Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Film’ Category

I had heard good things about this film, heard it was funny. I was nervous at first, of course, because it’s a movie about Nazis, and that’s a difficult and complicated topic for me, as it is for a lot of people. But, I trust Taika Waititi (who, let’s not forget, is Jewish on his mother’s side), and Scarlett Johanssen (also Jewish), and even more than that, I’d just heard kind of general buzz, that it was a good film.

So, ultimately, I went into the film unconcerned, ready to have a good time. Within minutes of leaving the theatre at the end, I was bawling my eyes out. This was in part because Jojo loses his mother, and I’ve lost my mother, and it’s still a very raw spot for me. I think maybe it always will be. And because as the credits rolled, I for some reason started thinking about wanting to visit my grandparents’ village in Poland, and being there and what it might be like, and what it might be like to call my dad from there and surprise him that I was there… and thinking about all of that brought up some rather complex emotions.

But there was more to it, that I couldn’t quite put into words at the time; to a certain extent, I didn’t even know what I was upset about. But, a day later, having had some time to stew, and watching a lengthy and very interesting interview with Waititi about the film, I’m starting to put it together.

We are supposed to believe that Nazis, most of all, perhaps more than any other group of people in all of history, were just straight-up, irrevocably, unredeemably, bad people. We’re supposed to believe that anyone who went along with it was equally complicit, equally guilty, equally horrible. And, of course, in terms of outcomes, that’s certainly true. All of these people, who joined or otherwise supported the Nazi cause, regardless of their inner hesitations or justifications, even so they contributed to – or at the very least did not resist sufficiently against – the horrors of that time. The political system which utterly destroyed the lives of millions upon millions. And my own family among them. My grandparents survived horrors I cannot imagine myself ever braving; they lost countless friends and family to the gas chambers, to firing squads, to labor camps. They lost community, their homes and hometowns, an entire way of life. …

And I was raised to believe since childhood that if anything like that were to ever happen again, that we would do everything in our power to prevent it from happening. That we would protest, we would fight, we would resist. But I’ve always known that in such a circumstance, I’m not the guy who joins the resistance; I’m not the guy with either the brains or the brawn, or the mental/emotional fortitude or courage to survive and to fight. We all want to believe we would be heroes. But I’ve known for a long time that when the revolution comes – whether it’s fascists, communists, or something else – I’d simply be among the victims. I don’t know how to fire a gun. I don’t know how to keep hidden. I’d be caught, and I’d be killed. I hope I’d be killed, and not tortured, or put to hard labor, or whatever it may be.

But we’re getting a bit away from the point. The point is, we are supposed to believe that everyone should resist. That everyone has the equal power to resist. That everyone who doesn’t is just as fucking guilty as all the rest. And, sure, if we take the example of the countless Republicans who are still saying today that they don’t like X, Y, or Z about Trump but even so he’s doing good for the economy or whatever; people who try to distance themselves from the horrific things he’s doing… as my friend who I saw the film with helped me see quite clearly, by voting for him, by continuing to support him, by continuing to support Senators who have acquitted him, they are complicit. This blood is on their hands. They had a choice – even if they did nothing else, they had a choice to vote differently, and they have refused. They have chosen to vote for racism, sexism, for hate.

But in this film, we see children who don’t know any better. Children who have been taught to believe all these things about nationalism and Aryan supremacy and Jew-hatred and all the rest, and it’s not their fault. We’re given an image of the Hitler Jugend that really isn’t all that different from the Boy Scouts, and figures like Capt. Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), Finkel (Alfie Allen), and Frau Rahm (Rebel Wilson) who, while most certainly are not “good guys” by any stretch of the imagination, are also not quite the kind of intentionally evil, deliberately, fundamentally evil, Nazi figures we see in just about every other movie. We get the impression that they are people somehow, in one way or another, just sort of caught up in all of this. And what sense do we have about the townspeople? …. I am not saying that these various adults in Jojo’s life are necessarily sympathetic figures. We don’t really get a sense that they question or oppose the Nazi ideology all that much, if at all. I don’t think that overall as a film it’s a film that’s sympathetic to Nazi ideology. Not hardly. As Waititi has explained many a time, and as I think his performance as Hitler shows, it’s about satirizing them, about showing them for being ridiculous, absurd, and vulnerable. It’s about defanging them, making them less fearsome, and perhaps also contributing to, in the process, making them less impressive, less of an ideal model for neo-Nazis and the like today.

Actors dressed as Nazi soldiers, taking a break from filming on the streets of Dublin. June 2007. Photo my own.

But even so. Rosie says she does what she can, she does the best that she can. She’s actively part of the resistance in some way; to what extent exactly, we’re not sure. Waititi had to be sure to make her a particularly sympathetic figure; and yet, even so, she’s not some superhero. She’s just a woman doing what she can. Am I doing enough? Am I doing what I can? I know I’m certainly voicing good opinions, trying to stay on the right side of things. I’ve put a few tens of dollars – not much, I know, but something – towards the people I believe to be the best candidates. I’ve written many emails, made phone calls, sent letters. Not nearly as many as some people, but I’ve done some. And I will vote for those people I believe to be the best candidates. But I’m also going to work, and going out with friends, and trying to continue my life. I’m not ignoring protests outside my door and refusing to join them; there are no protests right outside my door to join.

If the current Left/progressive attitude is that a Nazi is a Nazi is a Nazi, and that a racist is a racist, regardless of nuance or complexity or degree or level or extent; and simultaneously also that all of us, most especially white people, are complicit simply by existing, and that if we are not doing everything in our power to contribute to the overturning of this racist society – “it’s not enough to just be not racist, you have to be anti-racist” – then that means that all of us, all of us, are horrible horrible people. I’ve been thinking for a long time that I haven’t been doing enough, but also thinking what can I do? What, really, truly, on a practical right here, right now, in my actual day-to-day life, what am I actually capable of doing to help? …. And so I cried.

