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君の名は

Kimi no na ha is the biggest movie in Japan right now. It’s one of the top five highest-grossing Japanese films of all time, and I believe is well on its way to becoming the highest-grossing anime film ever, though it hasn’t approached Spirited Away’s 30+ billion yen take just yet. Not that box office is really an accurate measure, given that ticket prices have increased, and also that the film is still being shown in theatres now, some six months after its release, giving it plenty of time to accumulate greater returns. Also, that box office gross (revenues) is a whole separate thing from the actual artistic or cinematographic quality of a film. But, in any case, the point is, everyone is talking about it. So, of course I had to see it.

SPOILER WARNING – not talking about specific plot spoilers yet, but if you want to be clear of even hearing my general impressions (good, great, amazing), so as to not have pre-figured expectations going into it, stop here.

Also, a notice that this post is written somewhat in a stream of thought fashion. It comes mostly from what I jotted down in my notebook right after seeing the movie, and I haven’t reworked it too overmuch. So, it’s a bit repetitive, and perhaps a bit scattered. This isn’t a review, or a critique, or an analysis – just a few thoughts, a few reactions.

I don’t watch anime very much anymore, and so when I do, I am almost always stunned by the beauty of the art. Anime can be so much cleaner, brighter, more vividly colorful than real life. So beautiful, with its perfectly blue skies and perfectly white clouds, perfectly clean complexions and clothes and building facades and everything… Not to mention the way they do lighting in many anime – looking at the trailer, the way the sun rays strike things, the way lights glow in the night… So, even if for that alone – and also based on the trailer – I went into this expecting something truly amazing. And yet, interestingly, weirdly, for most of the duration of the film, I wasn’t so taken. Which isn’t to say the art isn’t gorgeous, or that the story isn’t original and compelling, enough. Because they are. I just wasn’t wowed and amazed, for whatever reason.

And yet. And yet, I left the theatre shaking. I can’t even say what exactly I was thinking about at that moment. It wasn’t even about thought – what the movie made me consider, made me think about – so much as it was about emotion. I was moved. What is it about this movie that had such an impact on me? It’s like one of those times when you’re sad and you don’t even know why.

I do, generally, tend to get rather taken in by movies, by their mood, and their world. I don’t know if I am more sensitive in this respect than others, or if I’m just normal – an average person succumbing to the highly engineered emotional manipulations of the entertainment industry. Of course, I’d prefer to think the former, that I’m somehow more attuned to art, to the creative. After all, this is what drew me to History and Art History to begin with – as we walk through life, every day, art and design are there in everything we do, and they have an impact, immersing us in a world of aesthetics. Every day, the world we inhabit feels like this kind of place or that kind of place, and all the more so historical periods we read about, or the worlds we experience through books and movies. Each has a particular mood or aesthetic, a particular feel or atmosphere.

And anime perhaps all the more so. In Kimi no Na ha and so many other anime, we get a fantasy version of modern-day Tokyo, and of elsewhere (in this case, Gifu). A world so much like our own, and yet aesthetically different. Cleaner, brighter, with more optimism, even if it is based in very mundane problems – even if the characters still have to go to class, and take exams, and deal with interpersonal tensions. Even with these problems, we feel as though there is something truly good, clean, bright, pure, to protect. That there is hope. That there is something wonderfully positive and good in the everyday lives, the everyday world that already exists. And thus, when the characters have to deal with far greater, non-mundane, life-threatening or even world-threatening problems, they encounter them within this space of being the protagonist, of there being real love, real friendship, real drama. Real goodness to protect, and real evil to defeat. Something I am finding it harder and harder to believe in, as I continue to get older, more world-weary, more cynical. And in these anime, it is because of that goodness, that brightness, that losses, deaths, destruction are felt all the more strongly, perhaps. Or, perhaps, then again, there is also an aspect of that even when things are lost or destroyed, it happens in a way that is somehow so much cleaner, more aesthetic, than if it were reality. And so the emotion, the sadness, though potentially powerful, is also purer, cleaner, in a way. …

