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.
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.
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.”
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)
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 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).
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.
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）
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)
“I think that the reason the general public identified with the roles I played, was that they were struck by my stance as a man who unrelentingly stands up to absurd injustices. It wasn’t just that I was just going off to a sword fight, but that my character was willing to sacrifice himself in order to protect the people important to him.”–Ken Takakura, August 2013
In honour of Japan’s Celebration of Cinema Day, December 1st, we’ve reposted some reviews and articles on classic films. Some good, some bad, some epic. This was originally published shortly before his death.
Japan’s best actor Ken Takakura has died of lymphoma, at age 83. The actor passed away at a Tokyo hospital on 10 November, his office said on Tuesday. He has been called the “Clint Eastwood” of Japan. Takakura was renowned for his stoic roles in scores of action films and yakuza movies–he was also adept at playing tough but caring men, clumsy in expressing their emotions. He played alongside Robert Mitchum in Paul Schrader directed film, The Yakuza in 1973. He also starred as a by-the-book, honourable and ultimately brave Japanese police officer alongside US actor Michael Douglas in the 1989 Ridley Scott film Black Rain. One of his lines in the movie, probably inspired millions of Japanese men to later study English conversation: “(I’m ) Assistant Inspector Matsumoto Masahiro, Criminal Investigation section, Osaka Prefecture police. And I do speak fucking English.”
Mr. Schrader told me in March of 2011 that Takakura was one of the most impressive actors he’d ever worked with and that his Kendo (Japanese fencing) ability seemed top-notch. He had once offered Takakura the role of Yukio Mishima, the literary genius turned right wing extremist, in his bio-pic film Mishima and Takakura had seriously considered it. However, in the end for reasons he only obliquely hinted at, he politely declined the role. The film Mishima has never been shown in a film festival in Japan.
Among his well-known films were “The Yellow Handkerchief”. He won the best actor prize at the Montreal World Film Festival for “Poppoya” (The Railway Man). He also appeared in some the final “real-life” yakuza bio-pics including 3rd Generation Leader of The Yamaguchi-gumi. During the filming, the former head of the Yamaguchi-gumi, Kazuo Taoka, actually visited the set and spoke with Takakura. Ken Takakura was the consummate professional and even in supporting roles such as in Mr. Baseball, he brought dignity to the Japanese characters that seemed to embody many of Japan’s virtues.
In August of last year, we were able to interview him via FAX and his polite and short responses give a good sense of the man. They are here in both English and Japanese.
originally posted on January 31st 2014
Ken Takakura, 82, aka “the Alain Delon of Japanese cinema” was awarded one of Japan’s greatest honors on November 3rd 2012. The Order of Culture was given to him by the Japanese Emperor at a ceremony held at the imperial palace. Four other notable people, such as researchers and literature academics also received the award.
Known as to be very quiet and tough, Ken Takakura (高倉健氏） rarely gave interviews to the media throughout his career. He is known for having stayed silent nearly for 13 seconds (a record for Japanese TV programs) after a famous television caster asked him a question that he did not want to answer. “In Japanese show business, only a tough and well respected celebrity is able to stay silent during a live show and have that tolerated by the producer,” explained a newscaster for one of Japan’s largest broadcasters.
Ken Takakura became an icon of the so-called ninkyou eiga, (任侠映画) or yakuza chivalry movie, inaugurated in 1963 by Toei Production. In the 1960s, as Japan was still recovering from its lost war and musing over the the atomic bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the Japanese audience wanted to see heroes in the black market making justice in the streets and feeding the dismissed hungry people, right after the war. The movie that kick started his career was Abashiri Prison. He also gained international recognition with the war movie Too Late The Hero, in 1970, and The Yakuza, in 1975. His role in Black Rain with Michael Douglas 1989, made him even more well-known in the West.
Takakura-sama, agreed to answer few questions for JSRC. We carefully translated it and have posted the entire interview. We are also posting it in Japanese, for our Japanese readers.
Interview with Ken Takakura, in August 2013
JSRC: At present, many film fans in the world see you as the personification of the yakuza on screen, almost a symbol. What are your feelings about this?
Ken Takakura: It’s true that I did many yakuza films in the past, but whether or not I’m a symbol or not, I don’t know. I have done many other roles besides those of a yakuza.
JSRC: What led you to join the world of cinema?
Ken Takakura: I had to make a living.
JSRC: What kinds of movies do you like?
