Category Archives: Japanese Art

Geisha, music, woodblock prints. Japanese art encompasses far more than anime and j-pop. Japanese art also includes pottery, ink paintings, gardening, floral arrangements, metalwork, and many other topics.


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


The World’s First Novel: The Tale of Genji

the_tale_of_genji_-_1951_filmBack in the 11th century, a Japanese woman wrote the world’s first modern novel. The novel remained unknown in the West until after the Meiji Restoration and the rise of modernism in literature. In 1925, Arthur Waley’s translation of the work released, shocking novelists of the time (Phillips, 2010). The Tale of Genji stands as a cornerstone in Japanese literature and world romantic literature, but we know little about the author. Murasaki Shikibu (c. 978-1014) lived as a lady-in-waiting in the Imperial Court during the Heian period (794-1185) (Hirota, 1997). Sadly, that’s the only thing we know that’s certain. Many legends surround her. Ironically, the legends draw a contrast to the dalliances found throughout the Tale of Genji.  Stories surrounding Muraski rarely include romantic relationships.

These “biographies” are largely fiction. In almost all of them, she expresses loyalty her husband, regardless of the situation. The “Bunkai Bag of Wisdom for Women’s Education” (1749) prefaces one of her legends with (Hirato, 1997):

Murasaki Shikibu is the daughter of Tametoki, the governor of Echizen. Because her father Tametoki was a wise scholar, from a young age she read and studied books, and mastered the texts of Japan and China. She also conveyed the essence of then notion of “concentration and insight” to the scholar-priest of the mount of Tendai, and cultivated the essence of the Buddhist way.

The legend pegs her as a scholar of Tendai Buddhism.

Readers of Genji won’t be surprised at how little is known about Murasaki and how many legends circulated about her. Genji is a dense, difficult work to decipher. As a monogatari, or fictional story, Genji targets noble women. The story makes assumptions that noble women of the Heian period would grasp, but these assumptions leave the rest of us feeling lost. Genji is a part of romance literature designed to be read aloud by women to pass the time. As Prince Genji remarks in the story: “Sometimes I stand and listen to the stories they read to my little one,” Reading stories aloud was a part of Heian period noble lifestyle. Because of its assumptions and design, many Westerners outside of modernist circles viewed the work as trite. Basil Hall Chamberlain and other early Western Japanese scholars viewed it as “long-winded” and “devoid of interest” (Phillips, 2010).

The Setting of Genji

tale_of_genji_toyokuni_utagawa_print

We must understand the Heian period to understand Genji. Chiefly, a fascination in Chinese culture marked the Heian period. The Japanese Imperial Court emulated Chinese fashion and customs while they pursued the arts. A noble was expected to be well versed in literature, poetry, painting, dancing, calligraphy, and more. Genji extends this list by being good at perfume making as well. Noble men used the Chinese language similar to how Medieval European nobles and priests used Latin. In Heian Japan, Women were not allowed to speak Chinese. The period expected women to remain separate from men. They would converse through fabric blinders dividing rooms. Genji shows how great the difference was between the genders by having characters fall in love with each other based on their handwriting.

Indirection defined the Heian nobility, much to our confusion. Murasaki’s lack of direct statements makes the Tale of Genji challenging. It even challenged Japanese scholars to the point where they adopted nicknames for the hundreds of characters in the tale. Murasaki refers to each character by their title rather than by a name. During the Heian period, proper names were considered too blunt for polite use. To make things more complicated, these titles would change over the course of the story. So Japanese scholars pinned their nicknames to clarify who was who. For example, Genji’s son is nicknamed Yugiri, which means “evening mist.” These nicknames appear in English translations as if they are a part of the original story, but Murasaki never used them (Phillips, 2010).

The tale formed a critical part of a noble woman’s education (Naito, 2014). Artists lavishly illustrated scrolls depicting the story, making the story expensive. Because of this, less well-off noblewomen dreamed about owning a copy. In an autobiography, Sarashina nikki (c. 1060), a noblewoman from a rural province writes about this longing (Hirota, 1997):

Brought up in a remote country father even than the Azuma Road, I must have been a terribly countrified child. Yet, how did I start longing for the tales whose existence I could barely imagine? At idle hours of the day or at evening gatherings, as I listened to my sister, stepmother and others talking about this or that tale, or discussing pieces from the Shining Genji, my curiosity increased. But how could they recount from memory enough to satisfy me? Frustrated, I had a statue of Yakushi Buddha built in my size…I prostrated myself and prayed, “Please let us leave for the capital soon. They say there are many tales there—please let me read all of them!

