Review: Teach me Enma-sama

In the children’s picture book Teach me Enma-sama, written and illustrated by Hiromi Tanaka, Enma who is the King of Hell in Buddhist mythology teaches children how to behave in a “proper” way by scaring the living shit out of them. The picture book is intended for 5 to 8-year-olds and is partly formatted as a guide for parents to discipline their children as well. The book teaches children what they shouldn’t do and how society works through at times humorous but more often horrifying descriptions about Enma and hell.

“Ogres will cut you up [etc.]… for food and then after you die they will revive you and repeat this process endlessly.” (p. 26)

Some of the book can be a surprisingly thoughtful approach for children to think about bullying, cheating, lying – things many children tend to do without noticing or understanding the moral implications and consequences.

The book itself is inspired by Hokku-kyo, which is the oldest Buddhist scripture, and Buddhism itself drops many tips about raising children. It furthermore, introduces things to teach one’s children, such as why they shouldn’t be doing “bad” things, social codes, and etiquette.

The book covers 31 topics within three chapters, with roughly one subject per page, with a speech from Enma-sama, following explanation for kids, a message for parents when reading with children as well as the original untranslated sentences from Buddhist scriptures such as the Hokku-kyo.

Bad things children tend to do without noticing is addressed in chapter 1. From not having likes and dislikes about food or leaving unfinished food, to being quiet in public places. It teaches them to become aware of others and that they are not the center of the universe.

Chapter 2 covers topics about the evil that lives in people’s minds, such as jealousy and hatred. It puts a great emphasis on not comparing oneself to others and recognizing that others are not objects but human beings with feelings, just like ourselves. It also mentions that people should stay positive.

Finally, in chapter 3, the evil that dwells in words. Such as that one should be careful when speaking, as once a person says something, it is impossible to unsay it. Thus is tell the reader not to lie, verbally abuse others, as well as to stay true to oneself.

“You will have a skewer inserted up your rectum into your body and then be roasted” (p. 81)

All of this is generally well good, except for the glaring fact that some of the pictures and descriptions provided in the book wouldn’t be out of place in a Saw or similar horror movie, yet are in a book that is intended for young children…………

In conclusion, the book gives a somewhat universal idea of what is good and what is bad, abet in a very black and white fashion, while accompanied by nightmare inducing depictions.  

Japan Ten Years From Now. The Truth May Sort Of Be Awful But The Movie Is Great

by Kaori Shoji

We’re nearing the end of the world but there’s a sliver of a chance that we may be able to go out in style.


That pretty much sums up the message behind “Ten Years Japan (十年)” part of a film project in 4 Asian locales (Honk Kong, Taiwan, Thailand, Japan) to imagine the future of their nations, 10 years from now. “Ten Years Japan” is a 5-story omnibus, showcasing the talents of five directors – three of whom are women. You can see it in the way they grapple with themes like aging, nuclear fallout and a mother-daughter relationship. Gender comparisons are always dangerous but in the case of “Ten Years Japan,” these women directors clearly offer more wiggle room for hope and emotions like heartfelt gratitude, wrenching nostalgia and love. In the bleakest moments of their stories you sense that love will show up, eventually; a much-awaited guest late for the planet’s last dinner party.

The launch force behind “Ten Years” was Hong Kong in 2016. Hong Kong’s “Ten Years” played to wildly enthused audiences at home and went on to the international film festival circuit, but the contents were viewed as “problematic” by Beijing and banned in mainland China. Inspired by the Hong Kong team and their stories, the Thailand version came out in May this year. And now we have our own, here in Japan, which has been playing in a few Tokyo art house theaters for a limited 3 week release from November 3rd. Which is way too short to do this film justice but given the current political climate, maybe we should be thankful it’s being released at all.

“Ten Years Japan” was creatively supervised by Hirokazu Koreeda whose name and international repute has become on par with if not replaced, that of Takeshi Kitano. Koreeda is now the film critics’ darling in Cannes and London and when he speaks, his words become news print.

Koreeda shows a side of Japan that rarely makes it to the international stage. No samurai, geisha or yakuza splash guts and sex  in his vehicles. Instead, he wants to tell stories about quietly dysfunctional families. Or a mom who abandoned her four kids and never told anyone, until one of them dies. In his latest triumph “The Shoplifters” Koreeda addressed the problem of poverty and child abuse and was snubbed by none other than Prime Minister Abe when the latter said that Koreeda was perhaps, exaggerating a bit and that poverty in Japan is practically non-existent. Cue: sad laughter.

Koreeda has repeated said that he’s interested in the here-and-now of Japan, and working with performers that can transport and translate the urgency of our times onto the screen. This is probably why Koreeda demonstrates a flair for working with child actors. In his stories, they are sharp observers of adult sins and tellers of inconvenient truths as at the same time they are victims in a world over which they have no control.

A stark example of that is seen in “Itazura Doumei (Mischievous Alliance),” a tale directed by Yusuke Kimura. In this, elementary school education has become all about relentless surveillance, as the pupils are made to wear command devices on their heads, obeying instructions on where to go next, what to study and how to interact with classmates. They also receive “suggestions’ to consider this career or that, and how they can optimize their studying choices. Sort of like push notifications on a much more pushier level. The teachers fare no better. Only the school janitor (played by the always reliable Jun Kunimura) seems to enjoy a modicum of independence. The janitor takes care of an aging horse (part of a school experiment), soon to be exterminated on the whim of a digital authority. He can’t help but side wth the rebellious Ryo (Seiya Ohkawa) when the latter breaks the key to the stable and sets the horse free.

