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The art of benshi: The voices of silent film

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

despair Tokyo March silent film

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.

The artists…

Owing to their origin as explainers of western ‘exotic’ contexts, benshi tended to dress in western attire, commonly tuxedo and top hat.

Sawata Midori benshi

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.

Silent movie animation Monkey Masamune

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.

Cultural contexts

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.

Asou Yata Benshi

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 Ichiro benshi

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

Silent movie animation Lump Theft

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.

Tarō’s Train

Taro's train live action

Little Tarô, absorbed in his new toy.

Taro's Train animation

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!

Tokyo March

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.

bromance silent film classic

“My happiness will never be complete without you, Yoshiki.”

Contrasts

san-sukumi Jiraiya Tsunade Orochimaru

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.

Afterthoughts

Oshin poster

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.

Notes and References

Website Sawato Midori: http://sawatomidori.com/eng/profile.html

An introduction of Kataoka Ichirō: http://hcl.harvard.edu/hfa/films/2012octdec/benshi.html

Video of a Kataoka Performance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W-SBXG4xY_M

[i] http://facets.org/blog/misc/the-tale-of-benshi-the-forgotten-heritage-of-japanese-silent-cinema

[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.

[iii] Yomota 2007: 44.

[iv] A slightly different take on the Brechtian comparision: http://www.altx.com/interzones/kino2/benshi.html

[v] Aaron Gerow: Visions of Japanese Modernity. Articulations of Cinema, Nation, and Spectatorship, Berkeley, Los Angeles & London: U of California P, 2010, p. 147.

[vi] http://aboutjapan.japansociety.org/content.cfm/a_brief_history_of_benshi. An extensive study of the open-endedness of the benshi performance, and the question if benshi closed or opened the interpretation of the filmic text, see Gerow 2010., chapter 4.

[vii] Yomota 2007: 44.

[viii] Anderson 1992: 265.

[ix] Yomota 2007: 45.

[x] Anderson 1992: 279.

[xi] Anderson 1992: 270. He uses the term katsuben, but I prefer beshi since that is the word Kataoka himself uses.

[xii] Anderson 1992: 271.

[xiii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ShzmzcJM7QI

[xiv] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wY9fEdt9NRI

[xv] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iYyeT9PMNXo

[xvi] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b0eVO94JQ1Y Sadly, this version has no sound at all, whereas this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AC1pPawxWGY has music but only french intertitles.

[xvii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xt9GRKpeDtU with subtitles, but no music.

[xviii] Suggestions of this kind are made by Anderson 1992: 293 and Yomota 2007: 27, 45.


Considering Japanese Incest, Cultural Obsession, and the Book The Six-Foot Bonsai

Recently, I’ve read a memoir written by Stacy Gleiss that shares her experiences with an abusive Japanese husband and her immersion into Japanese culture. I’ve considered doing a standard book review, but it’s difficult to critique a memoir. By their nature, memoirs share intimate details about a person’s life that I don’t feel right critiquing. However, The Six-Foot Bonsai touches on a darker experience of Japanese culture and media. Gleiss’s experience, shaped by an abusive relationship and her obsession for all things Japanese, brings up topics young otaku fail to consider.

I’ve ran into people who show the same obsessive interest Gleiss writes about in her book. In fact, those people drove me to start JP in the first place. I wanted to speak out against misplaced views about Japanese culture. Through my research, I’ve come to admire some aspects of the culture and dislike other aspects. To my neighbors, I’ve become something of a Japanophile, but my first interest was the Roman Empire (particularly the founding and collapse of Rome) and early Christian history. I own more books on those topics than on Japan, which is saying something. So in many regards, I struggle to understand the extreme love for Japan Gleiss writes about and otaku share. I find Japan fascinating but no more fascinating than the Roman Empire. I tell you this so you can understand that I am lack first-hand experience in culture obsession. Gleiss’s book serves as a better source. If you are obsessed with Japan (that is, it dominates your thinking and how you behave), you need to read her book.

With these caveats out of the way, let’s start with my impressions of the book and then lead into cultural obsession and kawaii culture. While I practice Zen, I stand in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. It’s through these lens that I view everything. I grew up in a particularly hardcore legalistic branch of Christianity, and its precepts are still written on my bones, despite knowing how wrong  many of them are. Much of what Gleiss accounts with her life troubled my sensibilities. I also struggled to understand how her all-consuming interest in Japan could drive her to drop everything and transplant into the culture. I have an interest in living in Japan as well, but it would be as a Westerner who is respectful of Japanese practices and  with an interest to study their history and folklore rather than trying to become Japanese. The West can learn many lessons from Japanese culture, but in the end, a person born and raised in the West can only adopt another culture so far. Cultures can only be judged in relation to each other, and the person considering the culture needs to have a broad and firm frame of reference. For example, I’ve studied Japanese culture, Persian/Babylonian culture, Hellenistic culture, Roman culture, ancient Hebrew culture, ancient Egyptian culture, and I grew up in rural American Judaeo-Christian culture. Gleiss writes about the importance of cultural comparison as a means to keep perspective:

When I first experienced Japan, I thought this intriguing culture held the secrets to a good life: order, process, and an almost artistic approach to everything. But my blind faith in this culture was sorely misplaced. In fact, placing trust in any culture is risky without a set of standards by which to measure the moral rectitude of any given custom.

In my case, my Judaeo-Christian background with a traditional rural American upbringing serves as my set of standards (with added standards from cultures I’ve studied). In many cases, I’ve observed my otaku friends pursue an interest in Japanese culture as a way to rebel against American individualism. While American individualism is toxic in its present rendition, turning toward a mistaken idea of Japanese culture can be more poisonous because the idea isn’t complete. Rather, it is an idealization. Now, idealizing a culture can be useful. My childhood idealization of the Roman Empire drove me to learn more, including the darker side of Rome–slavery, rape, disease, incest. However, for many, the echo-chamber of the internet prevents them from going past the sections of a culture they enjoy: otaku culture in particular.

