The Creation of Japan, Kojiki

The Kojiki, which translates to “Records of Ancient Matters”, contains Japan’s native creation myths and other mythology. Like all mythology, it was considered both factually true and Truth through most of history. This translation comes from Basil Hall Chamberlain and dates to 1932. This excerpt includes the introduction of the first volume and Japan’s creation story. The story about the creation of Japan’s deities comes from a 1929 translation by Yaichiro Isobe. I include these two different translations to give you an idea of how these ancient texts can feel different depending on who is translating.

Hereupon all the ‘heavenly Deities commanded the two Deities His Augustness the Male-Who-Invites and her Augustness the Female-Who-Invites, ordering them to “make, consolidate, and give birth to this drifting land.” Granting to them a heavenly jewelled spear, they deigned to charge them. So the two Deities, standing upon the Floating Bridge of Heaven, pushed down the jewelled spear and stirred it, whereupon, when they had stirred the brine till it went curdle-curdle, and drew the spear up, the brine that dripped down from the end of the spear was piled up and became an island. This is the island of Onogoro.

Birth of the Eight Great Islands

The 8 islands of ancient Japan

The 8 islands of ancient Japan

Hereupon the two Deities took counsel, saying: “The children to whom we have now given birth are not good. It will be best to announce this in the august place of the Heavenly Deities.” They ascended forthwith to Heaven and inquired of Their Augustnesses the Heavenly Deities. Then the Heavenly Deities commanded and found out by grand divination, and ordered them, saying: “They were not good because the woman spoke first. Descend back again and amend you words.” So thereupon descending back, they again when round the heavenly august pillar as before. Thereupon his Augustness the Male-Who-Invites spoke first: ” Ah! What a fair and lovely maiden!” Afterward; his younger sister Her Augustness the Female-Who-Invites spoke: “Ah! what a fair ad lovely youth!” In such way did they give birth to a child the Island of Ahaji, Honosawake. Next they gave birth to the Island of Futa-na in Iyo. This island has one body and four faces, and each face as a name. So the Land of Iyo is called Lovely Princess, the Land of Sanuki is called Prince Good Boiled Rice; the Land of Aha is called Princess of Great Food; the Land of Tosa is called Brave Good Youth. Next they gave birth to the Islands of Mitsugo near Oki, another nae for which is Heavenly Great Heart Youth. Next they gave birth to the island of Tsukushi. This island likewise has one body and four faces, and each face has a name. So the Land of Tsukushi is called White Sun Youth; the Land of Toyo is called Luxuriant Sun Youth; the Land of Hi is called Brave Sun Confronting Luxuriant Wonderous Lord Youth; the Land of Kumaso is called Brave Sun Youth.

Next they gave birth to the island of Iki, another name for which is Heaven’s One Pillar. Next they gave birth to the Island of Tsu, another name for which is Heavenly Hand net Good Princess. Next they gave birth to the Island of Sado. Next they gave birth to Great Yamato the Luxuriant Island of the Dragon Fly, another name for which is Heavenly August Sky Luxuriant Dragon fly Lord Youth. The name of Land of the Eight Great Islands therefore originated in these eight islands having been born first. After that, when they had returned, they gave birth to the Island of Ko in Kibi, another name for which is Brave Sun Direction Youth. Next they gave birth to the Island of Adzuki another name for which is Ohonudehime. Next they gave birth to he Island of Oho, another name for which is Tamaru-wake. Next they gave birth to he Island of Hime, another name for which is Heaven’s One Root. Next they gave birth to he Island of Chika, another name for which is Heavenly Great Male.  Next they gave birth to he Island of Futago, another name for which is Heaven’s Two Houses.

The Birth of the Deities

Izanagi and Izanami, Amaterasu's parents.

Izanagi and Izanami, Amaterasu’s parents.

Having, thus, made a country from what had formerly been no more than a mere floating mass, the two Deities, Izanagi and Izanami, about begetting those deities destined to preside over the land, sea, mountains, rivers, trees, and herbs. Their first-born proved to be the sea-god, Owatatsumi-no-Kami. Next they gave birth to the patron gods of harbors, the male deity Kamihaya-akitsu-hiko having control of the land and the goddess Haya-akitsu-hime having control of the sea. These two latter deities subsequently gave birth to eight other gods.

Next Izanagi and Izanami gave birth to the wind-deity, Kami-Shinatsuhiko-no-Mikoto. At the moment of his birth, his breath was so potent that the clouds and mists, which had hung over the earth from the beginning of time, were immediately dispersed. In consequence, every corner of the world was filled with brightness. Kukunochi-no-Kami, the deity of trees, was the next to be born, followed by Oyamatsumi-no-Kami, the deity of mountains, and Kayanuhime-no-Kami, the goddess of the plains. . . .

The process of procreation had, so far, gone on happily, but at the birth of Kagutsuchi-no-Kami, the deity of fire, an unseen misfortune befell the divine mother, Izanami. During the course of her confinement, the goddess was so severely burned by the flaming child that she swooned away. Her divine consort, deeply alarmed, did all in his power to resuscitate her, but although he succeeded in restoring her to consciousness, her appetite had completely gone. Izanagi, thereupon and with the utmost loving care, prepared for her delectation various tasty dishes, but all to no avail, because whatever she swallowed was almost immediately rejected. It was in this wise that occurred the greatest miracle of all. From her mouth sprang Kanayama-biko and Kanayama-hime, respectively the god and goddess of metals, whilst from other parts of her body issued forth Haniyasu-hiko and Haniyasu-hime, respectively the god and goddess of earth. Before making her “divine retirement,” which marks the end of her earthly career, in a manner almost unspeakably miraculous she gave birth to her last-born, the goddess Mizuhame-no-Mikoto. Her demise marks the intrusion of death into the world. Similarly the corruption of her body and the grief occasioned by her death were each the first of their kind.