The general attitude in Japan is that everyone was a victim of the militarist/ultranationalist ideology. That it was foisted upon them, that they were educated into it, that for the vast majority of people it wasn’t their fault. That that was simply the times they lived in. … I know a lot of people would say that’s simply justification; excuses; an easy out. Just like white people are constantly looking for excuses, for justifications. But I’m not strong enough to face this face-on. And no one wants to ever have conversations about it – they want to just call you a racist, call you complicit, call you guilty, and leave it to you to do better. And that makes sense, of course, on a certain level .By all means. But then even so. ….

And here you have Jojo and Elsa, with no parents, trying to make their way, trying to make a living, trying to find food, in a bombed out city, surrounded by Americans who don’t speak German…. how are they going to live? And are they ultimately going to get tired of each other, or frustrated or angry, or resentful, and leave one another? And then they’ll both be even more alone, more lost, more screwed amidst this wartorn devastation….? …. And so I cried.

Read Full Post »

The first time I saw Lost in Translation, it was for me 100% about the city of Tokyo, and about my own nostalgia and love and longing for that city. I had had a whirlwind 4 months there as a study abroad student, my first time so far from home on my own, my first time in Japan, exploring and experiencing Tokyo in the way that I imagine many 20-year-olds do, running around in groups of five to fifteen, experiencing and enjoying everything. Tokyo that city of such energy and excitement, and it was just such an incredible time, one of the absolutely best times of my life thus far. And when Lost in Translation came out later that year, I didn’t know at that time whether I would ever be in Japan again.

So, for me at that time, Lost in Translation was all about re-living that experience, in a sense, taking in the lights and sounds and fun and enjoyment, and about identifying in a sense with these two characters for whom Tokyo is also very new and very strange… For me the movie was all highs and lows, fun and engaging, but also sad because it reminded me of something very exciting and also very engaging that I might never experience in the same way again – or, might not experience at all.

After all, the first time I went to Japan I never expected that I would ever go back. It was a crazy one-time adventure, something far beyond the bounds of anything I’d ever done, and indeed beyond the bounds of where either of my parents had ever traveled, or thought to. I went to college a mere four hours away from home (insisted on going out-of-state, because I did want to get away a little, but still went to Boston, a much “safer” choice in terms of big culture shock or whatever; didn’t even consider California or anywhere nearly that far away) … and I just always assumed that with the exception of this one crazy time in Japan, I’d come back home to the East Coast, and get a job in New York, and be “home” in New York the whole rest of my life.

The lights of Akihabara, from my first time in Japan, way back in 2003.

But I’m getting off-track. I have seen Lost in Translation several times since then, and I don’t really remember how I felt about it the third or fourth time. But now it’s been a long time since the last time, and, well, it’s interesting how incredibly different the film feels this time around.

I’m glad I never did end up watching it with my (now ex-)girlfriend. I had wanted to watch it with her because I wanted to share my love for Tokyo, share with her what the film meant to me in that way. But she’s very much the type to engage deeply with the characters’ emotions and motivations, their dramatic arcs and the overall emotional or interpersonal themes of a film, and watching it now, again, I can see those things so much more starkly than I ever did the first or second time I saw the film.

What exactly is this relationship? I had completely forgotten that Bob and Charlotte kiss at the end – a seemingly romantic kiss, not like the kiss on the cheek in the elevator a few scenes earlier. And watching it this time around, I got a much clearer sense of these two people, their relationship developing. Both of them, and the viewer, wondering how far it will go, or where it is going, or whether the both of them are losing interest in their own relationships. The scene where Bob is in the bath and on the phone with his wife, and she says something like “well, if you like it so much there, maybe you should just stay” – I had previously read that through the lens of how much I loved Japan, and basically just that she was being difficult or obnoxious or whatever because she didn’t “get” it. And similarly, I guess, the scene where Charlotte is at a shrine in Kyoto and she sees a Shinto wedding – I had taken that to be just one more element of how she is experiencing and appreciating Japan, and how the filmmakers are sharing with us that beauty, that peace, that experience. Watching it again, now, I realize the connection, where just a scene or two earlier, Bob and Charlotte had been talking about how marriage is difficult. And both of them are in such difficult places at this point in the film (well, throughout the whole film) in terms of how they feel about their partners, their relationships. And so she sees this newly married couple, and I suppose there’s supposed to be something unspoken there, about wishing and hoping that they’ll do better, that they’ll actually be happy … or something about how we all have difficulties, but it’s worth it, and it will be the same for them.

There are also these moments where Bob and Charlotte realize they don’t actually know each other that well – they surprise one another at the choices they make. Like when Bob sleeps with the red-headed singer from the bar.

I see even more clearly and strongly now how it’s not necessarily really a movie about Japan, or about Tokyo, but rather about people, and relationships, and it’s really a story that could be set almost anywhere in the world. Though Tokyo does present a particularly good location in terms of being very foreign, very different, and yet at the same time very comfortable and navigable.

That said, though, whether Japan or not, it *is* also a movie about a particular style or mode of experience. Most of the movie takes place inside the same hotel – at the bar, at the pool, inside their guestrooms. Hotel life can be extremely comfortable, luxurious even. That’s kind of the point. And they’re definitely staying at a really nice hotel. But it can also be sort of sterile and isolating. It’s one way of experiencing a place, and it’s certainly a valid experience, but it’s a very different one from experiencing the city in other ways. Yes, Bob and Charlotte do get out and meet people and go to some clubs, and so forth, and I suppose we can maybe assume that they get out and see and do a lot more, in between the scenes, that we never see. But then again, maybe they don’t. We’re supposed to believe that the entire film takes place over the course of just one week or so, and I haven’t counted how many days and nights we actually see them experiencing, but… I dunno, I think we maybe do get the sense that they really have spent most of their time in the hotel, that both of them are in a sort of frame of mind that they wouldn’t even know where to go, what to see, if they did get out. I don’t know if either or both of them are “depressed,” per se, but they’re definitely lost, and they’re definitely spending a lot of time in their rooms (or in the pool, or the bath, or the bar) just thinking and being alone…. So, they’re experiencing a very particular experience of the city. When they do go out, it’s a lot like my first time in Japan, I suppose, in terms of going out to bars and cafes and karaoke and just having a good time… Very different from my experience on later trips, where I speak the language and know my way around, and …

Bob in the hospital, waiting for Charlotte to get her x-rays done, holding a giant fuzzy owl he bought for her. Image from IMDb.