Speaking of dark aspects of culture, as Gleiss’s book illustrates, Japan has a problem with objectifying young girls. American culture worships the idol of youth, but Japan takes it to the extreme. Long time readers know that I loathe fan-service. I’ve also explained the origins of lolita culture and kawaii culture.  In Gleiss’s life, she explains how lolita and kawaii culture shaped her abusive ex-husband’s views of sexuality and women. The access to prepubescent sexualized media–the upskirt shots and other sexual poses manga and anime peddle–encouraged his pedophile tendencies.  Buddhism and Christianity warn that the messages we consume shape our thinking. Consuming prepubescent sexualized manga–okay, let’s not dodge the word anymore: child pornography–will shape a person’s view of sexuality.

Child Pornography in Japan

Back in the 1990s, Japan’s child pornography industry flourished. In 1997, Christian Science Monitor wrote:

The child pornography that Japanese officials consider legal falls into two categories. The first features pictures of children in public places photographed with hidden cameras or powerful lenses. This “peeping” material does involve Japanese children, but is not considered a violation of the child-welfare law since the photographers are not “inducing” children to practice “obscene acts,” which the law prohibits.

A second type presents posed pictures of children, very often naked. Most of the children involved are girls from Southeast Asia and, to a lesser extent, Eastern Europe, according to three men who work in the pornography industry. In keeping with the industry’s self-imposed guidelines for pornography involving children under 18, no genitals or sexual activity is shown.

Part of the reason why it flourished in the 1990s was because of obscenity laws that banned displays of pubic hair, creating a loophole for images of prepubescent children. In 2015, the Japanese government banned the private ownership of obscene products involving both male and female children under the age of 18, but the law did little to curb the distribution of such material (Osaki, 2015). I’m sure you’ve seen anime or read manga that featured far-too-young children depicted in voyeuristic poses. These types of poses are so common to the media that they have become expected tropes. Adult women are shown flashing their assets along with teens and pre-teens in mainstream titles. Just look at No-Game; No-Life as one example. Dance in the Vampire Bund is another title that thinly veils this problem by stating that Mina Țepeș is far older than she looks and has an adult form. But that doesn’t stop the anime from objectifying her prepubescent body.

I debated an entire day about whether or not to use this picture. I don’t want to be seen as supporting what amounts to child pornography, but I also wanted to provide an example for discussion. Shiro is 11 years old. There’s no way to call this illustration anything but sexual. Her pose and lack of clothing showcases her budding prepubescent breasts and her lack of hips. This is what sexualization of children in manga and anime looks like. Kawaii culture sees such depictions as normal and even innocently cute. If it was innocent, the illustration wouldn’t depict her in such an outfit and angle. This illustration isn’t out of the ordinary for manga and anime, sadly. While I debated about this image, fans often think nothing of such illustrations.

These types of fan-service are so common that few think much of it. Rei Ayanami, from Neon Genesis Evangelion, is perhaps one of the most fetishized characters. She’s 14, well below the allowable age to have sex according to Japan’s Children Welfare Act (which forbids sex for anyone under the age of 18) but above the age of consent established in the Japanese Penal Code (which is only 13). As you can see, even the law is ambiguous. In the United States, she still falls under child pornography laws, however. In any case, Rei and other characters have become so fetishized that it’s considered a normal part of being an anime/manga fan. Some fans even claim her as a waifu. In fact, relationships with fictitious teen and prepubescent characters are fairly common in the otaku fandom. The confusion surrounding the enforcement of obscenity laws (and how they clash with free expression) contribute to this normalization.

One of the issues surrounding enforcement of Japan’s obscenity laws deals with kawaii culture. Characters may be 20, but look 15. Lobbyists for the Japan Cartoonist Association resist an outright ban on the content (Ripley, 2014):

Ken Akamatsu, who lobbies lawmakers on behalf of the Japan Cartoonists Association, said a total ban on explicit content would damage the entire industry, making creators too scared to put pen to paper in case they risked breaking the rules.
He said the characters were imaginary, so unlike real child porn, no one was hurt.
“Actual children suffering and crying is not acceptable. But manga doesn’t involve actual children. So there are no actual victims,” he said.

Gleiss’s ex-husband echoes this reasoning. In the book, she accounts how her ex-husband claimed to separate reality from fantasy. Many people claim fiction doesn’t affect behavior; however, for most of human history fiction–myths and folklore–taught morals, values, and cultural viewpoints. While some claim fiction lacks victims, the victims are the readers. Their consumption distorts their idea of reality. It does it gradually, in ways that evade notice. In turn, this can shape sexuality and make it difficult to bond with people on an intimate level. Yes, some claim to be unaffected and have happy and healthy relationships. As with everything, fictional relationships and interests can benefit people and their relationships. Obsessive behavior falls outside of these possible benefits.

Incest in Japanese Culture

While Suguha and Kazuto aren’t brother and sister by blood, they were raised that way. This makes Suguha’s romantic affection for him as akin to incest.

Related to child pornography is Japan’s long history of incest. Shinto mythology features incestuous relationships between deities. A region of Honshu has special terms for different types of incest:

  • hiemaki refers to mother-in-law/son-in-law
  • awamaki for father-in-law/daughter-in-law
  • imonoko for father daughter.

