukikusa, 1959)
The 51st film, shot from September to November 1959, and made for the Daiei studio, with actors from Daiei. A remake of Ozu's 1934 silent film A Story of Floating Weeds, a film about the head of a traveling theater group who in a small village meets a former mistress and the - now grown-up - son who was the result of the casual affair of long ago. The title refers to ukikusa or duckweed, and thus metaphorically to the aimlessness of life's journey. The traveling entertainers are on the one hand homeless but on the other hand at home everywhere, as they move from theater to theater across the country. What they play is taishu kabuki, a kind of third-rate kabuki that is specific to modern Japan, an assemblage of song spectacle and samurai melodrama, along with comedy and dance routines, combined into a vaudeville-like sequence of acts. It was performed in rural theaters and small variety halls in urban entertainment districts. Taishu kabuki was especially popular in the 1930s when the original film was shot, but when Ozu made the present film it was disappearing, so the film is doubly nostalgic. This is also a story about the disintegration of parental authority, as the son refuses to accept the "floating weed" traveling actor as his father - especially when the father forbids the son to have a member of his troupe as his girlfriend and even slaps him. With Nakamura Ganjiro and Kyo Machiko as the theatrical couple, Sugimura Haruko as the former mistress, and Wakao Ayako as the girlfriend. Set in a port town in Wakayama instead the mountain location of the older version. Beautifully photographed by Daiei cameraman Miyagawa Kazuo. 

8. Late Autumn (Akibiyori, 1960)
Ozu's 52nd film, shot from July to November 1960. Made again in the Ofuna studio, with an uptown Tokyo setting. Shows a mother-daughter instead of a father-daughter relationship as in Late Spring, but the story is similar. Three middle-aged men try to help the widow of a late friend to marry off her daughter. The daughter is less than happy at the proposals, mainly because of her reluctance to leave her mother alone. Hara Setsuko now plays the mother, Tsukasa Yoko the daughter (both borrowed from Toho by Shochiku). "Akibiyori" literally means "a clear autumn day," in Japan more an "Indian summer" than the dark and stormy impression that the term "late autumn" makes on my Northwest European sensibility. This film is a variation on the story of Late Spring, but the distinctive feature is the importance of the characters that appear around the central figures of mother and daughter (company directors, university teachers, and their families). The record of their friendship is interwoven with the plot of their late friend's daughter's marriage. This is a very stylish color film, with as main tones white and blue. See my detailed review of this film.

9. The End of Summer (Kohayagawa-ke no aki, 1961)
Ozu's 53rd film, shot from June to September 1961. As compensation for "borrowing" two Toho stars in his previous film, Ozu made this film for Toho affiliate Takarazuka Eiga. Nakamura Ganjiro delightfully plays the broad-minded patriarch of the Kohayagawa family, which runs a sake brewery in Kyoto's Fushimi ward. His family shockingly discovers that at his advanced age he is visiting a mistress from his youth. They become concerned about his health and money spending. Interwoven with this is a story about the daughter's marriage. Ozu makes the most of the delicious role played by Nakamura Ganjiro. Hara Setsuko, Aratama Michiyo and Tsukasa Yoko play his daughter-in-law and daughters. The ending of the film is rather dark: the patriarch has died and while smoke rises from the chimney of the crematory, ravens fly in the sky and a farmer washes radishes in the river; the daughters sit on the dyke and talk about transience without emotion. Title lit. "The Autumn of the Kohayagawa Family." 

10. An Autumn Afternoon (Sanma no aji, 1962)
The 54th and last film by Ozu Yasujiro, shot from August to November 1962, and again set in uptown Tokyo. A widower (Ryu Chishu) arranges the marriage of his daughter (Iwashita Shima) and is left with the realization that he is growing old. The greatest performance of Ryu Chishu's career, bringing out the loneliness of old age. The marriage story is again mixed with the friendship of some middle-aged men as in Late Autumn. But new elements are also introduced, such as the married son's contemporary life in a modern flat, and the former middle-school teacher's misery. The father also visits a cheap bar where the proprietress reminds him of his late wife. Note that the daughter is unable to marry the man of her choice, but goes ahead with a marriage proposal brought forward by her boss. This is for financial reasons, because she has to support the brother who lives in an apartment. It can be seen as a final statement about the failure of the father (and brother) to fulfill their responsibilities towards the family. A film with a rather bitter taste. Luminous color photography by Atsuta Yuharu. See my detailed review of this film.

About Ozu: Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema by David Bordwell (Princeton UP); Ozu: His Life and Films by Donald Richie (California UP); Currents in Japanese Cinema by Sato Tadao (Kodansha).
References: The Rough Guide to Film (Penguin Group, 2007); Have You Seen...? by David Thomson (Penguin Books, 2008). IMDB, The Criterion Collection, Slant Magazine, Senses of Cinema, Bright Lights Film Journal. Photos linked from Wikipedia. This series covers two blogs, Japan Navigator for Japanese directors and Splendid Labyrinths for non-Japanese directors.
1. Jean Renoir 2. Kenji Mizoguchi 3. Luis Buñuel 4. Yasujiro Ozu 5. Max Ophüls 6. Akira Kurosawa 7. Luchino Visconti 8. Mikio Naruse 9. Michelangelo Antonioni 10. Orson Welles (to be continued)
See also my posts A History of Japanese Film by Year:
1896-1909 - First Stirrings
1910-1919 - Development
1920-1929 - Art Films and Nihilistic Heroes
1930-1939 - Social Realism and Shoshimin-Eiga
1940-1949 - Censorship during War and Occupation
1950-1954 - Golden Age of the Classical Studio System
1955-1959 - Taiyozoku and other Youth Films
1960-1964 - The New Wave
1965-1969 - Independent Productions
1970-1974 - Sex and Violence
1975-1979 - Decline and Stagnation
1980-1989 - Disintegration of the Studio System
1990-1994 - The Rise of Indies
1995-1999 - Revival
2000-2004 - Postmodern Peak
2005-2009 - Cinematic Bubble
2010-2014 - Risk Avoidance