By the death of his faithful spouse Izanagi was now quite alone in the world. In conjunction with her, and in accordance with the instructions of the Heavenly Gods, he had created and consolidated the Island Empire of Japan. In the fulfillment of their divine mission, he and his heavenly spouse had lived an ideal life of mutual love and cooperation. It is only natural, therefore, that her death should have dealt him a truly mortal blow.

He threw himself upon her prostrate form, crying: “Oh, my dearest wife, why art thou gone, to leave me thus alone? How could I ever exchange thee for even one child? Come back for the sake of the world, in which there still remains so much for both us twain to do.” In a fit of uncontrollable grief, he stood sobbing at the head of the bier. His hot tears fell like hailstones, and lo! out of the tear-drops was born a beauteous babe, the goddess Nakisawame-no-Mikoto. In deep astonishment he stayed his tears, a gazed in wonder at the new-born child, but soon his tears returned only to fall faster than before. It was thus that a sudden change came over his state of mind. With bitter wrath, his eyes fell upon the infant god of fire, whose birth had proved so fatal to his mother. He drew his sword, Totsuka-no-tsurugi, and crying in his wrath, “Thou hateful matricide,” decapitated his fiery offspring. Up shot a crimson spout of blood. Out of the sword and blood together arose eight strong and gallant deities. “What! more children?” cried Izanagi, much astounded at their sudden appearance, but the very next moment, what should he see but eight more deities born from the lifeless body of the infant firegod! They came out from the various parts of the body,–head, breast, stomach, hands, feet, and navel, and, to add to his astonishment, all of them were glaring fiercely at him. Altogether stupefied he surveyed the new arrivals one after another.

Meanwhile Izanami, for whom her divine husband pined so bitterly, had quitted this world for good and all and gone to the Land of Hades.

These creation stories, though strange to modern readers, speak of several truths. First, the story speaks with affection about the Japanese homeland. Much of Japanese history is characterized by a special affinity toward the land. Several times throughout Japanese history there were movements to restore the forests and other habitats. When everything has a spirit or god behind it, people tend to hold a respectful, reverent view of the environment and how it supports their lives. This can also be seen in Native American cultures. This myth and those like it suggest how we should retain our respect for the world around us and its resources. To do otherwise disrespects the divine and jeopardizes our ability to live.

The story about the gods’ births sets the stage for several reoccurring themes in Japanese literature and culture. Harmony is emphasized. Japanese culture places the quest for harmony between people and between people and nature in the center. Their honorific system grew out of this. The story shows how the decay of harmony and the reality of sorrow can lead to unintended consequences. In his grief, Izanagi kills his son, creating more sons and daughters in the process–much to his surprise. The story lays out a thread found throughout Japanese literature. The blissful, harmonious life Izanagi and Izanami shared couldn’t last. Izanami’s tragic death introduces sorrow to what was a happy story. Japanese literature enjoys balancing happiness with sorrow. Tragedy completes the story. Without sorrow, happiness cannot be understood. Few stories end “happily ever after” but this reflects a clear-eyed view of reality. Buddhism carries a similar thread. Buddhism stories focus on how suffering permeates our experiences. This overlap helped Shintoism (which is what these creation stories originate from) and Buddhism mingle. Whenever you read Japanese literature, you will see this interweaving of religions. 

When you read some of these old translations, archaic Japanese is either depicted in Old English as you will see here or in Latin. Chamberlain’s excerpt contained a few sections of Latin that I translated for you. During the time these stories were written, the Imperial Court used a different dialect of Japanese than the rest of the country. This dialect fell out of style rather quickly but reappeared in literature. Imperial characters and gods spoke it to emphasize their separateness. The use of the language is similar to the Western use of Latin after the fall of Rome. Latin become the language of the Catholic Church and of educated noble elites. It was used to write court and religious documents. This similarity prompted some early translators to use Latin for Imperial Court Japanese. Unlike Latin, which still appears in academia and the Catholic Church, Imperial Court Japanese disappeared. A few remnants appear in Japanese language, but it lacks the cohesion that endures in Latin. You can still find vestiges of it in the speaking style in joseigo, the speaking style of Japan’s Lolita subculture, and with the Japanese Imperial family.

References

Chamberlain, B. (1939) Translation of Kojiki. Kobe: J.L. Thompson & Co.

Yaichiro, I. (1929) The Story of Ancient Japan or Tales from the Kojiki.  San Kaku Sha.