Ken Takakura: As I get older, my tastes changed, but I like movies that pierce the human heart and linger with me.
The Deer Hunter, 1978.
The Godfather 1 & 2.
Posta Pappi Jaakobille (2009).
JSRC: Do you have any interest in the modern yakuza films?
Ken Takakura: None whatsoever.
JSRC: Mr. Takakura, you have been called the Clint Eastwood of Japan, what do you think of that?
Ken Takakura: It’s what someone else thinks, so I have no thoughts on the matter.
JSRC: Why did you leave Toei Production in 1976?
Ken Takakura: There is no short answer (to that question).
JSRC: After leaving Toei, people were able to see you in many different roles? Was that your goal?
Ken Takakura: (My goal) was to meet people.
JSRC: Directors Takeshi Kitano and Miike are said to be geniuses of yakuza film but what do you think?
Ken Takakura: I’ve never worked with either director so I can’t answer.
But the most striking explanation Ken Takakura gave us was worth mentioning here.
Ken Takakura: You seem to be very focussed on the yakuza films I did while at Toei. If you want to understand, why the yakuza films were endorsed by the (Japanese) people, you can’t do it without thinking of the social situation at the time.
When low budget films (picture programs) were at their peak production in Japan, I’d have a schedule where I’d be doing in 4 or 5 films a months. That doesn’t leave much room to really put your heart into a role. But I think that the reason the general public identified with the roles I played, was that they were struck by my stance as a man who unrelentingly stands up to absurd injustices. It wasn’t just that I was just going off to a sword fight, but that my character was willing to sacrifice himself in order to protect the people important to him.
The thing that really changed after achieving independence from Toei was that I could choose which films I wanted to be in. I had my own standards for what films I would act in. Who would I meet? The words and lines written in the script. But the most important thing to me was this: would I be able to like the person I was going to play?*
*Portions of this interview were originally published in a French film magazine
In honour of Japan’s Celebration of Cinema Day, December 1st, we’ve reposted some reviews and articles on classic films. Some good, some bad, some epic.
AVN: Aliens Versus Ninja (エイリアンvs 忍者）released in 2010 is a camp classic for both lovers of Alien films and Ninja films. I was delighted to find that the super-deluxe release of AVN included on the second disc a 15 minute short-film エイリアン Vs 極道 (Alien Versus Yakuza), a Yuji Shinomura film . If you find the movie in the bargain bin at the local Tsutaya, it’s worth picking up. The plot is simple. Young yakuza and his older brother–in the yakuza sense–accidentally run over an Alien while on their way to late-night Karaoke in the boss’s car. They aren’t quite sure what to do with the body. They don’t even realize it’s an alien, believing that they’ve just run over an unlucky foreigner. “Maybe half?”
After a short debate, they decide to dismember the body and get rid of the evidence. Young yakuza goes to scour the glove department for a big knife, buried amidst piles of trashy magazines, but when he comes back the trunk is empty and his older brother (兄貴/aniki) is acting strangely. Could it be that Older Brother realized younger brother had slept with his girlfriend or has something stranger happened? Even when younger brother confesses and makes a peace offering; “Only once! Only slept with her once. I saved you a seat at the speed-dating thing （合コン・gokon)–can we call it even?” –Aniki’s anger is not quelled. What happens next is almost totally predictable but even after the young yakuza confronts the ousted alien, accusing him of being an 当たり屋 (atariya), a con man who shakes people down by throwing themselves in front of a car and suing for damages–the fight isn’t quite over. Because this Alien has a driver’s license.
I wouldn’t want to spoil the rest of the film for our readers but it does solve the ancient question: in a battle between an alien and a yakuza, who would win? Note: Some may argue that this question was settled in the masterpiece Predators, where the lone Inagawa-kai member in the film faces down a Predator with an ancient samurai sword, but Predators are really not your standard aliens. The film is bloody, silly, and probably unrealistic* but in the short yakuza film genre, it’s in a class by itself.
*For instance, I don’t think it’s possible to catch a bullet in your teeth but I’m not a war reporter so I’ll reserve judgement.
In honour of Japan’s Celebration of Cinema Day, December 1st, we’ve reposted some reviews and articles on classic films. Some good, some bad, some epic. Coming soon, our article about the Hollywood remake.
