Several of you liked the idea of a grab-bag newsletter, so I thought to offer you one. When I write JP articles, I usually leave a lot of neat information in my notebooks. Not all of it is relevant for the articles I write. So I’m going to start dropping this information into a newsletter. The newsletter will be pretty random at times, but I don’t want interesting facts about Japanese culture, otaku culture, and anime to go to waste. Think of them as knowledge leftovers that await you in the refrigerator (only they don’t spoil!). I’ll also yammer a little about anything I found interesting lately or about behind-the-scenes stuff.
As usual, I’ll include citations, and I won’t spam you. You can subscribe below (you’ll receive a notice of your subscription in your inbox). The newsletter is separate from receiving blog updates, so if you signed up for those, you still have to sign up for the newsletter. I’ll experiment with the newsletter’s format for awhile until I find something that works.
At the end of January, I had the privilege to witness a benshi performance, which impressed me immensely. Finally, it led to me writing this blog post. So, what am I actually talking about?
In Japan, silent films were never truly silent
A still from the 1929 silent film “Tokyo March”
Western audiences may be faintly aware that in the first cinemas, at least a pianist used to accompany silent films, if there wasn’t an entire orchestra at hand. As we still experience today, music is very effective in conveying emotion, atmosphere, and a sense of urgency or suspense regarding the story unfolding on screen.
But in Japan, they went far beyond that. The story of cinema in Japan begins with imports of western movies, showing scenes that were strange and exotic to Japanese viewers. Thus, these scenes needed explaining, and this is where the origin of the benshi lies. Literally, the word means ‘orator’ or ‘speaker’, and benshi started out as ‘film explainers’. Soon, however, they also became commentators, narrators, entertainers and voice actors. Some may pinpoint the development to a single person – “Somei Saburo was the first of these narrators who could be called a benshi. Rejecting the oft-assumed role of playing outside observer, Saburo chose to imitate, voice, and personify the characters depicted on the screen.”[i] – but a parallel development seems more likely.
Owing to their origin as explainers of western ‘exotic’ contexts, benshi tended to dress in western attire, commonly tuxedo and top hat.
Sawata Midori, allegedly the most famous contemporary benshi.
This trend continues until present day, as the most famous of today’s benshi, Sawato Midori, performs in suit and bow tie – despite the fact that, unusual for a benshi then and now, she is a woman. The benshi I watched, Kataoka Ichirō, is one of her students. At the beginning of the performance, he remarked that at the height of benshi popularity, in the 1920s, there were over a thousand of them active in Japan. The most popular of them earned more than the Prime Minister! In fact, cinema goers didn’t go to see a specific movie for its director or its actors so much as for the benshi performing it.[ii] Now, however, there are only about 10 benshi left, and (as Kataoka assured us) he, at least, earns significantly less than the Prime Minister.
In contrast to the tradition, Kataoka dresses in traditional Japanese garb for his performances. About half of the short films he showed to us that night were period pieces, however, so it fit with the general theme.
…and the medium
In the old days, benshi manipulated the films they showed as they saw fit. To this day, they script their own texts for each movie, including the dialogue, even if the original script is available. Their performance unfolds in addition to, or sometimes at odds with, the intertitles. Often, though, Japanese silent films would not even have intertitles, since the directors knew the benshi would take care of narrative coherence and transition. Now, if the benshi’s dialogue took longer to perform than the scene allowed for, he would just instruct the man at the projector to lower the projection speed a little.[iii] This also led to a tendency in Japanese early film to use long, uninterrupted shots to allow the benshi time for his performance. Of cause, if he found a sequence boring, he might turn it into a comedic interlude and crank up the speed to get it over with.
A still from the silent animated movie “The Monkeys’ Masamune”
In short, the main attraction was the vocal performance, and the film was only the raw material. Sometimes, the benshi would comment on the action, drawing attention to the fictitiousness of the story, in an almost Brechtian fashion.[iv] The relationship between film and ‘explanation’ was in fact reversed: “the images themselves being the illustration of an independently existing storyline.”[v]
Benshi might also use their position for political propaganda, as was the case with the war films during the Russo-Japanese war of 1904/5[vi]. Korean benshi likewise attempted to instigate rebellion against the Japanese colonial rule.[vii] The benshi‘s immense popularity was a major factor in the comparatively late start of sound film in Japan – but when progress finally took hold, the ‘talkies’ made the benshi obsolete.
Japan has a rich history of performance art, and the benshi can be linked to a number of them. The narrators of Kabuki theatre are prominent and visible.
Benshi Asou Yata, sporting a very fitting mustache.
So is the chanter of bunraku puppet plays, who also lends his voice to the silent puppet characters, much like the benshi voice the actors on screen.[viii] Furthermore, oral narrative performance art has a long tradition. In the Middle Ages, you could listen to biwa-hōshi, blind itinerant monks who recited war epics while accompanying themselves on a lute. To this day, there are performances of conversational comedy called rakugo.[ix] (Incidentally, the garments of rakugo performers may be another influence on Kataoka’s costume choice.) Even the master-student training system used by the benshi was adapted from other traditional Japanese arts.[x]
Because of these connections, benshi performing film were not a radically new thing, but rather a development based on older art forms. The links between theatre and film ran so deep that some theatres employed a number of benshi, some of them female, to feature in a single performance of “live dubbing”.[xi] For some time, there were also mixed shows, where part of the action was acted live on stage, part filmed beforehand and dubbed live.[xii]
Narrative: A performance of Kataoka Ichirō
Kataoka Ichirô, almost as I have seen him.