Another tale of childhood helplessness is “Sono Kuukiwa Mienai (You Can’t See This Air),” directed by Akiyo Fujimura. In this, the stage is an underground nuclear shelter inhabited by a small community of survivors. Mizuki (Ririya Mita) nurses a growing obsession with “the world above” as her anxious mother (Chizuru Ikewaki) warns there is nothing but danger “up there.” Mizuki longs for sunshine and rain until she can’t stand it anymore. The audience is left to surmise the consequences of her escape to freedom.

Utsukushii Kuni (美しい国) is a sharp poke in the ribs of Prime Minister Abe, who authored a book of the same title. The episode depicts in subdued tones, the ultimate outcome of Japan’s militaristic leanings as the Ministry of Defense puts a mandatory draft into place. The episode centers around an up and coming advertising executive who must inform a famous artist that her propaganda poster design, just isn’t quite what the ministry wants. It ends with a subtle twist, reminiscent of a Twilight Zone episode, that leaves the viewer with a tiny chill–in a moment of quiet understated dread.

Perhaps the most harrowing is the first story: “Plan 75” directed by Chie Hayakawa. It’s about our super-aged society: the most urgent and costliest problem facing Japan today. Hayakawa imagines a near future in which the government launches the titular program: people over 75 are offered a quick and painless euthanizing. The public service announcement advertising this expedited exit, sponsored by the Ministry of Health and Welfare, is such a dead-on parody of  Japanese PSAs that it almost seems real. Those urged to cross over to the other side, of course, are the low-income elderly or the infirm. But there are perks; those who agree to die even get a cash reward of 100,000 yen, so they can go out in relative style. There is an unforgettable death scene where an old man lays prostrate on a clinical cot – there are sounds of another man groaning nearby. The old man is visited by an intense loneliness and just as he’s about to burst into tears, a pair of female hands reach out to clasp his own. His face relaxes and there’s a wave of joyful relief. Cliched as it sounds, “Plan 75” confirms the old adage: all we need out of life is someone to hold our hands when we die.


“Ten Years Japan”

1) “Plan 75” Directed by Chie Hayakawa.
Starring: Satoru Kawaguchi, Kinuo Yamada, Motomi Makiguchi

2) “Mischievous Alliance” Directed by Yusuke Kimura.
Starring Jun Kunimura

3) “Data” Directed by Ai Tsuno
Starring: Hana Sugisaki, Tetsushi Tanaka

4) “Sono Kuukiwa Mienai” Directed by Akiyo Fujimura
Starring: Chizuru Ikewaki

5) “Utsukishii Kuni” Directed by Kei Ishikawa
Starring: Taiga, Hana Kino

The Eternal Outsider :Ten Years Black in Japan–a book review

by Kaori Shoji

Trevor David Houchen was an expat in Nagoya for about 8 years before getting divorced from his Japanese wife. He tried to get joint custody of his two young children but was defeated in court and went the way of other divorced dads in Japan i.e., a six-hour long, unsupervised meeting once a month. After some mental health issues and a string of failed relationships, Houchen decided that he was through with Japan and vice versa. He boarded a plane back to the US and in LA, started writing what would become “The Eternal Outsider – Ten Years Black in Japan,” and remarried another Japanese woman. (Editor’s note: The book bears some similarity to Black Passenger, Yellow Cabs, previously reviewed here).

Houchen and his wife now live in Atlanta. His book – a hefty 508 page volume packed with explosive sex scenes and lengthy, soul seaching monologue, came out this month via a self-publishing company in New York. Houchen hopes the book will provide a passage back to Japan that will lead to a reunion with his kids. He hasn’t seen or heard from them since leaving Nagoya nearly five years ago.

Houchen’s story is by no means unique – an interracial marriage gone sour followed by an exit out of the archipelago is a tale oft-told by foreign men. Ditto the separation from the children which has become a huge problem in the past 5 or so years, despite the Hague Convention. Barring extreme and/or extenuating circumstances, Japanese courts favor Japanese mothers when it comes to child custody rights. And foreign-born parents are almost always banned from taking their kids out of the country.

Houchen’s plight is sad but “The Eternal Outsider” isn’t out to invite reader sympathy, not least from the presumed target audience of American males interested in Japan. Many will pick up the book, just from the photo of the Japanese-looking young woman wearing that classic Japanese expression which can be both a come-on and a signal of distress. Once they dip into the pages though, resentment may come bubbling up like coffee in an old-fashioned percolator. Houchen is black American, and through the book he inducts the reader into a whole other world of foreigner male entitlement that exists in East Asia. For many Japanese (and other East Asian) women, dating a white man equals romance and prestige. But dating an African American – now that brings some SERIOUS cache. Among other things, it broadcasts that the woman is earthy, sassy and adventurous enough to try dreadlocks. It also means she rocks – mainly in the sack which is the most important place to rock anyway. A friend of mine who once dated Kevin-from-Bushwick gleefully declared: “I feel like my butt is now 10 centimeters higher than it used to be!” To get that effect the rest of us would have to spend 100 hours in a Cross fit class.

Which is part of the reason why Houchen was able to experience what he describes in the book – never saying no to a bevy of Nagoya beauties who literally break his door down in order to share his bed. Sometimes, he has to do the work and actually ASK a woman out, but hey, why bother when the answer is ‘hai (yes)’ every single time? Most of them have the good grace to proffer their bodies and ask nothing in return. Many of them pay for his meals and clothes or in one case, gifts him an electric piano. One lover whom he refers to as ‘H,’ plonks down her own cash to support his magazine and music business and picks up the check for everything else.