In my mind, anime can be categorized into two varieties: action-based/artistic ones, and teenage school kid soap operas. The former is what western critics typically consider to be “good”, anime like The Cat Returns or Cowboy Bebop, which contrast beautiful hand-drawn landscapes and well-trodden stories with violence and distinctively weird characters that could only be thought up in Japan. Along with Akira, Ghost in the Shell is considered one of the big grandfathers for sci-fi anime, and more importantly black leather-clad sci-fi such as The Matrix. Even in the ‘making of’ videos for The Matrix, creators shamelessly admit they wanted to take Ghost in the Shell‘s stylish film noir settings and fight scenes and recreate them in live action. With the newest full-length film in the Ghost series, Kōkaku Kidōtai – Shin Gekijōban, released in late June and in theaters until July 17th), and a live-action version on the horizon, it’s important to look back to see what it was about the original film that turned the manga into an international favorite.
Ghost in the Shell, the 1995 film directed by Mamoru Oshii, revolves around a group of cyborg law-enforcers in the future tracking down a hacker called the Puppet Master, who hacks into the minds of unsuspecting civilians and erases their memories in the process of controlling them. One of the cops does refuse to grade-up and is 100% flesh. The protagonist is the beautiful but coldhearted Motoko Kusunagi, a cyborg cop and one of a handful of heroic female protagonists in anime.
But that’s not to say it doesn’t cater to the male sexual fantasies many have about robo-cop girls in the future. Viewers might be a bit puzzled after one of Kasunagi’s final fight scenes in which she celebrates her victory by tearing off her clothes (the film claims it allows her to scan the room, but it doesn’t explain the two other times she fights criminals naked). It does vary from similar western sci-fi films in that Kasunagi is never treated like a damsel in distress requiring someone like Neo to save her, but it’s hard to ignore the suspicion that director Oshii is simply giving viewers that dreamlike fantasy they unknowingly coveted in Japan’s workaholic society. It’s suggested in Roger Ebert’s 1996 review of the film that Japanese salarymen become so exhausted and dehumanized by the 80-hour work weeks that they “project both freedom and power onto women, and identify with them as fictional characters.”
Aside from the cop chases and virtual missions Kasunagi embarks on within the minds of those possessed by the Puppet Master, the deeper question the film’s moody plot somewhat attempts to ask is whether robots should start being considered human. Most of the conversations between Kasunagi and Batou (Kasunagi’s friend and fellow cyborg-cop), consist of debating whether their ability to think makes them human, think Descarte’s saying “I think, therefore I am.” Thankfully Ghost in the Shell throws in a couple one-liners to make sure it never takes itself too seriously:
Motoko- “Sure, I have a face and voice to distinguish myself from others, but my thoughts and memories are unique only to me, and I carry a sense of my own destiny.”
Batou- “You’re treated like other humans, so stop with the angst.”
Much like Akira, the draw of Ghost in the Shell is the stunning and complex drawings of the futuristic city. In daytime scenes, it looks orange and very much apocalyptic. However, when Kasunagi enters someone’s mind or tracking someone at night, the futuristic scenery seen in Gundam and Akira takes center stage. However, one thing that distracted me from the beautiful futuristic settings were the eyes of the characters. In both this and Akira, the eyes are much more akin to those in a western comic book, rather than more recent anime that give characters blocky, rectangular eyes. The more realistic character designs create the effect of each character having a certain ‘fleshiness’ to them. This is great if the main focus over the top violence and sexiness, but I believe it reduces some of its artistic merit. The extra contour lines provide more opportunities for limbs and blood to go flying in the fight scenes, but it does so at the expense of placing characters in an uncanny valley of halfway between realistic and cartoony, thereby taking viewers out of the experience. Just as we increasingly demand our fruit to lack any blemishes or obscurities, anime has come a long way in shrinking noses, rounding eyes and turning lips into straight lines for the sole purpose of immersing you in its universe. I once read a book on the history of cartooning that explained how we more easily identify emotions when complex facial details are taken away, and by the end you are left with blank dots and lines for faces (see Gudetama, for example).
Aside from the characters the film succeeds in its mission to create the coolest futuristic vibe that had been seen so far in anime, something that inspired many movies after it, both anime and live action.
