What Naruto Gets Wrong: The Real Shinobi

For many anime fans, Naruto introduced the world of the shinobi, or the more familiar word ninja. Sadly, Naruto plays fast and loose with the history of the shinobi. It gets some things right, but it gets far more wrong. This isn’t to beat up on the series. It’s fiction, and fiction makes reality its own. But you may find the reality of the ninja just as interesting as Naruto’s world.

Throughout this article, I’ll use the words shinobi and ninja interchangeably. The words come from the same Chinese word, which traces to the 7th century. Japanese kanji comes from Chinese writing and typically has 2 different pronunciations, the Japanese and the Chinese. The Chinese word, ren zhe 忍者, didn’t appear in Japan until the  15th century (Bertrand, 2006). In Japanese, this is pronounced as nin sha. Ren zhe means “one who endures or hides” in Chinese, but in Japanese, the phrase shinobo mono means the same. Because of this, the words nin ja (or nin sha) and shinobi were used interchangeably (Bertrand, 2006; Man, 2013).

The History of the Shinobi

Nothing is mystical about the true tradition and correct way of ninjutsu

–Natori Masatake, Shoninki.

Ninja enjoyed their height of activity during between the 15th and 16th centuries when Japan was in its Age of the Warring States (1480-1600), a period of conflict between the various samurai families as they vied for power. This period of constant warfare erupted as the shogun and emperor lost their grip on power.  Ironically, the successfulness of the ninja led to their downfall. However, ninja existed long before the province of Iga with its own hidden villages. China had their own version as early as the 600s and perhaps long before. In Japan, the first appearance of a ninja strike dates to the mid-10th century. Ninja don’t become part of the official record until 1488 when government annuals mention the Kawai family’s involvement in a siege. The family originated from Iga province (Man, 2013).

Shinobi reached their apex of ability during the time of Oda Nobunaga and Tokugawa Ieyasu, two daimyo who eventually united Japan under a single shogunate. Oda began the effort but died before he could finish it. That left Ieyasu to finish the job and found a 250 year period of peace and isolation.

Oda started employing shinobi after he barely escaped an assassination attempt in 1573. The ninja attempted to kill him in his sleep, but the ninja was captured by Oda’s bodyguards. The ninja killed himself and Oda had his body displayed in the local marketplace to discourage further assassination attempts (Bertrand, 2006). However, the experience taught Oda the value of ninja, and he began to use them to gather information about his enemies.

The effectiveness of the ninja and the independence of the ninja villages led Oda and his son Nobuo to eventually march on Iga province, the heart of the shinobi villages. Iga also stood between Oda and the lands of his archrival, Mori Motonari. Although the ninjas of Iga held off Oda’s armies for a time using their ninjutsu, eventually they succumbed to Oda’s superior resources. Of course, Oda also hired other ninja families to turn against their neighbors in Iga (Man, 2013).

Ieyasu relied heavily on ninja during his final years of unification for reconnaissance and espionage. Ninja had pivotal roles in several fateful points in Ieyasu’s campaign. The information they gathered proved vital for his victories; on October 21, 1600, ninja helped win the victory that allowed Ieyasu to become the first shogun to fully unify Japan and found a shogunate that would last until Commodore Matthew Perry’s visit in 1858. Ieyasu rewarded the ninja by granting them a special status as a security detail in his capital Edo (Bertrand 2006; Man, 2013). This job gave them prestige and wealth, but Ieyasu’s victory began the end of the ninja. Even the eradication of the ninja couldn’t end them, but peace did.

Life as a Ninja

The way a good ninja works is to know about people without letting them know about him.

–instructional ninja poem

Being a shinobi was a family occupation. Few people born outside of a ninja family or village were accepted into training. At a young age, future ninja learned the arts of balance, swordsmanship, camouflage, and wilderness survival. They trained in groups and learned climbing techniques that served as inspiration for stories of ninja’s flying through villages. A shonin (village ninja leader) watched over these ninjas-in-training until they were deemed ready for their first mission when they reached their late teens (Bertrand, 2006).

Contrary to Naruto and other stories, ninjutsu wasn’t a hand-to-hand combat system. Ninja didn’t have specific fighting techniques. Rather, ninjutsu was a set of skills used to infiltrate enemy positions and gather information. Fighting was a final resort (Cummins, 2015). Size and strength wasn’t considered as important as being aware of surroundings and the weaknesses of the opponent (Dawson, 2000). Ninja were unable to stand up against samurai in a direct fight–although most ninja were samurai. The primary weapon of a shinobi wasn’t a sword or fist; it was information.

This isn’t to say ninja weren’t assassins. However, their primary role involved espionage and peacekeeping.

Like their inhabitants, ninja villages appeared normal but were designed for easy defense. Fake walls and trap doors allowed for ambushes, escape, or hidden weapon caches. Most ninja homes had floorboards designed to squeak when stepped on, making it more difficult for intruders to get around undetected (Bertrand, 2006).

Deception marked the central focus of shinobi. Their villages looked like regular peasant villages, and the shinobi used various disguises (Man, 2013):

  • Zen Monk The traditional Zen monk allowed a shinobi a valid reason to travel in an age of travel restrictions. The large straw hat of the monk allowed the ninja to observe without being observed, and people allowed monks to get close to them, making spying and assassination easier.
  • Mountain Priest, Merchant – Similar to the Zen monk disguise, the Mountain Priest and Merchant disguises allowed a ninja to travel without drawing attention. Like the Zen monk, the mountain priest allowed the ninja to get close to people, whereas the merchant was able to mix freely with people.
  • Street Performer, Actor – Allowed a ninja to hide by drawing attention to himself.
  • The Fashion of the Area – Finally, a ninja would have to dress as the town, village, or castle dressed. This regular clothes allowed them to move, but a shinobi would also have to back up the disguise by speaking in a local dialect or know information natives would only know.

The disguises allowed a shinobi to move freely without drawing attention. During the period ninja worked, few people traveled more than a few miles away from their home villages.

The Art of the Shinobi, Shinobi no jutsu

Ninjutsu is escape rather than kill—take shame, take embarrassment, take anything rather than kill if you can. Hone your ability to escape rather than kill…

–Jack Hoban, martial arts instructor (Morganelli, 2011)

Naruto makes a fuss about the martial arts of a ninja, but the art of the shinobi centered on information gathering and deception instead of fighting. Ninja swords, for example, were shorter than samurai katana, and ninja would try to avoid fighting a samurai directly (Bertrand, 2006). Even the famous shuriken wasn’t design to kill, nor could a ninja throw them hard or accurately enough to kill. Rather, they were used to distract or disable opponents so he could be killed with a sword. Caltrops were used to hinder pursuit. The shinobi-gama, or sickle and chain, depended upon deception and distraction to be effective. One strategy, called fukurogaeshi no jutsu, or reversing the bag, involved a shinobi sneaking into a castle and then announcing he was a ninja looking for work. However, the ninja was actually using the ploy to gain the freedom to move about the castle and gather information for his original employer (Fujibayashi, 2016). Sneaky way to earn two paychecks, eh?