The tale continued to be copied and read by women up until the Edo period when printing techniques expanded Genji’s audience. Male critics panned the Tale. For example, Hayashi Razan (1583-1657) didn’t think the tale was proper literature because a woman wrote it (Naito, 2014).

Did you know cliff notes appeared in Japan? The complexity and length of the story prompted artists in the Edo period to create their own version of cliff notes with simplified plots and story summaries. The rise of woodblock printing widened the audience beyond noble women. The Illustrated Tale of Genji by Yamamoto Shunsho made the tale easier to read by adding punctuation, shorter annotations, and reading guides (Naito, 2014).

Understanding The Tale of Genji

toyohara_kunichika_-_the_tale_of_genjiThe reticence of Murasaki and her assumptions make the Tale of Genji difficult to understand.  On its surface, the story looks to be a fluffy romance filled with illicit love and a lot of sex. However, the novel has many things going on that can only be seen by looking at what is left unsaid. For example, Genji brings a young girl home with the intent of raising her. During one of these domestic scenes, he finds her coloring pictures. He dabs red paint on his nose to make her laugh. These moments of humanness speak about the lack of humanness found in the elegance of court life.

Under the facade of love, elegance, peace, and high aesthetics, Murasaki hints at a deep wrongness with court life. Genji appears to lack a plot unless you read between the lines. Murasaki does all of her plot work through layers of symbols and through the unsaid. Much of the story focuses on how Genji lost his favor in the Imperial Court and had to be removed by his father, the emperor. This was done to protect him from court politics. After all, his mother was a low-ranked consort. The powerful Fujiwara family pressured the emperor to name the child he had with one of their daughters as heir.

Under the first chapter’s picturesque scenes and romance lurks the threat of rebellion and civil war. Murasaki suggests this at the beginning of the book by alluding to a rebellion in China known as the An Shi Rebellion. This rebellion destroyed the Tang dynasty and left millions dead (Phillips, 2010). After this allusion, the conflict disappears. But its unspoken presence creates dread behind the facade and the character’s actions. They too are on the verge of a conflict that could end a dynasty.

At one point, Genji falls in love with his father’s new wife. Genji eventually seduces her, and people mistake his son for his Father’s son. The boy takes the throne later in the story. Despite not saying it, Murasaki suggests Genji regrets his seduction and how it betrayed his father. His act throws the entire line of succession in doubt. Throughout Japanese history, the emperor was thought to be a descendant of the gods. Genji’s son breaks this line for the first time in 1500 years (Phillips, 2010). While we miss the event, the significance would be evident for anyone who lived in the court at the time. The event casts a shadow over the underlying plot and behavior of the characters.

After his father’s death, Genji goes on and has an affair with a daughter of the Fujiwara family, who now controls the court as a regency. In a rare event, Murasaki as the Fujiwara outright state what was unspoken throughout the early chapters:

The Empress Mother’s countenance nevertheless failed to lighten. She could not have Genji pointedly mocking and belittling her by brazenly invading her house while she was at home, so nearby, and this gave her a fine reason to set in train the measures to accomplish his downfall.

Murasaki’s love for the unspoke extends toward Genji himself.  About 3/4 through the story, Genji dies. His death comes after he retires from the world as a monk, a common practice for Heian period nobility (Phillips, 2010). The last years of his life do not appear in the story; a blank chapter marks his death. The following chapter picks up 8 years after Genji’s death and focuses on two of Genji’s descendants. Genji’s subtle last years and death, however, doesn’t end Genji’s story. Throughout the last chapters, the story becomes far grimmer and darker. The death of Genji infects the story with a sadness that the thin veneer of beauty and courtliness can’t hide any longer.