Several Ghost in the Shell films have been made, along with the original 1989 manga and an upcoming live action film set to release in March, 2017. This live action version, directed by Rupert Sanders, will be featuring Scarlett Johansson as Motoko Kasunagi. However, many took to social media to state their displeasure that a white actress is taking the role of a well-known Japanese heroine. Personally I don’t find much wrong with it considering the history of anime characters combining aesthetics of Asians and westerners. Porco Rosso, one of my favorite movies of all time, takes place in a fictionalized Italy with clearly white humans everywhere. But that doesn’t take away from Porco (the main character) being a distinctly Japanese character in how weird the anthropomorphic pig man is. As long as it can recapture that image of the rainy neon-lit streets with robo-cops fighting huge mech tanks, it won’t really matter who’s doing the killing.
In honour of Japan’s Celebration of Cinema Day, December 1st, we’ve reposted some reviews and articles on classic films. Some good, some bad, some epic and some considered to be the worst films in Japan by our caustic guest movie review,毒舌姫, 庄司かおり様
Directed by Rob Marshall and starring Zhang Ziyi as a ravishing prewar geisha by the name of Sayuri (‘white lily’), this particular vehicle sinks to basement level lows of pigeon-holing and cultural misunderstanding. As a Japanese female I just don’t feel like forgiving this one – the emotional damage is irrevocable. To make things worse, national acting treasure Ken Watanabe makes an appearance and seals his fate as an enabler for Hollywood filmmakers to cater to the white male fantasy regarding all things Japanese – namely, geishas. The one bright spot is Kaori Momoi as a hard-as-nails proprietress of a geisha house. The lone authentic presence in a film hyped up on false pretensions.
Just as Japanese women could never escape the geisha issue, Japanese men will always be associated with the samurai. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Hollywood just HAD to up and star Tom Cruise as a disillusioned ex-Union soldier who finds redemption and rebirth in the samurai racket in Meiji era Japan. The story (penned by Jon Logan) is just wrong on so many counts one forgets to feel offended. Most discouragingly, the film was wildly popular on both sides of the Pacific, which goes to show you: the samurai racket (like the geisha racket) is good business. How it affects the yen rate is anyone’s guess.
Don’t get me wrong – I love Sofia Coppola as much as the next girl movie afficionado. But the thoroughbred filmmaker of the Coppola clan whose sensibility radar is always spot-on when it comes to charting the emotions and mindscapes of the under-29 woman, ran into some major static at the Park Hyatt in Shinjuku. As a poignant and appropriately jaded love story between Bill Murray as the slightly weary Hollywood actor come over to shoot a commercial, and Scarlett Johansson (who was all of 18 at the time) “Lost..” is a 4-star affair. But Coppola’s cut-out portrayals of Tokyo are sterile and silly and the Tokyoites who make brief and regrettable appearances…spare us the embarrassment please. No wonder the Murray-Johansson couple hardly ever venture out of the hotel.
The Japanese have had always had a soft spot for James Bond but after Sean Connery spent time here for this movie, he became Main Man 007 man as far as the archipelago was concerned. At the time of the film’s release (1967), Connery was sited in fashion magazines as the dude in the suit, who never, ever wore undershirts and whose hairy chest held a ferocious appeal, especially to Japan’s first Bond girls Akiko Wakabayashi and Mie Hama. He left behind a massive inferiority complex from which the nation’s male populace never fully recovered. Shame on you, Bond-san.
Okay, so this isn’t a movie about Japan, but as a depiction of a Japanese male it’s practically the cinematic equivalent of a hate crime. The Hollywood classic that stars Audrey Hepburn as It Girl of Lower Manhattan, Holly Golightly and the buffy George Peppard as her neighbor slash would-be lover, the film is absolutely delightful. But once Mickey Rooney comes on as a mysterious Japanese man called “Yuniyoshi,” we start feeling a leetle uncomfortable. Rooney is outrageously made-up: protruding teeth, slanting eyes behind thick glasses and spiky black hair heavily pomade-ed. So as a poster boy endorsing Japanese internment during WWII, Yuniyoshi-san is perfect. Otherwise we can do without him, thanks very much.
You can’t grow up in Japan and not know the loyal dog Hachiko (he went to Shibuya station everyday to greet his master coming home from work) or choose the dog’s statue in front of Shibuya Station as a meeting spot. Hachi is to the Japanese what Cheerio’s may be to the American – so much a part of our daily fabric that it seems weird, really weird when Hachiko shows up in a Hollywood movie starring Richard Gere. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom (whose feature debut is called “My Life as a Dog”), the whole thing feels forced, contrived and highly artificial. Hachiko doesn’t belong in a manicured suburban town among all those white picket fences, and Gere as the college professor who opts to be his American master, well…the word “jarring” comes to mind.