Houchen’s success rate is phenomenal and you almost imagine him grinning with nostalgia for those golden days or shaking his head in pity at the sorry state of dating in his own USA. Guys not getting any? Guys sending hopeful dick pics to Tinder dates? Seriously, Dudes, just hop on a plane to Japan!

The other part is that Houchen – for all his self-absorbed, sexual predator asshole-ness, is actually a stand-up kinda guy with a real love for this country. He’s nice to his numerous girlfriends, nice to his ex-wife, obviously loves his kids and even tries to get along with his in-laws. This is Nagoya we’re talking about, a region famed for its ultra-conservative attitude towards dating and relationships. Nagoya parents are known for laying down the law when it comes to their children’s marriages and will meddle in everything from baby names to the color of the bath mat in a newlywed’s home. Most of them are NOT thrilled by the idea that their precious offspring could be involved with a foreigner. The fact that Houchen was able to swing a marriage at all is a miracle but as he writes in the book, “No, I’m not Japanese. But I tried. So hard….I tried my best to be invisible, to compact myself into a smaller, paler, less amped and less woke version of myself.”

That worked for awhile until it didn’t. “International Marriages,’ as they’re called in Japan, is still frowned upon by many in the older generation and according to “The Eternal Outsider,” Houchen’s in-laws looked upon him as a sort of disease to which their vulnerable daughter fell victim. There’s a hilarious account of how one day, his mom-in-law showed up at Berlitz, where Houchen was in the middle of teaching, and demanded to see him. Houchen had to excuse himself from class to go out and placate an older Japanese woman who suspected  that he was unemployed and came to check if he was lying. The incident rattled Houchen and he couldn’t recover enough to keep teaching the student. Berlitz ended up firing him.

“The Eternal Outsider” is an engrossing read but speaking as a Japanese woman, many of the pages was torture to get through. Somehow, it reminded me of a news story that was floating around in the mid 1990s, about how easily Japanese women capitulated to foreign men. It goes like this: Six Japanese college students – all young women, went on a holiday trip to Rome. In a restaurant, they were picked up by a local man who invited them all back to his apartment. They went, and he proceeded to have his way with them – all at once, and all on his own. These women weren’t tied up. They simply lay there on their backs while the man whizzed his way from one to another, all through the night. How’s that for stamina?  Houchen talks about how humiliating the divorce was for him, but hello – there’s a sizable amount of humiliation on this end too, except no one wants to talk about it. Houchen’s book certainly doesn’t.

Speaking of humiliation, Houchen fell apart when he discovered that his ex-wife had installed a Japanese man in the apartment they had shared and who was “a good five inches shorter” than Houchen. She had her parents, their kids and this new man who was already being referred to as “Papa.” He describes her united front as “a team” whose very existence drained all joy out of his life in Japan. In the meantime, he never stopped sleeping with any woman who happened to drop in, including a former student whom he used to teach at a local junior high school.

On the one hand, this stuff could be fodder for a hit series on Netflix. On the other hand, you could shrug and say “shouganai (it can’t be helped)” – he got what was coming to him.

Still, I’m uncomfortable about leaving it like that. The book reveals in a deeply observant way how ultimately, Japan and Japanese women refused to be messed around with, particularly by a foreigner. And in the end, Houchen’s wife and copious lovers all vanish like smoke from a pack of Seven Stars: Houchen’s preferred cigarette brand in the land of the rising sun. Sure, he had the time of his life but it was just that – a time. And now it’s gone.

We’re Stuck With ‘The Last Samurai’ While Everyone Else Gets Crazy Rich

by Kaori Shoji

In high school, the girls around me had one wish–to have a different nationality, preferably American, and to trash our drab school uniforms for the outfits in “Beverly Hills 90210.” Being Japanese was just no fun, though it did seem better than hailing from other Asian countries. After all, this was the 1980s and the Japanese economy was gearing up to enter the bubble era. The Equal Employment Law for women kicked in. Chiaki Mukai was training to be Japan’s first woman astronaut. Takako Doi was rumored to become the future Prime Minister. Things were happening here, albeit minus the fun, sophistication and glamour we so coveted.

Little did we know that one day, Singapore and China would trump (pun intended) the US in many things regarding money, or that Asian women would come to rank among the richest in the world. These women would book first class flights on the five-starred Singapore Airlines to chill in the gaze of the Mer-Lion, and immerse themselves in gossip, shopping and spas with unlimited supplies of yuzu-scented sheet masks.

No yakuza, geisha, or Matt Damon here.

For that’s what the ladies in the movie “Crazy Rich Asians” do. On the occasions that they haul themselves off the mani-pedi bed or tear themselves away from the mahjong table, they reach for their phones to tap a few keys and murmur a few instructions, to put extra padding on their already bursting bank accounts. After that, they’re off to dinner parties where a billion orchid petals pave the paths and splendid fireworks explode in the background. Who do these people think they are, clones of Daisy Buchanan from “The Great Gatsby”?

Speaking of which, “Crazy Rich Asians” is the kind of insular, extravagant love story that would have made Scott Fitzgerald weep with envy. Director Jon M. Chu, who hails from Palo Alto and attended USC, has been working in films and TV since 2002 and this time, he literally hit the jackpot. Somehow the man knew that the world needed the sight of well-heeled Asians with perfect teeth, flinging their cash around at the same time they’re being swooningly romantic.

