Recently, I heard about a genuine Zen garden hidden away in Ohio. So of course I had to take a look. The garden was originally designed and built in 1963 by Dr. Makoto Nakamura of Kyoto University as a cultural exchange program. It has all the traditional Zen elements: a raked gravel garden with islands of stone, a koi pond with islands and bridges and a tea garden with stones that leads to a meditation house. The meditation house was a great place to relax and enjoy some frozen custard, by the way. The garden nestles in a larger garden and preserve complex (nearly 2,000 acres) with woodlands, grasslands, wetlands, swamps, lakes, rare Chinese redwoods (part of a preservation project), and more. I also browsed their bonsai collection that included a tree that was first planted in 1958.
At the end of January, I had the privilege to witness a benshi performance, which impressed me immensely. Finally, it led to me writing this blog post. So, what am I actually talking about?
In Japan, silent films were never truly silent
A still from the 1929 silent film “Tokyo March”
Western audiences may be faintly aware that in the first cinemas, at least a pianist used to accompany silent films, if there wasn’t an entire orchestra at hand. As we still experience today, music is very effective in conveying emotion, atmosphere, and a sense of urgency or suspense regarding the story unfolding on screen.
But in Japan, they went far beyond that. The story of cinema in Japan begins with imports of western movies, showing scenes that were strange and exotic to Japanese viewers. Thus, these scenes needed explaining, and this is where the origin of the benshi lies. Literally, the word means ‘orator’ or ‘speaker’, and benshi started out as ‘film explainers’. Soon, however, they also became commentators, narrators, entertainers and voice actors. Some may pinpoint the development to a single person – “Somei Saburo was the first of these narrators who could be called a benshi. Rejecting the oft-assumed role of playing outside observer, Saburo chose to imitate, voice, and personify the characters depicted on the screen.”[i] – but a parallel development seems more likely.
Owing to their origin as explainers of western ‘exotic’ contexts, benshi tended to dress in western attire, commonly tuxedo and top hat.
Sawata Midori, allegedly the most famous contemporary benshi.
This trend continues until present day, as the most famous of today’s benshi, Sawato Midori, performs in suit and bow tie – despite the fact that, unusual for a benshi then and now, she is a woman. The benshi I watched, Kataoka Ichirō, is one of her students. At the beginning of the performance, he remarked that at the height of benshi popularity, in the 1920s, there were over a thousand of them active in Japan. The most popular of them earned more than the Prime Minister! In fact, cinema goers didn’t go to see a specific movie for its director or its actors so much as for the benshi performing it.[ii] Now, however, there are only about 10 benshi left, and (as Kataoka assured us) he, at least, earns significantly less than the Prime Minister.
In contrast to the tradition, Kataoka dresses in traditional Japanese garb for his performances. About half of the short films he showed to us that night were period pieces, however, so it fit with the general theme.
…and the medium
In the old days, benshi manipulated the films they showed as they saw fit. To this day, they script their own texts for each movie, including the dialogue, even if the original script is available. Their performance unfolds in addition to, or sometimes at odds with, the intertitles. Often, though, Japanese silent films would not even have intertitles, since the directors knew the benshi would take care of narrative coherence and transition. Now, if the benshi’s dialogue took longer to perform than the scene allowed for, he would just instruct the man at the projector to lower the projection speed a little.[iii] This also led to a tendency in Japanese early film to use long, uninterrupted shots to allow the benshi time for his performance. Of cause, if he found a sequence boring, he might turn it into a comedic interlude and crank up the speed to get it over with.
A still from the silent animated movie “The Monkeys’ Masamune”
In short, the main attraction was the vocal performance, and the film was only the raw material. Sometimes, the benshi would comment on the action, drawing attention to the fictitiousness of the story, in an almost Brechtian fashion.[iv] The relationship between film and ‘explanation’ was in fact reversed: “the images themselves being the illustration of an independently existing storyline.”[v]
Benshi might also use their position for political propaganda, as was the case with the war films during the Russo-Japanese war of 1904/5[vi]. Korean benshi likewise attempted to instigate rebellion against the Japanese colonial rule.[vii] The benshi‘s immense popularity was a major factor in the comparatively late start of sound film in Japan – but when progress finally took hold, the ‘talkies’ made the benshi obsolete.
