Reminances of a Bibliophile

Before I got into anime, before I got into studying Japanese culture, I was a book lover. I grew up ravenous, reading every book in my school library’s science and fantasy sections. Few experiences in life match the musty, ancient scent of a book old enough to be a great-great grandparent.  The touch of paper–how old was the tree before it gave its life to spread human knowledge?–between my fingers whets my appetite for knowledge.

Yes, before I was a Japanophile I was a bibliophile. I still am. Inked conversation torrid on the page excites me. People, hundreds–no, thousands–of years gone can whisper into our ears. Stories and facts, drivel and the sublime, are available for those who merely look.

Then came the e-reader and the online world.

The inked order of books scattered across the digital ether, free of their bindings. Anyone can share their stories and their facts, their drivel and their sublime. You’d think with such open access people would be able to seek out new worlds and boldly go where they haven’t read before.

Well, you’d be wrong.

The rise of the internet and social media allows people to wall themselves into rooms of their own making. The voices echo without any naysayers until we believe the world works so. The messages our minds consume shapes how we think. It strikes me as odd how the age of open access has increased this trend more than the closed world of books. Or perhaps we simply have more studies on this human tendency. We don’t like to be wrong, after all.

E-Readers and Books on Electrons

I dislike Kindles and other digital readers. I also like them. I like them as a librarian and as an author. I dislike them as a bibliophile. Where is the luscious musty scent? Where is the feel of the page? Where is the annoyance of your bookmark falling from the book?

But as a librarian, I like them because they encourage reading. But then, I also dislike them because of the hassles companies make. Ebooks can be copied to devices any number of times, yet companies use old book models to protect their profits. Okay, I get it as an author. After all, I want my books to make money so I can write more than I can now. However, efforts to enforce the old model create issues for accessibility. It strikes me as odd how ebook lending libraries have limited copies available. Not to mention, ebooks are overly complicated for those who struggle with basic computer skills. I encounter this issue regularly at the library.

Each day, I work with older library users who love their ereaders (they love the ability to change font sizes). But the complication of downloading ebooks leaves them confused. Do I want a Kindle file? Epub? Nook? What’s a MOBI? Techies like us like to see these under-the-hood options, but it scares anyone who doesn’t understand computers. Is is better to hide all of this and let the device handle it behind the scenes. Some of this is compounded by publishers insisting in digital rights management and other access limitations. It is getting better, however. New apps like Libby do a better job of hiding the headaches.

The Bibliophile and the Manga Fan

So what does all this have to do with you, the anime and manga fan? Well, most of us are familiar with online manga, but libraries have recently gotten into legal e-manga. Online subscription services also move manga increasingly off of paper. This is mixed, like so many things. Online distribution increases the chances of seeing more obscure stories being translated. It doesn’t cost as much to produce and distribute e-manga which makes for better profitability for even low selling titles. However, for those who enjoy physical media, this will reduce our selection. Titles on smashed and pulped trees are only those with the most popularity. You see this problem with American fiction. Shelves are dominated by a handful of bestselling authors: James Patterson, Danielle Steel, Clive Cussler, and others. It makes it harder for new and low-selling authors to make it. Likewise, the cost of printing keeps lesser known mangaka from getting translations here in the States. But on the flip side, ebooks make it easier for new and low-selling authors to find readers.

Online manga and books skip one of the pleasures of physical media: the bookshelf. The sight of a bookshelf is part of the culture of the book. If you want to learn about someone, you browse their bookshelves. Their organization, their titles, and their state of wear reveals a fair bit about a person. Bookshelves are quite private despite being publicly displayed. So too with manga collections.

E-readers, however, are even more private. It is socially frowned upon to grab an e-reader or phone and start looking through it. Although people who own e-readers typically own books as well.

The Times Are A-Changin’

Books and manga aren’t going anywhere, but ebooks and e-manga are going to increase in popularity. This, as with all things, is mixed. Various studies have shown we remember less when we read on a screen compared to paper. Much of that is because we don’t just read on most e-readers. We check email, visit Facebook, and other distractions. Books don’t have that option.

You’ve probably read online scanlations of manga at one point or another. The access is great, but part of the culture of the book is the collection as I’ve mentioned. As more books go online, it will become harder to collect our favorite series. But change is part of life.

This post is rather personal. I dislike reading ebooks unless I am researching a project. But I don’t really have anything against them. If you love ebooks, great!  I am a bibliophile. A home must have books to be a home. While more people read more than ever (which is excellent!) I ponder the fate of the bookshelf. Normally, I try to keep abreast on change. I believe everyone needs to learn new technology and adapt to the rapid pace of change. If you don’t, eventually you won’t be able to function in the modern world. I know how to use Kindles, Nooks, and other e-readers, but I don’t own any. Nor do I plan to do so anytime soon. In this, I choose to resist. I will learn how to use each new version, but I likely won’t use them myself. Now,  you can be a bibliophile and use e-readers. In fact, most do. But I already stare at screens for most of my waking hours. Books, newspapers, and magazines are the few sanctuaries I have from glowing screens of text.