The Tale of Genji ends without the closure those of us in the West expect. The tale ends with a young girl, chased by Genji’s descendants Niou and Kaoru, throwing herself into a river to escape them. A group of monks finds her alive, but she can’t remember what happened. When she finally does, the book ends. The abrupt ending and lack of closure troubles modern readers. It doesn’t feel finished. Yet, when you look at the story as a whole, with its veneers and suggestions, the ending fits. Murasaki expects us to see through the veil and fill in the gaps. The ending’s cut off also fits the darker mood of the last portion of the tale. Death couldn’t save the girl from the flowered conflict swirling about her.

The Strangeness of the Tale of Genji

yugiri

When I read Genji, Murasaki’s reticence struck me. Despite the dalliances of Genji and the general frivolousness of the tale, I felt something was wrong. The entire novel has a pall, a darkness, overlaying it. The characters feel devoid of hope or direction despite their cultivation. An emptiness pervades their behavior, and they appear to be aware of it but unwilling to face it. Murasaki’s genius shows in how she weaves all of this through suggestion alone. The blank chapter that stands in for Genji’s death stuck me. Its silence says more than the most purple prose could.

The complicated nature of the text, with its tangled relationships and emotions, is designed to stimulate discussion. Much of the text is open to interpretation. This makes sense. Heian women were shut off from the world. Boredom was a struggle. A complex, interpretive text like the Tale of Genji would allow them to imagine and discuss the story for years. The longevity of the text and the fact the text has seen over 20 manga adaptions attest to this (Myake, 2008).

The story influenced Japanese art. Genji-e scrolls from the 12th century influenced the Edo period’s woodblock prints, particular that of Utagawa Kunisada. In turn, Utagawa would influence the modern manga adaptions of Genji (Myake, 2008).

You can read Genji as a fluffy romance full of affairs or as a darker story of people attempting to ignore the frivolousness of their lives and looming catastrophes. Without some knowledge of Japanese history, The Tale of Genji makes for a difficult read. Despite the difficulty of understanding the unstated, The Tale of Genji stands as the first novel and speaks about the importance of women’s contributions to world culture.

References

Hirota, A. (1997). The Tale of Genji: From Heian Classic to Heisei Comic. Journal Of Popular Culture, 31(2), 29-68. doi:10.1111/j.0022-3840.1997.00029.x

Miyake, Lynne (2008) Graphically Speaking: Manga Versions of the “Tale of Genji” Monumenta Nipponica. 63(2) 359-392.

Naito, Satoko (2014) Beyond the Tale of Genji: Murasaki Shikibu as Icon and Exemplum in Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Popular Japanese Texts for Women. Early Modern Woman 9 (1). 47-78.

Phillips, Brian (2010) The Tale of Genji as a Modern Novel. The Hudson Review. 63(3). 373-390.


Ukiyo-e and the Importance of Eyebrows

Ukiyo-e, manga’s great-great-great-great-great grandmother, gives us a window on the Edo Period of Japan. Four-hundred years in the future, our descendants may look upon today’s manga as we do ukiyo-e. That’s something to think about!

Ukiyo-e, Merchants, and the Red Light District

Early woodblock by Hishikawa Moronobu,

Early woodblock by Hishikawa Moronobu,

Ukiyo-e, or woodblock prints, used carved wooden blocks to print images on paper. Their inexpensive price and mass production made them the fashion magazines, pin-ups, sex guides, flyers, advertising, and manga of Japan between 1615 and 1868. Ukiyo-e translates to “images of the floating world.” Ukiyo in Japanese Buddhism meant either “sad world” or “floating world” and referred to the troubling, suffering state of humanity. The pleasure districts of the Edo Period represented a slice of suffering and a reprieve from it at the same time (Fleming, 1985). These districts offered everything from gambling and prostitution to teahouses with their cultured geisha. Theaters hosted kabuki and popular puppet shows. These districts were walled off from the rest of the city and lit with red lanterns, literal red light districts. They became centers for dance, fashion, and music. Prostitution and gambling were regulated by the Shogunate, the central government. The regulation allowed families mired in debt to legally sell their female members to the districts so they could work off family debt. Women could also be sentenced to work in the districts. Few courtesans could pay off her debt and become independently wealthy. Geisha–who shouldn’t be confused with prostitutes– provided a better chance. However, both geisha and high-end courtesans were expected to be educated. For many women, this was the only way to access education.