This isn’t ninjitsu

Ninjutsu’s focus on deception served both military and civilian roles. Military ninja roles included: establishing spy networks, gathering information, making maps, and planting long-term agents. Ninja also spread misinformation and propaganda, acted as guides through enemy territory. Finally, ninja would command night attack squads, commit arson, destroy supplies, assassinate targets, and defend against other ninja (Cummins. 2015).

As civilians, ninja shared a lot in common with private investigators. People could hire them to spy on relatives and neighbors, mete out revenge, or as personal bodyguards.

While ninja had chants, charms, and hand gestures, these were used as support instead of relied upon.

What Naruto Gets Wrong and Right

Naruto’s world of the shinobi draws from reality, but it makes too much of a fuss over jutsu; it becomes something of a magic system. While real-life ninja had their own charms and hand-gestures, they relied on pragmatic observation. The Hidden Leaf Village fails to be a true ninja village by the fact it stands out too much with its version of Mount Rushmore. The anime, being an action shonen after all, focuses on fighting, whereas ninja would only fight as a last resort. When a ninja traveled, they attempted to blend in with the locals, dressing as a peasant or as a wandering monk. The shinobi of the Leaf Village do not.

Naruto does get some things right. First, deception is a part of their fighting styles, just as a real ninja. Several times throughout the series, Naruto and friends were hired as bodyguards, and the school atmosphere is kind of what villages would do to train their children, barring the modernization shown in Naruto of course. Finally, the politics the series hints at taps the real-life politics that swirled around ninja.

As mercenaries, ninja had a unique and important place in Japanese history. Much of what we know of ninja came from the stories they spread throughout the Tokugawa period as they declined. Naruto and other ninja fiction pull from more from these stories than from history. However, the history of the shinobi contains just as many stories of daring do, despite the reality of ninja being mapmakers rather than mischief makers.

One fact about shinobi Naruto hits and hits well: it’s all about the mind. What made a ninja a ninja was their ability to think, observe, and plan. They didn’t act on impulse; they studied and understood people. The true shinobi would watch and learn instead of jump in and fight. Ninja changed Japanese history, and through Japanese culture, the unseen ninja continues to shape the world.

References

Bertrand, J. (2006). Techniques that made ninjas feared in 15th-century Japan still set the standard for covert ops. Military History, 23(1), 12.

Cummins, Anthony. (2015) Samurai and Ninja : The Real Story Behind the Japanese Warrior Myth that Shatters the Bushido Mystique. Kanagawa, US: Tuttle Publishing.

Dawson, Chester. (2000). Exit the Ninja. Far Eastern Economic Review 163 (20) 58-61.

Fujibayashi, Y. (2016). 1676: Japan. Lapham’s Quarterly, 9(1), 80-82.

Man, J. (2013). Ninja: 1,000 years of the Shadow Warrior. HarperCollins.

Morganelli, J. (2011). Ethical warrior: how the fighting philosophy of Ninjutsu expert Jack Hoban influenced the United States Marine Corps. Black Belt, (6). 54.

Influenced By… Judaism and Christianity

Saviours, Angels, Robots, Nuns and Vampires!

After my look at the ties of Dao, Onmyōji and Twin Star Exorcists, in this installment of my ‘influenced by’-series I’ll engage with an exotic topic – for Japan, that is. Let’s have a look at Christianity in Japan and its appearances in Anime!

Saint Young Men

Saint Young Men Seinto oniisan Jesus buddha manga anime

Mind the T-Shirts: Buddha’s says “Nirvana”, but I doubt he means the band.

A special favourite of mine, often overlooked, is the manga (by Nakamura Hikaru, 2006-now) and anime film Saint Young Men (Seinto Oniisan, 2013), which humourusly portrays the day-to-day experiences of best buddies Buddha and Jesus on their vacation in Japan. This usually entails accidental miracles and the trouble the two of them have to (a) maintain their incognito and (b) cope with modern life.

Jesus divides pool Saint Young Men

This is not diving, this is Moses-ing.

In one instance, Buddha takes Jesus to a swimming pool and Jesus has to admit he is somewhat afraid of water, hence his preference to walk across. Buddha persuades him to try and dive. When he eventually does, well… Let’s just say the Egyptians have seen it before.

However, anime with religious allusions or symbolism don’t usually feature a religious figure as a character. Instead, there tends to be a mashup of names, symbols, and stories, or just playing on “cool” exotic themes. The stories, it seems are not as popular as the images.

So, how did Christian lore arrive in Japan in the first place?

The introduction of Christianity to Japan

Francis Xavier Kobe Museum Japan Jesuit missionary

Francis Xavier, as depicted in a painting exhibited at Kobe Museum.

The Portuguese “discovered” the Japanese archipelago in 1542. (From a European point of view. The Chinese, Koreans, and of cause the Japanese themselves had known for centuries that it existed.) Seven years later, Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier and his subordinates landed in what is now Nagasaki prefecture, on the island of Kyūshū, and introduced the Japanese to Christianity.[i] Initially, the new religion received a warm welcome.

Early Success

At first, Japanese audiences took Christianity for just another sect of Buddhism. Early translations of Christian scripture into Japanese rendered “God” as “Dainichi Nyōrai”, thereby equating him with the Great Sun-Buddha, a central deity of esoteric Buddhism. (In Japan, Dainichi Nyōrai is also associated with Amaterasu, goddess of the sun and ruler of the heavens in Shintō.) This translation intensified general similarities in Christian and Buddhist ethics. It also catered to the Japanese syncretistic worldview, which easily blends different religions according to individual spiritual needs. Therefore, the new religion was not met with resistance. It was seen as an addition, not a replacement, of the old ones. Statistics also play a role here: If a regional ruler converted, his subjects would follow, thus one conversion could bring a significant rise in the number of “believers”.

But most important was the current political landscape. Christianity arrived in Japan at a time of internal struggle. It was end of the Warring States Period (Sengoku Jidai) and military leader Oda Nobunaga was trying to unify Japan. Among other things, he fought the political influence of Buddhist monasteries and eventually burnt down most of Enryakuji temple on Mt. Hiei, from where the monks had brought their demands to the imperial capital of Kyōto. In this context, Oda encouraged the spread of Christianity as a rival to Buddhism.[ii]

Persecution

fumi-e fumie test christian Japan kakure kirishitan hidden stepping picture

“To test a suspected Christian, order him to step on this fumi-e. Believers will refuse.”