This suggests these types of incest were common enough to warrant naming (Kitahara, 1989a). Shinto rituals that purified sins also named forms of incest. This further suggestions a commonality. According to Kitahara (1989a), the practice of co-sleeping and co-bathing may have contributed to historical cases of incest. Kitahara (1989b) examines a book outlining cases of mother-son incest where the mother helps relieve her son’s stress by helping him masturbate or even having sex with him. Kitahara (1989b) writes:

According to a 20-year-old male, when he was 14 and bathing with is mother, he inadvertently experienced erection. The other said: “It is better to discharge it,” and she petted him to ejaculate. They were having coitus since he was 16. Apparently some mothers behave similarly toward their sons, who typically express their reactions by saying “mother helped me to ejaculate” and this usually takes place in the bathroom.

Francis Pike confirms this was a lingering problem in 1997’s article in London magazine The Spectator.

In her book, Gleiss makes no mention of such happening with her ex-husband; however, the awareness of incest through literature and, perhaps through rare events as Kitahara examines, creates a framework that allows him to normalize such behavior. Manga and anime contributes to this as well. Brother-sister relationships have become rather common in recent years. No Game; No Life serves as an example, as does Sword Art Online. All of this points to an undercurrent of incest in Japanese cultural history. Over the last few decades, as Japanese birthrates decrease, researchers have pointed to how men have a mother complex. Back in 1993, Satoru Saito doubted mother-son incest was common, but the relationship between mother and son still defined Japanese society (Mccarthy, 1993):

‘There is no clear distinction between male-female relations and mother- son relations,’ says Dr. Saito. ‘Japanese males are always mixing these two: they want to assert their sexuality, but at the same time they want to be held by their mothers – warm, safe, secure.’

Today, as you can see in this article about dating, people still struggle with this issue. It results in unequal sharing of household work and general inequality in marriage. Again, this ties back into child pornography. Men from households with extreme nurturing–regardless of the sexual elements involved or not involved–struggle to develop adult viewpoints, so it would only be natural for them to develop affection for cute, innocent, and available portrayals of girls and women as media culture pushes.

Obsession and Fault Blinders

Mina from Dance in the Vampire Bund has far too much sexuality for her child form. The show made me uncomfortable throughout.

Cultural obsessions blind people to the culture’s faults, such as Japan’s child pornography and, to a lesser extent, incest. Gleiss’s book shows how a personal obsession can do this, but obsession can also blind a fandom. The normalization of fan-service and soft incest within anime and manga attest to this fact. Sadly, anime with such content sells. Some people argue that fan-service and lolicon are protected under free speech. While this is true, they shouldn’t be normalized. There’s a difference between protecting and normalizing certain types of expression. Yes, such expressions can be useful; they can raise awareness of the problem and–I’m going to stretch here–provide an outlet for people. But consumption of such messages affects how reality is understood. This is why you see some otaku encroach on women.

So far I’ve singled out men, but women suffer from the same issues. However, society places less focus on these issues. There is a double standard when it comes to unwanted sexual advances toward men. A female otaku grabbing a man at a convention doesn’t face the same backlash as a man doing the same to her. But setting that aside, I focused on men because most anime/manga objectify women more often than men. As a male, I expect my fellow men to behave as gentlemen. Check out the blog Art of Manliness if you want to see what I mean.

Gleiss’s book The Six-Foot Bonsai brings up all of these issues and speaks about Japan’s focus on youthfulness and cuteness in the context of her own life. Her book serves as a warning for those who are obsessed with Japanese culture and unable to see the culture’s negatives, and every culture has its darker side.

Now there are some who are obsessed with anime and manga but have little interest in Japanese culture. They just like the stories and the characters. However, obsession of any sort is an issue. Obsessions lack balance and leave a person with a one-dimensional life. You might know of a religious person who does nothing but speak about God and Jesus or Allah. In many cases, these obsessions are based on misconceived ideas and a lack of true understanding about the target of the obsession. They are obsessed with the idea rather than the reality, often in order to escape reality. Eventually, reality will prick the bubble and the shock of it will leave people unable to function. Gleiss suggests she struggled with this problem when her bubble finally burst.

The Long and Short

I want anime and manga to stop with the fan-service and ecchi and soft incest. I want them to focus less on tropes and more on good writing, and anime can do that. Animations have the ability to tell stories live action cannot. But I’m not naive. This will continue until Western and Japanese fans pressure the companies by not purchasing such content. It’s past time for anime and manga to stop with prepubescent sexualization.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t have any issues with adult nudity. I used to draw and paint classical nudes back when I studied animation and art in college. The difference is intent. Classical art nudes seek to show the beauty of the human body or tell a story about the person. Sexual poses as we see in anime and throughout online art websites intend to arouse. They are not art because they don’t tell a story. Even child nudity can be used to drive home a point, such as the famous photo of 9-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc as she tried to run away from the napalm that burned her during the Vietnam War. But sexualization is a different matter entirely.

If you are obsessed with Japan and/or anime and manga or even video games, you need to reevaluate how it influences your life. Is is a way to escape something that troubles you? In small amounts this is okay, but if there is a problem you need to face it and make corrections if you can. If you can’t you should learn to accept the way reality is rather than avoid it. Everything ends, so even what seems forever will change.

Develop different interests. If you are an extreme otaku, develop interests apart from anime and manga. Take up a creative hobby aside from drawing your favorite characters or writing about them. Diversify.

If you are like Gleiss, you may have to abstain from Japanese culture altogether. She writes about using Japanese culture like it’s a drug. It’s okay to be interested in another culture. It’s different if you are consumed by it. Throughout Gleiss’s book, she write candidly about this consuming influence, which is why I recommend you read her memoir if you too suffer from cultural addiction.

References

Barr, C. W. (1997, April 2). Why Japan plays host to world’s largest child pornography… (Cover story). Christian Science Monitor. p. 1.