Ukiyo-e also became the primary way for the merchant class to be heard. During this period, merchants threatened the samurai class. Merchants controlled more wealth than the samurai class. This threatened the Shogunate. In response, the Shogunate shuffled Japan’s social hierarchy and placed merchants near the bottom, stripping the class of political power and safeguarding the samurai from their influence. Without official political channels to put wealth into, merchants began to channel their wealth into theater, music, and art–places where they could still be equal to the upper classes. Ukiyo-e became their “in” with the samurai and other classes. The inexpensive production method and affordability allowed merchants to direct taste in fashion, culture, entertainment, and more (Library of Congress, n.d.).

Katsushika_Hokusai,_published_by_Nishimuraya_Yohachi_(Eijudō)_-_Peonies_and_Canary_(Shakuyaku,_kanaari),_from_an_untitled_series_known_as_Small_Flowers_-_Google_Art_Project

Katsushika Hokusai. c. 1834. Poenies and Canary

Ukiyo-e artists embraced the pop culture of the time. Geisha, courtesans, and kabuki actors were common subjects.  These were the Edo Period version of headshot photography. Called bijin-ga, or beauty portraits, these prints appeared in guidebooks, books on etiquette, and as advertisements (Munro, 2008). Many prints acted as advertising or pin-ups. Later ukiyo-e took to portraying tourist locations around Edo and other landscapes. Ukiyo-e were printed in single sheets and compiled into books call ehon  (Library of Congress, n.d.).

Censoring Ukiyo-e

ukiyo-3-suzuki_harunobu-geese_descending_on_the_koto_bridges__kotoji_rakugan-1769-1600x686The Shogunate wasn’t ignorant of the power ukiyo-e had for conveying ideas. They imposed strict regulations as to what could be printed. The court forbade publishing anything of “political subversion, sexual and social [im]propriety and excessive luxuriance contrary to the frugal spirit of Neo-Confucian morality” (Thompson, 1991). In 1804, the Shogunate tried several artists, writers, and publishers for their representation of the 16th century general Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Hideyoshi was the guy who decided to regulate and separate prostitution and gambling from the rest of Edo. He wanted these districts to be a place for merchants to blow their money and reduce their hold on the samurai class. Many samurai were in debt to merchants. The Shogun liked the premise, but not the application, so he had the districts walled off. This increased their allure. After all, what we don’t see attracts us. Among the artists arrested was Kitagawa Utamaro, one of the most popular ukiyo-e artists of the time. The team had published a book called Ehon Taikoki, a biography of Hideyoshi 7 years before their arrest.

keiseki-kyotoOdd the Shogunate waited 7 years before bringing the artists to court, isn’t it? The government forbade the publishing of anything involving Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first Tokugawa shogun, and his family. Hideyoshi was fair game, and other biographies were published before 1804. So why were Utamaro and his colleagues singled out? The problem was how the values Hideyoshi symbolized mixed with the floating world. While he came up with the idea that allowed the floating world to flourish, he was better known as a great general. The shogunate didn’t want one of their historical heroes to become a mere popular figure like just another kabuki actor.  The ehon threatened the shogunate’s control over its official history. So Utamaro and his colleagues were tried to curb the trend of portraying warrior families as part of the floating world. The court found them guilty and sentenced them to 50 days house arrest in manacles. The publisher was required to pay heavy fines. The book they published, Ehon Taikoki, was banned and confiscated (Davis, 2007).

Erotic Ukiyo-e

Hiroshige-shunga1I mentioned how the Tokugawa issued an edict about the limit of ukiyo-e. Well, despite the edict about sexual impropriety, shunga flourished. Shunga is a subgenre of woodblock prints that focused on what went on behind the closed doors of the floating world.  Think of shunga as the great-great-great-great-great grandmother of hentai. These explicit prints told stories and served as sex guides. They exaggerated genitals and often had contorted poses. Shunga were produced for both men and women. Many show scenes of lesbian encounters and female masturbation. At the time, the samurai class often segregated genders into quarters within castles. Men were encouraged to visit brothels, but women had fewer options. Male prostitutes were found in theater districts where few women could go (Munroe, 2008). But on the whole, women were housed with other women. In such situations, lesbian romances are sure to develop, and shunga provided guides and stories about such. While samurai men were encouraged to have relations with other samurai men, Japanese literature rarely mentions such relations between women.