The official view of Christianity turned, however, due to several developments. Firstly, the Christian idea of superiority over all other beliefs conflicted with the aforementioned syncretistic approach of Japanese Buddhism and Shintō. Secondly, the newly established military government was concerned about Catholics’ loyalty to the pope. Thirdly, news of the confessional wars between Catholics and Protestants in Europe sparked concern of similar things happening between converts of the two sects in Japan.

As a result, missionary action and the performance of Christian belief in Japan was increasingly persecuted, culminating in the violent suppression of the Christian peasant uprisings of Amakusa and Shimabara in 1637. [iii]  Three years later, Japan entered its over 200-year isolation (sakoku), until the ships of American commodore Perry forced the opening of trading ports in the mid-19th century. Christian belief only survived in secret among the so-called “hidden Christians” (kakure kirishitan). Buddhist images served as disguises for the forbidden worship; for example, the bodhisattva Kannon is often depicted as female, in some cases even with a child, and can therefore double as Virgin Mary.[iv]

Return

Chapel of Dôshisha University, Kyôtô.

After the Meiji Restoration (1868) Japan denounced its isolation and rapidly imported European philosophy and science. The new imperial government encouraged everything which seemed to further the modernization of the country. In this context, they eventually lifted the ban on Christianity, but soon grew hostile again. Like Buddhism, the religion of Christianity stood against the proposed doctrine of State Shintō and seemed in conflict with the new, modern, scientific worldview.[v]  However, the establishment of Christian universities such as Kyōto’s Protestant Dōshisha University (1875) and Tōkyō’s Catholic Sophia University (1911) demonstrates the influence of Christianity on Japanese higher education. In this way, Christianity was an important factor in the political developments leading to modern Japan.[vi]

Since the American occupation after WWII, the Japanese have also adopted many aspects of Western Christian culture, such as Christmas and Christian wedding ceremonies. However, only 1-3% of the Japanese population count themselves as Christian.[vii] Thus these rituals are decontextualized and secularized, perhaps a part of global consumer culture. (Which, arguably, is also what they have become in “Christian” countries.) As a part of this global consumer culture, popular culture emerges as a space of cultural interaction and engagement with myth.

Neon Genesis Evangelion

Neon gegensis evangelion poster

The poster doesn’t really tell you what you’re in for.

Ten years ago, Neon Genesis Evangelion (Shinseiki Evangerion) would not have needed an introduction among anime fans. The anime series (produced by studio Gainax and directed by Anno Hideaki) ran in 1995-6 on TV Tokyo and reached international audiences from 2000 onward.[viii] Anime scholar Susan Napier lauds it as a landmark series, both as a representative of its genres – science fiction and, more specifically mecha anime – and because of its enormous popularity and impact on popular culture.[ix] For more information on NGE’s outstanding contributions to anime storytelling from this site’s main author, see this post. The effect lingers; you could still see some Evangelion cosplay at German Anime-Conventions in 2012 (which is when I stopped going) and we found figurines of its characters in UFO-Catchers in Kyōto only last year. So I’ll keep the summary brief.

What happens?

In a dystopian mechanized future, the world (i.e. mostly Japan, i.e. mainly Tokyo) is threatened by aliens, the ‘angels’. The only ones who can defeat them are certain 14-year-olds, when they become pilots of giant robots called Evangelions (EVA for short). The main protagonist is one of these pilots, Ikari Shinji, a sulky boy in conflict with his estranged father, who happens to run the operations against the aliens. One would expect a generic “boy hero overcomes obstacles and saves world with his friends” story, as the opening theme[x] suggests, but this is what NGE refuses to do.

Instead, it depicts the psychological issues of its main character(s) and embellishes the “humans fight aliens” plot with so many references to Judeo-Christian lore that researchers have interpreted the work as a) a postmodern deconstruction of reality and identity b) criticism of consumer culture and America-centered political history and c) a contemplation of the meaning of life – and that’s just the three articles I found in my university library.[xi]

What’s Christian?

Much of the stories NGE draws on are not Christian as much as based on Hebrew Kabbala and the Gnostics.[xii] The title ‘Evangelion’ itself refers to the gospel, of course. Because the antagonistic aliens are called angels, on can already assume that humanity has, in some way, angered God and brought these events upon itself? Well, what exactly the root cause of everything is, the series never reveals, but it becomes clear that at least the cataclysmic events around the first angel, Adam, were caused by human arrogance and ‘it attempting to play God’.

Old and New Testament, and far beyond that

Rebuild Evangelion Neon Genesis angel cross explosion

Explosion of the 7th angel, as shown in the Evangelion movie versions (Rebuild of Evangelion)

In addition, with the first angel named Adam, it surely comes as no surprise that the robots called EVAs have a certain connection to it (i.e. they are partially constructed after his model), or that another angel by the name of Lilith appears.[xiii] Speaking of angels: the Japanese dub uses shito, which would be more closely translated as ‘apostle’, although both refer to a divine/religious messenger.[xiv] For more of the Old-testament-based references, I refer you to Ortega’s elaborate analysis (see Notes section below).
Concerning the New Testament, we have firstly the three computer brains of the NERV Corporation, which take their names from the three wise men of the nativity story: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar.[xv] Secondly, the ultimate weapon against angels is the Lance of Longinus (traditionally, the weapon thrust into the body of Christ on the cross to check if he was dead).  The series queers this artifact’s story, however, because the crucified form we first see the lance stuck in is the angel Lilith. Thirdly, since Shinji is expected to save the world, we might see him as a Christ figure suffering for humanity’s sake. Fittingly, hints of his mother associate the Madonna.[xvi] Fourthly, the cross features repeatedly, not just as a pendant Misato wears – the explosion of a dying angel is cross-shaped. Finally, the secret organization which controls all events is called SEELE, German for ‘soul’.

 

Instant Confusion, Just Add Myth

Lilith lance longinus NGE angel

Angel Lilith, impaled with Lance of Longinus

I’d like to emphasize an aspect Ortega overlooks: the intense blending of stories and images. Traditionally, angels are beings of a different order than humans: stronger, more beautiful, servants of God, but without free will. While NGE retains the power aspect, it also strongly implies that humans and angels are very closely related (i.e. humans, angels, and EVAs are all in some way decedents of Adam and/or Lilith).

 

In a similar vein, the ‘original’ Lance of Longinus has nothing to do with angels, Adam, or Lilith. NGE plays on the association that it is a God-killer weapon, but then again, angels are not God, are they? This anime is so confusing… Anyways, this “take what you need and apply it to your problem/story”-approach resembles the syncretistic view of religion I discussed earlier.