But, anyway, getting back to the relationship, it’s an interesting one. It’s kind of wonderful to see people having that kind of relationship, and it’s really kind of romantic in a way – I mean, in the sense of a fantasy, an ideal, that one is envious of, even if we put aside the ways in which it’s a romantic relationship in the sense of romance. Even putting aside the romance aspect, if we pretend it’s a slightly different movie from what it is, if we pretend that they stay (just) friends throughout the whole thing, keeping in mind after all the big age difference and that they’re both married and that the romantic relationship between them is therefore really kind of dangerous/cringey at times (I can’t count the times that I was thinking, yikes, Bob, be careful make sure you don’t accidentally cross a line. She’s 22, Bob! Not to mention the fact that Scarlett Johansson was under 18 when this was filmed…) … but pretending they were to stay just friends throughout the film, what a friendship that is. To take her to the hospital, in a foreign country, in a foreign language, and to do it while playing around in that way (with the wheelchair and so forth); ribbing on one another and messing around, and somehow knowing (I guess not knowing, but just because it’s scripted that it works out) that the other one won’t be offended… What a beautiful wonderful friendship. I’m not sure that I feel like I have any friends like that anymore, who I’m that close to. Everyone I know, I still feel a certain distance, a certain anxiety and awkwardness about whether they really want to be my friend, about how much is too much to ask of them or to expect from them. And the older I get, the more of my friends are married – they have someone else to go home to, someone else to spend so much time with, and so no one is looking to spend that kind of intensive friendship time with me.

I think I had friendships like that when I was younger – certainly when I was in Japan for the first time, I think there are friends who I could call up and arrange with to just hang out, to just go out all the time. Thank god none of us ever had to go to the hospital, but I think we would have gone with one another – being in a foreign country, and needing that kind of help and solidarity makes a big difference: sure, I’ll go with you, and we’ll figure things out together. Whether it’s the hospital, or getting a bank account, or getting a cellphone, we did it together, so we could be there for one another, help one another figure it out, etc.

Bob touching Charlotte’s foot while they lie in bed together. Image from IMDb.

To be honest, I’m not even sure what I think of the film anymore in the end. The fact that they kiss at the very end actually gives me problems, I think. Because if they didn’t, then it would mean that this was a film about how other kinds of relationships are possible. That when staying in a foreign city for only a few weeks, and even when committed to other people, you can still form friendships of a particular type, that’s exciting and fun and at the same time really close and deep and meaningful, even if only in that place, even if only for that time. I know plenty of friends who I’ve had an amazing time with traveling, and either not really kept in touch with at all otherwise, or just had a different friendship, a different experience with otherwise. And whether Bob and Charlotte ever see one another again after parting ways in Tokyo is left completely open; I could of course imagine it going either way, either that they never see one another again but they just have this one incredible experience in their memories, or that Bob whispers in her ear something like “hey, if you’re ever in town, let me know, and let’s hang out, let’s get together again.” Which, I guess we’re supposed to think they both live in LA, but that would work better if they didn’t, and then we could imagine that maybe X years down the road, or once every few years from then on, they get together and just hang out again. But that really only kind of works if they’re friends – the kiss at the end means they basically have to either break it off with their spouses and try to get together, or break it off with one another and either never see one another again or really try to set some kind of boundaries to force this romantic relationship to be only a friendship…. It complicates things terribly.

Bob catches up to Charlotte on his way to the airport, after saying goodbye at the hotel. Image from IMDb.

I don’t know. I really kind of hate that they put that in there at the end. And it makes me think of Kimi no na wa also – where it’s not spelled out explicitly, it’s not shown on screen explicitly, that they get together in the end romantically, and I wanted to imagine that they might just form a friendship, a special friendship, where they get together once every few weeks or months and share that special bond they don’t have with anyone else, those memories, those experiences, but why should it have to happen romantically? Why can’t they each end up with different people, and be happy for one another, and still be friends? There are most certainly women in my life who I would like to thing I have a special, close, friendship with, even though they’re married to other people. But, regardless, even when they were dating (or even married) to other people, we still had lunches and coffees and drinks and had what I thought was a special time, a special close friendship.

It’s funny, now that I know the city so well, and really live in it, a film like Lost in Translation comes across as covering so little of the city. Such a foreigner’s, visitor’s, superficial experience of the city. And, actually, unless I missed it, I’m not sure we even saw Takeshita-dori in the film at all. They spend most of their time in the hotel, and when they do go out they take taxis, and yes they go to some clubs, and even to some friends’ apartments, but for the most part they’re not really getting out into the city, not nearly as much as my friends and I did in that first 4-month study abroad experience, and most certainly not anything like what I’ve experienced since. … Of course, they’re only there for a week, in a hotel, so what are you supposed to expect? It’s much more like… where have I been recently? Like my time in Jakarta, is probably a very comparable case, where I don’t speak the language and I don’t even know what’s to see, where to go, even once I do get out and go into the city… And so I ended up spending most of my time at the conference hotel, and at the shopping mall, and otherwise just walking up and down one main street….