It is at the end of January, 2017, in Trier, an ancient but small city in western Germany, close to the borders of Luxembourg and France. The Romans have left some impressive ruins, and Karl Marx was born in one of the strangely diagonal streets south of the market square. Today, the Broadway cinema, in cooperation with the department of Japanese studies of Trier university, presents a short film screening with benshi narration. At that time, I’m struggling to pinpoint the thesis of my Master’s dissertation. I have no clear idea what a benshi is, but it sounds interesting – especially since one of the films on the list is about Jiraiya, the toad mage, for whom I have a soft spot. Upon arriving at the cinema, I buy a bottle of German lemonade with real caffeine and sit down with a book. The performer is here already, and I shyly admire the traditional Japanese clothing he wears. Two other students of Japanese Studies join me at my table and update me on the goings-on in the student council. One of them is very excited because, he says, he is interested in everything about the Taishō period (1912-26). We sit down in the higher part of the screening room; it has a seating capacity of about a hundred and is 2/3 full at least. Someone from cinema management says a few words of greeting and presents Kataoka, not without mispronouncing his name, of course. Then Kataoka introduces himself. He has a pleasant, tough not very remarkable, speaking voice and is quite proficient in English, which is, sadly, quite unusual for a Japanese. At first, the audience is somewhat hesitant to respond to him (German stiffness, probably), but they mellow during the first film.
Lump Theft and Monkeys’ Masamune
Tengus’ banquet scene from the silent animated film “Lump Theft”.
“I know this one”, I whisper to my neighbour, the Taishō enthusiast, as the screen flickers to grey and yellowish life. The first film is an animated short, about two old men with lumps and the karmic justice visited on them, quite by accident. “It’s on youtube.”[xiii]
How different it feels now, though! With the onset of the strange music – well, strange to modern Western ears at least, I cannot even discern the instruments – Kataoka’s performance beings. He does so in Japanese, of course, but someone has kindly provided subtitles, tailored to this specific event. As the introductory intertitle appears, the benshi’s voice turns into the solemn, melodious whine of a traditional Japanese narrator. He croaks like friendly raven once he voices the old man, produces the servile chatter of low-rank Tengu mountain goblins, as well as the rumbling laugh and growled anger of the goblin king. This feels just like anime now! If it weren’t for the moments when he, clearly on purpose, speaks even if characters are drawn with their mouths closed, or stays still when they seem to speak.
When that first movie is over, I am sitting on the edge of my seat for the next one, but that’s a fable with a somewhat dubious morale. A hunter trying to shoot an ape is wrong, but cutting a boar in half with a sword seems to be perfectly fine.[xiv] Between films, Kataoka gives us some facts in English about benshi practise and history.
Little Tarô, absorbed in his new toy.
Bad mannered hippos!
I am impressed by the third film because it mixes two styles we now mostly see as distinct. In a live-action sequence, a little boy receives a toy train from his father as a present. The dress and movement of the actors give me the feeling that historical knowledge only get you that far. This grainy movie has more life in it than any textbook on the Taishō era. Anyways, the boy finally goes to bed, enamoured with his new toy, and dreams of being a conductor. The dream sequence is animated; and full of anthropomorphic animals.[xv] It’s nice comedy and also instructive, explaining how to behave on a train. Seems to have been effective, since the Japanese are usually very pleasant, and quiet, train passengers. Kataoka takes the comedic tone of the piece to slip in a few jokes of his own, as one of ‘his’ characters metanarratively remarks on this being a black and white movie. In one instance, there was even a self-reflective joke in the subtitles!
The movie I like best, though, is Tokyo March.[xvi] It’s a complicated, kabuki-esque plot of love found and lost, mistaken identity, rivalry and family secrets, and Kataoka excels in portraying the characters- from young men to an old woman, from the sad heroine to the lecherous and finally gilt-ridden father.
The heroine, foced to become a geisha, is weary of unwanted attention.
Japanese speech patterns, of course, are highly codified by age, gender, class/profession and region. Which intonation, harshness or softness of voice, and what pitch one uses, how one refers to oneself, how questions, commands and states of emotional excitement are marked with specific particles, differs according to these criteria. I guess that makes the benshi’s voice-acting possible, if complicated. As an additional treat, the ending of the movie had some insensely, um, homosocial lines, which made my inner fangirl squee.
“My happiness will never be complete without you, Yoshiki.”
Frog VS Snake VS Slug, the classical threeway tie.
In fact, I keep forgetting the benshi’s presence because I get so absorbed in the characters and their story… I am only jolted out of it when Kataoka’s script diverges from the action. However, here he keeps a superb balance of immersion and alienation. By contrast, in his rendition of the Jiraiya movie, his narration seems to run off course a bit too much. He turns the confusing film into somewhat of a coherent story, but clearly this is only possible by intensively reinterpreting and repurposing the images. Perhaps I am getting tired, too. In any case, if you fancy a pretty young woman transforming into a slug, or warriors beaten back by lawn sprinklers, good entertainment, give it a try.[xvii] It’s the first special effects movie made in Japan, apparently.