The Three Measures: Contrasting Disney Princess Body Types with Anime Girls

Anime girls get sharp criticism for being unrealistic. Few women can naturally achieve the enormous breasts and narrow waists many anime girls sport. Breasts are fat deposits (sexy thought eh?) so big boobs naturally come with bigger ladies. Silicon and flukes of nature (blessed or cursed depends on perspective) make for exceptions to this rule. But anime isn’t the only medium that has unrealistic and damaging portrayals of how girls should look. Ever check out the bust, waist, and hip measures of a Disney Princess?

jasmine-magi

Let’s look at Jasmine from Aladdin and  Morgiana from Magi: The Labyrinth of Magic. Notice the tiny feet and ankles of Jasmine compared to Morgiana’s. I didn’t know Arab culture practiced foot binding, did you? Her legs have to be tiny under those billowing pants. Jasmine also lacks a waist compared to Morgiana.  Disney princesses are infamous for their Barbie proportions. Morgiana, on the other hand, has a more natural waist size. Although, it is not completely natural.  Jasmine’s bust size doesn’t match her waist. Someone that thin wouldn’t have much in the way of breasts. Morgiana’s bust better matches her waist size. The exaggerated hour glass is common in anime girl design, but it isn’t as extreme as Disney.

Let’s look at a more extreme pair.

leafa-jessica

Okay, Leafa from Sword Art Online isn’t that extreme as anime goes. She is busty, but she doesn’t go into the upper limits. I am trying to keep the design comparisons limited to main-stream characters. Jessica Rabbit from Who Framed Roger Rabbit is an unusual design for Disney. Disney released the movie through a division to distance itself from the film because of the extreme content of the film. Jessica Rabbit has the same proportions as Jasmine. Again, Disney studios must have a foot binding fetish. Jessica’s feet are tiny. Disney also must have something against women having rib cages. Leafa has probably a larger cup size (or two) compared to Jessica, but Jessica’s bust looks larger against her stick waist. I would guess Jessica’s cup size is around a C in American measurements. Her lack of a rib cage makes this a tough call. Leafa’s is a D-cup at least. Jessica’s legs are twice as long as her upper torso. Leafa has more natural leg proportions. The two character’s sex appeal aim at different audiences. Jessica has something of a prostitute’s glamour to her. Leafa has the whole girl-next-door vibe.  The design fits well with what each character does in their respective stories.

I can continue with some other comparisons, but I think you get the idea. Disney females share the same  body design: one similar to Barbie: unnaturally thin waist, tiny feet, abnormally long legs, large breasts. Anime girls tend to have more naturalistic proportions. This isn’t to say that their waists, busts, and other measurements are realistic. They are not. Anime is notorious for an obsession with large breasts, after all. But they are closer to reality than Disney’s designs.

So Why Does Body Type Matter?

We know this is fantasy so why does body proportion matter?  Well, first it is interesting to see how anime and Disney design has parted. Anime was inspired so heavily by early Disney animation that it could be considered a branch of the Disney style. In the early days of Disney, female characters looked more natural. Snow White has realistic proportions. However, in the early-1990s Disney’s style turn a turn with Jasmine becoming a template for non-white girls. Over time, Disney picked up many of its designs from anime even as anime moved toward a more natural female body type.

snow-whiteThese changes in anime and Disney affect our ideas of beauty.  Beauty is a reinforcing loop. Disney designs started because society found women with small waists and large busts attractive. The designs then reinforced these ideals and made them ever more extreme. Certainly, guys are to blame for this. Men are programmed to seek out the best body types for having children. That means we like big breasts (well, some of us. there is a large group of guys out there that prefer small ones), small waists, and large hips. Big boobs suggest better fat stores for winter. Small waists exaggerate both breast and hip size. And large hips suggest both fat stores for famine and a better pelvis for carrying and birthing children. These assessments are unconscious. It’s not like guys today look at a lady and think, “now she can last through a lean winter!” The norm of small waist and large boobs extends into photographs of models and celebrities. A few erasure swipes in Photoshop shaves off a few inches from the waist. A quick cleavage shadow makes a bust look bigger. All together, this creates an environment where girls feel pressured to appear a certain way (guys feel similar pressures). Many ladies I’ve spoken with have expressed this as an unconscious pressure and a nagging feeling of inadequacy. Disney princesses introduce this feeling during childhood. Advertising solidifies this to sell products that purportedly fix the problem.

I am by no means blaming women with the next statement: if women ostracized men with big breast attraction, the emphasis will decrease. Likewise, if men who favor small-busted women (or women with smaller hips) would speak out, the ideals would change. I am merely stating that both genders have influence over the way we see the body. Yes, it is wrong to view men and women in this way, but it is a part of being human. Railing against this hard-wired tendency does little good. Instead we should focus on making this mechanism healthier. Ideals are formed by consensus. Luckily, the current consensus is changing. There are movements in advertising and media toward more natural female body types. However, there is a backlash against women who are naturally thin and match the current ideals. This backlash, though expected, doesn’t help the situation. It perpetuates continued body-image problems, just in the opposite direction.

The point is, popular culture has some roots in biology and in expectations placed on people by society. Anime girl design and Disney princess design are a result of this and reinforces these ideals.

Male body-image feels similar pressures. I decided to focus on women because it is the largest source of controversy. Men are not as objectified as women in American and Japanese society. Although, this is changing.

Now I have to ask, what would you like your children to watch? What ideals do you want them to have? Disney princesses play passive roles. They mostly wait for the man to save the day. Even the more active ones like Jasmine end up relying in the guy. Granted, anime has the same problem, but at least anime has many stories like Moribito where the female lead characters do not need to rely on men. Despite needing rescued, Rukia from Bleach is also a capable fighter in her own right.