This comes, too, from the fact that Kimi no Na ha, like The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, and like so many other anime series & films, centers on high school students as the main characters. It gives this impression of a very sunny, clean, bright, optimistic sort of life, and then as a viewer I feel this sort of dual reaction, a fine line between taking that directly as a very positive and happy thing, and being gladdened and uplifted by it, but then at the same time, feeling a sense of sadness, just a tinge of knowing of the deep pain of the potential loss of that youth, that innocence. Sadness at having lost my own youth; that if there ever were such happy days for me (I’m not sure there were – reality is always more dreary than nostalgia or idealism), they’re past. Whether this sadness at the inevitable loss of such beauty and happiness is precisely the mono no aware we’re always talking about when talking about Japanese art from a thousand years earlier, I don’t know. And whether that’s something inherent in the work – whether Makoto Shinkai or anyone else involved intentionally sculpted and included this aspect of mono no aware – or whether it’s something in me, something I’m bringing to it, because of my age and experiences and perspective on life, on youth, etc., I’m not sure. My sadness at knowing that my own life does not, or can not, live up to the brightness, the sunniness, the glorious wonderful experiences of what we see in the movies… Which isn’t to say that these characters don’t have their problems, because they very clearly do. Indeed, very serious, major, difficult, emotional, stressful problems beyond anything I have ever dealt with. But, still, somehow, even despite these incredible, stressful, difficulties and dangers, I cannot help but envy these characters something. Their youth; their optimism; their centrality in truly being the protagonists of the story, perhaps, even if they themselves don’t know it; their living in a world so beautiful and so full of hope and promise, where everything is so clean and bright and pretty, where even destruction and loss is aesthetic in a way it just isn’t (or isn’t always, not necessarily) here. I envy them something, and so maybe that’s part of why this film had me so fucked up that I was on the verge of crying into my fried rice, as I grabbed dinner in the mall before heading home for the night.

I was very much moved by this film, interestingly, oddly, even as I simultaneously on a more cerebral (rather than emotional) level was somehow not too impressed as I was watching it. Looking back on it, I’m still struggling to decide whether I feel the plot was brilliant or totally formulaic, whether the art itself was stunningly original, or just more of the same. Maybe I just don’t watch enough anime to know the difference.

But another thing I would like to touch upon is the way gender is represented in this film.

CAUTION: MORE SPOILERS AHEAD. REAL PLOT SPOILERS THIS TIME.

Others may feel differently, and I’d be curious to read how some of my friends more actively directly engaged in the feminist / gender studies blogosphere “read” this film. But, to my eye, it felt like the movie really didn’t harp on issues of gender(ed) difference nearly as much as it might have; not nearly as much as many Hollywood teen comedy “Freaky Friday” style films do. I don’t know whether to say this is explicitly definitively a “feminist” or “progressive” film in this respect, or Makoto Shinkai an explicitly feminist or progressive director/writer, but it was certainly refreshing for me.

No one gives Taki (the guy) shit for being too girlish when it’s really Mizuha (the girl) in his body, and Mizuha isn’t portrayed as being overly macho or crude or anything when it’s Taki in her body. Taki himself, as a character, regardless of whether he’s himself or when he’s in Mizuha’s body, doesn’t manspread, doesn’t boast and bluster, doesn’t do most of the things we might associate with an obnoxiously macho/masculine type. Or maybe that’s just my American perspective – maybe he’s not so radical, but is just closer towards typical for Japanese norms. But, still, the movie doesn’t spend any time at all on the awkwardness of either character in figuring out how to properly wear one another’s clothes, for example. Maybe it would have been too crude for a movie to even begin to have Mizuha (as Taki) trying to figure out what to do about a boner, or to have Taki (as Mizuha) trying to figure out how to handle a period, but even still, we don’t even see them struggling to figure out how to tie a necktie, how to wear a skirt or a bra. This shows a maturity and quality level, I think, of the film overall, a higher bar than the crude comedy, but it also suggests a sort of attitude of non-judgement of what men or women should be expected to know or not know, or to be able to do or not, that we as an audience should be cool with the idea that Taki (as Mizuha) knows how to do hair and makeup, and that no one should fun of Mizuha (as Taki) for knowing how to sew and patch up clothing. To a great extent, I think it might be argued, the film really focuses on these two as different people, and not as different genders – perhaps even on these two as rather similar people, as not only connected but perhaps as in some way the same person, the same soul – not quite that, but that gender doesn’t matter so much as simply being people.