The last film is a modern homage to silent film, and in direct contrast with the originals before, the difference is easy to spot. The pictures are too clear, the resolution too high, and the sudden tilts into yellow, blue or red seem exaggerated. There are scratch marks superimposed on the image, but it takes me only a few minutes to notice the repeating pattern. That being said, the story itself, about a jealous samurai and his bloody revenge, is interesting, and Kataoka once again amazes me with the variety of voices at his command.
Quite an experience, that was.
Poster of the most popular “morning drama”, Oshin. This genre makes extensive use of voice-over narration, especially at the beginning of each episode.
Benshi may have all but disappeared, but they sure have left a mark on the Japanese visual narrative. It’s not just Kataoka’s amazing versatility, which reminded me of some modern-day anime voice actors. Or that anime sometimes employ similar speaking styles in voice-over narration. In general, Japanese film features wide angles and long takes – perhaps in memory of the benshi who once needed the time to perform. And finally, voice-over and concluding narration is relatively common in Japanese live-action TV, which might be a legacy of the benshi.[xviii]
In addition, after the advent of sound film, some benshi who had lost their jobs became kamishibai artists. Kamishibai or paper theatre is a street art combining hand-drawn slides and vocal narration. It is seen a precursor of modern manga – the Manga Museum in Kyōto has a whole room dedicated to kamishibai, with an actor performing in period clothing. So, here we have another direct link with modern visual narrative.
Long story short, if you get the chance to see Kataoka or one of his colleagues perform, I strongly recommend going.
[ii] Yomota Inuhiko, transl. Uwe Hohmann: Im Reich der Sinne. 100 Jahre japanischer Film. Frankfurt am Main: Stroemfeld, 2007, p 26; see also J.L. Anderson: “Spoken Silents in the Japanese Cinema; or, Talking to Pictures: Essaying the Katsuben, Contextualizing the Texts”. In: Arthur Noletti Jr. & David Desser: Reframing Japanese Cinema. Authorship, Genre, History. Indiana UP, 1992, pp. 359-311, p. 261.
I got into anime at an old age compared to most. My early twenties, and that was over 10 years ago. Now, as a fan at the further end of the age spectrum (anime skews teens and early 20s as the average age of fans), I am aware of the liabilities of enjoying the medium. American culture still views anime as something for kids, teens, and immature college students. Rural areas like mine are particularly like this. Because I study anime and American otaku culture, I receive a double hit of stigma. Intellectualism isn’t popular in today’s United States. Americans look at intellectuals (not that I see myself as one) with suspicion. I am considered even stranger for studying and writing about what I do. Luckily, my family and inner circle of friends accept my interests. My girlfriend is an otaku and Japanophile. But it is hard to expand my inner social circle in an area dominated by football and beer.
Despite these issues, being an anime fan and researcher offers more advantages than disadvantages. My specialty compliments my job as a librarian. Teens and college age students come to me with anime and anime research questions. They feel comfortable and appreciate having an older fan to speak with. Teen fans in my area face the same stigma, looks, and misunderstandings as I face from well-meaning neighbors. I provide a older voice and nonjudgmental access to anime and manga of all types. Many come to me looking for new anime to watch or seeking “touchier” subjects like yuri and yaoi.
General Research Division, The New York Public Library. (191-?). The ‘Odori’, a Dramatic Dance in Old Time Costume. Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47d9-8422-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
Studying anime and Japanese culture continues to shift my perspective. It points out poisonous areas in American culture–such as the culture of selfishness–and offers solutions. A day where you fail to learn something new is a wasted day. Anime, with its international reach, extends a taste of Japanese culture to everyone. That culture differs quite a bit from Western culture, yet has enough Western elements that it remains accessible. Zen, in particular, influenced my perspective on life.
Ten years ago I had a crisis of faith sparked by a series of deaths in my family and an ugly breakup with my girlfriend at the time. I plunged into a dark depression of which I remember little. My Christian faith died. But one day stands out in the blank spaces of memory. One day at a local bookstore I stumbled across “Peace is Every Step” by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen monk. I remember having the exact amount of money in my pocket to book cost, down the the penny. The book changed my perspective forever. I couldn’t get enough of Zen. I read Japanese Zen writers and everything else I could get my hands on. Gradually, my Christian faith began to revive under Zen’s care. While it appears strange, Zen is a practice that can stand alone or plug into an existing belief set. It revived my Christian faith, but the resurrected faith is quite different from the childish faith I once had.
While Thich Nhat Hanh’s writings were the catalyst for my Christian faith’s resurrection, anime was where I had learned about Zen’s existence. It introduced many of the concepts and provided a starting point. It sounds cheesy, but I guess you could say anime changed my life, if indirectly.
The messages we consume changes our view of the world. Information and stories are food for the mind. Much of anime is junk food, but to be fair, American TV is mostly junk food too. The American mind suffers from obesity, stories that lead to impulsive behavior and misunderstanding. One the whole, anime contains good messages: friendship, persistence, loyalty, and community. Anime exposes people to Japanese culture (even if it is a glossed over, watered-down exposure) and helps you escape an American-centric view. American media can be insular and white-washed. Anime raises awareness of different approaches to characters and storytelling.