Japan has a rich history of performance art, and the benshi can be linked to a number of them. The narrators of Kabuki theatre are prominent and visible.
Benshi Asou Yata, sporting a very fitting mustache.
So is the chanter of bunraku puppet plays, who also lends his voice to the silent puppet characters, much like the benshi voice the actors on screen.[viii] Furthermore, oral narrative performance art has a long tradition. In the Middle Ages, you could listen to biwa-hōshi, blind itinerant monks who recited war epics while accompanying themselves on a lute. To this day, there are performances of conversational comedy called rakugo.[ix] (Incidentally, the garments of rakugo performers may be another influence on Kataoka’s costume choice.) Even the master-student training system used by the benshi was adapted from other traditional Japanese arts.[x]
Because of these connections, benshi performing film were not a radically new thing, but rather a development based on older art forms. The links between theatre and film ran so deep that some theatres employed a number of benshi, some of them female, to feature in a single performance of “live dubbing”.[xi] For some time, there were also mixed shows, where part of the action was acted live on stage, part filmed beforehand and dubbed live.[xii]
Narrative: A performance of Kataoka Ichirō
Kataoka Ichirô, almost as I have seen him.
It is at the end of January, 2017, in Trier, an ancient but small city in western Germany, close to the borders of Luxembourg and France. The Romans have left some impressive ruins, and Karl Marx was born in one of the strangely diagonal streets south of the market square. Today, the Broadway cinema, in cooperation with the department of Japanese studies of Trier university, presents a short film screening with benshi narration. At that time, I’m struggling to pinpoint the thesis of my Master’s dissertation. I have no clear idea what a benshi is, but it sounds interesting – especially since one of the films on the list is about Jiraiya, the toad mage, for whom I have a soft spot. Upon arriving at the cinema, I buy a bottle of German lemonade with real caffeine and sit down with a book. The performer is here already, and I shyly admire the traditional Japanese clothing he wears. Two other students of Japanese Studies join me at my table and update me on the goings-on in the student council. One of them is very excited because, he says, he is interested in everything about the Taishō period (1912-26). We sit down in the higher part of the screening room; it has a seating capacity of about a hundred and is 2/3 full at least. Someone from cinema management says a few words of greeting and presents Kataoka, not without mispronouncing his name, of course. Then Kataoka introduces himself. He has a pleasant, tough not very remarkable, speaking voice and is quite proficient in English, which is, sadly, quite unusual for a Japanese. At first, the audience is somewhat hesitant to respond to him (German stiffness, probably), but they mellow during the first film.
Lump Theft and Monkeys’ Masamune
Tengus’ banquet scene from the silent animated film “Lump Theft”.
“I know this one”, I whisper to my neighbour, the Taishō enthusiast, as the screen flickers to grey and yellowish life. The first film is an animated short, about two old men with lumps and the karmic justice visited on them, quite by accident. “It’s on youtube.”[xiii]
How different it feels now, though! With the onset of the strange music – well, strange to modern Western ears at least, I cannot even discern the instruments – Kataoka’s performance beings. He does so in Japanese, of course, but someone has kindly provided subtitles, tailored to this specific event. As the introductory intertitle appears, the benshi’s voice turns into the solemn, melodious whine of a traditional Japanese narrator. He croaks like friendly raven once he voices the old man, produces the servile chatter of low-rank Tengu mountain goblins, as well as the rumbling laugh and growled anger of the goblin king. This feels just like anime now! If it weren’t for the moments when he, clearly on purpose, speaks even if characters are drawn with their mouths closed, or stays still when they seem to speak.