Anime’s designs are better than Disney’s when it comes to body image. Outside of the ridiculous cup sizes (which do have symbolism associated with them), anime has body types that are closer to reality. This alone is important to consider.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy Disney’s animation. Their character designs need work, particularly their female designs. Disney has good moral messages in its movies. However, anime has surpassed Disney in design, characterization, and other areas. Anime character design more appealing than Disney. Disney characters often look like aliens.

The tragedy of Disney female design is the waist. Simply making the waist larger would do much to improve the naturalism. Oh, and don’t forget the foot binding. The feet are too tiny!

The success of movies like Frozen is helping American studios move closer to naturalism. We will never see completely naturalist bodies in either American or Japanese animation. Animation is, after all, about fantasy. But designs with natural proportions will go a long way toward improving female body images and shifting male ideas of female beauty.

The Battle of the Ape and the Crab

Japanese_Fairy_Book_-_Ozaki_-_P203If a man thinks only of his own profit, and tries to benefit himself at the expense of others, he will incur the hatred of Heaven. Men should lay up in their hearts the story of the Battle of the Ape and
Crab, and teach it, as a profitable lesson, to their children.

Once upon a time there was a crab who lived in a marsh in a certain part of the country. It fell out one day that, the crab having picked up a rice cake, an ape, who had got a nasty hard persimmon-seed, came up, and begged the crab to make an exchange with him. The crab, who was a simple-minded creature, agreed to this proposal; and they each went their way, the ape chuckling to himself at the good bargain which he had made.

When the crab got home, he planted the persimmon-seed in his garden, and, as time slipped by, it sprouted, and by degrees grew to be a big tree. The crab watched the growth of his tree with great delight; but when the fruit ripened, and he was going to pluck it, the ape came in, and offered to gather it for him. The crab consenting, the ape climbed up into the tree, and began eating all the ripe fruit himself, while he only threw down the sour persimmons to the crab, inviting him, at the same time, to eat heartily. The crab, however, was not pleased at  this arrangement, and thought that it was his turn to play a trick upon the ape; so he called out to him to come down head foremost. The ape did as he was bid; and as he crawled down, head foremost, the ripe fruit all came tumbling out of his pockets, and the crab, having picked up the persimmons, ran off and hid himself in a hole. The ape, seeing this, lay in ambush, and as soon as the crab crept out of his hiding-place gave him a sound drubbing, and went home. Just at this time a friendly egg and a bee, who were the apprentices of a certain rice-mortar, happened to pass that way, and, seeing the crab’s piteous condition, tied up his wounds, and, having escorted him home, began to lay plans to be revenged upon the cruel ape.

monkeyandcrab1Having agreed upon a scheme, they all went to the ape’s house, in his absence; and each one having undertaken to play a certain part, they waited in secret for their enemy to come home. The ape, little
dreaming of the mischief that was brewing, returned home, and, having a fancy to drink a cup of tea, began lighting the fire in the hearth, when, all of a sudden, the egg, which was hidden in the ashes, burst with. the heat, and bespattered the frightened ape’s face, so that he fled, howling with pain, and crying, “Oh! what an unlucky beast I am!”

Maddened with the heat of the burst egg, he tried to go to the back of the house, when the bee darted out of a cupboard, and a piece of seaweed, who had joined the party, coming up at the same time, the ape was surrounded by enemies. In despair, he seized the clothes-rack, and fought valiantly for awhile; but he was no match for so many, and was obliged to run away, with the others in hot pursuit after him. Just as he was making his escape by a back door, however, the piece of seaweed tripped him up, and the rice-mortar, closing with him from behind, made an end of him.

So the crab, having punished his enemy, went home in triumph, and lived ever after on terms of brotherly love with the seaweed and the mortar. Was there ever such a fine piece of fun!

References

Freeman-Mitford, A.B., Tales of Old Japan, ,1871.

Memory Hunted Now Available

For those who read my light novel series, “The Hunted Trilogy,” I have finished the final installment. It is now available in Kindle and in paperback.

“The road to Belafonte shortens.

Kit, Timothy, and Yuzu follow Daeric deep into the trackless forest. They quickly learn not even this remote part of the world is out of the Vatican’s reach.

Caught between soldiers of the Vatican and a band of men determined to get revenge on the Church, Kit must face the end of her journey and the price memory demands.”

Kenshin live action movie poster

Musings V – Adaptation in Japanese (Pop) Culture

One among many orientalist[i] stereotypes of Asians is that they are masters of imitation (or adaptation) but lack original creativity (or invention); an assumption which looks ridiculous when one spends just a little time studying any given Asian culture, I would say. Rather, I spot the tendency to imitate (instead of inventing) in modern popular culture (of any country). And I ask myself: Is the idea behind this that nothing is so easily, quickly and cheaply made and so sure to sell as something the audience already knows and enjoys? So, why create something new when you can just adapt something known?

Of cause, in practice, it‘s not so simple. According to the Cambridge Dictionary Online, an ‚’adaption‘ is either ‘the process of changing to suit different conditions’ or ‘a film, book, play, etc. that has been made from another film, book, play, etc‘.[ii] In other words, ‘adaptation’ signifies either a general process of transformation, or the specific result of such a process in the area of modern media. I will consider the first for a bit before going into the detailed consideration of some examples of the second.