Chu dares to tread where no Hollywood movie about Asia ever has. There is no poverty or war. No samurai conflict. No appearance of Matt Damon (The Great Wall)  or any white saviors to save the day. No immigration issues.  Most importantly, there are no mothers crying about the sacrifices they made, to give their children a bright future in America. The mother in “Crazy Rich…” (played by a gorgeously frosty Michelle Yeoh) is the type who, when running up against a racist manager at a London hotel, calmly takes out her phone and makes arrangements to buy the hotel then and there. Minutes later she strides away, leaving the manager to get down on his knees and scrub the mud off the carpet from her son’s shoes.

When Hollywood does Asia, it goes for the jugular, like “Joy Luck Club” and “Sayuri” and “The Last Samurai.” Hollywood executives hear the word ‘Asians’ and immediately conjure an image of sweating maidens in rice paddies, or yakuza with swords in Shinjuku, or maidens and yakuza hooking up in Shinjuku, or all of the above. But in “Crazy Rich..,” Asians get to do what white people in movies have been doing for centuries. It’s about time.

In the US, “Crazy Rich Asians” was the movie sensation of the summer and it’s easy to see why. Apart from the endlessly entertaining antics of the Asian one percent “Crazy Rich…” knows how to entice an American audience. The characters have American names like Nick (Henry Golding), Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), Rachel (Constance Wu). They speak perfect English and hold engrossing conversations about love and family. They take their entitlement completely for granted. And they’re never weird. If they are, they’re weird in ways that Americans understand. Like in one scene, a bunch of catty woman put a dead fish in a girl’s bed as a bullying tactic, and it’s straight our of  “Desperate Housewives.” Or if you want to be authentic about it, “The Godfather.”

Meanwhile, over here in the Land of the Rising Sun, people’s names are adamantly Japanese. Women are told to shut up and bear children, or shut up and work until 50 after which they must quit to care for elderly parents. Prime Minister Abe, now firmly ensconced in his third term, has promised the nation’s women that “things are going to change.” Seriously? They ain’t changing fast enough. All over Asia, Asian women are liberating themselves from tradition and antiquated family values to get a lot richer a lot faster than the Japanese ever did. Japan had its five minutes in the economic spotlight in the late 1980s but the 20-plus year recession combined with the notion of “seihin (清貧・clean poverty)” just about did us in. Evidence to that is seen in the way “Crazy Rich Asians” completely ignores Japan. China, Taiwan, Hong Kong – these places all get mentioned but Japan? Nada. True, Japan-born actress Sonoya Mizuno is in the cast but she plays a filthy rich Chinese woman. Go figure.

We’re a tad miffed, to be honest. But that really shouldn’t stop Japan from savoring every single frame of “Crazy Rich Asians.” From the sleek, precision make-up on the women to the bared torsos of the males (firm, slender and hairless – God’s gift to Asia) to the decor and wardrobe to the food and cocktails, “Crazy Rich…” is one huge, glittering monstrosity of a sweet, sweet treat. No wonder that for an increasing number of Japanese who will never be crazy rich, Singapore has come to represent the unattainable Japanese dream.

Sayonara, Robuchon-san: A Eulogy to Japan’s Beloved French Chef

The news shook the world of Tokyo’s French cuisine, but the iconic Chateau Restaurant Joel Robuchon in Ebisu, was open for business. Diners clinked their glasses in honor of the late Joel Robuchon, the world famous chef who took “nihonno furenchi (French food in Japan)’ to a new level. In early August, Joel Robuchon succumbed to his battle with cancer. He was 73 years old – young by Japanese standards and way too young for people like Kazunari Mizuki, who had studied under the great master for 2 years before working as an entree chef at the Hotel Okura. “I never got a chance to say goodbye,” he said, his eyes getting moist. “Many of us in this business revered him so much. Without Joel-san, the French restaurant scene in Tokyo would never have gotten to this point.”

The finest coffee ice cream dessert ever.

Every dish, delicious and beautiful. A feast for the eyes and the palette

Indeed, Robuchon’s famed Chateau Restaurant (opened in 1994) was one of the first establishments in Tokyo to earn Michelin’s 3-star rating and the Chateau building itself has come to represent the wealth and glamour of Japan’s capital city. It’s also a pilgrimage site for Japanese couples. In a city notorious for workaholic singles and a rapidly aging population, the Chateau is the one place where men confer with the restaurant staff weeks in advance to orchestrate the perfect marriage proposal and the presenting of the ring. No woman can possibly say ‘no’ to a Robuchon proposal. The very fact that the occasion happened HERE of all places, makes her that much more precious, or at least worthy of a 80,000 yen dinner course and a sizable bling.

The food – though formidable, is almost beside the point. Joel Robuchon taught the Japanese that French cuisine wasn’t about food per se, but the experience as a whole. Everything from the decor to the lighting and wine selection to the impeccable service, should be a reflection of Robuchon’s personal philosophy: never settle for anything less than state of the art.

Presentation matters

He also had a deep respect for Japan and Japanese cuisine. He lauded the soy sauce as “one of the greatest culinary miracles” according to an interview he gave on Fuji Television, and even developed a special shoyu to accompany western dishes. Four months before his death, he had collaborated with sake maker “Dassai” to open a Japanese/French restaurant in Paris. One of his best friends was Jiro Ono, sushi master extraordinaire and owner of “Sukiyabashi Jiro’ in Yurakucho.

Before Joel Robuchon arrived on the scene, the Japanese and French cuisine had an amicable if overly polite, relationship. In prewar days, it was customary for master chefs of the Imperial Household to train in Paris, working their way up from scullery boy to line chef at various establishments. The young Emperor Hirohito was said to have treasured his chef, and counted on him to produce French dinners that would melt the hearts of visiting western dignitaries, even in the midst of rising political tension that preceded WWII.