Another aspect I find interesting is the interlacing of religious myth and science fiction, or the myth of technology. You know, giant robots, clones and bioengineering, supercomputers, and the like. A similar connection between religion and science marks the second work I’d like to discuss here.

Trinity Blood

Esther Blancett, Abel Nightroad, Tres Iques. trinity blood poster

Left to right: Esther Blancett, Abel Nightroad, Tres Iques.

One story migrating and evolving from one medium to the next is typical for Japanese popular culture, as I mentioned before. Trinity Blood began in 1999 as a light novel series by Yoshida Sunao, spawned a shōjo manga (2004) and an anime adaptation (2005). This leads to a noticeable shift in art styles; it also produces conflicting information, differing plot lines and character developments, and so on. The anime is probably best known, but the novels provide most background information… and I’ve mainly read the manga 😉 But the interesting parts are common to all versions.

What happens?

1000 years after devastating war, two intelligent species live an Earth: humans (Terrans), and vampires (Methuselah). Human military and political power is concentrated at the Vatican, whereas Byzantium has become the vampire capital.  Both powers are in a Cold War-type of setting, and “lost technologies” from before Armageddon greatly impact the balance of power.

For secret missions, usually concerning vampires, the Vatican sends out special agents. One of those is the main protagonist, Abel Nightroad. In Istvan (Bulgaria), Abel and his partner Tres cross paths with Sister Esther Blanchett, and political complications ensue. Despite his ditzy appearance, Abel is an immensely powerful fighter thanks to the “Crusnik” nanomachines in his body: As vampires prey on humans, Crusnik prey on vampires.  Later the story reveals the origin of both vampires and Crusnik: Vampires are humans infected with the Kudlak Bacillus, which in turn served as food for the Crusnik nanomachines, both of which were discovered in a crashed alien spaceship when humanity tried to colonize Mars.[xvii]

What’s Christian?

Cardinal Jacopino del Conte

Compare: 16th century Cardinal, by Jacopino del Conte.

Cardinal Caterina Sforza, Trinity Blood

Cardinal Caterina Sforza

Whereas NGE intensely appropriates stories and symbols, Trinity Blood makes pronounced use of Christian institutions, that is, the hierarchy and insignia of the Catholic Church. Abel is introduced as a priest, Esther as a (novice) nun, and higher positions are occupied by bishops such as Esther’s mother figure Laura and cardinals such as Abel’s supervisor Catharina Sforza. The character’s clothing is visibly inspired by actual nun’s habits, priests’ and cardinal’s clothing, though the artist(s) also take considerable liberties. Esther’s blue-trimmed white habit evokes that of Mother Teresa, though I couldn’t find any habit design with a short, folded back part of the veil like the one Esther’s wearing. Dressing priests in black and cardinals in red also fits the Church hierarchy. Take this image of Caterina as an example. There’s a lot of detail added, such as cuffs, armour, embroidery etc., but the basic shape is still there – notice the short cloak-like part around the shoulders. I don’t know where the hat came from, through… perhaps the artist just likes big hats 😉. And of course, crosses and rosaries and the like abound as decorative elements.

Political involvement

Christian belief plays a role as well, though mostly as a tool of political power, not a feature of the main character’s personality. Thus, Esther is declared a Saint in a context of political intrigue, in order to affect the pious population. Christian charity features briefly in the beginning as part of the description of the convent in Istvan. However, there is no special promotion of Christian values by main characters, although most of them are members of the Church. Similarly, while the series features numerous terrorists or vigilantes of human or vampire origin, their motivation is usually personal, nationalist or racist, not religious. The series carefully subverts black-and-white morality judgements and shows its characters’ motivations to be diverse, personal, and (Terran or Methuselah) very human.

Names

Lilith Hologram Catharge Trinity Blood

Hologram of Lilith as a Saint

The characters refer to the Earth-encompassing war which led to the present state of affairs as Armageddon, but it is unclear if this is a reference to the Book of Revelation or just popular culture, where both “Armageddon” and “apocalypse” are used to describe large-scale catastrophes capable of exterminating humanity.

Like NGE, Trinity Blood references Genesis and the first humans, but goes one generation further. The first Crusnik is Cain, followed by Abel (the main Character) and their sister Seth. In the Bible, Seth was the third son of Adam and Eve, born after Cain had slain Abel. The fourth Crusnik bears the name Lilith. She is the eldest of these four – all genetically engineered for a Mars colonization project. Interestingly, Lilith becomes a Crusnik last, and only to protect humanity from the other three. This is a weird echo of the NGE moment when humanity is collectively, as “Lilim” or Lilith’s offspring, indicated to be the final, the 18th angel. In both cases, Lilith is associated with humanity, whereas in the source material, Lilith is punished by God for insubordination and becomes a mother of demons. Trinity Blood, by contrast, shows her as a saint-like figure.

Concluding remarks

When it comes to the use of Christian content in anime, the primary appeal probably lies in its exoticism. Whereas with Twin Star Exorcists the animators could assume at least a vague familiarity with the religious associations among their audience, Christianity is both relatively new and relatively rare in Japan. Its visual cues (churches and clothing, like the bride’s white dress) are probably more familiar to the audience then any narratives. Except of course prior adaptations of the same source material. Thus interaction with Christianity might be more external, as in Trinity Blood, adapting the institutions and clothes to contribute to the work’s exotic European flavor. Or it may delve into complex, multilayered and contradictory myth-building, as NGE does. One reviewer of the latter points out that the mere inclusion of religious imagery can both add a cool factor and give a work a feeling of depth and gravitas.[xviii]

Trinity Blood vatican airship

Screenshot from episode 1 of the Trinity Blood anime: A Vatican Airship.

The creative blending of diverse types of stories may, as I mentioned above, be linked to the syncretistic tradition in Japanese religion. In this vein, the connection of Christian elements and Science Fiction makes me wonder if there is some historic precedent as well. Was European science and ‘modernity’, as imported after the Meiji Restoration, seen as somehow connected to European history of thought?

At least in the beginning, this seems to have been true: “It should be remembered that Christianity was introduced to Japan after it had already been well refined in Western society and was arrayed in the garb of modern religion. At the beginning the Japanese people even thought that modernization, Westernization, and Christianization were one and the same thing.”[xix] Perhaps, some residue of this conflation still remains?

Star Wars Force Luke Skywalker Obi Wan Kenobi

Not that religion and science fiction where unrelated in Western media…

Notes and References:

[i] See http://www.nippon.com/en/features/c02303/ for a biographic account of these early missionaries and (on page 2) pictures of Japanese churches.