When that first movie is over, I am sitting on the edge of my seat for the next one, but that’s a fable with a somewhat dubious morale. A hunter trying to shoot an ape is wrong, but cutting a boar in half with a sword seems to be perfectly fine.[xiv] Between films, Kataoka gives us some facts in English about benshi practise and history.
Little Tarô, absorbed in his new toy.
Bad mannered hippos!
I am impressed by the third film because it mixes two styles we now mostly see as distinct. In a live-action sequence, a little boy receives a toy train from his father as a present. The dress and movement of the actors give me the feeling that historical knowledge only get you that far. This grainy movie has more life in it than any textbook on the Taishō era. Anyways, the boy finally goes to bed, enamoured with his new toy, and dreams of being a conductor. The dream sequence is animated; and full of anthropomorphic animals.[xv] It’s nice comedy and also instructive, explaining how to behave on a train. Seems to have been effective, since the Japanese are usually very pleasant, and quiet, train passengers. Kataoka takes the comedic tone of the piece to slip in a few jokes of his own, as one of ‘his’ characters metanarratively remarks on this being a black and white movie. In one instance, there was even a self-reflective joke in the subtitles!
The movie I like best, though, is Tokyo March.[xvi] It’s a complicated, kabuki-esque plot of love found and lost, mistaken identity, rivalry and family secrets, and Kataoka excels in portraying the characters- from young men to an old woman, from the sad heroine to the lecherous and finally gilt-ridden father.
The heroine, foced to become a geisha, is weary of unwanted attention.
Japanese speech patterns, of course, are highly codified by age, gender, class/profession and region. Which intonation, harshness or softness of voice, and what pitch one uses, how one refers to oneself, how questions, commands and states of emotional excitement are marked with specific particles, differs according to these criteria. I guess that makes the benshi’s voice-acting possible, if complicated. As an additional treat, the ending of the movie had some insensely, um, homosocial lines, which made my inner fangirl squee.
“My happiness will never be complete without you, Yoshiki.”
Frog VS Snake VS Slug, the classical threeway tie.
In fact, I keep forgetting the benshi’s presence because I get so absorbed in the characters and their story… I am only jolted out of it when Kataoka’s script diverges from the action. However, here he keeps a superb balance of immersion and alienation. By contrast, in his rendition of the Jiraiya movie, his narration seems to run off course a bit too much. He turns the confusing film into somewhat of a coherent story, but clearly this is only possible by intensively reinterpreting and repurposing the images. Perhaps I am getting tired, too. In any case, if you fancy a pretty young woman transforming into a slug, or warriors beaten back by lawn sprinklers, good entertainment, give it a try.[xvii] It’s the first special effects movie made in Japan, apparently.
The last film is a modern homage to silent film, and in direct contrast with the originals before, the difference is easy to spot. The pictures are too clear, the resolution too high, and the sudden tilts into yellow, blue or red seem exaggerated. There are scratch marks superimposed on the image, but it takes me only a few minutes to notice the repeating pattern. That being said, the story itself, about a jealous samurai and his bloody revenge, is interesting, and Kataoka once again amazes me with the variety of voices at his command.
Quite an experience, that was.
Poster of the most popular “morning drama”, Oshin. This genre makes extensive use of voice-over narration, especially at the beginning of each episode.
Benshi may have all but disappeared, but they sure have left a mark on the Japanese visual narrative. It’s not just Kataoka’s amazing versatility, which reminded me of some modern-day anime voice actors. Or that anime sometimes employ similar speaking styles in voice-over narration. In general, Japanese film features wide angles and long takes – perhaps in memory of the benshi who once needed the time to perform. And finally, voice-over and concluding narration is relatively common in Japanese live-action TV, which might be a legacy of the benshi.[xviii]
In addition, after the advent of sound film, some benshi who had lost their jobs became kamishibai artists. Kamishibai or paper theatre is a street art combining hand-drawn slides and vocal narration. It is seen a precursor of modern manga – the Manga Museum in Kyōto has a whole room dedicated to kamishibai, with an actor performing in period clothing. So, here we have another direct link with modern visual narrative.