Back then, only the top tier of the elite could hope to sit down to a full course French dinner and many Japanese had no idea what a fork and knife even looked like. It wasn’t until after the Japanese surrender and the late 1950s, that well-to-do families began dining in Tokyo restaurants, cautiously tasting dishes that vaguely resembled French cuisine.

Fork and knife, not needed, the meat is so tender.

In 1978, 33 years after the Japanese surrender, Joel Robuchon was appointed master chef at the Hotel Nikko de Paris (now the Novotel Paris Centre Tour Eiffel) Coincidentally, Robuchon himself was 33 years old, a still-young chef on the brink of success. That he chose a Japanese hotel to work his magic before opening his own restaurant (the legendary Jamain) three years later, speaks of his enduring love for this country. Robuchon opened restaurants all over the world but has said in numerous interviews that he genuinely enjoyed working with the Japanese, because “we share an innate respect for food and nature.”
Merci, chef. We shall miss you.

New Movie “The Trial” (審判)Shows The Kafkaesque Side Of Japan’s Often Criminally Unjust Justice System

If you are unlucky enough to be indicted for a crime in Japan, you’ll find that the system actually works on the presumption that you are guilty until proven guilty. The conviction rate is 99%.  If Franz Kafka was alive today, he’d find that Japan’s courts provided ample material for his pessimistic work. The recently released film The Trial (審判)based on Kafka’s famous work, and directed by John Williams, thus seems tremendously disturbing.

The Trial (審判) is a new film which updates Franz Kafka’s classic nightmarish novel to modern Japan–with great effect.

John Williams is that rare western filmmaker who has chosen to live and work in Tokyo, though he originally came to Japan in 1988 with the intention of saving enough money to go to film school in the US. “I’ve wanted to be a filmmaker since the age of 14,” he said, in the offices above the Eurospace Theater in Shibuya, where his latest work The Trial (Shinpan) is showing. It’s not everyone who keeps a promise made in their teens, but John Williams did just that, albeit in a place very far from his native England.

John Williams is from South Wales  and back in the mid 1980s when he graduated from university, the British film industry wasn’t what you’d call thriving, in fact it was rather gomping. “Actually it was at a very low ebb,” laughed Williams. “Of course in the 90s, works like ‘Trainspotting’ changed the landscape but we couldn’t see that coming just yet. There were practically no film schools for young students and the average age at the National Film School – the only institution for aspiring filmmakers, was 27.” So John Williams decided, like many others before and after him, to study movie-making in the US, specifically at NYU film school. To that end, he needed to get some cash together and Japan seemed like the place to earn it.

Fast forward 30 years and with the completion of “The Trial,” Williams has 5 films under his belt. He also teaches film production/European films at Sophia University’s Foreign Languages Department. But he never did get to NYU since, just like in the Lennon song, life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. By the time Williams got the funds together for New York, he was deep in the throes of life in Japan and travels in Asia. “I was in India when the acceptance letter came and didn’t even see it till I got back. And, well, going to the US seemed to me like a conventional, boring choice. Staying here seemed much more interesting.”

Listening to Williams say that in the Eurospace office, the moment felt like a movie scene all by itself. Eurospace is an iconic Shibuya theater, famed for showcasing indie gems from around the world. There was Wayne Wang’s “Smoke.” Francois Ozon’s “Criminal Lovers.” More recently, it put on “Frances Ha” when few Japanese were even aware of the now Academy award contender Greta Gerwig. And now Williams’ “The Trial” is being shown as a limited release, it will currently be running as the late show every night until the 20th. Given the story (based on the Kafka novel) and weird but intriguing vibe, “The Trial” and the Eurospace venue seem to be made for each other. (Please check with Eurospace website for movie times as they may change).

Eurospace – situated in Maruyamacho, and sandwiched between two love hotels. In fact, every square meter of land in the area is occupied by love hotels. Couples sheepishly stroll around, checking on room prices and curiously eyeing the movie theater. “The Trial” – a film about a young Japanese salariman suddenly condemned for an unnamed crime, and who has a weakness for women and sex.

Otherwise the movie is an invitation to match and compare. Williams does a superb job of superimposing Kafka’s most famous character Josef K., a 30-year old German banker in 1914, onto the life of Yosuke Kimura, a 30-year old banker in present day Tokyo. “It’s present day, but I deliberately made the time frame abstract, almost non-technological,” said Williams. Indeed, Kimura’s hand isn’t welded to his smartphone the way everyone’s is these days, and he almost never looks at a computer screen. Kimura’s main interest seems to be women, as he tries to hook up with every female who crosses his path. His success rate is dismal however, and there’s clearly no emotion or chemistry involved. “I thought about Japanese women a lot when making this movie,” said Williams. “They’re trapped in a society controlled by men. They get so much encouragement to please men and become good wives and mothers, and practically no support when it comes to voicing their opinions or carving out careers.”