Kitahara, Michio (1989a). “Childhood in Japanese Culture”. The Journal of psychohistory (0145-3378), 17 (1), p. 43.

Kiatahara, Michio (1989b). “Incest- Japanese Style.” The Journal of psychohistory. 16 (4), p. 445.

McCarthy, Terry (1993) Out of Japan: Mother love puts a nation in the puch. Independent. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/out-of-japan-mother-love-puts-a-nation-in-the-pouch-1508595.html

Osaki, Tomohiro (2015, October 22). Groups Criticize Japan’s Tolerance of Child Pornography, Call for Stricter Laws. The Japan Times.

Pike, Francis (1997). Where Some Sons Do Have Them. The Spectator. 20.

Ripley, Will and Hilary Whiteman. (2014). Sexually explicit Japan manga evades new laws on child pornography. CNN Wire.


The Life and Influence of Matsuo Bashō

Each day is a journey, and the journey itself home

Matsuo Bashō was born in 1644 in the town of Ueno to a minor samurai family. While he is best known for his haiku in the West, his travel journals broke ground in Japanese literature. In his teen years, Bashō entered the service of Todo Yoshikiyo, who was also a poet. According to traditional accounts of his life, Bashō worked as part of the kitchen’s staff before being introduced to Kitamura Kigin (1624-1705), one of the best poets of Kyoto at the time. Through Kigin, Bashō was able to become a professional poet and move to Edo (Carter, 1997). He began as a haikai poet. A haikai is a type of poem made of linked verses (Norman, 2008).  Bashō went by many names before settling on the one we know: Kiginsaku, Toshichiro, Tadaemon, Jinshichiro, and Munefusa. His first haiku was published under the name of Tosei, which translates to “green peach.” The name pays homage to Bashō’s favorite Chinese poet Li Po (or “white plum”) (Norman, 2008). Bashō wrote over 1,000 haikus in his lifetime. Unlike other poets of his time, Bashō focused on the everyday moments. He tried to capture the moment a bird took wing or a frog jumped (Biallas, 2002). He never claimed there was a single way to write good haiku. Instead, he argued a good poem came from a flash of insight and jotting it down immediately (Heyd, 2003).

Let me digress a moment. Haiku is a 19th century contraction of hokku no haikai. A haiku is a 3 line poem that follows a specific pattern of ji-on, or symbol-sounds. Ji-on are made up of a single vowel or a consonant + vowel. Haiku lines follow this pattern: 5-7-5. Let’s look at an example from Bashō.

Autumn deepens—
The man next door, what
does he do for a living?
aki fukaki
tonari wa nani o
suru hito zo

I highlighted every symbol-sound to help you see how the 5-7-5 rule works. Haiku doesn’t try to rhyme. It focuses on the symbol-sound pattern and its imagery. Haiku often use  a word or expression (called a ki-go) to pin down the time of the year. This sets the mood of the poem. Autumn, for example, has a lonely feeling. Ki-go act as shorthand to convey feelings, ideas, or meaning in as few words as possible….if you understand what feelings, ideas, or meanings are associated with the ki-go. Weather conditions and animals can act as ki-go. Weather conditions and animals have strong associations with certain seasons. Such as rain showers and spring here in the United States. Before Bashō, haikai poetry fixed on the tastes of the courtly elite or funny topics that appealed to the merchant class. Bashō’s poetry focused on common, everyday experience. Basho defined what we know of as haiku.

In 1680, Bashō gave up his practice in a way that amounts of professional suicide. He gave up his professional status and moved outside of Edo. He wrote this poem the same year:

On a bare branch
A crow has settled down to roost.
In autumn dusk.

His students followed him and built him a home. They also gave him basho trees (a type of banana). He began writing under that name, and it stuck with him: Basho. During this time, he studied Zen but struggled with spiritual beliefs. In 1682, his house was caught in the fire that burned most of Edo (Norman, 2008). He mourned the event:

Tired of cherry,
Tired of this whole world,
I sit facing muddy sake
And black rice.

Part of the reason he moved was to avoid his fame, but people still followed and pestered him. He had to resort to locking his gate to escape. Of course, he wrote about it:

Only for morning glories I open my door—During the daytime I keep it tightly barred.

One of the trails Basho may have walked. Photo by Michael Yamashita. National Geographic Magazine.

Despite people calling him a master poet, Basho felt dissatisfied with his writing. Many times he wanted to give it up altogether. He called his writing “mere drunken chatter, the incoherent babbling of a dreamer” (Biallas, 2002). His discontent seemed to be one reason why he decided to take to the road starting in 1684. His first journal, Journal of a Weather-Beaten Skeleton, captures the difficulty of travel at the time. That hardship becomes a reoccurring theme in his later journals. He traveled several times between 1687-1688 and wrote about the experiences in Kashima Journal and Manuscript in a Knapsack. The journals combined prose and haiku, a combination called haibun (Heyd, 2003; Norman, 2008). He often focused on little things he observed while on the road:

Stillness—
Piercing the rock
The cicada’s song.

It is hard to us to imagine the difficulty of travel at the time. People traveled on foot with few rest stops and exposure to wind, rain and lice. Bashō even wrote about the trouble lice caused him: “Shed of everything else, I still have some lice I picked up on the road—Crawling on my summer robes.” He wrote about how rice-planting songs were a part of poetic tradition and wrote about the refinement of people found in rural villages. At the time, only those who lived in cities and belonged to the upper classes were thought of as refined. Equating country farm songs with samurai class poetry was also a break in the thinking of that time.