[ii] Bunce, William. Religions in Japan. Rutland & Tōkyō: Charles E. Tuttle, 1948. 20-21. See also: Covell, Stephen. “Religious Culture”. In: Sugimoto, Yoshino (ed). The Cambridge Companion to Modern Japanese Culture. Cambridge University Press, 2009. 147-8.

[iii] Bunce 1948:21-22, 150; Covell 2009:148-9.

[iv] http://www.onmarkproductions.com/html/maria-kannon.html

[v] Bunce 1948: 151-3, Covell 2009:149.

[vi] Ellington, Lucien. Asia in Focus: Japan. Santa Barbara & Oxford: ABC Clio, 2009. 165.

[vii] Covell 2009:150.

[viii] Both the American and German versions were apparently first broadcast in 2000; but I have to trust Wikipedia on this since TV-schedules prove quite difficult to research.

[ix] Napier, Susan. “When the Machines Stop: Fantasy, Reality and Terminal Identity in Neon Genesis Evangelion and Serial Experiments Lain”. In: Bolton, Christopher; Csicsery-Ronay, Istvan Jr; & Takayuki Tatsumi (eds). Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams: Japanese Science Fiction from Origins to Anime. University of Minnesota Press, 2007. 108.

[x] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jYZfeY8Vg0E, notably the lyrics say „shōnen wa, shinwa ni nare”, “Boy, become a legend”.

[xi] 1) Napier 2007; 2) Redmond, Dennis. „Anime and East Asian Culture: Neon Genesis Evangelion“. In: Allen, Matthew, & Sakamoto, Ruby (eds). Japanese Popular Culture: Critical Concepts in Asian Studies. Volume II: Japanese Popular Culture in the Twenty-First Century. London & New York: Routledge, 2014; 3) Ortega, Mariana. „My Father, He Killed Me; My Mother, She Ate Me: Self, Desire, Engendering, and the Mother in Neon Genesis Evangelion.“In: Mechademia, Vol.2 (Networks of Desire), 2007.

[xii] Ortega 2007.

[xiii] Ortega 2007:218-9.

[xiv] https://wiki.evageeks.org/Angels

[xv] Ortega 2007:223.

[xvi] Ortega 2007:224.

[xvii] http://trinityblood.wikia.com/wiki/Methuselah

[xviii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UiUs6YuSloM

[xix] Kishimoto Hideo, „The problem of religion and modernization in Japan“, p.12. https://nirc.nanzan-u.ac.jp/nfile/3240

Anime’s One-Piece Swimsuit Fetish and the History of Japanese Swimsuits

anime high school swimsuit

Form-fitting, sleek one-piece swimsuits dominate high-school anime’s depictions of girls. Fans demand, in fact, require their anime to feature their favorite female characters in these iconic one-pieces. More than a few fetishes in the fandom focus on this blue spandex swimsuit. The swimsuit features in high-school anime because it is a part of Japanese school life. But where exactly did this one-piece swimsuit come from?

To answer that, we need to look at the history of swimwear in the West. Japan imported Western-style swimwear, along with many other Western ideas and costumes, during the early part of the 1900s.

Casale_BikiniLet’s backpeddle to the first swimsuit: the bikini. Official history states the bikini was designed by French engineer Louis Réard in 1946. The swimwear is thought to be named after the Bikini Atoll, the site of several US atomic tests happening at the time. However, the bikini appears much earlier. A Roman mosaic dating the to the 4th century in Sicily shows Roman women exercising in quite modern-liking bikinis (Spivack, 2012).

When the Roman Empire collapsed, bathing suits and bathing in general numbered among the collapse’s victims. Up until the 1500s, Europeans believed bathing spread disease rather than prevented it (Tousignant, 2014). Bathing didn’t return until the Renaissance and the Baroque period, and by then people expected female skin to remain covered. For example, in 1687, the English traveler Celia Fiennes described the typical lady’s bathing suit (Spivack, 2012):

The Ladyes go into the bath with Garments made of a fine yellow canvas, which is stiff and made large with great sleeves like a parson’s gown; the water fills it up so that it is borne off that your shape is not seen, it does not cling close as other linning, which Lookes sadly in the poorer sort that go in their own linning. The Gentlemen have drawers and wastcoates of the same sort of canvas, this is the best linning, for the bath water will Change any other yellow.

These bathing gowns sometimes had lead weights sewn into their hems so nothing would float up and reveal an ankle (Tousignant, 2014). Swim gowns persisted until form fitting bathing suits became popular in the early 1900s. Made of wool, these swimsuits covered from neck to ankle. In case you are wondering, men covered almost as much as women. They wore vests and swim shirts up until 1937, when they finally went bare-chested.

Annette Kellerman in a period swimsuit.

Annette Kellerman in a period swimsuit.

Anyway, these form fitting swimsuits caused a scandal. In 1907, Annette Kellerman, the first woman to swim across the English Channel, was arrested in Boston for wearing a form-fitting one-piece that showed skin on her arms and legs. Her arrest backfired. Instead of halting the trend of creeping skin, her arrest encouraged women to show more leg and and arm (Spivack, 2014).  As the years passed, more skin appeared, but the invention of spandex marked the beginning of the modern, form-hugging swimsuits we are familiar with today.

The Japanese Modern Girl and Western Fashion

So what does the history of Western swimwear have to do with the Japanese school-girl one-piece? The answer traces back to the Meiji Restoration and the rise of the modan garu in the 1920s.

The Meiji Restoration marked the end of Japan’s closed-off feudal period and the start of rapid modernization. Japan looked to the West, particularly the United States, for examples. The rapid import of Western ideas sent shocks throughout Japanese society. One group in particular noticed a profound different in traditional views and Western views: women. Women became consumers of new Western forms of media: mass market magazines, movies, radio, jazz, and other imports. A small group of women began to emulate the Western fashions they witnessed in American movies. The modan garu, or modern girl, became the symbol of modernization.

As a symbol of modernism, you’d think the modern girl would be a common sight in the 1920s, just as the flapper was a common sight in America during the same decade. However, a 1925 survey of the Ginza area of Tokyo found 99% of women still wore traditional Japanese clothing. Only 1% of women dressed as modern girls. However, that 1% stood out. The modern girl wore bright-colored one-piece dressed that reached to her knees. She wore high-heeled shoes and sheer stockings that drew attention to her legs. Her bobbed hair was modeled after Hollywood actresses like Clara Bow and Gloria Swanson. The hair style in particular marked a significant change. Traditional Japanese women wore their hair in a bun, and an ordinance from 1872 forbade women from cutting their hair (Sato, 1993). Interestingly, during this period it wasn’t unusual for women to dive nude. Known as ama, this fisherwomen would become popular examples of the “Exotic East” for Westerners. They caused less of  a stir than the modern girls.