Aptly, “The Trial” is wintry and bleak, steeped in various shades of black and gray. Kimura (played with studied excellence by Tsutomu Niwa) even lives in a monotone apartment, devoid of color, clutter or any human warmth. On the morning of his 30th birthday, Kimura wakes up to find two strange men in his bedroom, and they inform him that his “case” is coming up for trial. Kimura has no idea what they’re talking about but in a few days, he receives an envelope summoning him to court the following Sunday. It doesn’t say what time or where exactly and when Kimura finally arrives, the Judge (Ichiro Murata) informs him that he is one hour and 26 minutes late. Kimura is incensed by this, and tries to argue that he cannot be late for an event that doesn’t specify the time. While this is going on, a woman (Shizuko Kawakami) has loud sex with a man in a dark suit in a back room. When Kimura returns to court the next day, the woman crudely seduces him and Kimura is ready to fall for it, until they’re interrupted by the janitor (Ichi Omiya) who tells Kimura that the woman is his wife. Later, Kimura encounters a group of people who are all awaiting trial, and no one seems to have any answers, either to the nature of their crimes or the system that seems convinced of their guilt. Yes, I know – surreal, right?

“For me, it was less about Japan’s judicial system than it was about dealing with the bureaucrats in Tokyo,” said Williams. “And what I’m seeing in Japan right now – the secrecy law, changes in the constitution, the rise of the nationalistic, quasi religious groups – I find all that very creepy. But at the same time, life goes on here. The Japanese don’t seem to paying much attention to this shadow creeping across the country. The metaphorical message of ‘The Trial’ works really well for what we’re seeing in Japan at this point.”–John Williams (photo by Kaori Shoji)

On another level, “The Trial” shows up the very Kafka-esqueness of Japan’s judicial system – the long, grueling process of scrutiny between arrest and indictment, and how, once indictment kicks in, it’s impossible to overturn it*. “For me, it was less about Japan’s judicial system than it was about dealing with the bureaucrats in Tokyo,” said Williams. “And what I’m seeing in Japan right now – the secrecy law, changes in the constitution, the rise of the nationalistic, quasi religious groups – I find all that very creepy. But at the same time, life goes on here. The Japanese don’t seem to paying much attention to this shadow creeping across the country. The metaphorical message of ‘The Trial’ works really well for what we’re seeing in Japan at this point.”

And how. Watching Kimura’s expression shift from incredulity and contempt to finally – defeated resignation, a kind of dread washes over me like a wave in a polluted ocean. The whole thing is maybe a little too close to home.

Editor’s note: One of the dark secrets of Japan’s criminal justice system is that the prosecution in Japan will punt (fail to prosecute) any case that is not a slam-dunk for fear of losing. Sexual assault cases have a particularly low prosecution rate and politicians or high-ranking bureaucrats are often allowed to walk free–including the 39 bureaucrats involved in forging, deleting and altering documents in a dubious land deal involving a right-wing school and the Prime Minister of Japan. The prosecutor who dropped the cases was recently promoted. 

Help Support Japan Subculture Online. Reporting on the strange side of the Rising Sun since 2007!

Gentle reader,




Welcome to our semi-annual pledge drive. Japan Subculture Research Center (@japankenkyu) was founded in 2007 by Jake Adelstein and many contributors to expose the hidden side of Japan – its underground economy, its transient and strange trends, its robust sex trade, wacky politics, corruption, social issues, many subcultures, yakuza, host clubs and hosts, Japanese cinema and all the other intriguing and seedy aspects that keep the country running. Balancing commentary, reporting and dark humor–we’re the kakekomitera (駆け込み寺) aka “last resort” of some news stories that no one else will touch. We’ve covered rebel graffiti artists, crusading lawyers, and some real heroes.

Click on the camera if you already feel inspired to donate.

Over the years, articles posted on this website have become books, like Outsiders Among Outsiders and we are pleased to also feature the witty essays and review of Ms. Kaori Shoji, including her seminal short-fiction series, The Amazing Japanese Wife

We would like this summer to support two interns so that we can post more original material and also revamp the layout. We’d like to add a current events section, more book reviews, more informative and provocative essays about Japan, and fund some investigative journalism. Ambitious yes, but we have lofty goals here at JSRC. Please read our manifesto: If you love Japan, make it better. Our mission statement.

Meanwhile, as part of this year’s pledge drive, we are giving away to the lucky two readers who donates before Thursday (drawing by lottery) free tickets to to see Shoplifters with English subtitles and a Q & A, by the director Hirokazu Kore-eda. Your contributions are greatly appreciated, however small or large.

The business friendly Japanese government fails to deal with preventing Death By Overwork. In January, the Labor Ministry did put signs saying” Stop Karoshi” urging an end to death by overwork, “for a society where people can continue to labor”.

If your motto in life is “one good deed a day” (一日一善), here’s your chance to get those good karma points.

Your humble, acting editor-in-chief

Jake

宜しくお願いします!

“The more the sage gives, the more they are rewarded”–Lao Tzu Click on the Zen master for a chance to en-lighten your wallet and enlighten others.

Please donate here! ↘

 

 

 

CICADA by Yu Shibuya Limited Screening with English Subs

CICADA

Yu Shibuya is a quiet force to be reckoned with. As a rare bilingual and exceptionally talented playwright, screenwriter and director he has won multiple awards with his shorts and features across the world. His works are often painfully tragic yet peppered with subtle humor, resulting in a poignant and hopeful aftertaste. His ability to depict Japan with a loving gaze of one that knows it from the inside and out, uniquely teases out the mundane and obscurities alike, creating a distinct and irresistible world.

His latest feature CICADA(千里眼) is no exception. It was made in 2014 in Japan with a Japanese cast but with an entirely American crew. The director Dean Yamada is a Japanese American whom Shibuya teamed up with in 2009 to create the short “Bicycle” which was chosen as an official selection at major film festivals, including the 66th Venice Film Festival and Clermont-Ferrand Short Film Festival.