Because of the explicit nature of shunga I created a page with some of these works rather than post them here. Again, the page beyond this link contains explicit depictions of sexuality.

The Making of a Woodblock Print

Sparrows - Hokusai

Just like mangaka need help creating their work, ukiyo-e artists needed a team. It took 4 people to make a print. The publisher coordinated everyone and handled marketing. The artist dreamed up the designs and drew them in ink on paper. A carver broke the design into patterns that were carved into wood blocks. The number of blocks used ranged from 10 to 16, depending on the number of colors and complexity of the drawing. And a printer managed the ink and handmade paper (Library of Congress, n.d.).  The artist receives most of the recognition, much like the front-man in a band. Each member of the team was highly skilled in their piece of production. The printer often made their inks and paper from raw materials, for example.

The carver cut the negative of the design: the lines and areas to be colored were raised. The rest was carved away. Each color required a different block that had to be perfectly aligned. Paper made from the inner bark of the mulberry tree would be laid on the blocks and rubbed to transfer the ink (Metropolitan Museum of Art, n.d.). The blocks were used until they  wore out.

The mass production of these prints makes them hard to preserve. Paper and silk are vulnerable to Japan’s variable weather. The inks change color when exposed to light for long periods (Fleming, 1985).

How to Read Ukiyo-e

Utamaro woman ukiyo-eBeyond the obvious Japanese writing, ukiyo-e has to be read to be understood. The Edo Period had a host of pop culture symbols that allowed a print to tell a story. For example, eyebrows matter. Married women shaved their eyebrows. So this lady on the left is single! Notice how she shows off the nape of her neck? Well, that was…is… an erogenous zone for Japanese men. So this print has voyeuristic elements. We are looking in on a young woman as she applies her makeup, something few men would witness. Think of it as peaking in on a lady as she showers. Ukiyo-e often showed everyday actions like this with a twist.

Like eyebrows, the importance of ukiyo-e is in what is missing. The artists focused on the positive aspects of the floating world. You do not see the lowest levels of prostitutes. Women are all painted in idealized way with few individual characteristics or blemishes. Ukiyo-e, like the floating world the prints reflected, represented ideals of feminine beauty. They didn’t represent individual women. The omission of individual women attempts to capture the image of fleeting forever the floating world wrapped around itself. It weaves a fantasy.

The floating world influences much of Japanese sexuality today. Japanese sex culture focuses on fantasy more than experience (Bourdain, 2014). Maid Cafes descend from the red-lit fantasy world. Hentai and other erotica descends from this period.

Ukiyo-e and Manga

Ukiyo-e and manga share similar art styles. Flat coloration with prominent outlines. Ukiyo-e was the popular media of the time, entertaining people and telling stories. The cheap cost of ukiyo-e allowed it to spread throughout the Edo Period. Manga does the same today. It is relatively inexpensive and is a part of Japanese popular culture.  Ukiyo-e experimented with ways of representing motion and emotion with minimal lines. The prints laid the framework for all the genres and themes we see in manga: erotica, macabre, humor, historical stories, current events, and slice of life. Manga inherited the free thinking and experimentation of the floating world.

Ukiyo-e is a look at the lost floating world of dreams and suffering. The dreams of pleasure, conversation, and culture came at the price of the women and men sold into its work. Ukiyo-e  freezes moments, people, and concerns in ink.

References

Bourdain, A. (2014). Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown: Tokyo. http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/1401/25/abpu.01.html

Davis, J. (2007). The trouble with Hideyoshi: censoring ukiyo-e and the Ehon Taikoki incident of 1804. Japan Forum 19 (3) 281-315.

Fleming, S. (1985). Ukiyo-e Painting: An Art Tradition under Stress. Archaeology. 38 (6) 60-61, 75.

Library of Congress. The Floating World of Ukiyo-e. https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/ukiyo-e/intro.html.