In his mid-40s, Basho grew tired of his fame. Despite his frail health, he decided on taking a pilgrimage to locations important to Japanese religious, literary, and military history.  In May 1689, he set out with his friend Sora, a backpack, writing materials, and a few changes of clothes. We walked for 5 months, during which he penned his masterpiece, Narrow Road to a Far Province. The book spoke of a spiritual journey while Basho made his living on the road as a teacher (Carter, 1997). The entire journey involved walking 1,200 miles through some of the roughest terrain of Japan. Some of the roads were little more than trails.

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. (189). Mogi Road Retrieved from New York Public Library Digital Collection.

Here are excerpts from Narrow Road:

The months and days are the travelers of eternity. The years that come and go are also voyagers. Those who float away their lives on ships or who grow old leading horses are forever journeying, and their homes are wherever their travels take them. Many of the men of old died on the road, and I too for years past have been stirred by the sight of a solitary cloud drifting with the wind to ceaseless thoughts of roaming.
Last year I spent wandering along the coast. In autumn I returned to my cottage on the river and swept away the cobwebs. Gradually the year drew to its close. When spring came and there was mist in the air, I thought of crossing the Barrier of Shirakawa into Oku. I seemed to be possessed by the spirits of wanderlust, and they all deprived me of my senses. The guardian spirits of the road beckoned, and I could not settle down to work.
I patched my torn trousers and changed the cord on my bamboo hat. To strengthen my legs for the journey I had moxa burned on my shins. By then I could think of nothing but the moon at Matsushima. When I sold my cottage and moved to Sampû’s villa, to stay until I started on my journey, I hung this poem on a post in my hut:

kusa no to mo
sumikawaru yo zo
hina no ie

Even a thatched hut
May change with a new owner
Into a doll’s house.

This is the introduction to Narrow Road (Keene, 1996). Moxa was a medical treatment of ground mugwort used to treat or prevent various diseases. Notice how he combines prose with haiku. The next excerpt has Bashō visiting a castle.

The three generations of glory of the Fujiwara of Hiraizumi vanished in the space of a dream.  The ruins of their Great Gate are two miles this side of the castle; where once Hidehira’s mansion stood are now fields, and only the golden cockerel Mountain remains as in former days.
We first climbed up to Castle-on-the-Heights, from where we could see the Kitagami, a large river that flows down from the north.  Here Yoshitsune once fortified himself with some picked retainers, but his great glory turned in a moment into this wilderness of grass.  “Countries may fall, but their rivers and mountains remain.  When spring comes to the ruined castle, the grass is green again.”  These lines went through my head as I sat on the ground, my bamboo hat spread under me.  There I sat weeping, unaware of the passage of time.

His travel journals read a little like modern day travel guides. Bashō visited major military, literary, and religious landmarks. The bits of history help give a context.

Bashō died in 1694. He remains one of the most important poets in Japanese history, and his work are the first school children learn. His travel journals inspire pilgrimages in an effort to reconnect with a literary tradition. Many anime like Samurai Champloo pull inspiration from a travel tradition Bashō made famous. He wasn’t the first traveling poet, but he stands as one of the best loved. The calligrapher Soryu wrote this epilogue in the Narrow Road:

Once had my raincoat on, eager to go on a like journey, and then again content to sit imagining those rare sights. What a hoard of feelings, Kojin jewels, has his brush depicted! Such a journey! Such a man!

References

Biallas, L (2002) Merton and Basho: The Narrow Road Home. Merton Annual. 15 77.

Carter, S. (1997) On a Bare Branch: Basho and the Haikai Profession. American Oriental Society. 117 (1). 57-69.

Heyd, T. (2003) Basho and the Aesthetics of Wandering: Recuperating Space, Recognizing Place, and Following the Ways of the Universe. Philosophy East and West. 53 (3) 291-307.

Keene, D. (1996) The Narrow Road to Oku.

Norman, H. (2008) On the Poet’s Path. National Geographic. http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2008/02/bashos-trail/howard-norman-text


Musings VIII: Monsters and Identity in “The Great Yōkai War”

Monsters – the Ultimate Adversary?

youkai yokai Japanese Monsters Mizuki shigeru

An assembly of yôkai.

It seems to be the most gripping kind of tale: The fight against a monster. Our heroes may confront it literally, as a demonic creature or a mad serial killer, or more symbolically, in the faceless grinding mechanisms of society, or the depths of their own subconscious.

The Japanese monsters categorized as yōkai are fascinating to me, not only because of their ever-changing appearance and narratives but also for their function in cultural discourse. A couple of years ago, I wrote an essay about the classic Yōkai daisensō, “Great Yōkai War”-chapter in Mizuki Shigeru’s manga Gegege no Kitarō, and while the material in doubtlessly somewhat dated now, I still consider it interesting enough to bear retelling in this blog.

The Father of Modern Monster Manga

Mizuki Mura Shigeru

Mizuki (Mura) Shigeru, 2010.

Mizuki Shigeru was one of the most influential mangaka of the 20th century. He was born as Mura Shigeru in 1924, most likely in Ōsaka,[1] and grew up in the remote town of Sakaiminato (“border harbour”) which faces the Sea of Japan. In his own autobiographical stories, he marks two eras of his life as most important: Firstly, his childhood, when an old woman told him stories about yōkai and thus built the foundation of his lifelong attention to them. Secondly, his war experiences, especially the time he spent convalescing in the village of Rabaul in Papua New Guinea after the loss of his left arm. In his works, he often idealizes the life of the natives: “as if I had somehow come upon a fairyland”[2]. Besides the spooky stories about Gegege no Kitarō, see below, Mizuki also illustrated numerous yōkai, some of which he invented or gave physical appearance for the first time. He also created a number of influential autobiographical narratives and the award-winning Showa: A History of Japan.[3] Mizuki was active as an artist far into old age; he died in November 2015. It is a great regret of mine that I never managed to visit the museum devoted to him during my stay in Japan.

