Archive for the ‘Film’ Category

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.

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.

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.


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.

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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.

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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.

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*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.

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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.

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Japan Cuts is finally coming to an end. There were plenty of films I missed, and indeed several still to come this weekend that I won’t be going to, but, after seeing about ten films in the last few weeks, well, it’s over for me, for this year. Big thanks to everyone involved in making Japan Cuts happen, and for having me as a volunteer. It’s a great feeling to be involved, not just as a spectator, but as a member of a team, an insider in whatever tiny way, rather than a total outsider simply paying to come…

The highlight of tonight, and for me one of the highlights of the whole festival, was that I got to meet Ogigami Naoko (Director of Megane, Toilet, Kamome Shokudô, and now Rent-a-Neko). It’s one thing to see celebrities from a distance – and seeing Yakusho Kōji speak was certainly exciting in its own way – but actually getting to talk to someone is a whole different level. It was very brief of course – just a little more than “I really like your movies, thank you so much for coming here tonight,” “Oh, thank you. I’m glad you like them.” But, still. A special opportunity. And she was very nice, very personable. Shy even. Not like a celebrity at all.

They screened her newest film, Rent-a-Neko, tonight. It was followed by Loan Shark Ushijima, which is a very different film, and which I’ll get to. But, between the two films, I think the theme of the night was very much one of deviating completely from the Hollywood formula, defying expectations or norms.

Rent-a-Neko follows a young woman who rents out cats, to help people suffering from loneliness. She herself has been quite lonely since her grandmother passed away, and herself without any boyfriend or husband, just a whole bunch of cats who, it would seem, are strangely attracted to her. There’s something very sweet about her, as she charges very little, and seems to really genuinely provide people with true comfort, both with her cats, and her words. The film is, for the most part, episodic, focusing on one person after another whom she helps. But nothing ever really develops out of it. There is very little overall plot, and no real resolution at the end.

I’m guessing that Motai Masako, who plays the friendly but decidedly odd older woman in Megane and in Kamome Diner, as well as the grandmother in Toilet, must not have been free for this. Perhaps I’m judging Ogigami’s distinctive style too much from those two films alone [I had not yet seen Toilet when I wrote this post], and expecting too much that this film too ought to have a similar feel. But, with Motai absent, and for other reasons besides – reasons I cannot quite put my finger on – Rent-a-Neko, while certainly enjoyable, lacked that particular feel or flavor which I have come to expect from Ogigami-sensei.

The world premiere of the film Loan Shark Ushijima (Yamikin Ushijima) was the second film of the night. An extension of a live-action television drama based on a manga, and centering on a world of loan sharks, prostitutes, protection money extortionists, and sadistic blackmailers, Ushijima is decidedly a very different film. But, here too we see a deviation from norms that leaves me scratching my head.

Films, of course, do not need to follow the standard, oh-so-predictable, Hollywood formulas. They don’t even have to have clear-cut good guys and bad guys. But, still, there should be some straightforward sense of a plot, and some underlying theme or message, as to how one ought to behave. Or something.

The chief protagonist of this film, perhaps, is the young ikemen Ogawa Jun (played by Hayashi Kento), leader and event organizer of a sort of ikemen idols group. He seems a good guy, near as we can tell, with innocent sorts of goals. He seeks fame and success, seeks to turn this idols group thing into a successful career for himself as head of a modeling agency, or event organizer for big nightclub events… And he’s gotten himself into trouble with a loan shark, with a protection racket, and with a crazy frightening blackmailer / serial killer / torture artist. Now he owes too many people too much money, and everything he does to try to resolve it only makes things worse.

There are a couple of other characters in the movie who are relatively innocent, who are not quote-unquote “bad guys,” but who have simply gotten involved in bad stuff, and who we root for to get out of it, and to survive. But basically everyone else in this film is one kind of wretched criminal or another, making it hard to really feel like we want to root for any of these people.

Maybe I just need to suspend my disbelief or something, but there were just way too many parts of this film that made no sense. Some of it can be chalked up to characters just making very dumb choices, but… To start with, the loan shark Ushijima charges truly ludicrous amounts of interest (e.g. something like 50% interest added on every day), and somehow is able to get away with it. Granted, we do get to see the full process of why it is that the cops can’t seem to hold him. But even so, the very idea that one can buy up others’ debts and then apply your own arbitrary and ludicrously high interest rates seems bizarre. Then again, I guess when you’re operating an illegal extortion racket, anything goes.