The Long History of Adaptation

Japan has been ‘adapting’ cultural practice and information for centuries, most notably perhaps Buddhism, which reached the archipelago via China and Korea and became an integral part of Japanese spiritual life, branching out into various indigenous schools. The form of Buddhism Japan is most known for in the west, Zen, originated in China but was, in common opinion, completed in Japan. Subsequently it has strongly influenced the ‘way’-based arts from budō (warrior arts: karate, jūdō, kendo, etc.) to shodō (calligraphy) to sadō (the tea ceremony).

Along with Buddhism, writing in Chinese characters came to Japan, and they made possible an influx of Chinese ideas from poetry and philosophy to popular culture. Similarly, from the first encounters in the sixteenth century Western technology and knowledge began trickling into Japanese culture, until the Meiji Restauration 1868 started a metaphorical torrent of ‘Westernization’. What’s interesting about these broad historical processes is that even if they were, for a long part, attempts to replicate the ‘foreign’ concept as closely as possible, sooner or later a hybrid form developed as the result of ‘changing to suit different [i.e. Japanese] conditions’. In writing, the Japanese developed the two kana syllabaries to suit the flexion of their language. In poetry and philosophy, Japanese styles and concepts rivalled with Chinese ones or were synthesized with them. Western technology was and is applied to Japanese issues, from firing Western guns at rebelling samurai in the Seinan War (or Satsuma Rebellion) 1877, to the construction of the multifunctional Western-style bidet toilet, with in-built Otohime, in our day.

Jiraiya Monogatari vol 6

A page from the yomihon novel Jiraiya Gouketsu Monogatari.

To my mind, this far-reaching adaptation is not a negation of original, creative and inventive thought, but the proof of it. I will try to demonstrate this by looking at pop culture, since that is, as you might have noticed, my field of interest.

 

Jiraiya, the Toad Ninja

A long time ago in Song-era China, there was a thief known as 自来也 , because every time he broke into someone’s

Jiraiya kabuki Danjuurou

Woodblock print of the kabuki adaptation of the same scene.

house, he left this graffito on the wall, which basically said ‘I was here‘. The Japanese reading, incidentally, is ‘Jiraiya‘. His story was first told in Japan in a popular novel by Edo-period writer Kantei Onitaka in 1806 and served as a basis for the fantastic story of ‘another’ Jiraiya, now written ‘児雷也‘ (Young Thunder). In the Jiraiya Gōketsu Monogatari, The Tale of Gallant Jiraiya, he is the son of a samurai family fallen to intrigue, who learns toad magic from a hermit to fight his foes, a snake-magic using villian named Orochimaru among them, aided by snail-magic-wielding princess Tsunade. The novel was illustrated by well-known woodblock artist Kunisada, with images so iconic they informed the design of the kabuki stage adaptation of the work.[iii] This performance, in turn, provided the basis for colour woodblock prints of the actors in these roles, comparable to a modern movie poster.

 

Naruto Jiraiya toad magic

Latest incarnation: ‘Pervy Sage’ Jiraiya from Naruto

In other words, the story and its title character were adapted from Chinese legend to novel to illustrated literature (a potential manga precursor?) to kabuki theatre, to popular art. Characters based on Jiraiya the toad-magician-ninja have come up in Japanese pop culture time and again, to the present day – most well known is probably his ‘pervy sage’ incarnation in the Naruto franchise.

Modern ‘Media Mix’-Society

Speaking of franchises. A great number of today’s anime are themselves adaptations of manga or light novels, and they in turn inspire games, movies, and even more novels or manga – from fanfiction/dōjinshi to fully commercialized spin-off series (One Piece’s Chopperman and Naruto’s Rock Lee, both comedy manga, come to mind). The simultaneous advertising of different incarnations of the same characters and plot has been called ‘Media Mix’ – it is very noticeable in the well-known Weekly Shōnen Jump magazine, for example, where movies, anime and other products related to the manga series are advertised between chapters. There are a great many examples, both successes and failures, of a story changing format over the years, one of which I will look at later.

Alternatively, stories are remade in the same or a different form, as we know from western comic books and movies. A special example of this dynamic is the

Poster Kitaro live action movie (2007)

Poster for the Kitaro live action movie (2007)

children’s anime GeGeGe no Kitarō, based on a 1960s monster manga by legend(ary) writer Mizuki Shigeru, which has seen a new incarnation, with the same characters and similar plots, in almost every decade. The title sequence alone shows how the series was updated time and again, from the uncanny old voice and black- and white animation of the first series to the electric sound of the 80s, to the ‘sexy teenage idol’ makeover in the 2007 live action movie.[iv] Kitarō in the last version, portrayed by half-Japanese actor Wentz Eiji, looks quite different to his animation precursors, but his silver hair is the call-back to the character’s very first manga appearances – which makes it hard to decide, of cause, which is the ‘original’ text being adapted. By the way, with all the intertextuality, genre conventions, tropes, audience pandering and suchlike going on, you’d have a hard time finding an ‘original’ to many a popular anime anyways…

 

The Live Action Dilemma

Manga/Anime-to-movie adaptation is a big topic, of cause. Live-action movies have the potential to leave a really big impact – they can be amazing and epic, such as the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings films (that is not to say these are flawless). A good adaptation captures the spirit of the source material while giving it a new turn in a new medium. Ideally, it can both be appreciated by fans of the original and function as a gateway to new audiences. Some Western-produced anime-to-live-action-adaptations, however, have failed on both accounts, being badly planned, badly written, badly acted catastrophes, such as the infamous Last Airbender[v] and Dragonball movies. This seems to have played a major part in the genesis of the ‘Hollywood can’t do anime’ prejudice. It may come as a surprise to the adherents of this theory, however, to hear that a quite close adaptation of the Rurōni Kenshin (Samurai X) manga to a live-action movie in 2012 (with 2 sequels in 2014) was produced by none other than Warner Bros.