In a Crash Course: Film Criticism video, Michael Aranda references a film scholar/critic as interpreting the entire film as a critique of capitalism. Both main characters seem overwhelmed and alienated by the excess of the city. An interesting interpretation, and well-argued, with some good evidence: both spouses (the wife back home in the US with her constant talk of carpet squares and remodeling, and the photographer husband – along with Anna Faris’ character – in their eager pursuit of the racing, exciting, but ultimately empty world of celebrity and so forth) represent excess, and petty, empty, capitalistic desires. The process or experience of filming the Suntory whiskey ad (“For relaxing times, make it Suntory times“) feels empty, nonsensical, meaningless. And when Bob & Charlotte do go out into the city, it’s loud and flashy, cacophonous. Their own relationship emerges more in absence, and in quiet.

Okay, sure. A compelling, well-argued argument. But I just never got that. I watch this film, and through these two protagonists I see myself, desperate to engage with all that the city has to offer, wanting to get the most out of it and enjoy what everyone else seems to be enjoying, but never knowing how to get there. How to find the right bars, how to find the right people and places to create those experiences. And so, when Bob & Charlotte go out with friends and end up listening to great music – great music that Bob says he’ll try to find and buy, and which his wife just doesn’t get – or when they go out to karaoke, or when Charlotte goes out to temples & shrines in Kyoto, they do find things to engage in and engage with and enjoy. It’s sitting in the hotel that’s alienating – gazing out at a city they don’t know how to engage with.

Aranda’s second key point, taken from a different film scholar, has to do with the way Japan is used for comedy, and in stereotypical ways. Yes, for sure, there are elements that are very stereotypical. But I think it represents honestly and genuinely an American’s, or a Westerner’s, first experiences of Tokyo. This is what you’re going to see, this is what is going to stand out at you. This is what you’re going to expect to see, and then see, because those are the stereotypes. Okay, sure, the “massage artist”/escort who someone sent to Bob’s room, who asks him to “lip her stockings,” was totally unnecessary and meaningless, and perhaps one of the most cringe-worthy moments in the film. But this idea presented in this video of focusing on the quiet, deep, meaningful things like temples, shrines, and ikebana, and then showing how most Japanese (e.g. in the pachinko parlor, or the game arcade) seem to have forsaken or forgotten those things, as if the film is trying to tell us that the Japanese people are hypocrites about their own culture – I think that’s maybe reading too much into it. I watched this and I thought, simply, this is an accurate representation of Tokyo, and especially it’s an accurate representation of one’s first experiences. Tokyo has both. It contains multitudes, to use a cliché. That doesn’t mean that one thing is more vapid than another; I watch this, and I see Charlotte enjoying herself, being amused and entertained by seeing in person the lights and sounds of a Tokyo game arcade, as well as also enjoying and appreciating the quiet beauty of a temple or shrine. Bob and Charlotte go to karaoke. They walk (or take taxis) through the lights and sounds of Shibuya’s famous scramble crossing. They go out with friends and enjoy some classic Japanese rock. They’re enjoying and experiencing Tokyo. This is Tokyo. This is how it is. Some of it is playing into stereotypes; some of it is gratuitous. But most of it I think is just representing what many people’s first experience of Tokyo actually is like.

Read Full Post »

It’s always nice to feel a bit still connected to goings-on at Japan Society in New York. Sadly, I won’t be in town to see most of this, but I thought I might share briefly about some stuff going on over there.

FILM:
First, an upcoming film series they’re doing. Entitled The Dark Side of the Sun: John Zorn on Japanese Cinema, the series includes one film a month, from October to February, all chosen by “maverick avant-garde composer, musician and arranger John Zorn,” and representing a wide variety of genres and styles. None have been shown at Japan Society before, and so far as I am aware (but then again I’m not very knowledgeable about film) none are the typical standard ones you’re likely to have seen before.

Here’s the line-up, very briefly:

*Inflatable Sex Doll of the Wastelands (荒野のダッチワイフ)(Saturday, October 18, 7 PM) – a 1967 film directed by Yamatoya Atsushi, described as “about a hitman (Yuichi Minato) who is hired by a rich real estate agent to find an abducted woman (Noriko Tatsumi). This simple setup gives way to a hip and chaotic worldview full of hard-boiled characters, sexy action, and hallucinatory imagery.”

*Crossroads (十字路)(Saturday, November 15, 7:30 PM) – a 1928 silent film directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa (1896-1982), and accompanied live on shamisen by experimental musician Yumiko Tanaka. I don’t know much about the film, or the director beyond having seen his film “Page of Madness” (狂った一頁), but, live shamisen? You can’t beat that.

*Top Stripper (丸本噂のストリッパー)(Thursday, December 11, 7 PM), a 1982 pink film directed by Yoshimitsu Morita, who we are told “was one of the handful of young, radical directors who were given the opportunity to explore the visual medium via the constraints of the pink genre.”

*Matango (aka Attack of the Mushroom People)(Friday, January 23, 7 PM), by none other than Ishiro Honda, director of the original Godzilla. Mushroom People. What more do we need to say?

*Finally, the first-ever official showing in the US of Ôshima Nagisa’s 1964 film It’s Me Here, Bellett (私のベレット), preceded by eight experimental shorts by the godfather of anime, Tezuka Osamu. Friday, February 20, 7 PM.

Here’s a blog post from Lucky Girl Media about the series that may fill you in further.

PERFORMING ARTS:
The film series – specifically the Nov 15 showing of Jûjiro – also intersects with a running theme of this year’s Performing Arts season schedule, “Shamisen Sessions,” a whole bunch of events I wish I could be there for, beginning with the rightfully sold out Sept 27 concert by Agatsuma Hiromitsu – easily one of the most famous Tsugaru players active today, after the Yoshida Brothers – and pop/jazz singer Yano Akiko, who has recorded with the Yellow Magic Orchestra in the past.