Metropolitan Museum of Art. Woodblock Prints in the Ukiyo-e Style. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/ukiy/hd_ukiy.htm.

Munro, M. (2008) MasterClass: Understanding Shunga, A Guide to Japanese Erotic Art. London: Turnaround.

Thompson, Sarah E. and Harootunian, H. D. (1991)Undercurrents in the Floating World: Censorship and Japanese Prints, New York: The Asia Society Galleries.


The Anime Watcher’s Tea

pouring green teaLet me share a secret with you. I love tea. One of the greatest pleasures is reading (or writing or watching anime) with a cup of tea at hand. I’ve been known to spend a chunk on imported teas. But even the humble filter teabag available at the local grocery store can help you get in touch with thousands of years of tea history.

I will spare you a long history of tea. Thick books have been dedicated to tea and its influence on history. But a short summary is still in order. The leaf has inspired painters, writers, poets, warriors, despots, Victorians, saints, and many others. Tea came from the forests of southern China. It is an evergreen tree that can live to be over 2,000 years old. Although, most tea comes from trees cultivated to look like bushes. There are 380 varieties of tea (Fisher, 2010). These varieties helped tea’s popularity spread.  Tea traveled from China to Japan and Europe.  Although most think tea arrived in Europe during the Colonel period, it arrived far earlier.  The earliest appearance of tea in European writing comes from an Arab merchant in 879 (Okakura, 1906).

True tea comes from the tea tree. Herbal teas like chamomile and rooibos are not true teas. Of course, I still enjoy them and call them tea.

Tea in Anime and Japanese Culture

Those who cannot feel the littleness of great things in themselves are apt to overlook the greatness of little things in others. The average Westerner, in his sleek complacency, will see in the tea ceremony but another instance of the thousand and one oddities which constitute the quaintness and childishness of the East to him.

Okakura, The Book of Tea 1906

When we think of tea, we think of China and Japan. Of the two, Japan is perhaps more famous as a tea nation because of its tea ceremony and the teahouses geisha entertain. Like many aspects of Japanese culture, Chinese practices were taken and adapted into something quite different. Tea is a prominent detail in anime as well. Rarely does tea become a focus, but it is offered to characters to calm them, cool them, warm them up, and other treatments. Despite having caffeine, tea is relaxing. It does cool during the summer (iced or hot oddly enough), and I love tea during cold winters.

anime-tea

Tea is great for socializing and relaxing.

The tea anime characters offer is matcha. Matcha is a Japanese style of tea that grinds the leaves into a powder. Mix with hot water and enjoy. To be honest, I prefer the Chinese style of brewing tea: using loose leaves. I tend to make swamp water with matcha. Speaking of water, it is the most important part of tea. Chlorinated water makes terrible tea. So does hard water. Filtered or good spring water make the best tea. The best, most expensive tea will taste terrible with heavily chlorinated tap-water.

Types of Tea

Tea comes in a few families: white, green, oolong, and black. But how can a single tree make 380 types of tea? The time tea is picked, the amount of light the tree receives before being picked, and even location impacts the flavor of tea. Oxidation shifts the flavor as well. Oxidation makes iron rust and apples turn brown. As tea oxidizes, it changes from green to black. Flavor becomes earthier and richer. White teas have delicate flavors because they are made from new leaves and dried without aging (oxidizing). Silver Needle is a wonderful white tea, but it can taste like barely flavored warm water to many people. People who favor strong flavors may not be able to taste white tea.

Green Tea

green-teaGreen tea involves aging mature tea leaves, but green tea isn’t aged as long as black or oolong. The different varieties come from when they are picked and how they are aged. For example, one of my favorites is Jasmine Green Tea. This tea is aged in rooms that contain jasmine flowers. The tea absorbs the scent and flavor of the flowers. The jasmine scent and flavor relaxes like few other teas can. The aging method complete shifts the flavor of tea. The shape of the tea leaves also impacts the flavor. For example gunpowder tea, which looks like old fashioned black gunpowder pellets has a different flavor than flat-leaf tea. The amount of surface area the leaf has changes how the water absorbs the flavor. Gunpowder slowly unrolls as it heats, allowing the flavor to gradually flow into the water.