Monsters and Japanese Identity

Gegege no Kitaro Kitarou

Kitarô being his usual caefree self.

In contrast to ever-raising action levels and expectation-driven heroes who developed from the model of Tezuka Osamu’s protagonists such as Astroboy, Mizuki’s Kitarō is a more ambiguous, more laid back figure.[4] And a decidedly uncanny one, of cause. As the last descendant of a spirit tribe, Kitarō usually functions as mediator between yōkai and humans.[5] In the story Yōkai daisensō, “The Great Yōkai War” (1966), however, Kitarō allies with a group of yōkai to liberate an island from an occupation by Western monsters. This story reflects two important moments of Japanese Post-War culture and politics: The American occupation and the re-emerging discourse of Japaneseness.

A Transformation of the historical situation

In Yōkai daisensō, Mizuki addresses the real conflict of the American occupation of Japan by shifting it into a fantastic otherworld. The “monstrous” concepts of American occupation and war itself take physical form as Western monsters and thus return to the public conscious, where they can be worked through and resolved. For, as Japanese studies scholar Fabio Gygi puts it, “[t]he only way to exorcise a monster […] is to conjure it, that is, paradoxically, to make it appear”.[6] Doubly distanced in the otherworld of monsters and the island of Kikaigashima, a fictitious location at the tip of Okinawa (the very edge of Japan), the trauma becomes safe to handle. In addition, criticism of the present situation, which might be a dangerous topic in realistic works, becomes possible in a fantastic scenario.

Western Monsters as Occupation Force

western monsters Kitarou Kitaro wolfman dracula Frankenstein

Three of the four western monsters.

Scholar of Japanese Media studies Zilia Papp analyses four approaches to the monster-war-theme in her 2009 article.[7] Regarding the Kitarō manga, she emphasizes the anti-American theme. In earlier narratives about monster wars, yōkai symbolized the alien Other, including foreigners, and were defeated by Japanese human characters.[8] By contrast, Kitarō and a band of yōkai depart to aid a child in markedly Asian dress (he is wearing a Vietnamese hat) against clearly western monsters. Thus, Mizuki uses Japanese monsters to represent the Self and “stereotypical western monsters” for the enemy. Namely, the antagonists are a witch, a wolfman, Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster, and the design of the latter two clearly alludes to American cinema.[9] In addition, “[a]nalogies to the Pacific War (1942-45), the Battle of Okinawa (1945) and the Vietnam War (1959-75) are articulated” in text and image.[10] As a result, a clear confrontation between Japanese and American representatives emerges.

Kitaro Sunakake Baba Medamoma Oyaji Konaki Jiji Nurikabe Yokai Youkai Daisenso Daisensou

The company departs.

Yōkai, Japanese Monsters, as icons of Japaneseness

In her analysis of the ikai (otherworld) motif in Japanese literature of the 1990s, professor for Japanese literature Lisette Gebhardt states that an otherworld may include aspects of the alien and the afterlife. It serves as construction site for new patterns of identification.[11] In the 1960s, new identification patterns were also certainly necessary after the collapse of the military system of wartime Japan. Moreover, the development from wartime shortages and destruction to the economic growth of the 50s and 60s necessitated a redefinition of what it meant to be Japanese. This definition often arises from texts of the nihon(jin)ron or “discourse of (the) Japan(ese)”. Cultural Anthropologist Aoki Tamotsu proposes a subdivision of modern Japanese history according to the prevalent type of nihonjinron. Kitarō would fall into the early third phase, in which Japanese cultural traditions were revalidated. Fittingly, Michal Dylan Foster in his epochal study Pandemonium and Parade (2009) describes Mizuki’s works as “(re)discovery of the yōkai as pop-culture icon”.[12] Kitarō assembles yōkai from all over Japan to assist the child from the occupied island, thus his group comes to represent Japan as a whole. With their roots in local myth and folklore, yōkai are symbols of Japan in its perceived cultural uniqueness.

Monstrous Self

It is not only their clear-cut confrontation of American monster villains and Japanese yōkai which marks the latter as representatives of the Japanese (reader him/her) self. Mizuki also uses visual techniques to encourage identification with the yōkai boy Kitarō. Initially overpowered by the Western monsters, Kitarō faces the chief villain, a tentacle-sprouting, floating, one-eyed creature named Beādo.[13] In this scene, Kitarō’s pitiful state is evident in the loss of this hair and his ancestral vest Chanchanko, two of his usually effective weapons. This alone activates the reader’s sympathy and thus identification.

kitaro Kitarou Beado back panel

Kitarô faced with the main villain.

Moreover, he is positioned with his back to the reader in a pose used to provoke identification at least since Caspar David Friedrich’s romantic landscape paintings. We look over his shoulder and share his perception. The well-known manga Akira (Ōtomo Katsuhiro, 1982-90) also uses this method, as manga scholar Miriam Brunner describes. “His body protrudes […] into the picture and invites the viewer’s identification […]. Passing beyond his upper body, the recipient’s eye is guided”[14] toward the panel focus, in this case the looming figure of Beādo. Mizuki is usually very conventional with his panel designs. Therefore, it is noteworthy that this panel is the only instance in Yōkai daisensō where a character stands completely outside his panel and as close as possible to the reader. Mizuki thereby emphasizes the equation of yōkai and Japanese reader in this moment of failure and helplessness before an overpowering Western force. This of course makes the final triumph of the yōkai all the sweeter.