The Society’s performing arts programs are always great, but I think it is somewhat rare to have this many traditional (or traditional-related, given the experimental and exciting things some of these performers are doing with shamisen) events in one season. I don’t play shamisen myself, though I’d like to try/learn someday, and just listening is always wonderful. I would love, too, to hear any of these performers talk about their thoughts on tradition, on continuing/maintaining and experimenting with traditional instruments and songs, and on the place of traditional non-Western instruments in modern/contemporary music.

The season also includes shamisen performances, workshops on shamisen, Nihon Buyo, and Noh, and a concert with Okinawan sanshin player Yukito Ara (*dies*). In addition to the “Shamisen Sessions,” another series or theme this year is “Stories from the War,” which includes a series of performances of Noh plays new and old in May, and in January a performance written and directed by huge-big-name contemporary artist Miwa Yanagi. I don’t see anything on the website indicating whether Yanagi-san will be there for a Q&A or anything, but, wow it would really be something to meet her.

GALLERY:

Of course, god forbid any of these performances should be shown during Christmas break, when many people, like myself, come home to New York and would love to get to see such things, but, at least the gallery will be open, and this fall/winter’s show, Garden of Unearthly Delights, which just opened earlier this week, and shows until January 11, looks to be an incredible one.

It features Ikeda Manabu and Tenmyouya Hisashi, two of the artists from the Bye Bye Kitty exhibition a few years ago, plus teamlab, with whom I’m not so familiar, and continues, as I suppose I should have expected gallery director Miwako Tezuka would, in the wonderful exciting trend of Japan Society introducing New York, and the United States, to brilliant, creative, inspiring Japanese contemporary artists who are not Murakami Takashi or Yayoi Kusama, and who draw upon traditional imagery, motifs, and styles, to create some really incredible, vibrant, new and very 21st century work. This isn’t the 1960s anymore, and MoMa can keep its ostrich head in the sands of the past, but Japan Society is pressing forward with some of the newest works by some artists who are really pushing the boundaries and doing wonderful exciting stuff.

The show includes Tenmyouya’s first ever installation piece, based on or inspired by Zen rock gardens, as well as some animated pieces by teamlab clearly based on the work of Itô Jakuchû. While I don’t like the idea of saying “if Jakuchû were alive today, he’d be this (or that) sort of artist, and he’d make this or that sort of thing,” there really is something about these animated pieces – at least what I’ve seen of them so far in promos for the exhibit – that strikes me as falling within a continuity of his work, as not being opposed to it or a break from it. It’s bird-and-flower painting for the 21st century, not a break with the past but a continuation of it, a continuation of engaging in the same themes, the same aesthetics, and just bringing it up to the present (or the future). Ikeda and Tenmyouya’s work, meanwhile, remix past and present, erasing the borders between the two, and helping us imagine the past as being perhaps not so unlike our own time, and vice versa.

I really cannot wait to see this show. In the meantime, maybe I’ll prepare by watching some interviews with the artists.

Read Full Post »

Back in January, I finally got around to watching the film Princess Kaʻiulani. It really got me thinking, as I expected it would, and I wrote most of what follows as I watched, pausing for stretches to write. … I think my thoughts have changed somewhat since writing this originally, but it represents therefore my continual process of consideration, exploration, and hopefully growth or progress.

I find it so difficult, since returning to the mainland, to feel like I am sufficiently sympathetic, sufficiently, I don’t know what the word is… politically aligned, I suppose. When I lived in Hawaiʻi, it was so easy to feel like I was on the right side, to feel like I was engaging with these issues every day, and learning from them, and growing. As someone doing Okinawan Studies in Hawaiʻi, it was so easy to feel that I could count myself as an anti-colonialist, anti-Orientalist ally, or whatever the right term may be. I felt I could consider myself fairly well-informed/enlightened, and on the right side of thinking about these things, even if not actively activist. One can certainly be a feminist without being a particularly actively activist – a descriptor of your positions, not of your activity – but is there an equivalent word for being anti-Orientalist, pro-indigenous, and such?

Today, of course, I still feel terribly sympathetic, and I feel I want to be more so. I want to believe that I can truly count myself as thinking, knowing, believing correctly on these issues. But ever since returning to the mainland, I find it much more difficult to do so.

I watch a movie like this one, and of course I’m terribly sympathetic for Hawaiʻi’s plight, and wholly opposed to the actions of the Americans. But I cannot help but worry if my sympathy is too superficial, too weak. And to worry if I am, in fact, still a colonialist/imperialist at heart, an Orientalist, or, worse. I want so much to change, or to feel that I have changed, and while I was in Hawaiʻi, I felt that I had. But I fear that I am, simply by being removed from it, sliding backwards. Even as I edit this post right now, rewriting what I wrote a few months ago, I feel much more hesitant to call myself a “champion” or “advocate” for anything… after all, who the hell am I, and what do I know? I lived in Hawaiʻi for only three years, and though surrounded by certain issues and discourses and whatever everyday, actually took very few real courses or seminars explicitly discussing Hawaiian history or indigenous issues.

I hear the drums and the chants in the film, and see the hula dances, and smile; I feel a jolt of happiness in my heart. But is this the happiness of an Orientalist, who loves it simply for being exotic? As much as I might wish otherwise, it is not, it cannot be, the happiness of a Hawaiian local, much less that of a Native Hawaiian, who can rightfully claim some sense of belonging, growing up within that culture. On the plus side, though, I’ve certainly come to have a negative gut reaction, too, when seeing performances that are Orientalist and potentially offensive… so, that’s something. And, though I hesitate to feel too proud of myself or anything, since it was just last week, but after reading Adrienne Kaeppler’s survey of Polynesian & Micronesian art last week, I do feel that I’ve gained a better understanding and a new appreciation for certain core elements of Pacific cultural attitudes – e.g. about the sacredness of objects. I’ve been terribly busy this quarter, but hopefully I’ll get around to posting thoughts about that book more fully in a separate post sometime soon.