CICADA has won many awards including three Grand Prizes at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, Guam International Film Festival, and the Pan Pacific Film Festival and is now showing for a limited run at Ikebukuro Humax Cinemas with English Subtitles. Shunji Iwai, legendary director of  90s New Wave films became a fan of Shibuya’s work after watching Bicycle and flew to LA to watch CICADA, subsequently casting Yugo Sasou the leading man in his own films.

JSRC recommends film lovers in Tokyo to seize this opportunity to enjoy his work on the big screen while they can.

STORY (TRAILER: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YJc2iQdfKSw)

Cicadas live underground until their final stage of adulthood. When they surface, they attach themselves to a tree bark, shed their skin and fly away, leaving behind their exoskeleton still clinging fully intact to the tree.
Much like the cicada, Jumpei, a mild-mannered schoolteacher, is sheltered. Introverted almost to a fault, Jumpei has finally found a woman he is ready to marry. Ever weary and careful, Jumpei decides to take a series of premarital tests and finds out that he is infertile. Devastated, he keeps the news from his girlfriend.
In the meantime, Jumpei’s nine-year-old nephew is being bullied in school, and his distraught mother and clueless father are at their wits’ end. Jumpei is enlisted in helping out the family. While Jumpei’s prospects of having a family of his own seem to be non-existent, despite attempting several alternative cures, he is forced into his sister’s dysfunctional family life, and what transpires is a series of comical and heartbreaking events.

IKEBUKURO HUMAX CINEMAS

〒170-0013 Tokyo, Toshima, Higashiikebukuro, 1 Chome−22−10

Limited run until 2/23 at 20:20 every night, with post screening talks with Yu Shibuya and guest.

http://senrigan-movie.com/

If you cannot make it to the screening, enjoy his work here

The Apology (100年の謝罪)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kPr6wH2VwWY

Bicycle(自転車)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8I_rok_FMW0

 

6 murderers are paroled in a small Japanese town. Will they bring the place back to life or bring more death? See “The Scythian Lamb”

Rural depopulation is a serious problem in Japan, so much that for the past decade, media fiction has devoted an entire genre into telling its stories. Bankrupt shops with their shutters permanently closed, desolate mountain and sea landscapes, no one out on the streets but a handful of old people. These are both metaphors for, and the hard facts of, most Japanese rural areas. Regional governments have been desperate to bring in new residents and to this end, they’re offering stipends, free housing, even matchmaking parties – on the governments’ dime. Rumor has it that since the early nineties, rural towns have been recruiting parolees to become part of the local populace. This information cannot be verified. The people involved will never admit to such a program even existing. But it’s there, and “The Scythian Lamb” is a brilliant fable about what happens when this program kicks in (pun fully intended) on a sleepy little coastal town. A town where, “the people are kind and the seafood is delicious.”

© 2018『羊の木』製作委員会 ©山上たつひこ、いがらしみきお/講談社

With its slow burning violence and small town melodrama, “The Scythian Lamb” is mindful in many ways of “Fargo” (the TV series) but without the broad streak of snarkiness and splashy bloodletting. Most of all, the dystopian despair that make up much of “Fargo” (and like-minded others) is missing from “Scythian…”

This isn’t a spoiler but the ending is hopeful, even happy. The final scenes close on a rural town whose residents are marginally more joyous than they were last year and there is absolutely no mention of the violence that erupted briefly like fireworks, then disappeared into the night sky. However, the journey to the peaceful end is not easy.

Six ex-cons, all who had served time for murder and now on parole, are selected to live in a fictional seaside town called Uobuka (which means ‘fish deep’). One by one, they arrive – four men and two women between the ages of early 30s to mid-60s – and are given a welcome by the city hall worker Tsukisue (played with breezy finesse by Ryo Nishikido). They are allowed to live in the town, on the condition that they take jobs provided them by city hall, and that they stay for 10 years. In other words, they’ve exchanged a shorter prison sentence for another kind of penance. Already, one of them (Kazuki Kitamura), who represents Japan’s new breed of criminal, has started to complain that he will be “bored to death” here.

Tsukisue is still young, lithe and naive though his high school pal Sudo (Satoru Matsui) assures him that living out in the boonies ages everyone twice as fast. “In your case, it’s four times as fast,”  Tsukisue jokes to the noticeably overweight Sudo. But Tsukisue may be envious of the fact that fat or not, at least his friend has a wife and daughter to go home to. Tsukisue on the other hand, looks like a guy who has been celibate for a long time, which is fast becoming the norm for many single Japanese men. But (and this is the thing about Tsukisue) the guy is NOT bitter. He’s gentle, kind and above all, conscientious. He does his job, and then goes home to take care of his dad who is recovering from a stroke. Not much of a life for a good-looking dude. But when he discovers that the newcomers he had chaperoned were each convicted for murder or manslaughter, Tsukisue’s equilibrium is shattered. Will they, you know, like, do it again? His supervisor intones to Tsukisue not to dwell on the past. “And don’t go telling people they’ve just gotten out of prison,” adds the supervisor, because this project could well have a bearing on “Japan’s future.”

Based on the award-winning manga by Tatsuhiko Yamagami and Mikio Igarashi, “The Scythian Lamb” is directed by Daihachi Yoshida. As one of Japan’s last old-school filmmakers, Yoshida has a solid reputation for churning out crime/suspense blockbusters like “Pale Moon” in 2014. “Scythian…” shows Yoshida in an unusually political mode, exploring the many woes of Japan’s rapidly shrinking, super aged population and the general feeling that ours is a no-hope, claustrophobic society. Which is probably true, but in “Scythian…,” the suggested silver bullet is violence. No one is excited about Uobuka being, in the words of Tsukisue, “a nice place with kind people and great seafood.” But when a dead body turns up on the pier, everyone seems to get a glint in their eye. A cloudy sky turns blue. An old man even gets laid.