I also quite like that the two don’t end up dating, or in love – or at least, that it’s left open and ambiguous and isn’t stated explicitly. Again, I’m not going to argue that this is explicitly a more feminist or more progressive way of doing things. I’m increasingly not a fan of the idea that there is any one single way to be “better”, the one single correct way to make a properly progressive or feminist work. But I do like that this film goes against the tried and tired trope of that when two people have a “destined” “connection,” that it is necessarily a romantic connection. Really, when you think about it, it’s kind of sad and horrible that it should feel so radical for two people to have such a strong connection and have it not be a romantic one. Not everything in life is about love and romance. Can’t we be destined to meet someone who just becomes a friend, a partner in adventures and travails, without it necessarily being romantic? So long as people are dreaming up imagined romantic relationships between any and all fictional characters – Sherlock and Watson, Xavier and Magneto, the giant squid in the lake and Hogwarts castle itself, whatever – here’s my “head canon”: Taki and Mizuha go on to continue to lead their own separate lives, meeting up maybe once a month, or maybe more or less frequent than that, call it friendship, or call it something more akin to a sibling relationship, call it some special kind of friendship, whatever you want to, but… just looking out for one another, interested in how one another are doing, protecting and helping one another, talking about that strange bond they seem to still share, and how each of them is strangely so much like the other in some ways, yet totally different in other ways… just talking in coffee shops, just meeting up from time to time. Talking about what they can remember of those past shared experiences, and of what happened in her hometown, and how people are recovering. Maybe taking Taki out to Gifu to show him around, and talking about what memories it stirs in him. I have a number of friends who I only see in person once every few years, but who I still feel I just “click” with so well, people I feel I have such a connection with; people I’m so excited to talk to and to spend time with, but who don’t need to be my partner in anything physical, nor my one and only above all others, nor my partner in everyday cohabitation. Just my friend, a friend with whom I have a particular history and connection, a friend whose adventures in art, career, and travel I’m particularly interested in following… or a friend with whom I love traveling but don’t catch up with or see otherwise all that much. Why should every relationship have to be a romantic one?

Returning just briefly to the matter of how the film shows Tokyo in a bright, optimistic, exciting sort of way, I think this is just what I needed at that moment, personally, emotionally. Because this makes me all the more excited to be moving to Tokyo in March, and in so doing creates an opportunity, a space, for me to have spent the following several weeks rediscovering what makes being in Okinawa right now so exciting (and I did indeed spend that time rediscovering that, and enjoying time in Okinawa). It would have sucked to have the movie get me all excited about Tokyo, and then not have anything much doing here, to just be quiet, and to sit and sulk, or something. But, instead, timing worked out quite wonderfully that just as I was getting all excited about Tokyo (as a result of watching this film), my girlfriend came to visit from the States, and we spent an incredible two weeks together, exploring Naha and also driving up to Nago for a couple of days… Okinawa really is fun, and complex, and digging deeper into this with her was wonderful. Of course, the flip side is also true – I’m glad the movie got me excited about Tokyo, because it would have sucked to be too comfortable and happy here, and to not have that excitement for the next step. Anyway, that’s on a more personal note, relating to my own particular current situation.

Still thinking about maybe trying to go see this a second time. Then again, I still haven’t seen Rogue One.

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(1) The fourth anniversary of the 3/11 Triple Disaster has now come and gone. Ima, Futari no Michi (roughly, “Today, Two People’s Roads”) is an anime short, just over five minutes, released a month or so ago, in conjunction with the anniversary. It employs Tôhoku voice actors, and tells the story of two young people who have come back home to Tôhoku to try to help with the recovery. It is available streaming for free via NicoNico only until mid-April; you can find it at Anime News Network. The link provides an explanation of the plot/content in English, but I’m afraid the video itself is not subtitled.

Meanwhile, in other Japanese history:

(2) The Japan Times reports on new research which shows that the first Japanese Buddhist mission in the West was in London, not California. While the standard story has it that the first Japanese Buddhist mission in the West was established in 1899 in California, work by Brian Bocking of the University of Cork, working with two other historians of Japan, has revealed the story of Charles Pfoundes, who educated thousands of people in Japanese Buddhism in his London home, beginning in 1889, a full decade before the California mission was established.