You do not boil water when you make white or green teas. It makes them bitter.  Steep these teas for about 2 minutes in water that is just a few minutes from boiling. The easiest way to know when is to heat the water in an open pot. When you see bubbles form on the bottom of the pot, its time for tea!

Black,Oolong, and Red Tea

Chinese oolong tea

Chinese oolong tea

Black and oolong teas are rich teas. Some types are more like coffee than tea. I like to sweeten these teas with honey, but sugar will work too. Some, like Indian Chai, need to be sweetened and mixed with milk. Indian Chai takes black tea and mixes it with spices like black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, and other goodies. I didn’t like chai with milk, but you should give it a try. Black teas require boiling water and longer steeps than green tea. About 3-5 minutes.

African Rooibos Tea

African Rooibos Tea

You won’t see this tea (it’s not a true tea) in anime, but rooibos needs a little attention. Rooibos comes from a shrub in Africa. When steeped, it turns the water a deep red, similar to the red rose tea creates. It has a flowery flavor that goes well with honey. Like other herbal teas, you can boil the water. Rooibos (pronounced roy-boss) requires long steeps of 5-10 minutes.

Tea Sets and other Tips

You don’t have to have a Japanese tea set to enjoy a cuppa. You can buy single-serve strainers for loose leaf teas. They come in various styles. If you are making green or black tea, you can usually get two cups out of one strainer-full of leaves. White teas are too delicate for more than one cup. Green teas can be made into iced tea during hot summer months. Pro tip: fresh mint from the garden makes excellent black or green iced tea.

Tea grows bitter with long steeps or boiling water. If you like bitter flavors, boil the water and steep for a longer time. I like some green teas on the bitter side. Luckily, you can cut bitter flavors with sugar or honey. I prefer honey.

Speaking of honey, honey comes in many types including orange blossom and the common American clover honey. Each will change the flavor of tea. Sometimes for the better, other times the flavors will compete. Honey can completely overpower white tea. Luckily, white tea has natural sweetness. Experiment and find what works best for you. Just know many tea-lovers think adding sugar or honey to tea is sacrilegious.  I am not one of those. After all, I am an American with a sweet-tooth. But don’t sweeten a tea without tasting it without sweetener. Artificial flavors and the proliferation of sugar has ruined our sense of taste. Natural flavors tend to be subtle, and this is especially true with tea. Many teas have flowery or sweet after-taste that sweeteners mask. Many of us will have to retrain our tastebuds to notice these subtle flavors.

Tea is one of the simple pleasures in life that improves health and well-being. While it is often a background element in anime, tea reminds us that that anime has a place in tea literature. We could even say tea has inspired the poetry and literature that led to anime. Each cup of tea connects us with Japanese and Chinese culture. We are truly fortunate to enjoy a small part of tea culture and its long history.

References

Okakura,K. (1906) The Book of Tea.

Fisher, A. (2010). The Way of Tea. Vermont: Tuttle Publishing.


Musings V – Adaptation in Japanese (Pop) Culture

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

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

The Long History of Adaptation

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

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

Jiraiya Monogatari vol 6

A page from the yomihon novel Jiraiya Gouketsu Monogatari.

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

 

Jiraiya, the Toad Ninja

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

Jiraiya kabuki Danjuurou

Woodblock print of the kabuki adaptation of the same scene.

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

 

Naruto Jiraiya toad magic

Latest incarnation: ‘Pervy Sage’ Jiraiya from Naruto

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

Modern ‘Media Mix’-Society

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

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

Poster Kitaro live action movie (2007)

Poster for the Kitaro live action movie (2007)

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

 

The Live Action Dilemma

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

Ruoruni Kenshin Himura anime

Kenshin, as shown in the 1995-99 anime.

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

The Strength of Kenshin

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

Satou Takeru Rurouni Kenshin

Satou Takeru as Himura Kenshin, 2012.

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

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

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

anime Megumi Takani

Sly and ‘foxy’: Megumi in the anime.

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

Takani Megumi rurouni Kenshin movie live action

Takani Megumi, as portrayed by Aoi Yuu

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

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

Kenshin live action movie poster

Movie Poster for Rurouni Kenshin (2012)

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

Notes and References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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