These messages influence us in ways we are not always aware. Advertising works in this way with its messages of dissatisfaction, selfishness, and greed. Most of anime contains messages about appreciating the moment and relationships. Since I started my anime habit and my study of Zen, I find I enjoy the journey more than I had in the past. Before my studies, I focused on outcomes and destinations. Now I enjoy the path more than the destination. I view mistakes and failures as learning experiences, as ways of improving. Many anime characters embody this idea: Goku and Ichigo for example.
I am not sure how long I will continue to study anime and American otaku culture. I consider myself an outsider rather than a member of otakudom. In order to study it, I have to have some distance. Writing about anime allows me to pull my interests in history, sociology, psychology, art, and economics together. But it does come out a small price. I care little what others think, however. I rather like the label of eccentric.
I am hesitate about this post. I dislike publicly speaking about myself. Few know that I had struggled with depression, but I can confidently say “had struggled.” Depression no longer troubles me. Now, it is an old friend that visits for a few hours to tell me something is wrong before leaving again. The trick with depression is embracing Zen and Christian meditative tradition and practice. It isn’t easy, and it isn’t instant. It takes years of work, but depression can be embraced, even welcomed. If you have problems with depression, I urge you to learn zazen and practice it. Again, it requires persistence and patience and time. I write this personal post with the hopes it will inspire you, lift you. I want you to know that you are not the only one who struggles with stigma from those who fail to understand anime and Western interest in Japanese culture. But you can thrive despite the stigma. Only those with narrow minds and dull lives fail to understand how Japanese culture and anime and manga can fascinate. Have sympathy for such people.
How has anime influenced you? What stigmas do you face as a fan or researcher? Have you wrestled with depression?
Akio Kashiwagi was a whale. No, he didn’t perform tricks at Sea World. Casinos call super-elite high rollers whales. How high did he roll? He would bet $200,000 a hand at baccarat tables. When he visited Trump Plaza Hotel & Casino, he would wager $14 million an hour (Johnston, 1990). Kashigawa worked as a Tokyo real estate investor, and like James Bond he enjoyed baccarat.
His love for the game led to problems with creditors. When he died, he owed $9 million to American casinos (New York Times, 1992).
Kashigawa was said to be a normal Japanese salaryman outside of his high rolling habits. For example, he enjoyed samurai dramas and traditional Japanese furniture. He married a popular geisha who was 6 years older, and they had 3 children together. As a strict parent, he worried about alienating his eldest son, and he owned expensive paintings that he lent to museums (Watanabe, 1992).
At age 54, he was found dead in his kitchen, stabbed 150 times with an object resembling a Japanese sword (Watanabe, 1992; New York Times, 1992).
Japanese media speculated one of Kashigawa’s creditors decided to make an example of him.
His house lacked signs of forced entry, and Kashigawa always locked his home (Watanabe, 1992).
The middle child of 10, he worked as a farmhand and later as a guide at Mt. Fuji. Kashigawa entered real estate just as the market began to explode, but his money-lending business earned him a shady reputation. He was said to disappear on loan-due dates so debtors couldn’t pay. Kashigawa would then seize their property. He seized land a kindergarten stood upon, evicted the children, tore down the school, and built an apartment complex (Watanabe, 1992).
His murder was never solved.
Japanese and American Violence
It sounds like a crime straight out of CSI or NCIS. For those of us in the United States we shrug. Murder is so common in the news that we only blink. Back in 2008, the US saw more than 12,000 gun-related murders. Japan: 11 (Engel, 2014). Kashigawa’s death stands out because of its rarity and circumstances. According to a study by the United Nation’s Office on Drugs and Crime (2014) less than 1 person in 100,000 is murdered in Japan. In the US, that number is 4.8 per 100,000. The report further explains why:
The country’s homicide rate is associated with a stable and prosperous society with low inequality and high levels of development. Young Japanese males now commit only a tenth of the homicides committed by their predecessors in 1955, and the age and sex distribution of victims tend to be uniform across age groups. This has been attributed by some researchers to, amongst other factors, extremely low levels of gun ownership (1 in 175 households), a greater chance of detection (according to police data, 98 per cent of homicide cases are solved), the rejection of violence after the Second World War, the growth of affluence without the accompanying concentrations of poverty common in many highly developed countries, and the stigma of arrest for any crime in Japanese society.
This isn’t to idealize Japan. If anything, Kashigawa’s death suggests a strong presence of organized crime in Japan, which most people who study Japan are aware of. Rather, I want us to think how we consider crime. TV shows like CSI and NCIS make crime glamorous in many ways. Sure, the bad guys get caught, but crime is shown as an exciting chase, a battle of wits. Criminals appear to be heroes against the government and the status quo. Anime like Psycho Pass and Ghost in the Shell show the same. Crime is generated by society. There is a strong correlation between crime and economic opportunity (Kanayama, n.d.). Money had a hand in Kashigawa’s death. People with fewer economic options (or feel their business is threatened) resort to theft and violence. American society often focuses on having more and better. That pressure stresses those who lack the economic options, and many turn to crime. Ghost in the Shell touches on the higher end of this. Those with wealth often turn to crime because they seek to preserve their lifestyle or feel as if they can get away with it.
In any case, Japan may have lower gun violence than the US, but that is primarily because gun ownership is lower. An act in 1958 limited ownership of weapons by citizens: “No person shall possess a firearm or firearms or a sword or swords,” with a few exceptions (Allemon, 2000). This law didn’t prevent Kashigawa’s murder. This blog post is turning a little political, but these are topics that we need to discuss. Swords and many types of guns are designed for one thing: to kill people.