What are your thoughts on the shift toward e-reading? Are you a bibliophile? Do you worry about the future of books? Let’s discuss.

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

Musings V – Adaptation in Japanese (Pop) Culture

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

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

The Long History of Adaptation

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

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

Jiraiya Monogatari vol 6

A page from the yomihon novel Jiraiya Gouketsu Monogatari.

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

 

Jiraiya, the Toad Ninja

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

Jiraiya kabuki Danjuurou

Woodblock print of the kabuki adaptation of the same scene.

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

 

Naruto Jiraiya toad magic

Latest incarnation: ‘Pervy Sage’ Jiraiya from Naruto

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

Modern ‘Media Mix’-Society

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

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

Poster Kitaro live action movie (2007)

Poster for the Kitaro live action movie (2007)

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

 

The Live Action Dilemma

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

Ruoruni Kenshin Himura anime

Kenshin, as shown in the 1995-99 anime.

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

The Strength of Kenshin

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

Satou Takeru Rurouni Kenshin

Satou Takeru as Himura Kenshin, 2012.

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

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

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

anime Megumi Takani

Sly and ‘foxy’: Megumi in the anime.

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

Takani Megumi rurouni Kenshin movie live action

Takani Megumi, as portrayed by Aoi Yuu

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

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

Kenshin live action movie poster

Movie Poster for Rurouni Kenshin (2012)

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

Notes and References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dragon Ball–The Freeza Arc, Book 1

20160320_194730Dragon Ball Z is one of those series that I’ve evolved on over the years. It was big among the geek crowd in my middle and high school years, but at the time I was more into shows like Inuyasha and Full Metal Alchemist. Then, after Chris started this blog, we attempted to watch the original Dragon Ball Z series, and while I could see where it had potential, the vast amount of filler in the show turned us off.

But then Toonami added Dragon Ball Z Kai to its line up, and I decided to give the series another chance. Now the show has become the highlight of the week. It is a vast improvement over the original, not only in terms of art but the story as well. From what I understand, the Kai series is closer to the original manga than the first anime was, so was happy to find that the original source material wasn’t as ponderous as the anime became. I don’t want to sound like I’m downing on the original anime–if I had grown up with it, I’m sure I’d love it as much as some of you do. But for someone trying to get into the show who didn’t grow up with it, well, it’s a tall order.

Long story short, while I was once skeptical of how good Dragon Ball Z was, now I’m a believer. So when Chris asked me to review a full color copy of a full color version of the manga we received from VizMedia, I jumped at the chance. The book covers the beginning of the Freeza Arc. After his defeat at Goku’s hands in the first arc, Vegeta returns to Freeza Station to recuperate from his injuries, intent on going to Planet Namek to gather their Dragon Balls and use them to wish for immortality once he recovers. However, Vegeta is beaten to the punch by the evil emperor Freeza, a powerful being who also wishes to use the Dragon Balls to achieve immortality. Vegeta rushes to Namek, hoping he still has times to get his hands on the Dragon Balls.

20160320_194850Meanwhile, back on Earth, Son Goku is recovering from the wounds he received fighting Vegeta. Many of his friends died in the battle with the Saiyans, and now the remaining Z Warriors want to gather the Dragon Balls from Namek to revive them.

The book is beautifully illustrated, with vibrant colors and detailed artwork, more akin to Kai than the original anime. All in all, the story and dialog is similar to Kai–I believe there were a few small differences, but those may have more to do with my faulty memory than anything else. Manga is new to me–I’ve never been big on comics, and manga in particular throws me off since it reads backwards to what I’m used to. Even so, I enjoyed this book, and based on my limited knowledge of the genre, this volume is a solid addition to any manga lover’s collection.

 

Available at Amazon.

School Judgment Review-First Impressions (Volume 1)

school-judgment-v1School Judgement is a new manga series being released stateside by VIZ Media. The series–created by author Obuaki Enoki and illustrator Takeshi Obata (Death Note, Bakuman)– tells the story of a world where, in order to curb crime, schools hold trials for students accused of crimes. The crimes can range from accusing someone of cheating on a test to accusations of murder. Trials have a judge, lawyers, prosecutors; pretty much everything a real court does. While the trials may seem mundane, the punishments actually have real world implications. Students can be given jail time or even the death penalty.

The story tells of Tento Nanahoshi and his lawyer Abaku Inugam. Abaku transfers to Tento’s school in order to defend him in a case in which he’s accused of murdering the class pet. This also introduces the prosecutor of the trial(s) and Abaku’s rival: Pine Hanzuki.  After the completion of Tento’s trial, both Pine and Abaku decide to stay at the school as permanent students.

For the most part, the manga is a very interesting take on a shonen story. Like many shonen, the story is a “battle” manga, but unlike many other stories such as DBZ and Naruto, the battles in this story are one of wits and words. It’s similar to how Death Note is a battle of wits between Light and L/N. School Judgment falls into the typical shonen formula though. Each battle happens, where the “good guys” win with little to no trouble, and the volume ends on a cliffhanger of what seems to be a much bigger battle with higher implications than before.