So the modern girl was a woman who bucked tradition and embraced the Western fashion she witnessed on the silver screen. Among these fashions was the swimsuit. Postcards from the era sometimes showed Japanese women wearing Western style swimsuits. Swimsuits like the ones Kellerman wore. These women were at the height of fashion and controversy. Just as Kellerman ran into problems in Boston, Japanese modern girls faced backlash for showing too much and being too Western. The modern girl faced real challenges. Novelist Mochizuki Yuriko wrote an account of her experience as a modern girl when she cut her hair (Sato, 1993):

The long kimono was beautiful, but it was no longer in keeping with the age. Long Japanese hair was also beautiful, but that,  too, had become anachronistic. Those were the feelings I had when I decided to cut my hair. . . . You  can’t imagine the shock it gave to the people around me. My mother took one look at me and cried out in indignation, ‘You must be crazy! If you go out,  everyone will call you one of those atarashii onna [new women]’-the  term modan garu was not in use yet.. . . I remember another instance after I returned to my family home in the country. I ran into two girls,  fifteen and  sixteen, living in the neighborhood who had had a short cut. Ours was an extremely provincial, tradition-bound village, and it caused a great sensation. The girls were punished severely and their mothers sobbed and wailed, carrying on as if they were lunatics. My own mother confronted me and said,  ’It’s your fault that this dreadful thing has happened. You’ve lost face with everyone in the neighborhood, so I wish  that you’d just go right back to Tokyo.’ In no time I packed my bag and returned to Tokyo feeling as if I were  escaping.. . . It’s  been almost ten years since I got a short cut. During that time there have been a string of  tragicomedies.

When I think back [to 1918], the painful experiences far outnumbered the comic situations. Even today, it’s appalling how many idiots jeer and hiss at me and are ignorant enough to  label me a modan garu.

Japanese modern girls faced real problems for their decisions to embrace Western fashion. They not only faced problems with their families for breaking tradition, but they also faced the label of sexual deviant. Their embrace of Western fashion marked them as a sex object and women of poor sexual morality. Despite police investigations in 1923–which found nothing sexual or immoral going on in modern-girl cafes and other hang outs–the idea persisted. Some of this persistence is because of the exoticism of Western dress at the time. These women represented something new, different, and modern. In a word: exotic, and exotic women stimulate male libido–just as the ama and geisha did for Western men. The sexual attraction of the 1920s modern girl continues with the attraction for Japanese high-school one-piece swimsuits. Much like panty fetishes were caused by Westernization, the fetish for the one-piece started with the sexual objectification of early modern girls and their Western swimwear. And the association stuck.

Modan garu kept up with American fashion changes up until World War II. By the time the war ended, the American Occupation cemented America’s influence on Japan. However, there is another piece of the puzzle. The high-school one-piece isn’t merely a result of Japan copying America. The one-piece is distinctly Japanese. It resulted from the influence of the modern girl merging with the distinctly Japanese school uniform.

The Uniform Swimsuit

This is just one of the examples of how the high school swimsuit for ladies is fetishized. The abnormal pose shows off her lolita figure. The high-school swimsuit and lolita fetish often converge.

Besides the one-piece swimsuit, anime focuses on the Japanese school uniform. The Japanese school uniform, like the modern girl, came out of Japan’s rapid Westernization. Japanese school uniforms are as iconic as the samurai, and Japan engineered that iconography. When Japan entered the world stage, it was obsessed with how other nations perceived it. Japan wanted to present its military as modern, and military uniforms are the way to do just that. Military uniforms are designed to impress foreign nations, after all.

Japan took its modernization so seriously that it extended military dress to its school system. Female school uniforms were modeled after the Japanese Navy uniform, and male school uniforms were modeled after the Japanese Army. These uniforms were a way of advertising how Japan became modern across all levels of its population.

Beginning in the 1950s, school uniforms became associated with morally wholesome children. That is, until the Lolita movement and the push toward fashion started in the 1980s. During the 1980s, private girl schools began to use uniform styles to attract students. This pushed school uniforms into the public eye, including school swimsuits. In 1985, the book Girl Uniform Fieldbook by Mori Nobuyuki outlined various school uniform fashions and which schools featured each uniform (Kinsella, 2002). This, in combination with the shift in using school girl as advertising, brought the school uniform and school swimsuit back into the realm of sexuality. The long running strand of sexuality introduced by the modern girl back in the early 1900s had returned.

Kosaki Onodera from Nisekoi

Anime picked up on this return of the swimsuit as a subject of sexual attraction. The one-piece became an iconic fetish because for many Japanese men it was the first exposure to the female body. First exposures leave lasting influence and tap into nostalgia. The one-piece dredges memories of high school and junior-high, times when you had more freedom. Nostalgia is a powerful feeling, especially when it is combined with sexual attraction.

The Japanese Male Swimsuit

So far, I’ve focused on the female one-piece. Although it is not as iconic, the male swimsuit shares similar DNA. However, it doesn’t the same potent sexual symbolism as the female swimsuit in popular culture. Some of this is because female sexual interests tend not to be as public as male. Marketing hasn’t capitalized on female sexual attraction as long as it has on male sexual attraction. This is changing as more marketing and anime aims at titillating women through male objectification. I’ve written about female objectification many times so I won’t get into it again here. If you want to read more check out these links: breast obsession, magical girls and sexism, otaku culture is sexist. The male swimsuit follows the same trail as the female. As women adopted Western fashion, awareness of Western male fashion also increased. Male swimwear has undergone fewer changes than female swimwear. Depending on your perspective, Westernized societies place a higher value on female skin than male skin. This is why males tend to have fewer controversy with swimwear. Female skin is more valuable as a commodity and therefore shouldn’t be shared as readily as male skin. For the record, I firmly disagree with this view, but patriarchal views hang on. This view is changing, however, as female sexual attraction and homosexual male sexual attraction becomes more accepted.

The Revenge of the One-Piece

Anime’s focus on the female one-piece swimsuit traces back more than a century, back to the opening of Japan to the rest of the world. For decades, Western fashion has influenced Japanese, but in recent years that has begun to reverse. The one-piece has returned in many American magazines. While the one-piece hasn’t completely disappeared, it played second-fiddle to the bikini. That is changing. In a 2015 article of InStyle, many women are returning to the one-piece as a backlash against the ever-shrinking bikini (Cheng, 2015).