Limiting access would reduce the number of deaths associated with these weapons. The proof is in the statistics, but it cannot eliminate it. After all, 11 people still died from guns in Japan in 2008. If we could magically make all guns disappear in the United States, we will still see just as much violence. Although we would probably see fewer fatalities. The issue isn’t with firearms (for the record, I come from a hunting family, and I have no issues with owning hunting rifles and shotguns and other hunting-oriented firearms) but with society. Japanese culture’s focus on community and family encourages its lower level of violent crime.
Likewise, American individualism encourages violent crime. Individualism places value of the self above that of the community. It makes selfishness a virtue, and selfishness leads to increased disregard for the welfare of others. However, you can also argue community can encourage violence: gangs. Gangs appear when a sense of belonging is missing. But if American community hadn’t eroded as it has, gangs would have fewer voids to fill.
This is a heavy set of topics for an anime and culture blog, but it is important for us to think about these problems. It is important to set aside all the media hubris on the issues and the political hubbub about gun ownership. We must look at the underlying reasons why violence happens. It will never disappear, but deep societal change, a slight shift away from individualism and toward Japanese-style communal focus, would benefit the United States.
Allemon, M. (2000) The Japanese Firearm and Sword Possession Control Law: Translator’s Introduction. Pacific Rim Law & Policy Journal Association.
Engel, P (2014) How Japan’s Murder Rate Got to be So Incredibly Low. Business Insider. http://www.businessinsider.com/why-japans-murder-rate-is-so-low-2014-4
Johnston, D. (1990). “At $200,000 a Hand, He’s Trumps Kind of Gambler, Inquirer. http://articles.philly.com/1990-05-11/news/25887492_1_casino-al-glasgow-atlantic-city
Kanayama, T. an Arichika Eguchi (n.d.) Japan’s Challenge on the Increase in Crime in the New Century. https://www.npa.go.jp/english/seisaku2/crime_reduction.pdf
New York Times (1992). “A Top Gambler is Killed Owing Casinos Millions”, New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/1992/01/12/us/a-top-gambler-is-killed-owing-casinos-millions.html
UNODC (2014) Global Study on Homicide 2013 https://www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/statistics/GSH2013/2014_GLOBAL_HOMICIDE_BOOK_web.pdf
Watanabe, T. (1992) “Global High-Roller’s Trail Ends in a Mystery,” LA Times. http://articles.latimes.com/1992-02-08/news/mn-1383_1_japan-s-real-estate
It may seem strange at first that summer is the prime time for ghost stories in Japan. We tend to associate summer with pleasant things… but imagine you’re living in early modern Japan.
You have no iced drinks, no electric fans, no convenient water taps. There’s basically no way to keep cool at night. So you lie awake, too hot to sleep, too hot to breathe, and listen to the buzzing of mosquitoes just outside the net around your futon. The next day you drag yourself to work again, through streets flaring with sunlight. It hurts your eyes and gives you a headache. Things go bad fast, and they smell. The next night brings no cool either, the air remains thick and stale and sticky like old sweat, and the mosquitoes are still buzzing… I wouldn‘t be surprised if I started seeing things after a while.
Also, if someone tells you a good ghost story and you get that shudder down the spine, wouldn’t that be refreshing at a time like this? It would possibly work as “a psychological form of air conditioning“.[i] Finally, in August you have O-Bon, the week-long festival of the Dead. So, a number of summer customs related to the scary and supernatural has arisen. For example, there is hyakumonogatari kaidankai, a meeting to tell one hundred ghost stories in a room with a hundred lighted candles. For every story told, the group extinguishes one candle, and when the last flame dies, it is said, a monster will appear.[ii] Also, the theatres and later cinemas of Japan traditionally offer horror stories in their summer programme, and that’s where O’iwa enters the picture.
The Birth of O’iwa
In 1755, the man who would later be known as playwright Tsuruya Nanboku IV was born in Edo as son of a dyer. Aged 25, he married the daughter of Tsuruya Nanboku III, but it took him another 20 years to write a successfull play. He then excelled at mixing well-known plots and settings with new elements, creating new types of characters and sharply observing the lives of the lower-class townspeople.[iii] His best-known work only premiered in 1825, four years before his death: Tōkaidō Yotsuya Kaidan (The ghost-story of Yotsuya on the Tōkaidō (Eastern Sea Road)). Onoe Kigurorō III and Ichikawa Danjurō VII, two of the most famous actors of the day, played the lead roles.[iv]
O‘iwa (Kikugoro III) and Iemon (Danjurō VII), as painted by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, 1836. http://www.theartofjapan.com/art-detail/?inv=11124034
The plot of Tōkaidō Yotsuya Kaidan
The play is set in the same sekai (“world“: the historic situation and characters used) as Chūshingura, the story of the 47 rōnin, and was often staged alongside it. Iemon, a good-looking young samurai, has murdered the father of the woman he desired in order to be with her. However, his lord has to commit suicide (this is the Chūshingura plot) and Iemon loses his position.