Long story short, if you get the chance to see Kataoka or one of his colleagues perform, I strongly recommend going.
[ii] Yomota Inuhiko, transl. Uwe Hohmann: Im Reich der Sinne. 100 Jahre japanischer Film. Frankfurt am Main: Stroemfeld, 2007, p 26; see also J.L. Anderson: “Spoken Silents in the Japanese Cinema; or, Talking to Pictures: Essaying the Katsuben, Contextualizing the Texts”. In: Arthur Noletti Jr. & David Desser: Reframing Japanese Cinema. Authorship, Genre, History. Indiana UP, 1992, pp. 359-311, p. 261.
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, 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, 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”. 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. 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
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. And a decidedly uncanny one, of cause. As the last descendant of a spirit tribe, Kitarō usually functions as mediator between yōkai and humans. 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”. 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
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. 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. 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. 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. As a result, a clear confrontation between Japanese and American representatives emerges.
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. 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”. 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.
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. 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.
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” 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.” The fantasy of a magical Japan populated by yōkai satisfies this yearning for an unalienated home.
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
 Foster, Michael Dylan (2008): “The Otherworlds of Mizuki Shigeru”. In: Mechademia 3, 8–28. 12.
 Mizuki Shigeru, Musume ni kataru otōsan no senki, 148-149, as quoted in Foster 2008:21.
 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.
 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.
 Gygi, Fabio (2008): “Mnemonic Monsters. Memory, Oblivion and Continuity in Japanese Popular Culture”. In: Minikomi 75, 5-12. 6.
 Papp, Zilia (2009): “Monsters at War. The Great Yōkai Wars, 1968-2005”. In: Mechademia 4, S. 225–239.
 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.
 Foster, Michael Dylan (2009a): Pandemonium and Parade. Japanese Monsters and the Culture of Yōkai. Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press. 164.
 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
 Brunner, Miriam (2009): Manga – die Faszination der Bilder. Darstellungsmittel und Motive. Dissertation. München: Fink. 94-5, my translation.
 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.)
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
Does not China also
Lie beneath the selfsame sky
Bound in misery
Ame shita to ya
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.
Mizu no oto
Seeping into the rocks
The cicada’s voice.
Iwa ni shimiiru
Semi no koe
The roadside thistle, eager
To see the travelers pass
Was eaten by the passing ass!
Mukuge wa uma ni
Stabbed in a dream—
Or was it reality?
The marks of a flea.
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
Uejima Onitsura (1661-1738)
Although I say,
“Come here! Come here!” the fireflies
Keep flying away!
Koi koi to
Iedo hotaru ga
I’ll be looking at the moon
With no child on my knee.
Kono aki wa
Hiza ni ko no nai
Ogawa Shushiki (1669-1725)
The cherry by the well
Is dangerous for one
Drunken on wine
Sake no ei
Kaga no Chiyo (1703-1775)
What are the dreams that make him
Flutter his wings?
Nani o yume mite
I sleep…I wake…
The bed with none beside
Nete mitsu kaya no
Tan Taigo (1709-1771)
The change of servants
Splash on the tatami.
Tatami e otosu
Yosa Buson (1716-1783)
There’s no loincloth
On that butt blown in view –
In the spring breeze.
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
Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902)
I’m trying to sleep—
When you swat flies.
Nemuran to su
Nanji shizuka ni
Hae o ute
How much longer
Is my life?
A brief night…
Ikubaku ka aru
Bowers, Faubion. (1996) The Classic Tradition of Haiku: An Anthology. New York: Dover Publications
Back 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
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
The 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
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.
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, 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,
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. 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.).
The 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.
Odd 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).
I 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.
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
Beyond 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.