Around the time this film was released, France had a kind of amorous fling with Japanese culture and one of the byproducts was this film by Gerard Krawczyk. The equivalent of an haute couture dress souped up on Akiba culture, the film has great ideas and (probably) benevolent intentions. Unfortunately they don’t quite work together. Too bad, as it pairs Jean Reno as a Parisian cop once married to a Japanese woman, and our very own Ryoko Hirosue in a role pitched halfway between a pouting, flighty anime girl come to life and Reno’s comprehensive guide to Tokyo. The result is a chaotic hodgepodge of vignettes that show up the city as a kind of noisy, plasticine pleasure palace.
Ultimately, the film caters to a frayed stereotype: that given the choice, a Japanese will choose brutality over love, and death over life
This is an ambitious undertaking by British auteur Peter Greenaway, but his sensibility that created such visually resplendent (and often grotesque) pictures like “Drowning by Numbers” and “The Belly of an Architect,” failed when it came to a rendition of “The Pillow Book” (a collection of essays by 10th century court scribe Seishonagon). For lovers of the truly weird, the film provides much fodder: Vivian Wu stars as the extremely sensuous Nagiko, who inspires her calligraphy master dad (Ken Ogata) to paint characters all over her face and body. Later, she meets her match in Jerome (Ewan McGregor) who proves himself masterfully creative with the brush as he is with other uh, physical skills. For the record people, this has nothing to do with Seishonagon’s book and still less with calligraphy.
When this opened in Paris back in 1976, people lined up for hours for the pleasure of seeing one of the most controversial films of the 20th century. In Tokyo it was banned from opening at all and when that was cleared many theaters refused to show it. Based on the real-life story of servant girl Sada Abe (Eiko Matsuda) and her master Kichizo Ishida (Tatsuya Fuji), “Ai no…” takes Japanese eros to a whole new dimension. Director Nagisa Oshima is masterful in his no-holds-barred depiction of an all-consuming sexual obsession between a man and a woman. But ultimately, the film caters to a frayed stereotype: that given the choice, a Japanese will choose brutality over love, and death over life.
A well-crafted story commemorating the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki by Japanese cinema giant Akira Kurosawa, this marked his first-time collaboration with Asiaphile Richard Gere. Gere plays the relative of an old woman whose husband had died on that August day and now with dementia setting in, she often relives the day that deprived her of her parents, husband and many friends. There are plenty of opportunities to make Gere’s character feel remorse about what the US did, but Kurosawa was apparently in a forgiving mood, and the movie spares Gere any major discomfort. As it is, we never get closure.
Kaori Shoji writes about movies and movie-makers for The Japan Times and is also a writer for the International Herald Tribune and other publications. Well known for her sharp wit, some have likened her to “the Dorothy Parker of Japan.”
*Editor’s note: The 10 Worst Films About Japan are not necessarily in order of suckiness. Thank you.
I was one of those people who wept over Hillary Clinton’s farewell “glass ceiling” speech, and not just because of how the election turned out. It seemed that however way you sliced it, women will have a hard time in the workplace and in modern society and that Clinton’s defeat was symptomatic of a huge, cancerous issue. Sob.
Here on the archipelago, we’re feeling the sharp edge of the blade known as overwork, afflicting both women AND men as they struggle to keep up with the increasingly ruthless culture of corporate Japan. The recent suicide of a 25-year old woman who worked for ad giant Dentsu is just the tip of the iceberg of a phenomenon known as “black companies,” or companies who enforce long working hours and excessive work ethics. This double duty can result in stress-related illnesses, severe depression and worse. In the case of this 25-year old, much worse. Just before her death, the texted her mother that she couldn’t stand work and she couldn’t bear life.
On the other hand, most Japanese – white collar or not, are well aware that clocking in over 100 hours of overtime a month is quite common, and so is not getting paid for that time. Dentsu was raided by Labor ministry investigators earlier this month, and they raked up evidence to show that workers were actually falsifying their overtime records to avoid having to bill the company and cause trouble. Such a mind-set can only exist in a country like Japan, whose finest moment came in the 1970s to 1980s, during the miraculous economic growth period. This was when trading companies gobbled up Manhattan property and car manufacturers kicked Detroit’s ass and a Harvard professor wrote a book called “Japan As No.1.”