Forced to eke out a living as a paper umbrella maker, he grows tired of his sickly wife and child. Meanwhile, the daughter of a rich neighbor falls for Iemon. She sends a ‚medicine‘, actually a deadly poison, to O’iwa, so she could marry Iemon. But O’iwa survives, becoming horribly disfigured in the process. This prompts Iemon to leave her, and she dies, vowing revenge.[v] Iemon kills his thieving servant Kohei and nails the two corpses to a door which he throws into the river, to make it appear like a lover’s double suicide.
But O’iwa and Kohei return from their wet grave to haunt the murderer. They appear at Iemon’s wedding night, causing him to slay his bride and new father-in-law. Later, while fishing, he catches the very same door with the two corpses on it. The two ghosts keep appearing and accusing him, eventually driving him mad. In the last act, O’iwa breaks out of a burning paper lantern, an iconic scene often depicted in woodblock prints. Only when Iemon is finally slain, the ghosts are satisfied.
This story has been adapted and cited many times since then, in plays, prints, stories, movies, and anime. Even the ghost of Sadako in Ringu has some features of O’iwa.[vi] What made her scary then and still scary now?
The three horrors of O‘iwa.
The female body itself is threatening to the patriarchal mindset. “Ancient worldviews frequently equated the female with the impure, often with evil itself. Given that her body was the site of
discharges and emissions, of miraculous change and transformations, she has been suspect of harboring all that is dangerous and threatening.“[vii] Childbirth and menstruation were stigmatized as polluting, which made women threatening to male ‘purity‘ – even outside the role of the seductress.
O’iwa has given birth shortly before the beginning of the second act and as such is affected by this pollution. The disfiguration of her face by the poison might be a visualisation of the disgust Iemon feels towards her. In addition, her last day is a bloody nightmare. As an effect of the poison, her hair falls out in bloody clumps. When Iemon tears the mosquito net out of her hands, he ripps off her fingernails. Finally, she dies by the sword. These events not only make her more and more polluted; they are also already part of her transformation into a monstrous ghost.
Remember, O‘iwa has just experienced all the transformations of pregnancy. Now her body transforms again, and in this state of in-between-ness, she dies. That may be one reason for her dangerousness as a ghost: “In most religions, the passage from one stage of life into the following one is seen as dangerous and demands support in the form of rites of passage. If such protective measures are lacking and a person dies during the transformation, this yields an enormous potential of threat for the community of the living.“[viii] O‘iwa dies in transformation. This makes her more powerful as a ghost, and thus scarier.
O’iwa is meek and obedient as long as she is ignorant of Iemon’s deeds. However, his betrayal of her ignites a fury so strong she returns again and again to haunt him. She is now in control, he is her victim: an inversion of the social order. As a kizewamono (‚naturalistic‘ play), Yotsuya Kaidan portrays the social problems and societal fears of its time. One of those is the decline of the feudal caste system and the fear of social unrest, when those who are meant to obey rebel against their „betters“ for being treated badly – as O’iwa does against Iemon.
Fourty years after Yotsuya Kaidan premiered, the samurai of Satsuma and Chōshū would rise against the Tokugawa government. Thus they ignited a civil war which led to the opening of Japan in the Meiji restoration of 1868. Yet, the seeds of this upheavel were already growing at the time of Yotsuya Kaidan. Enough perhaps to transfer the fear of power being turned upside down from a level of gender to a political level.
Besides being potential political commentary, O’iwa shows the limits of a woman’s abilities to gain justice. “One of the chief ways in which women who have been trampled on become empowered is to turn into vengeful spirits after they have died.“[ix] She has to transform to become a monster and vengeful ghost, in order to gain power over Iemon. In life, she was at his mercy, caught within the confines of society and her role as woman and wife. She can only escape them through monstrosity and death.
At the same time, the woman exacting revenge on her deceitful, murderous husband is basically a conservative morality tale. In addition, it is not O’iwa but her sister’s fiancé, a male character, who actually kills Iemon. Thus in the end, societal norms and morals are reinforced, and the fear of social upheaval and female empowerment is banished.
One of the Japanese words for monster/spirit/uncanny being is bakemono or obake, literally „changing thing“. This allows the conclusion that transformation itself is a key element in Japanese concepts of horror, and especially ghost stories. When it comes to female ‚changing creaturues‘, „[i]n almost every instance, the mutation from benign, subservient female, into something ‚else‘/Other is motivated by a violent act of betrayal and murder“.[x] This exactly fits the situation of O’iwa, who transforms from obidient human wife into something terrible and Other. In her haunting of Iemon, she assumes a male position of power, another factor in the fear of rebellion and gender role reversal I discussed above.
But also, O‘iwa is the first woman in a line of revenging ghosts (onryō), who wreak havoc among the living for an injustice suffered before or in the manner of their deaths. As such, she has become so iconic that she overshadows her male predecessors such as Sugawara no Michizane (now deified as Tenman Tenjin, God of Learning) or the Taira warriors.[xi]
Carmen Blacker describes onryō as follows: “Most dangerous of all, however, are those ghosts whose death was violent, lonely or untoward. Men who died in battle or disgrace, who were murdered, or who met their end with rage or resentment in their hearts, will become at once onryô or angry spirits, who require for their appeasement measures a good deal stronger than the ordinary everyday obsequies.“[xii] A sudden or violent death, in contrast to a death of old age or disease, leaves the departed soul with some remaining energy. This is even more volatile if the soul harbours resentment, e.g. for their killer.[xiii] Nanboku cleary alludes to this type of ghost in his construction of O’iwa and her postmortal empowerment. She dies poisoned, betrayed, disfigured and furious – the ‘best‘ conditions to become an onryō.