Ruoruni Kenshin Himura anime

Kenshin, as shown in the 1995-99 anime.

Nobuhiro Watsuki’s Rurōni Kenshin was first published in Weekly Shōnen Jump, 1994-9, and was adapted into a long-running anime series, several OVAs, and (in 2016) even a Takarazuka women’s musical. The plot revolves about travelling swordsman in the early years of the Meiji era, Himura Kenshin. He fights for those in need with his reverse-bladed sword, in order to atone for the numerous assassinations he had performed as a member of the imperial loyalists in order to bring the feudal military rule of the Edo government to a close. In other words, the story is set within the complex historical events of the late 19th century in Japan, and its main character, however good-natured and cute his day-to-day personality, has committed murder countless times. Despite his vow never to do so again, driven to revert to his old self more than once, though he indeed never kills again. In a manga, it is possible to combine such complex ethical questions of atonement, the structure of the human psyche and the working through of traumas with light-hearted slapstick comedy, or to unite precise historical circumstances with flashy costumes and weaponry, but in a live-action movie, this could seem disrespectful or nonsensical. So how did the film crew go about this?

The Strength of Kenshin

In a first, thankful decision, director and cast were kept Japanese, preserving the historical feeling of the manga. Director Ōtomo Keishi

Satou Takeru Rurouni Kenshin

Satou Takeru as Himura Kenshin, 2012.

had previously worked for NHK to produce period dramas such as Ryōmaden, where some of the later Kenshin actors appeared as well. Thus the production team is historically and culturally grounded, and therefore able to treat the source material with the appropriate know-how. Art film director Hoshino Keiko even suspects that the long wait (13 years since the end of the manga) for a live action adaptation happened because until Satō Takeru, there was no actor able to perform the lead role.[vi] In contrast, both the Dragonball and the Last Airbender movie disrespectfully changed the ethnicity of the main characters, which angered fans and made the cultural context of the story seem paradox. For example, how come Katara and Sokka in the movie are two white kids, but their clan remains an Inuit-style tribe? Rurōni Kenshin does make some changes to its characters, but not in such a nonsensical way.

Instead, two to three manga antagonists are combined in one character, and the same goes for storylines, a smart move to combine many good scenes from several volumes of manga in a single two-hour film. Apart from the introductory text, all relevant background information is given by characters in dialogue, so it doesn’t feel forced. Furthermore, while the film re-shuffles lot of incidents and plot elements from the manga, they are still the backbone of the plot (pleasing the fans), and the resulting narrative is coherent and logical (so that those new to the story are able to follow).

The comedic tone of many of the manga’s scenes surfaces several times in the film, mainly through the music, which sets the mood brilliantly. For example, it aids the establishment of Takeda Kanryū as the cruel and threatening, yet also ridiculous main villain. Some of the comedic elements in the characters of Kaoru, Yahiko and Sanosuke are also incorporated, most memorably the scene where Sanosuke interrupts a fistfight he is having in a kitchen to share a meal with his adversary, or the misunderstanding-ridden, slapstick-y first meeting between Kenshin and Kaoru, which is highly reminiscent of the source material.

anime Megumi Takani

Sly and ‘foxy’: Megumi in the anime.

The two most overt changes regarding characters are the transformation of Takani Megumi and the exclusion of Shinomori Aoshi. In the manga, Megumi is a clever, perhaps even sly, woman (often compared to a fox) who makes informed choices; in the film, she appears more like a traumatized girl. Whether this has been done to accentuate Kaoru as the more reasonable female character, or for the sake of casting another young and popular actress, or for an altogether different reason, I cannot say.

Takani Megumi rurouni Kenshin movie live action

Takani Megumi, as portrayed by Aoi Yuu

Likewise, there are several possible reasons why Shinomori Aoshi was cut from the plot. With so many iconic characters already featured, he might just have been too much of a distraction, but more importantly, there can only be one climax to the movie, and in the Rurōni Kenshin movie, this is clearly the fight between former assassin Kenshin and still-assassin Jin’e. A true-to-manga portrayal of Kenshin and Aoishi’s suspenseful duel would simply not have fit into the storyline. Jin’e also was an adversary Kenshin had great trouble defeating, but more than that, the emotional stakes were much higher, making for the more interesting scene – which is probably why, for the film, Jin’e was included in the Kanryū-plot in the first place. Moreover, the popular character Saitō Hajime play a minor but important role in the movie despite not appearing in the manga until much later. Between Saitōs aloofness and Jin’e’s ability, Aoshi would have felt redundant – though for Aoshi fans, this may have felt like stuffing in Saitō to the detriment of Aoshi.[vii] While some elements of Aoshi’s character have been transferred to the film-version of Hanya, like his mild concern for Megumi and his very fast short-sword-technique, this only leads to further changes, since it creates a character (now names Gein) who is quite different in personality and looks (model with a burn scar rather than hideously disfigured ninja) to the source material’s Hanya.

In the end, though, Rurōni Kenshin is an example for a successful adaptation despite these minor issues. The original manga has been treated respectfully. While its feel and atmosphere, characters and plot, visuals and emotional stakes are transformed as to leave lasting impact on the big screen, they survive this, for the most part, without losing their essence. Again, this evidences a transfer process impossible without clever creative thought.