“That was the rosiest time in post-war Japanese history,” writes Emiko Inagaki in her bestselling autobiography “Tamashiino Taisha (My Soul Wanted to Quit).” She adds that Japan’s current horrendous work culture that puzzles and even disgusts the rest of the world, is a holdover from that rosy time. “No one has come up with a dream to quite match the dream of the rapid growth era. Working hard and shopping with the money earned and then working hard some more and shopping some more – we loved it. We still love it, and refuse to look for an alternative.”
Inagaki is a former journalist for national news conglomerate Asahi Shimbun, and her book tells how she climbed up Asahi’s mercilessly patriarchal hierarchy rung by bloody rung. The media is the one place in the Japanese corporate world where a woman can even hope to compete with men in the same arena, and according to Inagaki she chose the profession for that very reason. A graduate from one of the nation’s top universities, Inagaki felt that she owed it to herself and her family, to become a financially independent individual. Other women of her generation were apt to work for a few years, get married and withdraw into the home. But for 3 decades, Inagaki plugged away at the job, moving from one department to another, one regional office to another. For the most part, it was a ride. In the book, she writes with loving tribute to the years she gave to Asahi, years that shaped her personality and cemented her resolve.
On the flip side, she was often depressed and prone to binge-shopping. She writes with comic flair of how, on every payday she would sail into her favorite boutiques and pick armloads of posh outfits that she subsequently never wore, how she was turned on by the gushing welcome she got from the salesgirls (“after all, I was an excellent customer!”), basking in the euphoria of buying just about anything she wanted. And it wasn’t just clothing. She loved getting drunk with colleagues and friends at expensive sushi restaurants. She loved riding cabs everywhere. And she was proud of being able to afford the rent on a designer condo when other women her age were struggling to pay for their kids’ school fees. Inagaki was living the Japanese Dream – work like crazy, spend accordingly and to hell with everything else.
At a certain point though, she had to ask herself if this was true happiness. The answer was an uneasy NO. And then Lehman Shock came along in 2008 and partially jolted her out of the earn-spend cycle. “But what really did it for me was 3.11,” she writes. “I vowed to stop spending so much on myself, and I especially wanted to cut down on utility bills.” Inagaki covered Fukushima’s nuclear meltdown, and witnessed first hand the potential side effects of unbridled economic progress. “The Japanese were apt to think that working and earning was the most important priority. But 3.11 showed us that there’s more to life than that, and the revelation can come at any time.” Inagaki decided to use as little electricity as possible, just as a personal experiment. “I would come home, and not turn on the light switch and wait until my eyes got used to the dark.” Pretty soon, she could navigate her way around her home with no lights at all. “I thought: so this is what being truly independent is all about.”
Gradually, the idea dawned on Inagaki that she was free to quit the company. “I had been working for Asahi for 30 years. The idea of leaving scared me a little but more than that, I was exhilarated. Dare I do it? Would I be able to survive?” At this point, Inagaki was 50 years old and single, with nothing to her name but a position in a highly respected company. To cut herself off from this veritable life support system, in a country renowned for discrimination of women (especially unemployed single women) could spell disaster. She wasn’t going out there completely unequipped. Prior to her leaving Asahi, Inagaki had her hair done – in a stylish afro. And she had already weaned herself off the expensive lifestyle and started looking for a smaller, older, much cheaper apartment. She was KonMariing her stuff as well. Out went the expensive, unworn outfits. The designer furniture and decor items. One by one, she pared herself down and came to recognize who she really was, shorn of the invisible corporate armor that had both protected and incarcerated her.
Inagaki now works as an occasional TV commentator and takes on freelance writing assignments. The latter as she writes in the book, pays so little it took her breath away. Back in Asahi, she had been convinced that professional writing was a fairly lucrative gig, but the reality of being an independent freelancer has hit her hard. Still, with no dependants and a cheerful disposition, she can treat her new life as one on-going adventure. She cooks her own food, hand washes her laundry, has no A/C and generally keeps expenses down to about 100,000 yen a month. To her surprise and delight, she is suddenly enormously popular with men of all ages. “Everyone wants to talk to me. The other day, a young photographer asked to take my picture.” She attributes it to the afro and her new, carefree aura. “If there’s any hope for us, it’s to believe that it’s okay to live as an individual, to liberate yourself from working for a company.” With so many Japanese convinced that life begins and ends in an office, her message is vital – a shining light glimpsed at the end of a long, dark tunnel.