… or another other scary creature?
However, male onryō usually caused disasters and plagues rather than appearing in human form to the object of their grudge. O’iwa‘s appearance refers to the classical shape of the female yūrei. (Long disshevelled hair, often white burial robes and the triangular headpiece assoicated with them, etc…).[xiv] In addition, she appears as corpse on the door, as a rat (her zodiac sign) or a lantern monster, further adding the category of yōkai/bakemono to her repertoire. The tangible person undergoes a series of painful transformations and turns into an unstable avanging ghost – ethereal in ist substance and mutable in its form. Woman, ghost, rat, lantern; onryō, yūrei, yōkai: O’iwa invokes the fear of all that is intangible and beyond our understanding.
The Burning Lantern
Monster Lantern O’iwa, as depicted by Katsushika Hokusai, early 1830s. https://monstrousindustry.files.wordpress.com/2014/09/c9712-oiwa2bhokusai.jpg
One of the features which brougth Kabuki ist popular appeal are keren, stage tricks which made stunning transformations of scenery and character possible in front of the live audience. Yotsuya Kaidan features a numer of keren, but one of the most iconic is chôchin nuke. In this scene in the drama’s last act, O’iwa appears in, or through, a burning paper lantern. For this, a slightly enlarged lanters is set aflame on stage, and the actor playing O’iwa emerges from it. He “slides through the burned-out aperture from behind the scenes, his timing in perfect accord with the man who does the burning”.[xv] As with other keren, finely tuned teamwork is essential to produce a credible illusion of the incredible and fantastic. In contrast, artists only needed colour and paper for their fantastic image.
While a number of depictions of the chōchin nuke scene and other kabuki ghost scenes exist, Katsushika Hokusai’s (1760-1849) print is unique in that is is not a portrait of a specific actor. Ukiyo-e of kabuki characters were usually a kind of early modern movie poster, something you hung up on your wall because of the star actor you were a fan of, who was captured at the hight of his art in a striking pose. In contrast, Hokusai does not show an actor and his O’iwa does not emerge from the lantern. Instead, she is the lantern, and this completely changes the direction of the image.[xvi]
To this end, Hokusai merges the character of O’iwa with an only mildly scary yōkai, the chōchin obake or monster lantern. Chōchin obake are a subclass of tsukumogami (monsters born from objects wither discarded thoughtlesslly, or used for more than 100 years), ad are usually depicted with a mouthlike parting in the middle or lower, a rolling tongue and (usually) one eye. As such, they are more funny than threatening, but still good for a jump scare. Chōchin O’iwa, therefore, is an image full of allusions, some more playful, some rather scary.
O’iwa the Monster Lantern, as seen in ‘Hôzuki no Reitetsu’.
Interestingly, O’iwa‘s depiction as monster lantern did not transform the category, as it did with onryō. Monster lanterns stayed the same, and the ‘monster lantern version‘ instead became a subordinate image for O’iwa.
Modern Representations: Ayakashi and beyond
I already mentioned the influce O’iwa has had on modern female ghosts such as Sadako.
Moreover, she appears in the anime Hōzuki no Reitetsu (2014) as the monster lantern. Even if she did not introduce herself, she is clearly recognizable by the eye swollen shut, the yūrei-style hair and generally non-comical features which set her apart from the usual chōchin obake. Most striking, however, I found the adaptation of Yotsuya Kaidan in anime form in Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales (2006), which features rats and doppelgangers and of cause the scene where O’iwa emerges from the lantern, and there’s nothing funny about that.
What made, and still makes, O’iwa scary, I think, are the feelings she evokes in us. Against her we are powerless, helpless, on many levels at once. Most of us have at some point done someone a wrong and can imagine Iemon’s guilt. We feel his fear, understand his flights, cover-ups and denials – all that while being aware what a despicable human being he is. In contrast, O’iwa in her onryō state is utterly alien. You can never be sure in what shape or manner she will appear next; it could be anyone, anything, anywhere. She destabilizes categories, perception and thus reality itself and drives you mad. And you cannot reason with her, reach her, or forcibly stop her. You are completely at her mercy, and she has none for you. What could be more horrifying?
Notes and References:
[i] Anderson & Ritchie, as quoted in Elisabeth Scherer: Spuk der Frauenseele. Weibliche Geister im japanischen Film und ihre kulturhistorischen Ursprünge. Bielefeld: transcript, 2011, 98.
[ii] If you like Japanese monsters as much as I do, check out the amazing website named for this event.
[iii] Shirane Haruo (ed): Early Modern Japanese Literature. An Anthology, 1600-1900. New York: Columbia UP., 2002, 844. See also http://www.kabuki21.com/nanboku4.php.
[v] The exact circumstances of her death vary between different summaries of the story. Sometimes she commits suicide, cutting her throat. Sometimes Iemon kills her, but in the only version I had access to, Mark Oshima’s translation of acts 2 and 3 for Shirane 2002, while grappling with Iemon over the objects (such as her bedding and mosquito net), he intends to sell in order to make her leave him, she accidentally falls into the Kohei’s sword, which had remained stuck in a pillar from an earlier fight.