Kenshin live action movie poster

Movie Poster for Rurouni Kenshin (2012)

I might come back in summer to the topic of adaptation and transfer/transformation, and discuss a different example, one befitting the time of year when scary tales are told to induce pleasant shudders against the heat – the cultural impact of O-Iwa, the female avenging ghost. But until then, I close my musings on the topic. Thanks for reading!

Notes and References

[i] The concept of orientalism – the construction of the ‘orient(al)‘ as binary Other to the ‘west(erner)‘, and how it informs discourse on the subject of anything ‘oriental‘ – was developed by Edward Said in his eponymous book (1978). See this website. If you’re short on time, here’s the wikipedia entry.

[ii] http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/adaptation.

[iii] I compiled this information from various dictionaries on kabuki, such as Samuel L. Leiter’s New Kabuki Encyclopedia and its Japanese source, the Kabuki jiten, as well as Engeki hyakka daijiten (Great Encyclopedia of Drama), Kabuki tōjō jinbutsu jiten (Dictionary of Kabuki Characters); and the Koten bungaku daijiten (Great Dictionary of Classical Literature).

[iv] 60s intro https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9boVDep-diw, 80s intro https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9bwOON3-1bY , movie trailer https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pX08cqhv0Kg . The animated series itself addresses this in the 40th anniversary special episode, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=64BK6EQW3Qo

[v] I am aware that Avatar The Last Airbender is not a Japanese production and thus not an anime in the literal sense. But its look, cast and atmosphere are paying massive tribute to Asian culture and anime storytelling.

[vi] Katsura, Chiho; Hoshino, Keiko & Urazaki, Hiromi: „Katsura Chiho no eigakan he ikō. Tsukurite-tachi no eiga-hyō [Let’s go to Katsura Chiho’s Cinema. Film criticsm by those who make them“. In: Shinario, 68.11, 2012, 52-68, p. 62.

[vii] Shinomori Aoshi IS featured in the following films (Kyoto Inferno and The Legend Ends), however.

How Tajima Shume was Tormented by a Devil of his own Creation

oniOnce upon a time, a certain Ronin, Tajima Shume by name, an able and well-read man, being on his travels to see the world, went up to Kiyoto by the Tokaido. One day, in the neighbourhood of Nagoya, in
the province of Owari, he fell in with a wandering priest, with whom he entered into conversation. Finding that they were bound for the same place, they agreed to travel together, beguiling their weary way by pleasant talk on divers matters; and so by degrees, as they became more intimate, they began to speak without restraint about their private affairs; and the priest, trusting thoroughly in the honour of his companion, told him the object of his journey.

“For some time past,” said he, “I have nourished a wish that has engrossed all my thoughts; for I am bent on setting up a molten image in honour of Buddha; with this object I have wandered through various provinces collecting alms and (who knows by what weary toil?) we have succeeded in amassing two hundred ounces of silver–enough, I trust, to erect a handsome bronze figure.”

What says the proverb? “He who bears a jewel in his bosom bears poison.” Hardly had the Ronin heard these words of the priest than an evil heart arose within him, and he thought to himself, “Man’s life, from the womb to the grave, is made up of good and of ill luck. Here am I, nearly forty years old, a wanderer, without a calling, or even a hope of advancement in the world. To be sure, it seems a shame; yet if I could steal the money this priest is boasting about, I could live at ease for the rest of my days;” and so he began casting about how best he might compass his purpose. But the priest, far from guessing the drift of his comrade’s thoughts, journeyed cheerfully on, till they reached the town of Kuana. Here there is an arm of the sea, which is crossed in ferry-boats, that start as soon as some twenty or thirty passengers are gathered together; and in one of these boats the two travellers embarked. About half-way across, the priest was taken with a sudden necessity to go to the side of the boat; and the Ronin,following him, tripped him up whilst no one was looking, and flung him into the sea. When the boatmen and passengers heard the splash, and saw the priest struggling in the water, they were afraid, and made every effort to save him; but the wind was fair, and the boat running swiftly under the bellying sails, so they were soon a few hundred yards off from the drowning man, who sank before the boat could be turned to rescue him.

yokaiWhen he saw this, the Ronin feigned the utmost grief and dismay, and said to his fellow-passengers, “This priest, whom we have just lost, was my cousin: he was going to Kyoto, to visit the shrine of his
patron; and as I happened to have business there as well, we settled to travel together. Now, alas! by this misfortune, my cousin is dead, and I am left alone.”

He spoke so feelingly, and wept so freely, that the passengers believed his story, and pitied and tried to comfort him. Then the Ronin said to the boatmen–

“We ought, by rights, to report this matter to the authorities; but as I am pressed for time, and the business might bring trouble on yourselves as well, perhaps we had better hush it up for the present;
and I will at once go on to Kiyoto and tell my cousin’s patron, besides writing home about it. What think you, gentlemen?” added he, turning to the other travellers.

They, of course, were only too glad to avoid any hindrance to their onward journey, and all with one voice agreed to what the Ronin had proposed; and so the matter was settled. When, at length, they reached the shore, they left the boat, and every man went his way; but the Ronin, overjoyed in his heart, took the wandering priest’s luggage, and, putting it with his own, pursued his journey to Kiyoto.