I suspect Japan’s high school one-piece has had a small hand in this shift as well. Manga and anime enjoyed a period of booming popularity between roughly 2004-2008 here in the States. Many of these fans are now at an age where they can influence fashion. While anime and manga fans are a small cohort, their views cause ripples among nonfans. The constant exposure to one-piece swimsuits in anime and manga–not to mention how anime portrays the one-piece as sexier than bikinis–will shift ideals of fashion. I have to be clear: I don’t have data on this. It is merely a suspicion.

In any case, the one-piece swimsuit sits on a line of influence stretching all the way back through the Japanese modern girl movement, back through the swim gowns of yesteryear, back into the Roman Empire, and back even further into history. The one-piece shows how even a simple piece of material is connected to a web of ideas and people stretching back into time.

References

Cheng, A. (2015) Proof That One-Piece Swimsuits Are Now More Popular Than Bikinis. InStyle. http://www.instyle.com/news/celebrities-in-one-piece-swimsuits

Kinsella, S. (2002). What’s Behind the Fetishism of Japanese School Uniforms? Fashion Theory 6 (2). 215-238.

Sato, B. H. (1993) The Moga Sensation: Perceptions of the Modan Garu in Japanese Intellectual Circles during the 1920s. Gender & History. 3(3) 361-381.

Spivack, E. (2012). How Bathing Suits Went From Two-pieces to Long Gowns and Back. Smithsonian.

Tousignant, M. (2014). The History of Swimsuits, from Togas to Bikinis. The Washington Post. June 2, 2014.

Ama: Japan’s Sea Diving Women

Ama come from a tradition that dates back over 2,000 years, and the tradition is dying. Today, about 2,000 ama dive off the coast of Japan, and fewer dive each year. Most ama are well into their 60s and 70s (LeBlanc, 2015; McCurry, 2016). Before we continue, I have to leave you with a disclaimer. This article contains nudity. Before the 1900s, ama dived naked except for a traditional loincloth. The earliest images of ama, naked from the waist up, appear in 18th century ukiyo-e. Ama have worn wetsuits since the 1960s (LeBlanc, 2015).

The Ama Tradition

No one knows exactly how women became deep sea divers. Westerners assume ama dived for pearls, but most dived to collect seaweed, fish, and shellfish to supplement their meals and sell on the marketplace. Ama are almost exclusively women. They dive in the cold sea without the aid of scuba gear, using only rocks to help them sink as far as 30 feet below the sea. Most traditional ama were wives of fishermen. They would dive so they can earn extra money while their husbands were away on prolonged fishing trips (Martinez, 2004; LeBlanc, 2015; Tanaka, 2016).

On Shima peninsula, ama once dominated. After World War II, 6,000 of the 10,000 total divers lived in the area. Today only 750 live there (McCurry, 2016).  Ama break with Japanese culture norms, particularly the ama of Shima. Since feudal Japan, women were relegated to a limited role, based upon class. In samurai classes, women were shut off from society and were expected to manage the household and raise children. The lower classes granted women more freedom, but she was still subject to her husband. Merchant class women, for example, were expected to help manage the household and provide help with the family business. Farming class women helped plant the fields in addition to her household duties.

However, ama in the Shima area flipped these expectations. In some situations, the husband assisted her. He would wait topside for her to tug on her safety rope. Then, he would haul her up and help with her catch. During the Tokugawa period, these women were seen as strong and a match for their husbands. Many started their profession as children to continue to dive well into their 80s (LeBlanc, 2015).

When the husbands were away, ama dived in groups. Each woman would tie themselves to a wooden bucket that acted as a float. Diving in groups helped reduce danger, but whenever you dive up to 30 feet in cold water for up to 2 minutes, people can die. In a typical day, these women dive 100-150 times (Tanaka, 2016). Ama developed a culture of beliefs and practices to help reduce this danger.

Superstitions of the Ama

Ama fishing villages feature a special temple for the women to pray before heading off and their own communal warming huts for when they return from a cold day’s work. They developed their own protective symbols. The seiman, or 5-pointed star, adorn their head scarves and tools. Written in a single stroke, starting and ending at the same point, the star represents their safe return to the surface. Another design, the dohman,  a lattice design that keeps danger away and represents watchfulness. Before each dive, the women knock on the side of the boat with their chisel and recite a short mantra (LeBlanc, 2015).

Ama diving. Photo by Fosco Maraini 1954.

Men ama divers exist, but the profession is dominated by women. Diving is done relatively close to shore. While men took trips out into open waters, women could dive nearby to help the family’s income. Men would take the best boats, while women could make do with less seaworthy craft. Women were also thought to be better at diving than men. First, women have an extra layer of fat that helps them tolerate cold water better than men (LeBlanc, 2015). Women were also thought to be better able to hold their breath and for longer than men (Tanaka, 2016).

Today’s Ama

Ama is a dying profession. Several reasons go into this. First, young women don’t have any interest in learning the special breathing techniques ama have perfected. Second, the profession doesn’t pay. While their staple crop abalone can net $80.00 for 2lbs, abalone are getting harder to find due to overfishing and environmental changes (McCurry, 2016). Ama is a sustainable fishing system. It allows the diver to be selective. While the lack of nets and other gear protects the environment, oceans face pressures from industrial methods that impacts the ability of ama to find their catches. The profession may soon disappear because of these factors.

Topless Diving and the Mysterious, Exotic Orient

I have to comment on the images I chose to use. For a good portion of Japanese history, nudity among women carried little shame, particularly for the lower classes. Nudity is natural. I selected these images because they are a part of history. It was a part of who the ama were. That said, these photos were often intended for Western audiences. Soon after Japan opened, postcards of the exotic East began to be sent by visitors. Geisha, samurai, and ama numbered among the topics Westerners considered strange. Topless women who dived in cold waters. How strange! How erotic!

Never mind they dived nearly nude for safety. Clothing could snag on rocks. Although after the 1900s, many wore cotton gowns.

The exoticness of Japan was fetishized by the West since Japan modernized in the late 1800s. Today, Japanese women face continued fetishes by many Western men. These photos are not intended to cater to either fetish. Rather, I decided to use them to give a glimpsed of the women called ama while pointing out how these glimpses need to be understood. Today we sexualize far too much.  The women you saw in this article felt the cold salt water on their skin. They knew hunger and joy. They were mothers and grandmothers. These photographs provide a small window in their lives, a window distorted by Western exoticism and by modern sexuality.

References

LeBlanc, P. (2015). UT professor studies group of traditional Japanese pearl divers. Austin American-Statesman.

McCurry, J. (2016) “Japan’s women of the sea hope G7 will boost their dying way of life; The ama divers of the Shima peninsula, who harvest shellfish from the seabed, see the nearby gathering of world leaders as a chance to promote their culture”. The Guardian (London).