Why does Jun never call the cops? And where was the security at this very large, well-attended, high-profile venue, that everyone from the loan shark to the protection racket guys are able to get in without even the slightest indication that they had pushed through, or even ever encountered security to begin with? Where were the security guys, or the police, to kick them out? And, again, why does Jun try to play these terrible people against one another rather than call the cops?

In the end, I feel bad for Jun because he had such innocent, non-criminal goals and intentions. But, in a sense, he really brings it on himself by handling the situation so poorly. At every step, he has people making utterly unreasonable demands of him, and rather than tell them how unreasonable it is, rather than demonstrating any degree of business acumen or law-abiding common sense, he runs off to borrow more money to pay these extortionists, getting himself more and more in the hole. Miko, a friend of Jun’s who is forced by Ushijima to pay off her mother’s gambling debts, similarly makes asinine decisions. She agrees, for some reason, to pay all the interest on her mother’s debts, week after week, but on principle refuses to pay the principal, i.e. the original debts. What nonsense. If she had any marbles in her head at all, she would pay the principal, and refuse to pay the interest. At least then, very quickly, there would come to be no principal to owe interest on. Meanwhile, I guess we are to assume that her mother keeps accumulating new gambling debts because otherwise the whole thing should have been paid off ages ago.

Perhaps the message of the film is that our world is a twisted, nasty place, where the violent and criminal win, and the innocent and noble-minded lose. The message that you need to be careful, to not be naive, or else the world will ruin you, will destroy you. That if you’re going to get involved with the seedier aspects of our society, you had better know what you’re getting yourself into, or you will get eaten alive.

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Japan Cuts continues! Of course, there have been plenty of films at the festival that I have not seen. But the one I saw tonight was the unusually English-titled “Someday” (大鹿村騒動記, Ōshikamura sōdōki, lit. Record of the Ōshika Village Disturbance). The film was shown as part of a small tribute to actor Harada Yoshio, who passed away one year ago today, at the age of 71.

In this film, he plays a man who has returned to his hometown after running away with someone else’s wife 18 years ago. She has begun suffering from an Alzheimers-like disease, and has begun confusing Osamu (played by Ittoku Kishibe) for her former husband, Zen (played by Harada). Osamu decides it might be best for them both if Takako (Michiyo Ôkusu) returns to live with Zen. And so, he takes her back.

When they arrive back home in Ōshika village, the village they left 18 years earlier, it is almost time for the annual jishibai (local rural amateur kabuki) performance. This, of course, is what interested me most about the film going in. I *love* kabuki, but have never seen a jishibai performance, and thought that this would be a really neat film to see, including how a town relates to the kabuki, as part of their own local tradition, and seeing some of the behind-the-scenes aspects as the characters prepare for the performance. In any case, at the very least, it would be an opportunity to see some kabuki!

I’m intrigued by the notion of making a movie that features jishibai so strongly. Mort Japanese people I have spoken to have very little interest in kabuki, or, even if they’re open to it, they’ve never seen it and know little about it. What would such an audience think about this film? Would it get them interested in kabuki? (I think not; the film just doesn’t quite have that vibe) Would they see it as dry and boring, inaccessible because it’s too traditional? Or would they relate to the feeling of local pride for village traditions?

In any case, while the kabuki did feature prominently in the film, I couldn’t help but find it somehow somewhat lacking, as compared to my excitement at seeing a film that featured kabuki in it. I don’t quite know why this was. Perhaps the behind-the-scenes aspects destroyed the illusion of the colorful ‘magic’ of the kabuki stage. Seeing all these rural local village characters, who we’ve seen so much of out of makeup/costume, now onstage, it’s easy to see them as ordinary people in blotchy makeup, and difficult to believe them in their kabuki characters, or in the setting of the play. Frequent cut-aways, and the application of a normal movie soundtrack over the kabuki shamisen/taiko/hayashi music, certainly did not help. Plus, of course, that the kabuki aspects, though extensive, were overshadowed by the tragic plot narrative of Takako, and of her relationships with Zen and Osamu.

Still, the film has rekindled my desire to go see some jishibai performances in Japan. They seem most common in Gifu and Nagano, but I’d be particularly eager to see Ise Ondo Koi no Netaba, the play we did last year in Hawaii, as performed in Ise. The Kabuki-za, the lead professional kabuki theatre in Tokyo, was closed and knocked down in 2010; plans are to reopen the reconstructed Kabuki-za in 2013. Next summer is going to be a great time for kabuki.

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