On reaching the capital, the Ronin changed his name from Shume to Tokubei, and, giving up his position as a Samurai, turned merchant, and traded with the dead man’s money. Fortune favouring his speculations, he began to amass great wealth, and lived at his ease, denying himself nothing; and in course of time he married a wife, who bore him a child.

Thus the days and months wore on, till one fine summer’s night, some three years after the priest’s death, Tokubei stepped out on to the verandah of his house to enjoy the cool air and the beauty of the moonlight. Feeling dull and lonely, he began musing over all kinds of things, when on a sudden the deed of murder and theft, done so long ago, vividly recurred to his memory, and he thought to himself, “Here am I, grown rich and fat on the money I wantonly stole. Since then all has gone well with me; yet, had I not been poor, I had never turned assassin nor thief. Woe betide me! what a pity it was!” and as he was revolving the matter in his mind, a feeling of remorse came over him, in spite of all he could do. While his conscience thus smote him, he suddenly, to his utter amazement, beheld the faint outline of a man standing near a fir-tree in the garden: on looking more attentively, he perceived that the man’s whole body was thin and worn and the eyes sunken and dim; and in the poor ghost that was before him he recognized the very priest whom he had thrown into the sea at Kuana. Chilled with horror, he looked again, and saw that the priest was smiling in scorn. He would have fled into the house, but the ghost stretched forth its withered arm, and, clutching the back of his neck, scowled at him with a vindictive glare, and a hideous ghastliness of mien, so unspeakably awful that any ordinary man would have swooned with fear. But Tokubei, tradesman though he was, had once been a soldier, and was not easily matched for daring; so he shook off the ghost, and, leaping into the room for his dirk, laid about him boldly enough; but, strike as he would, the spirit, fading into the air, eluded his blows, and suddenly reappeared only to vanish again: and from that time forth Tokubei knew no rest, and was haunted night and day.

At length, undone by such ceaseless vexation, Tokubei fell ill, and kept muttering, “Oh, misery! misery!–the wandering priest is coming to torture me!” Hearing his moans and the disturbance he made, the people in the house fancied he was mad, and called in a physician, who prescribed for him. But neither pill nor potion could cure Tokubei, whose strange frenzy soon became the talk of the whole neighbourhood.

Now it chanced that the story reached the ears of a certain wandering priest who lodged in the next street. When he heard the particulars, this priest gravely shook his head, as though he knew all about it, and sent a friend to Tokubei’s house to say that a wandering priest, dwelling hard by, had heard of his illness, and, were it never so grievous, would undertake to heal it by means of his prayers; and Tokubei’s wife, driven half wild by her husband’s sickness, lost not a moment in sending for the priest, and taking him into the sick man’s room.

But no sooner did Tokubei see the priest than he yelled out, “Help! help! Here is the wandering priest come to torment me again. Forgive! forgive!” and hiding his head under the coverlet, he lay quivering all over. Then the priest turned all present out of the room, put his mouth to the affrighted man’s ear, and whispered–

“Three years ago, at the Kuana ferry, you flung me into the water; and well you remember it.”

But Tokubei was speechless, and could only quake with fear.

“Happily,” continued the priest, “I had learned to swim and to dive as a boy; so I reached the shore, and, after wandering through many provinces, succeeded in setting up a bronze figure to Buddha, thus fulfilling the wish of my heart. On my journey homewards, I took a lodging in the next street, and there heard of your marvellous ailment. Thinking I could divine its cause, I came to see you, and am glad to find I was not mistaken. You have done a hateful deed; but am I not a priest, and have I not forsaken the things of this world? and would it not ill become me to bear malice? Repent, therefore, and abandon your evil ways. To see you do so I should esteem the height of happiness. Be of good cheer, now, and look me in the face, and you will see that I am really a living man, and no vengeful goblin come to torment you.”

Seeing he had no ghost to deal with, and overwhelmed by the priest’s kindness, Tokubei burst into tears, and answered, “Indeed, indeed, I don’t know what to say. In a fit of madness I was tempted to kill and rob you. Fortune befriended me ever after; but the richer I grew, the more keenly I felt how wicked I had been, and the more I foresaw that my victim’s vengeance would some day overtake me. Haunted by this thought, I lost my nerve, till one night I beheld your spirit, and from that time forth fell ill. But how you managed to escape, and are still alive, is more than I can understand.”

Kyosai Kawanabe 1831-1889. Ghost Eating a Child

Kyosai Kawanabe 1831-1889. Ghost Eating a Child

“A guilty man,” said the priest, with a smile, “shudders at the rustling of the wind or the chattering of a stork’s beak: a murderer’s conscience preys upon his mind till he sees what is not. Poverty drives a man to crimes which he repents of in his wealth. How true is the doctrine of Moshi, that the heart of man, pure by nature, is corrupted by circumstances.” Thus he held forth; and Tokubei, who had long since repented of hiscrime, implored forgiveness, and gave him a large sum of money, saying, “Half of this is the amount I stole from you three years since; the other half I entreat you to accept as interest, or as a gift.”

The priest at first refused the money; but Tokubei insisted on his accepting it, and did all he could to detain him, but in vain; for the priest went his way, and bestowed the money on the poor and needy. As for Tokubei himself, he soon shook off his disorder, and thenceforward lived at peace with all men, revered both at home and abroad, and ever intent on good and charitable deeds.

Reference

Freeman-Mitford, A.B., Tales of Old Japan, 1871.