Nostalgia for a phantom

Mizuki reworks past trauma and present distress in a fantastic realm. His reference to ancient yōkai folklore is an emphasis of cultural tradition which can be contextualized in the search for a new identity after defeat and rapid economic growth. In so doing, he also gives form to a yearning for a less complex, less globalized world; a ‘truly Japanese’ world untainted by both war and westernization. Foster describes this emotional state as one of melancholy desire: “nostalgia might be characterized as a longing for a past (time, place, self) that is impossible to (re)claim because it no longer exists or, more likely, never did.”[15] The fantasy of a magical Japan populated by yōkai satisfies this yearning for an unalienated home.

Final Remarks

The manga confronts and works through past and present political and cultural crises, while at the same time it supports the formation of a positive consciousness of Japaneseness through fantastic nostalgia. In this way, the Great Yōkai War illustrates a specific moment in Japanese cultural history and history of thought.

Notes and References

[1] Foster, Michael Dylan (2008): “The Otherworlds of Mizuki Shigeru”. In: Mechademia 3, 8–28. 12.

[2] Mizuki Shigeru, Musume ni kataru otōsan no senki, 148-149, as quoted in Foster 2008:21.

[3] Since the original writing of this essay, an English translation in 4 volumes by Zach Davisson has appeared, which ranks high on my To-Read-list. As an introduction, see his own blog about the publication of the first volume: https://hyakumonogatari.com/2013/11/04/countdown-to-mizuki-shigerus-showa-1926-1939-a-history-of-japan/

[4] The most influential German manga scholar, Jaqueline Berndt, discusses this contrast. See Berndt, Jaqueline (1995): Phänomen Manga. Comic-Kultur in Japan. Berlin: Ed. q (Japan-Edition).63-65.

[5] Some of his adventures are available in English translation, also courtesy of Mr. Davisson. When I originally wrote my essay, though, I had to work exclusively with Japanese-language material since the only available translation was a French one.

[6] Gygi, Fabio (2008): “Mnemonic Monsters. Memory, Oblivion and Continuity in Japanese Popular Culture”. In: Minikomi 75, 5-12. 6.

[7] Papp, Zilia (2009): “Monsters at War. The Great Yōkai Wars, 1968-2005”. In: Mechademia 4, S. 225–239.

[8] Papp 2009:226-7.

[9] Papp 2009:227.

[10] Papp 2009:227.

[11] Gebhardt, Lisette (1999): “Ikai. Der Diskurs zur ‘Anderen Welt’ als Manifestation der japanischen Selbstfindungs-Debatte”. In: Irmela Hijiya-Kirschnereit (ed.): Überwindung der Moderne? Japan am Ende des zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, S. 146–171. 147.

[12] Foster, Michael Dylan (2009a): Pandemonium and Parade. Japanese Monsters and the Culture of Yōkai. Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press. 164.

[13] This enigmatic name might refer to the pirate Blackbeard, so that the tentacle-like appendices become a beard. Alternatively, Beādo may actually be a bugbear, a folktale creature whose main purpose seems to be to frighten children. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/bugbear

[14] Brunner, Miriam (2009): Manga – die Faszination der Bilder. Darstellungsmittel und Motive. Dissertation. München: Fink. 94-5, my translation.

[15] Foster, Michael Dylan (2009b): “Haunted Travelogue. Hometowns, Ghost Towns, and Memories of War”. In: Mechademia 4, S. 164–181.176.

Manga images taken from:

Mizuki Shigeru (1996[1959-67]): Gegege no Kitarō. Complete new edition. Tōkyō: Komikkusu. (“Yōkai daisensō”, Vol. 2, 119-171.)

Other images:

Portrait of Mizuki Shigeru: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4d/Shigeru_Mura_201011.jpg

 


A Taste of Haiku

Haiku is a traditional Japanese poem consisting of three lines and 17 syllables. Unlike Western poetry, haiku rarely rhymes. This poetry conveys layers of meaning by using natural imagery. Zen Buddhism appears throughout haiku, and a specific branch of poetry, called jisei, or death poem, were written just before the writer died in battle or committed ritual suicide. Many haiku are rather funny too. I’ve included a few of those in this selection. Here are some traditional haiku.

Iio Sogi (1421-1502)
Snow yet remaining

The mountain slopes are misty—

An evening in spring

Yuki nagara

Yamamoto kasumu

Yube kana

Does not China also

Lie beneath the selfsame sky

Bound in misery

Morokoshi mo

Ame shita to ya

tsurakaran

Passing through the world

Indeed this is just

A shelter from the shower.

Mono goto ni

Oi wa kokoro no

Ato mo nashi             

 

Yamazaki Sokan (1464-1552)

 
Even at the time

When my father lay dying

I still kept farting.

Waga oya no

Shinuru toki ni mo

He o kokite

 

Matsuo Basho (1644-1694)

 
The quiet pond

A frog leaps in,

The sound of water.

Furuike ya

Kawazu tobikomu

Mizu no oto

Quietness

Seeping into the rocks

The cicada’s voice.

Shizukasa ya

Iwa ni shimiiru

Semi no koe

The roadside thistle, eager

To see the travelers pass

Was eaten by the passing ass!

Michinobe no

Mukuge wa uma ni

Kuware keri

 

Stabbed in a dream—

Or was it reality?

The marks of a flea.

Kiraretaru

Yume wa makoto ka

Nomi no ato

 

Yamamoto Kakei (1648-1716)

 
I have no wife, said I.

And so my landlord gave to me

A tiny maiden flower.

Tsuma nashi to

Yanushi ya kureshi

ominaeshi

 

Uejima Onitsura (1661-1738)

 
Although I say,

“Come here! Come here!” the fireflies

Keep flying away!

Koi koi to

Iedo hotaru ga

Tonde yuku

This autumn

I’ll be looking at the moon

With no child on my knee.