One of the first things you’ll notice about the Japanese – men AND women – is the apparent lack of awareness regarding issues like gender and racial discrimination, worker exploitation, social injustice and other stuff that have western observers of our culture taking one look and scratching their heads. That stuff about a member of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly yelling out harassment remarks to a female politician while the Assembly was actually in session? I regret to have to tell you that such incidents are way too familiar to the average Japanese to sink in below sea level. It’s only when someone else (i.e., a westerner) is looking at us that we come to our senses and profess to be shocked. Otherwise, well, we’re too busy working and being exploited and having our Constitution rewritten to suit the hawkish inclinations of the current Prime Minister. But I digress.
Meet The New Zegen 女衒 (Sex merchants) Same As The Old Zegen
Shohei Sakakura, author of “AKB 48 and the Black Companies (AKB48と日本のブラック企業)” – is one of those rare Japanese with the mindset of a western intellectual. As editor-in-chief of Posse magazine, Sakakura first alerted the public to the presensce and prevalance, of black companies. Until then, most of us thought it was kind of normal in a Japanese way, to put in “service overtime (サービス残業)” hours, meaning we accepted the fact of working in the office until dawn without getting paid it. We also accepted getting laid off without notice, no maternity or paternity leaves, discrimination against women, sexual and moral harassment in the workplace, poor wages and did I mention no overtime pay?
To the Japanese, work proffers its own reward and justification and with news of the unraveling global economy we were grateful to be able to work at all. Of course the majority of the Japanese KNOW exploitation exists, and that this was one of things that was wrong with the country and the rest of the world. This is why we have so many “izakaya (pubs)” around – where else to drown our sorrows but in beer stains?
And now AKB 48, in case you didn’t know, is the brain child of Yasushi Akimoto, aka the King Midas of the Japanese entertainment industry. Everything he touches has turned to gold – unfortunately, the gold stays firmly tucked in his pocket without benefitting the girls he ruthlessly expolits. But there it is – the man certainly knows how to make a yen from peddling idoru fantasies to love-starved males with glasses and bad skin.
Who IS Akimoto anyway? Sakakura’s book doesn’t do much digging about the man – he just assumes that the Japanese know who Akimoto is (we do) and leaves it at that. Suffice to say, Yasushi Akimoto is what 50 years ago many older Japanese would describe as a “Zegen 女衒”or merchant who dealt exclusively in young women. A Zegen was the middleman who bought and sold girls (often with the express consent of the parents) to the sex trade and entertainment industry and too bad for the Japanese that no one bothered to distinguish between the two until the GHQ came along to tell us Nooooo, they were different. (Okay, we got that now.) The GHQ also did much to stomp out the Zegen operating in and around Tokyo but the middlemen simply went on doing what they did, and took on another name: “entertainment producer.” From sex shows and strip houses to brothels and the euphemistically called “bars,” the Zegen had their fingers in all the right pies (yuck), and kept the best for entertainment industry, which had direct pipeline to the yakuza.
Girls from the country, whose parents couldn’t afford to send them to school or arrange good marriages, came to Tokyo in droves and were snapped up by a Zegen producer or another. The lucky ones made it to the TV screen and when that no longer worked, were taken down a few notches to serve as bar hostesses or cabaret dancers, and eventually wound up in a brothel. It was the oldest story in the book, repeated ad nauseum.
Yasushi Akimoto was a Zegen with a vision – having never been popular in high school himself, he recognized the deep sexual frustration and vast need for sexual fantasies festering in the educated and dateless Japanese male. When he came out with “Onyanko Club” in the mid-1980s, people were blinded by the sheer genius of this man. Here he was, peddling quite ordinary high school girls on TV, who all got up on the studio stage to teasingly sing “oh please don’t take my school uniform off, no-no-no!” to an audience who could never hear such titillating pleas when they were 18 so was totally stoked to hear it now, from a gaggle of winking girls all beckoning SIMULTANEOUSLY.
Needless to say, the Onyanko went “viral” long before the Internet came along and deep down, we suspected that if Akimoto wasn’t around to appease the Otaku populace with these girls and their pleated skirts, the nation’s sex crime rate would soar drastically.
Akimoto subsequently married an Onyanko (and he was too smart to pick the prettiest of the lot, but went for a quiet, mediocre type) and settled down in his idol manufacturing kingdom. Then he unleashed AKB 48 to the Japanese public – which basically means 48 Girls in Akihabara. These girls were grass roots level – they had no connections, no prestige, and was willing to work till they dropped. Most telling of all, they were excessively and agressively, ordinary.