Martinez, D. (2004) Identity and Ritual in A Japanese Diving Village: The Making and Becoming of Person and Place. University of Hawaii Press.

Tanaka, H. and others (2016) “Arterial Stiffness of lifelong Japanese female pearl divers.” Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol 310.

Photos are by Yoshiyuki Iwase unless otherwise noted.

What are the Shrine Mummies in Zelda: Breath of the Wild?

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild brings many changes to the franchise. The dark themes of the game, while not exactly a change, certainly stand out. Ruins are everywhere and people are relegated to small settlements. Overlooking these settlements and ruins are shrines. Deep inside these strange relics of technology long lost, past lethal trials and puzzles, you will find a strange sight for the Legend of Zelda: mummies.

Well, they aren’t exactly strange. Mummies appear throughout the series, but these mummies are strange because they aren’t enemies–they are failed protectors. You’ll find them enshrined behind a barrier and wearing the garb of Sheikah clerics. As a reward for clearing the trials, they offer you a spirit orb, the manifestation of their spiritual power. What’s more, you’ll see these mummies wait in various meditative poses straight out of Buddhist texts. It’s unusual for the Legend of Zelda to show such distinct religious elements. You’ll see hints, like the shield emblem from the original Legend of Zelda, but you don’t usually see a distinct religious practice. The mummies you see are based on reality: sokushinbutsu.

Those Who Want to Die for Others

A Chinese sokushinbutsu believed to be Liuquan, the master of the Chinese Meditation School who died around the year 1100 Image Source

Sokushinbutsu or “Buddhas in Their Very Body” aren’t considered mummies by their worshipers. Mummies are made by preserving the body after death, but these monks aren’t considered dead by followers. Rather, their spirits are preserved in their bodies in a state of deep meditation (Clements, 2016).

Would-be sokushinbutsu follow a path set by the founder of the Shingon tradition, Kukai. He believed it was possible to attain Buddhahood in the believer’s current body instead of some future incarnation as other schools believe. For his part, Kukai is said to be eternally meditating somewhere at Mt. Koya. In fact, the tradition closely associates with mountains including Mt. Yudono, Mt. Haguro, and Mt. Gassan. The belief led monks to practice harsh austerities such as fasting and reciting sutras under icy waterfalls and, for some, self-mummification.

Why would anyone want to mummify themselves? Well, it’s believed sokushinbutsu have a strong motivation to help people in need. They freely offer their powers to save people from problems that range from starvation to taxes. Sokushinbutsu are rare, which adds to their mystique and powers. About 21 sokushinbutsu are found in Northern Japan, and we know of 9 more from historical records. The oldest dates to 1683 and the most recent dates to 1903. This monk was enshrined only after World War II (Clements, 2016).  The desire to help people in their suffering drove a few men (only men can become sokushinbutsu) to undergo the process.

Sokushinbutsu are found in China as well. A Chinese Buddhist statue contains the remains believed to be of Liuquan, the master of the Chinese Meditation School who died around the year 1100. We don’t know for certain if he mummified himself, but researchers suspect he went through the process. According to Vincent van Vilsteren, a museum curator (Winter, 2015; Self-made Mummy, 2015):

“We suspect that for the first 200 years, the mummy was exposed and worshiped in a Buddhist temple in China. Only in the 14th century did they do all the work to transform it into a nice statue.”

How to Mummify Yourself

Back in Japan, the self-mummification process builds from the already ascetic diet of Shingon monks. Monks who want to become sokushinbutsu observed a strict diet that forbids meat, alcohol, rice, wheat, soybeans, adzuki beans, black sesame seeds, barnyard grass (maybe backyard grass is okay?), millet, foxtail millet, buckwheat, and corn. They usually ate nuts, roots, and pine bark. The diet made sure the monk didn’t have body fat to decay. Some monks ate bark and sap from the tree used to make lacquer.

They would also seclude themselves in the mountain in 1,000 day intervals. Some for as long as 4,000 days or just shy of 11 years. Cold winters and daily cold water meditation practices combined with being forbidden to seek medical help killed many would-be sokushinbutsu before they could reach their goals. After this period ended, they would start the mummification process–such as drinking tea poisonous enough to deter maggots (Winters, 2015). The process ended with being buried alive with only a tube to allow them to breath. They would then meditate until starvation claimed them.

Then, 3 years and 3 months later, people exhumed the new sokushinbutsu, dressed him in clerical robes, and enshrined him. The Shingon tradition believes these monks will remain in deep mediation until Maitreya, the Future Buddha, descends from Tusita Heaven in the distant future (Clements, 2016). Maitreya is thought to come after the dharma (the path to compassion/enlightenment) is forgotten in the future and succeed Śākyamuni as the Buddha (the current Buddha).

Failure and Loneliness in Breath of the Wild

The mummies we find in Breath of the Wild‘s shrines pull from this tradition. These monks went into the shrines to meditate and await the coming of the Hero, becoming sokushinbutsu in the process. Tragically, they could do nothing to protect the people outside the shrines from the destruction that befell them. Throughout Breath of the Wild, you’ll see people seeking out the shrines–some looking for blessings or help. But the eternals inside could do nothing.

Now, I’ve seen people complain about how empty the world of Breath of the Wild is (it is mostly wilderness, after all). But the landscape acts as a storytelling method. That emptiness, the loneliness, speaks to the destruction and suffering that happened. The shrines housing the powerless sokushinbutsu add to this story. Throughout the game, you encounter people who have accepted their helplessness and the brutal life they live. You see people attacked outside the shrines and scattered settlements. Breath of the Wild reveals what happens when heroes fail.

The use of sokushinbutsu speaks of the level of desperation and fear within Breath of the Wild. Over 120 people willingly mummified themselves in order to await the hero. That means far more failed in the attempt and died in the process. What’s more, they did this 10,000 years before events in Breath of the Wild.  Yet, in the end their sacrifice turned out to be in vain. When Ganon arrived, they could do nothing to stop him from murdering the populace.

The theme of loneliness runs deep through Breath of the Wild. The story even centers on on it, and how the hero can’t succeed alone. Sokushinbutsu, like many of the other design choices you see throughout the game, emphasizes this theme.

References

Clements, F. W. (2016). The Buddhas of Mount Yudono: Sacred Self-Mummification in Northern Japan. Expedition, 58(2), 30-34.

Self-made Mummy?. (2015). Junior Scholastic, 117(11), 5.

Winter, M. (2015) A painful path to enlightenment; CT scan on a Buddhist Statue reveals remains of a monk who underwent torturous self-mummification 1,000 years ago. The Toronto Star.

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.