All this is cause for celebration, considering that most of the Uobuka populace acts half-dead most of the time. Even Tsukisue’s high school crush Aya (Fumino Kimura), the supposed heroine of the story, hardly speaks and never smiles. Aya, Tsukisue and Sudo had once played in the same rock band and Tsukisue tries to rekindle their friendship by inviting them to practice again. Aya reluctantly agrees. Big surprise for Tsukisue when he learns that she has started dating one of the ex-cons: Miyakoshi (Ryuhei Matsuda) who comes off like a bullied victim but actually hoards menace like a grandmother with yarn. You know those skinny, quiet guys who may or may not be a serial killer in a Netflix series? That’s Miyakoshi, right down to his discount sneakers. (Editor’s note:And if you’re a student of true crime in Japan, he channels all the skinny sociopaths who have been responsible for some of Japan’s more horrendous mass murders in recent years–but of course, he’s not one. Not quite) 

 

A troubled young man who is quick to appreciate that the town has “nice people and good seafood.” He has one small issue.
© 2018『羊の木』製作委員会 ©山上たつひこ、いがらしみきお/講談社

The others are as compelling if not as troublesome. Still, whenever one or the other is in the frame you sense a storm brewing: Min Tanaka as the ex-yakuza who did eighteen years for killing another boss and feels that it may be too late to start afresh. There is Kazuki Kitamura’s Sugiyama who really enjoys stirring things up, and seems like a refugee from the dismantled gang, Kanto Rengo, which won fame for beating their enemies to death with baseball bats. His confrontation with the ex-yakuza rings surprisingly true. And there’s Shingo Mizusawa as Fukumoto, an ex-barber who slashed his boss’s throat with a razor. The women are given less to do but Mikako Ichikawa and Yuka try to make the most of their roles. Yuka is in her usual hot-chick mode, but Ichikawa manages to steal some scenes as a woman who had routinely been beaten by her boyfriend until one night she cracked his skull as he slept, with a large bottle of sake. “I’m a scary woman,” she tells Tsukisue and it’s moments like these that Uobuka morphs from a nice place with great seafood, to somewhere real.

Opens February 3rd.

Editor’s note: In my opinion, one of the best Japanese films in recent years. The story is subtle, the acting restrained, the quiet violence is convincing.  The movie also has a hypnotic, ethereal  soundtrack that matches well with the buried mystical theme that pulls the film together. (Jake) 

May the Force Be With You (May 4th) Zen Wisdom From Star Wars! The Dao of Jedi

May 4th has become an iconic day for Star Wars fans across the universe.  “May The 4th Be With You” becomes “May The Force Be With You” quite nicely.  (If you already knew this, stifle that groan young Jedi, some of us didn’t know). And on this day, what better time to introduce one of the stranger and more delightful books to come out this year in Japan: Zen Wisdom From Star Wars (スター・ウォーズ 禅の教え エピソード4・5・6). It’s written by noted Soto Zen Buddhist priest, Shunmyo Masuno (枡野 俊明) and takes scenes and dialogue from the good episodes of the series to illustrate Zen Buddhist sayings and wisdom. (A full review will come later this month).

Zen Wisdom From Star Wars
Zen Wisdom From Star Wars

The book is well-written, with just enough English sprinkled in to make the book semi-accessible to those who can’t read Japanese or are still struggling to do so.  The books works better than you might imagine.

Zen Buddhism, was heavily influenced by Taoism, and George Lucas freely admits to having borrowed heavily from Taoism, Zen Buddhism, and Japanese culture in the creation of the Star Wars mythos.

FullSizeRender 6

The book includes such pearls of wisdom as:

山川草木悉皆成仏 (Sansen Somuku Shikkai Jobutsu)/Everything is filled with the light of life (Everything has Buddha-nature).

安閑無事 (Ankan Buji)/Feel gratitude for everything no matter how small. Or rather: appreciate peace and quiet, health and safety. Because that won’t last forever. For example, affordable health care in America? Gone. (安閑無事が懐かしい)

FullSizeRender 7

閑古錘 (Kankonsui)/Maturation and calm come as you accrue diverse experience.

Well, remember that Star Wars is just fiction, but good science fiction, and the words of wisdom in the movie were not said by Taoist sages or Jedi masters but written by screenwriters. However, if you want to know the philosophy and sayings that inspired the film, this book is a good place to start.

Or better yet, buy yourself a copy of The Tao Te Ching, and substitute the word “Force” everytime it mentions “Tao”.  According to the Star Wars English Japanese Dictionary, the Force (フォース) is all the energy derived from every living thing. The Tao, which is often described as being indescribable, is close to the same thing.

 

So for your further education, here are few words from The Force Te Ching

Force Te Ching

by Yoda- chapter 81

Truthful words are not beautiful.
Beautiful words are not truthful.
Good men do not argue.
Those who argue are not good.
Those who know are not learned.
The learned do not know.

The Jedi never tries to store things up.
The more he/she does for others, the more he/she has.
The more he/she gives to others, the greater his/her abundance.
The Force of The Light Side is pointed but does no harm.
The Force of the Jedi is work without effort.
(adapted from the Tao Te Ching translation by Gia-fu Feng and Jane English)

 

So until next year, May the Force Be With you!

フォースと共にあれ!

FullSizeRender 5