In his book Sakakura lays bare disturbing but familiar facts: Akimoto treats the girls like fast food workers – hiring and firing in bulk, with hourly wages to match. The ones in the coveted “center position” are the prettiest, and supposedly the best dancers with the best paychecks but the vast crowd of girls behind the stars — they’re mired in obscurity. And once the girls “graduate” (i.e., fired) from the group, they’re left with no skills or abilities and their detour into the sex trade is a lot swifter than the days of Onyanko.
Yasushi Akimoto is a Zegen through and through – he’s found a way to cash in on the criticisms and problems within the AKB, by having the girls sing songs (written by him of course) about revolution, sacrifice and worker exploitation. For Akimoto, even capitalist irony works in his favor. Karl Marx is puking in his grave.
Sakakura writes that though he’s not an AKB fan per se, he does sympathize with the plight of the girls and sees them as a micro reflection of the huge labor problems that continue to erode Japan’s supposedly peaceful and egalitarian society. And let’s not forget that the PM is a HUGE fan – but then Japan’s highest political leader seems to love it when young people are put in situations where they have to fight and bleed and claw their way to survival. To him, “that’s the true Japanese spirit.” Yeah, right.
Despite the popular opinion that Japan’s dedicated pro-whaling community comes from a background of legendary, barbaric whalers who slaughtered whales without mercy, some reports show that pre-harpoon whalers were actually very considerate for the feelings of these giant creatures. Sociologist Hiroyuki Watanabe’s book titled Japan’s Whaling, takes a broad look at the entirety of the country’s Whaling history. One section in particular covering the early modern period, Watanabe discusses how fishermen have, from then to the modern day, evolved into holding rituals repenting the slaughter of whales.
The section focuses primarily on a book from 1840 by whaler Hoshute Riyu, titled Ogawajima Keigei Gassen (The Battle with the Whales at Ogawajima), which, while depicting whales as the sworn enemies of the fishermen, also implements a Buddhist mindset to lament their deaths.
According to Hoshutei’s account, there existed “a consciousness among the people of the day that it was heartless to kill and make use of whales.” Hoshutei’s book, from the excerpt taken out, shows genuine anguish for killing the whales as being very equal to humans:
“How merciless it is to feel no pity for that resounding cry of pain as they face west to die, then row the carcass in to shore, cut it up in the barn and then immediately boil the meat or grill it before serving it and savoring the taste.”
The fact that Hoshutei describes the whales who “face west to die” is due to the Buddhist principle that the religion’s paradise is located to the west, showcasing a belief that all creatures are equally capable to reach the so-called “best” afterlife.
In some ways the excerpt resembles biblical writings that lament our inability to avoid sin, in an attempt to save ourselves from an unforeseen judgmental deity. The book was written with the intent to donate it to a shrine, Watanabe points out this could be possibly to avoid punishment for their killings. Hoshutei deals with the hypocritical nature of a whale fisherman lamenting his profession by adding that it’s a sad part the cycle of life and death that requires us to take advantage of nature’s resources (whale meat) before they leave us in their short existence.
He also describes the cries of the whales as they are slaughtered as heart-rending.
What followed Hoshutei’s very heartfelt consideration to the whales, we see a downward spiral that lead to the mindset we’ve come to see today that whales are just another fish to be caught and controlled by the Japanese as their own product.
With the implementation of Norwegian style harpoon hunting, whales began being killed much more rapidly. Along with the Meiji Restoration that led to the destruction of many Buddhist temples and its influence on the public, this boost in whale-killing technology led fishermen to conduct memorial services from time to time, such as donating a bell, as a way to honor the whales.
It’s unclear how common it was for someone like Hoshutei to make a beautifully hand-illustrated book detailing how beautiful whales are both before and during their killing. The “bleeding hearts and Western imperialists” who seek to protect the whales are often believed to overly humanize these warm-blooded cetaceans but it seems that the Japanese fishermen of old also felt compassion for the animals, and remorse for killing them. They at least honored the animals by making full use of all the parts.
It’s a far cry from today’s state supported whaling, for meat that no one wants to eat. There are now several tons of it in storage. That shows a lack of respect for the whales and for Japanese taxpayer money wasted on a “tradition” that only hardcore nationalists and people getting kickbacks want to preserve.