Kono aki wa

Hiza ni ko no nai

Tsukimi kana

 

Ogawa Shushiki (1669-1725)

 
The cherry by the well

Is dangerous for one

Drunken on wine

Idobata no

Sakura abunashi

Sake no ei

 

Kaga no Chiyo (1703-1775)

 
The butterfly—

What are the dreams that make him

Flutter his wings?

Chocho ya

Nani o yume mite

hanazukai

I sleep…I wake…

How wide

The bed with none beside

Okite mitsu

Nete mitsu kaya no

Hirosa kana

 

Tan Taigo (1709-1771)

 
The change of servants

Her tears

Splash on the tatami.

Degawari ya

Tatami e otosu

Namida kana

 

Yosa Buson (1716-1783)

 
There’s no loincloth

On that butt blown in view –

In the spring breeze.

Fundoshi senu

Shiri fukareyuku

Haru no kaze

 

Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827)

 
“The peony was as big as this,”

Says the little girl

Opening her arms.

Kore hodo to

Botan no shikata

Suru ko kama

Ours is a world of suffering,

Even if cherry-flowers bloom.

Ku no shaba ya

Hana ga kirakeba

Hiraku tote

 

Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902)

 
I’m trying to sleep—

Go easy

When you swat flies.

Nemuran to su

Nanji shizuka ni

Hae o ute

How much longer

Is my life?

A brief night…

Yomei

Ikubaku ka aru

Yo mijikashi

References

Bowers, Faubion. (1996) The Classic Tradition of Haiku: An Anthology. New York: Dover Publications


1800s Japanese Photography: Windows to the Past

1800-japan-photos-08Photographs are everywhere. Every cell phone has a camera stuffed into it. Selfies and photos in general are so ubiquitous that they often lack impact. Even the most stunning photos make us shrug and click on to the next website. But if we stop and consider photos, they are a marvel. Photography captures a moment in time. The moment may be contrived, posed, or spur-of-the-moment, but it is still a glimpse at a time period. It is a glimpse at a person long gone.

The number of photos floating around the Internet combines with our ever-onward rush to consume information. How often do you stop to contemplate a picture for more than a few seconds? I am guilty of rushing onward too.

japanese woman western clothing

Japanese woman wearing Western clothing c. 1900

Why is this woman wearing Western style clothing? What was her name? What was her favorite food? She was a predecessor to the moga of the 1920s. Moga is short for modan garu, or modern girl. She was a hip, liberated woman for her time. Moga typically wore one-piece dresses that ended at the knee, high-heels, and sheer stockings. A hat made of soft fabric accented her short hair styled after popular American film stars (Sato, 1993). Our lady has the hat, but her dress looks Victorian. We can only speculate about how she viewed herself. Many of these photographs are for postcards meant to be sold in the West. But they are still glimpses of people and periods lost to time.

moga-at-beach

Moga on the beach. 1920. Notice their Western-style swimsuits. These ladies were fashionable for their time and they threatened traditional womanhood in Japan.

samurai-hand-tinted-photos-from-1865

A pair of sumo going through ritual movements for a Western audience (These postcards targeted Western visitors). A hand tinted photograph from 1865.

We can’t forget the people not seen in these photographs: the photographers. The names of photographers are sometimes as mysterious as the people depicted. What made the photographer set up this shot? What relationship did the photographer share with the people in the picture? We can rarely answer these questions.

1865 japanese mother w child

Japanese mother with her sleeping child. c. 1865 hand-tinted.

These people are gone. These frozen moments tantalize. The toy cat on the right side of the photograph and the thick blankets surrounding the child speak of the mother’s love. The ink paintings in the background are lovely. What do they tell us about the family?

felice-beato photographer 1863

A lovely hand-tinted photograph of a woman washing her hair taken by Felix Beato. c.1863.

We happen to know who took these hand-colored photographs. Felix Beato, an Englishman, used glass plate negatives coated with egg whites. This technique allowed photographers to capture detail but at the cost of long exposures. It took 4 hours to make a photo. However, Beato figured out a way to reduce the exposure time to 4 seconds. He took photographs in Egypt, China, and many other locations. He lived in Yokohama (Nobuo, 1972).

1800-japan-photos-04

A samurai in full armor, a relic of the past even when this photograph was taken.

We rush about both online and offline by our societies. We bounce to and fro, forgetting how to look deeply. Look at these photographs for several minutes. Look into the eyes of these people. Perhaps someday someone will look at photographs of you with the same questions you have. Who is this? What was their favorite food? Favorite color? What were they thinking? Why was the photograph taken?

Or perhaps they will only spend a few seconds glancing into your eyes before moving on without thinking of these questions.

We live in an exciting time. A few clicks pulls up hundreds of frozen memories, but appreciation for this remains low. It’s human nature to grow accustomed to the everyday. It takes effort to cultivate thankfulness and mindfulness. These photos of people long gone reach across time if we stop and listen. I find this exciting and humbling. Even contrived postcards offer a glimpse of a different era and way of thinking. Japan was opening to the world after a long period of isolation under the Tokugawa. These photos suggest anxiety and excitement, a curiosity for the new, and a desire to reach out to the West. For the Japanese at the time, the West was just as alien as Japan was to the West.

Edo period women

Edo period women

A Buddhist monk. c. 1870

A Buddhist monk. c. 1870

 

A geisha poses for a post card. Hard-tinted.

A geisha poses for a postcard. Hard-tinted.

A Japanese mother with her child.

A Japanese mother with her child.

References

Nobuo, I. (1972). BEATO IN JAPAN. Image, 15(3), 10-11.

Sato, B. (1993). The Moga Sensation: Perceptions of the Modan Garu in Japanese Intellectual Circles During the 1920s. Gender & History, 5 (3). 363-381.