When I was in Hawaiʻi, I felt okay about claiming some association; I may be a haole, and I may not have grown up there, but by virtue of living in Hawaiʻi, and being so warmly accepted by so many people and communities there, it felt only natural to feel some rightfulness in considering myself a member of a community… for months after I left, I felt like I still belonged. I felt like I still had a community, that I had changed and learned and grown in Hawaiʻi, and that I could rightfully consider myself associated with the islands. But, as the months have gone by, I find myself questioning more and more what right do I have to say anything, what right to consider myself a supporter, or an activist, or whatever the word should be. What right do I have to call myself a supporter when I feel so inadequate both intellectually, and emotionally, in understanding these issues, in feeling that passion, and most importantly, so inadequate in articulating the core, fundamental notions of indigenous rights and post-colonial activism? I follow quite a few feminist blogs, for example, which are so brilliantly written… and I don’t feel that I can speak so eloquently, so appropriately, to Hawaiian issues. I fear that in any attempt to say anything, I will say something wrong, or not say enough. I will leave out some crucial aspect, or I will not go far enough in expressing my support. Even just using words like “support” here, I feel like it’s too weak. There surely is a stronger word, but it doesn’t come to mind.

On an intellectual level, I tell myself that Hawaiʻi, just like Ryūkyū or Japan or Korea, just like England or France, was a noble, rightful, proper kingdom unto itself, with its own history and traditions and should not be in any way regarded as lesser. So, I’ve got that. But, I see people all around me, who come from all over the world, calling one another “brother” and “sister” and sharing a connection, some kind of “fellow non-whites” connection, that I simply do not truly feel in my heart, much as I wish I did.

Statue of King Kamehameha I (r. 1782-1819) in front of Aliʻiōlani Hale, across the street from the ʻIolani Palace.

I can go forward, taking courses and reading books, and hopefully someday teaching my own courses and writing my own books, speaking of the nobility of the Ryukyuan and Hawaiian peoples, and decrying the wrongs done to them; I can teach my students that the US is, and was, an imperialist power, and that our government has indeed inflicted great injustices around the world. But, as of right now, at least, there is still a piece missing. If I hang a postcard of a Hawaiian flag upside down on my wall, I feel like a poser, or like I have no proper right to consider myself an ally, a supporter, on these issues. I feel like it’s too easy, like I’m not doing enough, like someone else is going to turn around and tell me I have no right, because I don’t appreciate well enough, or feel strongly enough… And, it’s certainly true that I have marched in no protests, written no diatribes, shouted no slogans.

I feel I wish I had people around me who could validate my attention to these issues, to tell me I do have the right to speak as a supporter of Hawaiian rights. Because it is far too easy, as a white American man from the mainland, as a student and an academic, to feel like I am simply giving lip-service, like I’m simply siding with the radical, liberal side as fashion or something, and not out of genuine feeling. Is that who I am? Sometimes I worry it is. It certainly is terribly easy to feel that one appears that way. … But, even to have a group to affirm that they see me as genuine, is that not itself self-serving, and selfish, and all too easy? And is that not flirting dangerously with problems of authenticity and the cliché of “I’m not racist – I have black friends”?

I’m not sure I’ve ever faced something like this in my life. I sometimes feel I cannot rightfully consider myself a supporter unless I go all the way. Truly all the way. To really immerse myself in cultural community, and to become truly active in political discussions and protests… To put aside all else and truly devote myself to activism in support of these issues – or elsewise, shut up and go home. I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered or engaged with issues that have such strong feelings of ownership as Hawaiian issues (or Pacific Islander issues more broadly). I never needed anyone from Japan to confirm for me that how I felt about, or spoke about, Japan was “right,” or if I did, I got past that long ago, but with Hawaiian (and to a lesser extent, Okinawan) matters, there is such a strong pushback against anything perceived to be offensive, and so – quite understandably, with good reason – it makes it very difficult to ever feel I’ve adopted enough, incorporated enough, of the proper pro-Hawaiian, pro-indigenous, attitudes and understandings. Not that I mean to place the blame on others; I do not mean to say “they” make it difficult. It just is what it is, and I find it so hard to navigate. I hope that in reading more about Hawaiʻi, and in taking seminars on indigenous issues, I might come to feel more secure in my understandings, in my positions, and in feeling a right to speak. But can a few books and a few courses be enough? I certainly feel I have learned and grown and changed a lot from the few courses I have taken in Hawaiʻi, and from the few things I have read. But, perhaps it is a fuller immersion that is required. But when, and how, will I ever get the chance to live in Hawaiʻi again for any extended period? And even if I do, will it all fade and weaken once I leave the islands again, as it has this past year and a half?

Right: Honolulu, seen from the air.
I watch this film, Kaʻiulani, and I want to feel that I understand better, that I feel deeper, than the average filmgoer because of my connection to Hawaiʻi. But do I? Do I really? Can I claim that? I know the names, and the very basic outlines of the history, better than your average filmgoer for whom these events, and the names Kaʻiulani, Kalakaua, etc., are completely new and unfamiliar. And I recognize ʻIolani Palace and Queen Emma’s Palace, and know something, too, of their histories, where the average filmgoer might see these spaces as generic, not understanding the great accuracy with which the film portrays these places (were they filmed on location? Or was it reproduced?). But, so what? Is that enough?

Do I truly have any real connection to Hawaii, that’s more than just something petty, temporary, and tenuous? Is it okay, or is it inappropriate, to claim that? How, and when, if ever, can I feel confident enough to make these claims? And if I cannot, then what?