[vi] An interesting article on this topic: Valerie Wee: „Patriarcy and the Horror of the Monstrous Feminine. A Comparative Study of Ringu and The Ring“. In: Feminist Media Studies 11 (2), 2011, 151–165.
[vii] Rebecca Copeland: „Mythical Bad Girls: The Corpse, the Crone, and the Snake.“ In: Laura Miller und Jan Bardsley (eds): Bad Girls of Japan. Houndmills, Balsingstoke, Hampshire, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, 14–31, 17-18.
[ix] Samuel L. Leiter, as quoted in Richard J. Hand: „Aesthetics of Cruelty. Traditional Japanese Theatre and the Horror Film“. In: Jay McRoy (ed): Japanese Horror Cinema. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005, S. 18–28, 24.
This post may be a little elitist, but not all information is equal. Much of the internet overflows with drivel written by people who are not the experts they claim to be. Like this blog! Okay, Okay. I don’t claim to be an expert. I am a librarian and a fan who enjoys ferreting out information from books, academic journals, and databases. I try to only use vetted sources. I admit I sometimes get things wrong. Sometimes my articles are not accurate.
Source accuracy matters. How do I determine the accuracy of the sources I use? Well, first I try to avoid Wikipedia. Some of my early articles used Wikipedia, but over time I learned just how inaccurate Wikipedia can be. Anyone can add or delete information. Experts may edit or write an article, but someone in high school could just as easily change the expert’s article. Antipathy toward expertise is a problem even Wikipedia’s co-founders Lawrence Sanger acknowledges (Levintin,2014).
Wikipedia is decent for a general idea about a topic as long as you keep in mind its potential to be inaccurate. Sadly, there is no way to know if you are reading an accurate article or not. Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, states experts should have no more respect than newcomers to Wikipedia. Often people are contrary because they consider it being fair and balanced. Contrary isn’t the same as showing both side of an argument. There are times when the opposing side has no place being mentioned because they lack evidence.
However, not all information is valid, contrary or not. Fair and balanced information tries to reveal all aspects surrounding a topic. It doesn’t matter if that information is contrary or agree with established knowledge. But why would someone be inaccurate with an educational article?
Causes of Information Inaccuracy
Three issues cause inaccuracy (Levintin, 2014).
desire to maintain status quo
Bias deals with personal preferences and limits of knowledge. For example, because I study Japanese culture, I tend to also understand Chinese culture through its relationship with Japanese culture. That creates blind spots and misunderstandings with how I understand China.
The desire to maintain status quo blinds people to information that undermine their expertise or their vested interests. You can see this in business. A business may resist an idea that may benefit it but at the cost of the corporate culture.
The preselection effect deals with who writes information. Often, those who are most qualified to write an article are unable to do so.
You can find many excellent public domain photos at NY Public Library and other online libraries.
Why does this matter for an anime blogger? Why should we care? Well, this matters to everyone who seeks information. Misinformation is a serious problem on the Internet. Don’t misunderstand, it is great that anyone can publish online. But it leaves the seeker solely responsible for finding accurate information. Before the internet, responsibility for accuracy fell on the author more than readers. Now, readers must be careful. As bloggers, we cannot accurately express ourselves, educate our readers, or make proper decisions without good information. We need to be skeptical toward all information, including those found in vetted sources like academic journals. If you are writing a blog post, you want the post to be as accurate as possible. You want it to represent you.
There are several questions to ask when looking at an information source:
What is the goal of the author?
What bias do I see?
What information is missing?
Are sources cited?
Are sources high quality?
The goals and bias of the author impacts information. That is why I attempt to point out my bias and goals in my articles. It is impossible to include all information in a single piece. The act of writing requires selection and omission. After all, you can only write what you understand. The goal of the author and her views determine what information is present and disregarded. Sometimes, the author isn’t aware of some information. Therefore it cannot be included. While this seems obvious, this matters. We don’t know what we don’t know, and this causes us to miss vital information.
\To avoid this, collect as much information as you can about a topic, including indirect information. For example, when I work on a folklore project, I pull documents loosely related to my chosen topic. When I researched for Come and Sleep, I pulled articles about European foxes, Chinese foxes, and Native American foxes to shed more light on kitsune. Most of this information wasn’t helpful, but I found links and a few bits that the articles focused on kitsune failed to mention.
It is important to cite your sources for readers to review. It helps readers and fellow bloggers see what could be missing. It also helps them continue with their own research. While few will do this, those that do will appreciate your consideration. Citations do not protect you from plagiarism, but they do lend weight to your work. However, they can also mislead readers if your information is inaccurate or incomplete. Citations lead them to believe the information is complete. Again, we don’t know what we don’t know.
As a librarian, I am concerned with connecting people with accurate information. But the act of writing automatically creates the issues I’ve discussed. We understand information through our individual lenses. This shapes information into something usable. However, we need to remain cautious about problems with bias, omission, and blatant misinformation.
What is the take away? Don’t rely solely on Wikipedia. Its information is suspect. Use your own judgment on sources found in vetted databases and online. The extra effort helps you craft higher quality blog posts and helps expand your understanding on anime, manga, and Japanese culture.
Levitin, D. (2014) The Organized Mind, New York: Penguin Group.