My biggest gripe with the first volume: while the smaller trials are unimportant other than introducing characters, they were solved far too quickly. Each trial was solved in about two and a half chapters each (SPOILERS: And two of the cases were solved the exact same way. Very boring). I really hope this changes later on and the story has more complex cases.

Overall, the series is very interesting but I’m not too sure if I’ll continue reading. While the art-style (which is something I’m very picky on when it comes to manga) is very nice– as I’m a fan of Obata– the story seems pretty predictable. There’s a certain mystery about Abaku’s past, but I really have a feeling that anyone can predict what his story is a mile away. Personally, I may read it if I have nothing much going on, but it’s not a series I’m going to make a point to continue. It’s not bad by any means, just not my cup of tea. If you like Obata, shonen stories that are a new twist on the genre, or want something interesting check out School Judgement: 7/10

You can purchase School Judgement at the following sites:

The Karakuri Ningyo–Japan’s Clockwork Puppets

Tea serving Automaton, known as a Zashiki Karakuri

Tea serving Automaton, known as a Zashiki Karakuri

The Japanese fascination with robots might seem strange to outsiders. After all, an entire genre of manga and anime is devoted to giant robots slugging it out (a genre that, for some reason, also likes to make weird Jungian segues into madness.) Additionally, Japan leads the world in the field of robotics.

A brief look at Japanese history shows that this fascination is not anything new. Rooted in ancient Chinese clockwork mechanisms imported via Korea, traditional clockwork puppets–the Karakuri Ningyo– have a long history in Japan.

 

Ritual puppets

Karakuri Ningyo could serve several functions in ancient Japanese society. Perhaps the oldest was their use in ritual festivals. Puppets had long served an important role in Japanese ritual life. Puppet shows were often used to tell stories of gods, goddesses, and spirits. They personified the overlapping and somewhat contradictory worlds of the human and sacred. These ritual puppet performances were performed before the New Year or the onset of a new season, to call down rain, or to drive of pests and disease. All members of society enjoyed these puppet plays, from the Emperor on down.

With the importance of these puppets in festivals, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise then that when the clockwork technology made its way to Japan, they would incorporate it into their mystical puppet plays. The clockwork would give the puppets an almost magical quality, allowing them to move on their own.

Ritual puppets were featured heavily in festivals held all over Japan. They were built into triple-decker Dashi floats. These floats were huge constructions that required 20 men to pull, and while they did not always sport Karakuri many would. The top stage of Dashi Karakuri would feature up to three puppets performing scenes taken straight from traditional mythology and folklore.

Towns would compete to produce the best Dashi floats. The festivals would be a chance not only to socialize, but to show off pride in a town or village by displaying their Dashi floats.

 

Puppet plays

While the earliest uses of Karakuri were for religious festivals, the clockwork puppets were also used to perform plays strictly for entertainment, although of course many of these plays had their origins in mythology and legend. It is interesting to note that many plays, especially during the Edo period, were written specifically to be performed by puppets. Noh, Kabuki, and Bunraku theater were heavily influenced by the puppet theater, and often imitated the puppet shows directly. These forms of theater focused more heavily on gesture and movement than the use of language. This, perhaps, influenced the strange sets of hand gestures and poses often seen in anime and Japanese television.

These Karakuri plays became famous after Takeda Omi, a clock maker, put on the first Karakuri play at Dotonbori, in Osaka, in 1662. Plays were performed in the theater for the next 110 years. In 1758, the plays were so popular that the theater ran 27 shows a day.

 

Domestic Automatons

Perhaps the most famous Karakuri were the Zashiki Karakuri, which were small, domestic clockwork servants. Basically, they were the Edo period’s equivalent of the Roomba. Their mechanisms were far more complex than those used in the plays, and were often built using Western clockwork mechanisms. They could even be steam powered.

The most famous of the Zashiki Karakuri were “Chahakobi Ningyo,” the tea-serving dolls. A host could place a teacup on the tea tray the doll held. So loaded, the doll would roll over to the guest, and stop when the guest took the teacup. When the guest put the cup back on the tray, it would return to the host. The doll would move its feet and nod its head as it moved. The design even included a mechanism by which the host could set the distance the robot could move, giving the illusion that the robot could “see.”  The piece was used mainly for entertainment, and was only available to the richest aristocrats.

Another interesting bit of mechanical wizardry from the period was the “Yumihiki Doji,” the archer doll. The doll can pick up an arrow and fire it at a target, which it would hit nine times out of ten. Amazing considering it was “programmed” only using gears.

 

Sources:

Boyle, Kirsty. “Butai Karakuri.” Karakuri.info. January 14, 2008. Accessed November 1, 2014. http://www.karakuri.info/butai/index.html

Boyle, Kirsty. “Dashi Karakuri.” January 14, 2008. Accessed November 1, 2014. http://www.karakuri.info/dashi/index.html

Boyle, Kirsty. “Karakuri Origins.” January 14, 2008. Accessed November 1, 2014. http://www.karakuri.info/origins/index.html

Boyle, Kirsty. “Zashiki Karakuri.” January 14, 2008. Accessed November 1, 2014. http://www.karakuri.info/zashiki/index.html