And, of course, all of these worries simply carry over into my pursuits in Okinawan Studies… I feel far fewer barriers in making these claims in Okinawa – I’ve certainly spoken with enough people in Hawaiʻi, both Okinawan & Okinawan-American students, as well as professors, and members of the local community, plus professors in Okinawa, and so I am able to feel much more comfortable and secure in allowing myself to claim some association with Okinawa, and to speak about Ryūkyū. But, the discourse of “authenticity” is powerful, and the doubts it inspires are powerful, and I simply do not know how to overcome them… though some have tried to reassure me that, at the very least, the fact that I’m thinking about these things, and worrying about them, rather than just striding in un-self-consciously, is an important start.

Read Full Post »

A stele at the temple Zuikô-in in Kyoto marking the burial site of the topknots of 46 of the 47 ronin. The graves of the ronin themselves, and of their lord Asano Naganori, are located at Sengaku-ji in Tokyo, a temple which is much more strongly associated with the 47 Ronin today; but, as I haven’t been there, and prefer to use my own photos…

I have yet to see the new “47 Ronin” movie starring Keanu Reeves, and most likely will not be seeing it any time soon (if at all). So, I post this having admittedly not seen the film myself. That said, Prof. Jonathan Dresner of Pittsburg State University in Kansas has seen the film, and in a review entitled “The Many Things “47 Ronin” Gets Wrong About Shogun-Era Japan (And the One Thing It Gets Right),” has some choice words.

Nearly everything in the movie, from a cultural and historical standpoint, is questionable or wrong. Nothing unusual about that, but the movie credits two historical consultants, and begins and ends with voiceover claiming historical and cultural authenticity: “To know the story of the 47 Ronin is to know the heart of old Japan” … Even discounting the “witches and demons,” the movie frames the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1868) as “Ancient,” “Feudal,” and shoguns as “an absolute ruler,” none of which is helpful. It perpetuates the myth of samurai as “master swordsmen” and “protectors” and the conclusion praises them for enacting “the old ways of Bushido” as though there were a continuous tradition which had degraded in the contemporary age (but which the Shogun had no desire to actually revive).

These are, of course, some of the key ideas I have tried to impart to my students. Three hundred years ago is not “ancient times,” but is actually relatively recent, and indeed many scholars consider the Tokugawa periodearly modern.” Shoguns were absolutely not absolute rulers; the daimyo (regional lords) had onsiderable autonomy within the Tokugawa state.

Samurai were bureaucrats and administrators who paid lipservice to a martial tradition generations past. Training in swordsmanship and the like was certainly a part of their upbringing, but by no means does that mean that most, or even many, were truly masterful fighters. And as for them being “protectors,” or “honorable,” honestly, do you know of any class of people that can truly be said to be just and honorable? Certainly, there were some samurai who were more ethical and upright in belief and action, but so too were there many who were corrupt, selfish, or just trying to get by. Many frittered away their meager incomes gambling and cavorting in the pleasure quarters. Many took up dishonorable by-employments (side jobs) in order to earn enough just to get by. Many were unable, all their lives, to secure an official government position. Many got into fights in the streets. And, of those who did hold official posts, and relatively sizeable incomes, many were corrupt and selfish in a variety of ways, just like politicians or corporate elites today.

“Bushido” (“The Way of the Warrior”), meanwhile, that crown jewel in the myth of the samurai, was invented during the Edo period, and only first more fully articulated in 1900, roughly thirty years after the samurai class itself was abolished entirely. To be clear, this means that no samurai in early periods, “traditionally,” even knew of, let alone could have adhered to, the bushidô ideals articulated by Nitobe Inazô in 1900, or those described in the Hagakure (c. 1709-1716) or Miyamoto Musashi’s Book of the Five Rings (c. 1645). These Edo period texts were written at a time when the wars were already over, and members of the samurai class were working to try to understand, or re-capture, their identity as “warriors,” through a re-invention and glorification of the past. In short, bushidô is, through and through, an invented tradition. Only a small portion of people would have ever read Hagakure or the Book of the Five Rings during the Edo period; in other words, the vast majority of samurai would not have read them, would not be aware of their content, and therefore could not have subscribed to any “code” they describe. Simply put, there never was a single “code of conduct” or “honor code” widely known and widely accepted among samurai throughout the archipelago.

Certainly, samurai placed high value on loyalty to their lords, but that loyalty was based on reciprocal relationships, of service to one’s lord in exchange for titles, land, wealth, or the like, and not on some abstract sense of honor, or a coordinated structured system of honorable (and dishonorable) behaviors. In short, warriors demanded rewards for their loyal service, and when lords were unable or unwilling to provide such rewards, warriors grew disgruntled; there are numerous examples of individual samurai betraying their lords, and historians credit the inability or refusal of the Court or shogunate to grant rewards to samurai as major factors contributing to the rise and fall of shogunates. The above is a clip from the 1955 film Shin Heike Monogatari (“New Tale of the Heike”) depicting samurai returning from battle, expecting considerable reward from the Imperial Court for their service; though clearly quite stylized, in some respects, it may be the most “accurate” depiction of samurai I have ever seen. The warriors are dirty, uncouth, and violent – essentially, dude-bro frat jocks – in sharp contrast to the well-mannered, elegant court aristocrats in perfectly clean, well-put-together robes; the warriors are plainly shown as beneath the aristocrats, not only in terms of being less cultured, and in terms of political or status hierarchy, but also literally, physically beneath the aristocrats – whenever they speak to aristocrats, the warriors sit or kneel on the ground, and are not permitted to step up onto the clean wooden floors of the aristocratic mansion or Imperial Palace. This may take place way back in the 12th century, but I think it a good indication of how we should think about samurai, the warrior class, during the Sengoku Period as well. The Sengoku era, literally the Age of the Country at War, was surely not an era of glorious loyalty and refined codes of honor, but rather one of great chaos and violence, in which anyone and everyone, samurai and peasant alike, scrambled for power, or simply to survive.

For those interested, this issue of the myth of the samurai is addressed further in various places throughout the Samurai-Archives Forum, and in episodes 5, 6, 7, and 8 of the Samurai-Archives Podcast (Disclaimer: a podcast in which I am one of the discussants).