The main gate at the Yushima Seidô, center of Confucian learning in Tokugawa era Japan.

(3) Dissertation Reviews has a nice, thorough review of a dissertation on the Rise of Neo-Confucianism in Tokugawa Japan, by Doyoung Park. Park completed this dissertation at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign) under Ronald Toby; I was particularly interested to come across this review having read an article by Park recently describing the attitudes of Korean envoys to Tokugawa Japan, regarding the Japanese scholars they met with, and the quality of Confucian scholarship in Tokugawa Japan.

Korean-Japanese relations today, and impressions of one another, are heavily colored by the brutal events of the first half of the 20th century, and understandably so. Yet, it should come as no surprise that relations were quite different prior to that. While Toby and others have written on Tokugawa efforts to make the Korean missions to Edo convey an impression of Tokugawa power and legitimacy, by representing the Koreans as having come to pay tribute to the Tokugawa shoguns, according to Park, the Korean envoys saw these missions as opportunities to show off their superior culture to the backwards Japanese. Even meeting with Hayashi Razan, one of the most famous and celebrated of all Japanese (Neo-)Confucian scholars today, Korean envoys wrote that “Razan seemed to have some trivial knowledge of Chinese history and culture, but his writing was crude and he did not seem to understand the real meaning of the scholarship,” and further, that “the writing ability of the sons of Razan is quite terrible. I do not understand how these poor scholars are able to work for the government” (Park, 12). I find this rather fascinating, and valuable, given that all I had read up until them about the Korean missions was from the Japanese Studies point of view; we in Japanese Studies, of course, think of figures like Razan as truly great scholars – genius-level talents, even, perhaps – so it’s great to get an alternative perspective, and to get a better sense of how Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Ryukyuan elites understood their position within the region, and perceived one another, at that time. The full article, “A New Perspective on the Korean Embassy (Chosen Tsushinshi): The View from the Intellectuals in Tokugawa Japan,” is freely available here.

As for the dissertation review, intellectual history has never been one of my strong points, but as my research begins to take me further into consideration of the classical Sinocentric world view, especially as understood and appropriated by the Japanese, and scholars’ understandings and usage of political ritual in that time, I have found myself of necessity reading more conceptual & intellectual history material – specifically on Neo-Confucianism – and actually finding some of it quite interesting. Park’s analysis of the rise of Neo-Confucianism in Japan, particularly surrounding Fujiwara Seika in the very last years of the 16th century, and the very first years of the 17th (at the beginning of the Tokugawa period), brings in some interesting ideas about Japanese, at least initially, not seeing themselves, or presenting themselves, as “Neo-Confucian scholars,” but rather as simply scholars advocating or considering Neo-Confucian ideas. The interaction between Neo-Confucianism and Zen, and the role of Seika’s interactions with Korean envoys in spurring the introduction and spread of Neo-Confucianism into Japan, are also quite interesting. If you’re interested in further detail, I invite you to check out the review; I will certainly be keeping my eyes out for Park’s republication of the dissertation as a monograph.

(4) Finally today, we have a blog post from Rekishi Nihon about Jokanji, the “Throw-Away” Temple of the Yoshiwara Prostitutes.

I explored the Yoshiwara area a little a few years ago. There’s very little to see there today – unless you know what you’re looking for, and I didn’t. The former site of the Yoshiwara’s Great Gate (Ômon) survives as the name of an intersection. A “backwards-looking willow” (mikaeri yanagi), a famous sight associated with the trip to the Yoshiwara, has been replanted and maintained there, but that’s about it. There are some traditional-style buildings off to one side, but I have no idea if they bear any historical connection to the Yoshiwara… The embankment (Nihon-no-tsutsumi 日本堤) which led to the gate similarly survives as a place-name, but throughout the area, at least of what I saw of it, there is absolutely nothing to be seen that’s recognizable about the geography/topography, and few if any historical buildings other than Buddhist temples. You can see this at the end of the Jokanji article, as the author shows a street from Hiroshige’s prints, as it looks today – a perfectly ordinary, undistinctive-looking Japanese street.

But, now that I’ve read about Jokanji, it’s one more place to take a look at the next time I’m in Tokyo. Some 25,000 women from the Yoshiwara were unceremoniously dumped after their deaths at the gates of the Jokanji, also known as “Nage Komi Dera,” (投込寺,) the “Throw-in Temple,” where they are thus now interred. While the Yoshiwara is celebrated as a vibrant center of the flourishing of popular culture – fashion, art, literature, dance, music – it very much had a darker side, as a center, by its very nature, of sex slavery, something that very much needs to be acknowledged as well. While the Yoshiwara looks glorious in ukiyo-e woodblock prints and literature, it was surely an extremely sad, difficult, and lowly life of exploitation for the women who lived and worked there. Amy Stanley’s Selling Women: Prostitution, Markets, and the Household in Early Modern Japan (2012) does a great job of bringing out these issues… I look forward to reading more along those lines, in order to get a deeper, more nuanced understanding of what went on there, beneath the flash and glitz; and I look forward to visiting Tokyo again, and checking out some of these sites.

All photos my own.

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I’d been meaning for quite some time to go rewatch the anime series “Samurai Champloo,” with an eye specifically to how accurate the show’s depiction of Ryukyuan culture is. Mugen, one of the main characters, claims to be from Ryukyu, a brilliant touch I think in a show that makes reference to so many aspects of the Edo period, remixing them into something quite edgy. In making Mugen Ryukyuan, they make reference to something relatively obscure – I wonder how many young Japanese really know anything at all about the history of the Ryukyu Kingdom, and its status relative to Edo period Japan. In historical fact, so far as I know, I have never heard of (read of) any Ryukyuans mingling in with Japanese society, as an independent traveler, as Mugen does. But that’s besides the point; it fits in as a possibility, with just enough thematic accuracy to make the inaccuracies, the remixed/reimagined elements not seem too out of place.

In any case, getting to the point, even within the first ten minutes of the first episode, I can tell this much: I have yet to see anything from Mugen, anything about Mugen, that marks him as Ryukyuan in a historically/culturally accurate manner. His clothes, though not necessarily absurdly out of place for the period, do not strictly speaking resemble anything I’d associate with being distinctively Ryukyuan. He has simple bands tattooed around his wrists and ankles, but Okinawan tattoos are generally known to have been worn by women, not by men, and featured certain patterns on the hands. Mugen’s sword is curved like a samurai’s blade, but it has a rather distinctive, or should I say unusual, style of hilt that definitely marks it (and him, by extension) as foreign. But, I actually don’t know what a Ryukyuan sword would look like. More Chinese, like this? Or more similar to the Japanese swords? The myth of Ryukyuan pacifism – and/or the influence of katate – is too pervasive. We don’t see Ryukyuan swords represented all that often. Finally, one last thing which is quite obvious: Mugen does not have an Okinawan accent, nor does he use any distinctively Okinawan words.

Then there’s the use of the word “champloo” (チャンプルー, chanpuruu), an Okinawan word meaning, essentially, “all mixed up.” It’s a word most commonly used to refer to stir-fry dishes, but I suppose it can be used to refer to anything that’s a jumbled up diverse mix. Such as the ethnic makeup of the local Hawaiian community, which is a total jumble of people of Chinese, Japanese, Okinawan, Korean, Filipino, white, and Native Hawaiian descent, many of them containing a jumble of ethnic backgrounds within themselves individually. In this respect, “appropriation” or no, I think the use of the term for this anime seems quite appropriate, referencing the “remixing” aspect of the style and approach of the whole show. It follows three main characters, but is really just a champloo of aspects of Edo period history & culture, from Ryukyuans and ronin to ukiyo-e and Commodore Perry.

None of this is to say that there’s anything wrong with the show. The show is great. It’s easily one of my favorite series. But, even if I were to hypothetically be trying to conceive of a formal academic essay on the (mis)representation of Okinawan culture in this series, I’m not sure I have too much to say. … I guess we’ll see as the series goes on what else comes to mind.

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I’ve been reading comicbooks since I learned to read. Spider-Man, X-men, that sort of thing. And maybe it’s because of that, and perhaps simply because I’m a guy, that I never really noticed any big problem with the way women are presented in these comics.

And then, in the last few years, I began to see more and more blog posts talking about the problems with these depictions, from a feminist point of view. And I said I agreed, and I tried to be supportive… But I still never really saw it. I mean, it’s there for all to see, it’s pretty obvious.

But there’s a difference between knowing, intellectually, that something is inappropriate, and having an emotional or gut reaction to it. For whatever reason, I really don’t know why, all of a sudden, yesterday, I had that gut reaction for the first time. Maybe it’s my new glasses. j/k.

Reading a new comic that just came out in the last week or so, I found myself thinking “how gratuitous and unnecessary. There’s no plot reason whatsoever for this character, every time she appears, to be kneeling over, or sprawled across the couch in that particularly sexy way…” And then, in the next issue, she gets captured, and, as if her costume wasn’t skintight and curves-revealing enough, suddenly, for no apparent reason, they have her stripped down to her undies, and her arms and ankles restrained in, frankly, a fairly titillating position. Meanwhile, Rogue’s breasts seems to get bigger with every panel, and her costume – unzipped further than there’s any real reason for it to be – is barely containing them. And she’s supposed to be a teacher?

This, of course, is no different at all from the vast majority of comics out there. Comics I’ve been reading my entire life. But, for some reason, I honestly don’t know why, I suddenly noticed it, really felt it, really appreciated the gratuitousness of it, for the first time. For a good little while there, I was truly disgusted.

Fortunately, some comics, some illustrators, some issues, and/or some individual panels at least do serve as exceptions. Now that some of the X-men are back in Westchester, running a school, we get to see lots of scenes of them in plainclothes, acting like, well, teachers, and adults, and sometimes just sort of moping around like real people do, rather than constantly being depicted as paragons of sexual fitness in absurdly sexualized costumes.

Of course, that doesn’t stop the students from being depicted in suggestive ways. Sigh.

Images from “Magneto: Not A Hero” issues 2 & 3, “X-men: Legacy” issue 260.1, and “Wolverine & the X-men” issue 4, all published by Marvel Comics with 2012 cover dates. Very small percentage of the total work reproduced, so as to fall within Fair Use. Besides, does blogging count as journalism/review? Maybe?

(1) That is, superhero comics. Obviously, when you get into the realms of indie comics, things are different. Though, not necessarily always.

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Thanks to Japan Society’s Blog, a bunch of neat bits of Japan-related goings-on.

*”Wafrica”, a collaboration between a Cameroonian car designer and a 150-year-old Japanese kimono maker, showed some gorgeous and innovative designs recently at Omotesandô Hills. I think they’re fantastic, but cannot help thinking that if it were white people combining kimono with traditional/historical European fashions, it would be denounced (from at least some corners) as Orientalist. Apparently blacks can’t be Orientalist… or can they?

*Apparently, manga character Professor Munakata (宗像先生) has been going on archaeological-related adventures for many years now, touching upon extremely controversial subjects, such as territorial disputes between Japan and Korea, but has never before been to the West. His latest adventure touches upon the controversy surrounding the Elgin (Parthenon) Marbles, but from what I gather from the article in the Economist, it’s more about some totally crazy schemes to steal the Rosetta Stone, destroy St. Paul’s, and such, that Munakata-sensei has to foil. I wonder how directly they really actually address the controversies.

*Growing up, my father always told me you can find anything in New York if you look hard enough. Well, to a great extent, Okinawan culture has been the exception, so far as I’ve seen. I am not aware of any Okinawan restaurants, certainly no shimauta (live Okinawan folk music) bars, and I’m not even sure if there’s anywhere to study Okinawan language or sanshin except perhaps through private arrangements (by contrast, here in Hawaii, while there’s no real sanshin schools per se that have their own buildings and everything, the University offers classes, and there’s a Hawaii Okinawa Cultural Center that has its own land and buildings and everything). Yet, getting to the point, apparently we do have Junko Fisher, who has started teaching Okinawan dance, and Okinawan history through dance, at libraries throughout Queens. I still don’t know where to go to get my andaagi fix, but it’s a start.

*Meanwhile, the NY Times has finally put out a review of the “Samurai in New York” exhibit still up at the Museum of the City of New York until Nov 7. They write: ‘“Samurai” is one of those small, in-the-hallway exhibitions at the Museum of the City of New York that delivers more than you’d expect,’ and I couldn’t agree more.

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It’s been about two weeks since I promised you a post about Murata Range 村田蓮爾, a manga artist whose work was on display at the Kyoto International Manga Museum when I went there a few weeks ago.

I had been familiar with Murata’s work for some time, mainly from his covers for the manga magazine ROBOT, for which he is apparently also editor and compiler. A friend has a number of volumes of this, and I have long been interested in buying some issues, though I was a bit scared off by the price tag, and wavered between the cheaper English version and the more expensive (in the US, that is, as an import) but more “authentic” Japanese version. In any case, I loved the art, but admittedly had not paid attention to the name of the artist. Even looking through this exhibition at the Manga Museum, I remained oblivious to what big-name series Murata had worked on, if any. Actually, I remain a bit unclear on this even after having researched it on the internet – he’s worked on series including Last Exile, Blue Submarine No 6, and the Animatrix, but if I’m understanding this right, he’s only done concept art, not actual animation work.

His art is beautiful. Just stunning. His characters are cute and innocent, his colors and lines as crisp and clean as could be. The Japanese word kirei, one of the first words learned by students of Japanese as a second language and generally translated as “pretty” and used for that meaning, actually has a strong connotation of “clean”, “organized”, “put together”, and the more I think about it, the more I think that this clean & pretty element is really one of the key things that appeals to me in both anime/manga art, and in older Nihonga painting. You can see it in the complete lack of painterly-ness (that is, in the invisibility of any brushstrokes), minimal use of lines, soft, even shading of colors, and just general ‘clean’ feeling. This girl, for example, though she is sweating, doesn’t look sticky or gross or disheveled in any way. She has no blemishes on her skin; her clothes aren’t wrinkled, her hair isn’t ruffled or messed up. And while there are shadows in the places there realistically ought to be (such as on her neck), the whole scene is painted (? or digitally composed? or…?) as though quite brightly lit with a clean white light, like the kind of spring or summer sun that returns color to the world after the dreariness of winter.

The subject matter of Murata’s works is usually one of cuteness and innocence – there are lots of works depicting schoolgirls, for example, though he does depict cute boys, and older, more toned young men as well – and so of course that contributes to one’s reaction to the piece, but I really think that the way line and color are treated play a huge role in making these works, and so many others by many other artists, give off the feeling of a perfect spring day. A breezy, sunny day that makes you just want to smile, and go out and enjoy the day with no cares in the world.

The exhibit was quite small, just one room. But, for a solo exhibition, there were a good number of works there. Any more and there would have been a strong danger of just being repetitive, that is, overkill. The exhibit consisted largely of magazines and the like in cases, and perhaps most interesting for more dedicated fans (and aspiring artists, or those who just doodle for fun), preparatory sketches and the like, something that I guess is seen more rarely.

I quite enjoyed the large, blown up digital prints along one wall. I have not read ROBOT, or any of the other very similar magazines Murata is involved with, such as FutureGraph, but I gather that many of the stories contained within are sort of one-off stories. Not fully encapsulated, they could function as episodes within a much larger plot, but they are presented as just one-off, cute glimpses into the lives of certain characters. I think, if I remember correctly, there were three or four of these short, maybe 10 page stories, posted up on the walls. I read one in which two young schoolgirls chat while riding a train… what about, I barely even remember. Maybe about their friends, and which friend was moving away to another town, or something. What really appeals is the environment and atmosphere created, not solely through the art, but also through the dialogue and plot, which, if not memorable (apparently), are still crucial elements in this creation of an ideal, romanticized, carefree cute schooldays atmosphere.

Of course, the other key element that I’ve been completely glossing over is the fact that these stories, all of those in ROBOT, by a variety of writers/artists, are in gorgeous full color, unlike the vast majority of manga out there, which is in black and white. There are economic reasons for this, basically, as I understand it, stemming from the fact that most manga is published in cheap newsprint anthologies and only later republished in tankobon individual volumes. But all of that is a story for another day.

There is a lot, I am sure, that can be said about Murata’s work, about manga/anime aesthetics and subject matter more broadly, etc etc. But I think I should like to leave it at this: enjoy the pictures.

The exhibit remains up through August 29.

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