Dresner finishes his brief review of the film saying:

As I’ve told my students, family, and acquaintances many times, it’s a shame that more media creators don’t trust the original source material, the actual history, to be captivating, when it so often is much more interesting and dramatic than the fictions.

I could not agree more.

You can read the rest of Prof Dresner’s review at the History News Network.

Read Full Post »

*As you may know, the Ainu are an indigenous people of northern Japan, mostly associated with Hokkaidô. For about five weeks this past January to February, a small group of Ainu youths (along with an interpreter and a few supporters) journeyed to Aotearoa (New Zealand) to meet with members of the Maori community, engaging in cultural exchange and building connections. The indigenous rights / indigenous cultural movement among the Ainu is relatively young, gaining strength only since the 1990s, and the group was only formally recognized by the Japanese government as an indigenous people in 2008. These exchanges with peoples such as the Maori help the Ainu connect into a larger, global indigenous peoples movement, and help them consider and develop ways to maintain or revive their traditional culture, as well as ways to move forward, into a “modern indigeneity” or an “indigenous modernity.”

I contributed a small amount, Kickstarter-style, to help the project, and received this neat mukkuri mouth organ. Can’t seem to manage to play it properly though.

Having now returned, participants in the Aotearoa Ainumosir Exchange Program will be sharing their experiences at an event in Yokohama on June 1st.

*Colleen Laird, a good friend of mine, has had an article published in Frames Cinema Journal! It is entitled “Imaging a Female Filmmaker: The Director Personas of Nishikawa Miwa and Ogigami Naoko.” Admittedly, I have yet to find time to read it, but it certainly looks fascinating. Congratulations, Colleen!

*Gavan McCormack has published yet another article on the Senkaku/Diaoyutai debate, over at The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus. Interesting and important to understand the details of the history, but, of course, none of that really matters – the debate isn’t really about history so much as it is contemporary national pride and related issues.

*Meanwhile, the ruins of a Buddhist monastery at Nalanda in India, are to become the site of a new university. The monastery is claimed to have been a thriving “university” in the 5th to 12th centuries, hundreds of years before the advent of the university in Bologna, Paris, Cambridge and Oxford. I appreciate the sentiment, the desire to de-Eurocentrize world history. But, still, I’m a bit skeptical. That said, congrats to Nalanda on a bit more public exposure for this marvelously impressive site, and best of luck with the new university.

*Finally, I have finally buckled and given in and started a Tumblr, which I’ve titled “byakko zatsuga,” or “white tiger miscellaneous pictures.” I’m really kind of surprised to discover that zatsuga doesn’t seem to be a standard term in Japanese art history at all. Look through woodblock printed books of the Edo period, and you’ll find tons that are, essentially, just collections of assorted random pictures. And the books have such a wide variety of titles, including terms such as manga 漫画, gafu 画譜, gashi 画志, gaden 画伝, ehon 絵本, zasshi 雑誌, zakkô 雑考, gakyô 画境, and gashi 画史… yet I have never seen any called zatsuga.

In any case, my blog posts here tend to be pretty long, as you might have noticed; the Tumblr provides me an opportunity to share pictures with a minimum of commentary, as well as quotes, videos, or the like, and most especially, while I will be sharing images of historical artworks, or items related to serious topics such as gender theory/feminism, it also provides me a space to share things a bit too silly or frivolous for this blog.

Read Full Post »

I have just returned from a screening of the first of two parts of the 2011 Taiwanese film “Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale” (賽德克·巴萊), and I am still somewhat in shock. The film depicts the 1930 Wushe Incident, in which a number of Taiwanese aborigines of the Seediq Bale tribe rose up against Japanese colonizers. Over 130 Japanese were killed (including women and children), while hundreds of Seediq Bale (lit. “true men”) died in the fighting. I understand that the second half of the film, which I have yet to see, depicts (in part) the Japanese response, in which a great many aborigines were killed. It is certainly an incident about which we hear very little – it is completely overshadowed by events such as the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, the Mukden Incident, and the Nanjing Massacre, which occurred several years later, in mainland China. Yet, within the contexts of Taiwanese history, the history of Japanese Empire, indigenous & colonial studies, and the like, it is actually quite interesting and important; certainly, within a historical narrative of a series of encounters between the Japanese and the Taiwanese aborigines, stretching back as far as 1871, if not earlier, it seems an incident of some considerable importance and interest.

There is so much to this film that I scarcely know what to say. In fact, I hesitate to say anything at all, because anything I say would need to expounded upon, expanded out, explained fully, and balanced out by additional statements as well, over the course of many pages. All of the issues this film touches upon are quite complex, and if there is a side or a stance to take, I do not know where I stand. So, rather than risk misrepresenting myself, or influencing your experience or interpretation of the film, I suppose I shall just leave it at this, and allow you to draw your own conclusions, and your own thoughts and questions.

I am very thankful to Profs. Kuo-Ch’ing Tu, Kate McDonald, and Anne-Elise Llewallen, for their comments after the film, putting it somewhat into context, and helping us begin to think about some of the issues this film raises. This review by scholar Darryl Sterk likewise discusses a number of those issues, and is quite thought-provoking; I am sure there are plenty more reviews out there taking a variety of different stances and expressing a diversity of reactions.

US Version Trailer:

The film was shown earlier this year in a limited release in a handful of major East and West Coast US cities, as well as in various British, European, and Chinese cities, in an “international version,” cut down to about 2 1/2 hours. I am glad that the Center for Taiwan Studies here at UCSB is showing instead the full, uncut, Taiwanese version of the film, even if it is closer to 4 1/2 hours. The second half will be shown here at UCSB’s Multicultural Center Theatre sometime in January. I look forward to it, and to the discussions which might emerge out of it.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »