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.
There’s nothing like the sweet taste of Thai “Roti” on a street corner in Kagurazaka. Gootara, the Roti-Shack, with its palm leaves roof and simple benches outside structure, looks like an upscale street vendor shop in Changmai, transferred magically to an old neighbourhood of Japan.
Roti is originally an Indian flat bread made from wholewheat flour. Typically, it is consumed with savory food such as curry. Thailand, however, has adapted Roti into a popular dessert. Thus, Roti as a culinary term can mean different thing depending on where you are in the world.
Roti have many types and can be customized according to customer’s preferences. The texture of Roti can also be either crunchy or soft. It can be eaten plain with (very) sweet toppings such as condense milk, sugar, chocolate or even ovaltine/Milo malt powder. Not only eating the plain type with toppings, many types of fillings can be added. For instance, banana, eggs or chocolate. This dessert obviously has high calories due to the amount of oil and margarine used to fry the roti and all the sugary fillings and toppings. Making Roti is not easy. It takes some real expertise to stretch the dough and make it very thin. Hence, despite the popularity of Thai food in japan, this dessert is not seen anywhere. Fortunately, the first Roti place called Gootora cafe is now opened in Kagurazaka. The cafe is a small outdoor cafe looking like a Roti shack, giving the atmosphere of Thailand. The Japanese owner goes to Chaingmai, Thailand for a long period of time every year to learn the craft of making Roti. (She may have just made my dream comes true—I’ve been wanted to eat some for ages.) She has adapted the dessert a little to make it more suitable to what Japanese people might prefer. Even “Savory Roti” is available which is more like a crepe and a special Japanese-fusion Roti, which uses anko (Japanese blue bean paste) for almost a traditional tasting hot wagashi.
The differences are that margarine and vegetable oil are not used, but is replaced by coconut oil, cutting down a substantial amount of calories. The toppings are less sweet with only a light layer of condensed milk and chocolate with no sugar. In contrast, some menus have ice cream on top along with coconut flakes and even parsley as a decoration. The taste is very similar to Roti in Thailand except for the slightly lessened sweetness, the lack richness of margarin and new types of toppings.
Speaking to the young cheerful owner of the cafe. She said, “I try to make a healthier Roti. It has at least 2/3 less calories than Roti in Thailand–by using pure Coconut Oil instead of margarine and less sugar. I love Thailand and Thai food. I’m glad people are visiting and enjoying my version of Roti.”
While some Gaijin living in Japan develop their niche through obscure and unpredictable events such as getting hired to work for a Japanese newspaper covering crime stories, there’s an equal amount of people who get inspired by the more traditional pop culture of Japan in the form of games and manga.
Benjamin Boas is a former Brown University student who moved to Japan several years ago, and decided to write a manga— with help from illustrator Chika Aoyagi— that details how he got interested in Japanese culture. Boas’ experiences and means of learning Japanese range from a devout enjoyment of mahjong—which led him to studying Japan’s mahjong community and forced him to improve his Japanese—to many popular manga, dating simulators and traditional video games.
This is a good exercise for Japanese learners such as myself, as the kanji can be hard but not too hard to understand the main idea of each conversation. Like many recent manga, Boas provides the hiragana readings for all the kanji, and makes some interesting and possibly intended to be funny uses of katakana where kanji or hiragana would typically be used. For example, when saying “boku ha” for himself, he often uses ボクinstead of 僕, Boas seems to use this to depict his own gradual assimilation into Japanese lifestyle, often using katakana during scenes of him as young boy getting sick off a tuna bowl and less so when describing more challenging manga and games. Other highlights include an early obsession with Tokimeki Memorial, a dating simulator game that he couldn’t yet read the Japanese but could follow along with the virtual schoolgirls’ sad and pleased expressions.
A decent portion of the book is dedicated to his interest in the differences Japanese manga and games have to American versions and the perceived ‘weirdness’ of the country’s pop culture. In one section, he and the animator discuss why many manga include girls with skirts that fly up at the slightest wind, Chika Aoyagi claiming Americans can’t get passed something sexual in manga that’s there for simple enjoyment and not meant to be creepy.
Most of all, I would recommend this book to those in the midst of studying Japanese and enjoy the quirky differences in the language from the gaijin perspective. I was similarly confused in the beginning when Boas–working as an intern salaryman–is told his co worker is leaving due to a shotgun wedding (a rushed marriage due to pregnancy), typically written as “dekichatta kekkon.” However, his friend then shortens this into “kanojo to dekichattan,” dekita meaning “was able to do,” and kanojo meaning girlfriend, thus making the naive intern think he was litterally saying “he was able to get a girlfriend.” After some brief searching of why dekichatta is used, the spelling implies that it was a spur the moment marriage with the implication of there being a pregnancy. It once piece of useful dialogue that helped me understand how “a wedding I was able to do,” then shortened further to simply “dekichatta,” can be construed as its true meaning.
Boas also provides some useful vocabulary for the basic Japanese learner, particularly while exploring manga and anime’s odd visual effects to communicate emotion, such as veins popping to signal anger which often resemble traffic intersections, and teardrops the size of ostrich eggs to symbolize embarrassment.
In the manga section, Boas also touches on the fact that characters often respond to getting excited by girls’ underwear by getting intense nosebleeds or 鼻血(hanadji), which I first thought to be chopsticks sprouting from their noses (pictured below).
Whether you are a gamer–who laughed similarly at poorly translated English text in ported NES and SNES games such as “All your base are belong to us”—or you want to hear someone else’s story with very relatable challenges of getting into Japanese lifestyle and culture, Boas book is both fun and good practice that I recommend checking out.
Heath Cozen’s controversial documentary ‘Doglegs’has already scooped up a ‘Best Director’ award at Fantastic Fest 2015, and continues to divide critics since making the rounds of International film festivals.
For the uninitiated, ‘Doglegs’ is an underground, radically-minded wrestling league formed by a group of physically and mentally disabled people and the volunteers who work with them. It’s a tight knit community with non-rigid rules of engagement and even membership. Its misfit lineup includes one clinically depressed cancer patient on a losing streak, the able-bodied wife of a dying alcoholic with severe cerebral palsy and even a comely professor/love interest of the film’s central fighter, Shintaro ‘Sambo’.
Part-time janitor Shintaro is the film’s featured protagonist, a dynamic and determined fighter who got his start in the ring dueling a fellow disabled man over the affections of a female volunteer worker at a Tokyo center for the disabled. Although the outcome of the initial battle came with a double defeat where the young woman was concerned, Shintaro and his unnamed love rival develop a taste for adrenaline and challenge, a sensation too often denied to individuals deemed ‘vulnerable’ and ‘at risk’. Twenty years on, Doglegs continues its legacy as a dissenting alternative to the ‘compassion” that hobbles the chances for disabled people to physically and emotionally engage with the world around them.
‘Doglegs’ the documentary is an unflinching, frequently disturbing (and more often hilarious) look at the people who risk life and limb in the ring to wage an uphill battle for autonomy and self-determination. It’s shock value derives from its unapologetic celebration of “weak” minds and bodies taking high risk free falls and the sexual/spiritual awakening that ensues from direct contact with a flesh and blood adversary. “Fight according to your pride” is the mantra that keeps the fighters in check and serves as the only ‘rule’ to an otherwise free-for-all Fight Club, where the real adversary is the marginalization that comes with second class status.
Bodies that are consigned to helplessness, cosseted, hidden and ultimately abhorred become autonomous, gravity defying symbols of personal struggle and social change. The rough and often brutalizing contact with fists and floors becomes a liberating and strength inducing catharsis these men seek to stake their place in the world. Despite the limitations society places upon them as an unseen and largely condescended to minority, these underdogs prove they are a force to be reckoned with on their own terms, even when able-bodied nemesis ‘Antithesis Kitajima’ (a one time volunteer at the center where Shintaro and his fellow fighters formed Doglegs) enters the ring with no a holds barred intent to thrash his opponents mercilessly.
Director Heath Cozens, a long-term Tokyo resident now based in New York City, came to this project with a long list of media credentials that lend the project an unfiltered and consciously artless format in keeping with its hardboiled, “unsuitable for all ages” subject matter. Cozens takes on a taboo subject that none of the news organizations he worked with could not or would not touch as subject matter for a newscast “human interest” segment, despite the group’s nearly urban legend status among the cognizenti of Tokyo’s underground scene. It took Cozens six months before the group responded to his polite requests to document their now twenty year battle to smash stereotypes and destroy the low expectations imposed on them by societal indifference, and even worse, “compassion”.
Cozens is an absent, yet unsparing observer. The film’s titular characters speak for themselves with the frank and often brutal assessment of their own chances at life in and out of the ring. Doglegs’ “abled” advocates like Kitajima explain their own involvement in the project without ever lending their interpretation to the voices central to the film’s premise. Beneath the rough-hewn and somewhat menacing exterior of ‘Antithesis’; a villain who proudly boasts of “Beating up the disabled for twenty years” lies a shrewd philosopher on a mission to radically reconfigure society to enable its “loser dogs” to realize their potential. He’s not going to let Shintaro retire from fighting without first issuing his “diabolical” challenge to gamble his decision on the outcome of a final match. And Shintaro is not going to go down without delivering a final blow to the man standing in the way of his freedom. Viewers expecting ‘Patch Adams’ will have their hopes dashed with boiling oil and a chainsaw. To be clear, this is the film’s greatest strength; a refusal to submit a “life-affirming” narrative, often coming to blows with the low expectations of audience members expecting a Rocky Balboa outcome. Doglegs isn’t going to change your mind, but alter the perceptions behind certain belief systems at the molecular level. Doglegs demands its audience undergo the same ‘training’ as its protagonists, mocking weak-kneed aspiration in favor of a full-frontal assault against easy assumptions.
‘Antithesis Kitajima’ could very well be heir to the throne vacated by the late playwright, filmmaker, poet and sub-culture provocateur Terayama Shuji, who terrorized Tokyo in the late ’60’s and early ’70’s with his rogue band of theatre players ‘Tenjo Sajiki’ that boasted “perverts, gamblers and bicycle thieves” among its early ranks, and set out on a similar mission to free the imagination from the bourgeoisie stranglehold of home, hearth and country in post-war Japan. Terayama was an enthusiastic pugilist despite a weak physical disposition resulting from Hepatitis contracted in childhood, and died at 47 from as a direct result of a decades long battle with a terminal disease. Much of Terayama’s output was based on his own debilitating experiences with his neurotic mother intent on smothering him back into infantile dependency, and “killing mother” was a consistent underlying theme in his work. Doglegs, however, doesn’t seek audiences or even recognition beyond the immediate concerns of its fighters, even it it unconsciously at least, takes up Terayama’s clarion call for the unfettered imagination to take flight in the face of a “loving” adversary poised to strangle it in its crib. Shintaro’s own mother offers her own brutal assessment of her parenting skills as a young, single mother trying to raise a mentally challenged son. Her “harshness” she fears, have left lingering scars that will impede Shintaro further as advances through life without familiar caregivers.
Shintaro has successfully completed a program to qualify as a janitor and plans to live out the rest of his days gainfully employed in a vocation better suited to a man in middle age. Kitajima could jeopardize his chances of peaceful retirement from a demanding, ultimately dangerous sport. Kitajima himself is in his twilight years as a fighter (both in and out of the ring) and with the added responsibility of wife and child, can no longer sustain the demands of Doglegs. His gradual extrication from the group, and from Shintaro in particular, provides a weighty, emotional counterpoint to the deadpan absurdism Cozens captures in merciless detail. His cruel barbs at Shintaro, which Cozens wisely refrains from interpreting for his non-Japanese audience (“taking the piss” is part and parcel of local social norms) still cut as deeply as the visible wounds on the chronically depressed Nakajima, a self-cutter, whose inability to score a victory in the ring goads his despair and spirit in equal measure. Kitajima’s ultimatum is less a sadistic rallying cry for Shintaro’s inevitable defeat, but a call to arms against the forces of complacency that threaten to consign Shintaro to peaceful obscurity.
Shockingly, to some of the demure, well-heeled critics of Doglegs stateside, the volunteers assist their employers as non-regulatory bodies, serving booze on command to a dying cerebral palsy member who wants to exit this plane drunk and wearing lingerie. The group takes Shintaro to a sex museum in the resort town of Atami so he can reveal his romantic feelings for the university professor who advocates for them on an institutional level, while remaining a regular fixture ringside and in the group’s regular pub crawls. For the record, a night out with the members of Doglegs is no different than a night out with any group comprising Shinjuku’s hard drinking demimonde. The booze flows, the insults fly and a community is strengthened by an unparalleled camaraderie seldom found outside bars that serve up draft beer and tiny plates of boiled soybeans.
Along the way to Shintaro’s independent and well-considered decision to apply his hard-earned skills to a similarly challenging vocation, we meet Doglegs’ alternately challenged and determined members. ‘L’Amant’ (The Lover) is in the throes of a deliberately induced alcohol poisoning, aided by his wife and caregivers who respect the dying man’s wishes to the extent of Mrs L’Amant (and even L’Amant Junior – a promising high school boxer) going into the ring and fighting each other to continue the old man’s legacy. There is no greater love, it turns out, than a mother and son slugging it out in the ring to pay tribute to an ideal personified in one man’s losing battle with life and the victory he has achieved in ending it on his own terms. Let’s just say that this particular scene is why waterproof mascara was invented. Our protagonists, however, have different ideas about ‘water works’ – allowing the camera a lingering shot inside L’Amant’s puke bucket, deferentially positioned to aid him in his quest for a sake-soaked funeral.
In the meantime, chronically and clinically depressed Nakajima bravely allows us a glimpse into his own world, exclusively peopled by the plush toys he has hoarded over a life time and now demand obeisance and blood offerings in the form of their hapless acolyte’s ritual offering of scars, worn proudly and defiantly on his chest. If Kitajima is the intellectual force behind Doglegs then Nakajima is his corporeal counterpoint – mutilating the only abled part of himself to balance his internal agonies. Even his diagnosis of cancer fails to elicit sympathy from his teammates, who are prepared to pulverize him in the ring to secure victory for themselves. It’s this bold acceptance of the blows that life deliver that ultimately keep Nakajima on his meds long enough to confront his next opponent from a plethora of inner demons.
Throughout every pitfall along his remarkable journey toward selfhood, Shintaro – the heart of this unforgettable film – navigates his transition from dependency to self-actualization with the courage befitting a champion fighter. As a trainee janitor freshly graduated from a literal school of hard knocks, he has applied a newly acquired a life that will undoubtedly deliver him a fresh set of blows. The poise and eventual confidence he demonstrates when mastering an industrial vacuum cleaner is every bit as captivating and breathe-bating as his attempts to wield supremacy over ‘Antithesis’ in the ring. This time, though, ‘Antithesis’ is a distant inner voice spurring him towards yet another hard-earned defeat.
Consider these 2 pictures. Before: Single, living alone in a 29 square meter apartment in Tokyo. The place is so filthy it’s a struggle every morning to shower, get dressed and get to the door. The toilet hasn’t been cleaned in 4 months and the tiny kitchen defies description. After: Living with a younger, handsome boyfriend in a new apartment twice the size of the old one. Clean hardwood floors and ample closet space. The bathroom decor features rose pink wallpaper and every household item is put away as soon as it’s used.
Needless to say, Japanese women toughing it out in the big city aspire to the “after” picture. Yet for many women trying to get by on this archipelago, reality edges ever close to “before” if not actually a precise duplicate.
Japanese women were once famed for being fanatical in their pursuit of cleanliness in the home and willing devotees at the altar of household chores. Now for many females, the mere thought of picking up clothes strewn on the floor, washing dishes piled in the sink and sorting combustible trash from the non-burnables and actually taking them out to designated spots on designated days of the week – all this is enough to bring on a mild case of eczema and/or insanity attack. We all have viable excuses to pull out at a moment’s notice: not enough time, not enough motivation, not enough cash left at the end of the month to buy cleaning products, not enough love during childhood, sibling troubles, boyfriend troubles…the list is enough to give Freud himself a nervous breakdown.
Enter the clutter consultants or chore specialists, all of whom comprise a huge chunk of the TK billion yen decluttering market. Among these, Marie Kondo or “Konmari” as she’s called in the US, has taken the concept out of the country and out into the big leagues. Time Magazine sited her among the “100 Most Influential People” alongside the other Japanese: Haruki Murakami. Apparently, a personage no less than Jamie Lee Curtis recommended that she make that list. Konmari’s book (US title: “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up”) is a New York Times bestseller. There’s a rumor that Michelle Obama picked it up, read it and loved it. Her oft quoted advice about de-cluttering: “Don’t keep anything in the house that doesn’t spark joy.”
Over on the homefront though, Konmari is just one among many decluttering specialists who exhort Japanese women to take control over their lives by taking control of their stuff. It’s an interesting philosophical proposition: no god, man, ideology or diet is going to be that magic wand, but the will and strength to clear out one’s closet and scrub the toilet. Once you’ve made de-cluttering a habit, “everything in life will follow,” according to Konmari. Uh-huh. Kinda like “Field of Dreams” without the baseball. If you clean it, he (or romance) will come.
In this journey of de-cluttering, the Japanese woman will encounter two enemies: her possessions, and her mother. She wants to follow Konmari’s maxim of throwing out everything that doesn’t spark joy. She will start out with every intention of doing so. But every time she tries to trash her belongings (her high school year book, old boyfriend photos, clothes bought at bargain sales and never worn, shoes growing moldy in the cabinet, body shaping underwear, cosmetics, bags of rice from three years ago, exercise equipment galore are among the popular items) her resolve falters. She is after all, a Japanese woman who has the word “mottainai” stamped into her DNA. “This might come in handy someday,” is a refrain she’s heard since childhood – from her parents, from schoolteachers, from relatives and friends her boyfriend’s mother. Besides, it’s a huge hassle to sort out the trash. Better just let sleeping garbage lie around until the right man comes along and asks to stay over in her apartment. THAT’S when she’ll clean up. Really.
Often, her mother enables her in the task of clutter fossilization. Every Japanese mom over 50 is a sucker for stuff anyway and the older they get, the stronger their obsessions. Take the case of my grandmother, whom I revered in childhood as a cool old lady. She could speak a little French, she smoked a pack a day and quoted Spinoza when the mood hit her. But when she died, the entire family were dumbfounded to discover huge boxes of horded bottle caps (used) and disposable chopsticks (unused) pushed into a dark corner of her closet. Kimonos that she hadn’t worn in decades were rumpled into another box, every one of them black with mold. In the kitchen, she had 4 kettles that were never used and about 500 spoons pushed every which way in a huge drawer. We finally gave up trying to clean the place and hired an expert team that deals exclusively with dwellings of the elderly. They charged 200,000 yen for the first 6 hours, and 150,000 the next day. Her daughter (my mother) complained endlessly about the expense and my grandmother’s hording habits but she’s now exhibiting the very same behavior. Last month, I discovered a box full of unused disposable chopsticks and nearly had a panic attack. Et tu, Mom?
Indeed, every de-cluttering specialist warns about mothers, especially if you happen to live with her. De-cluttering specialist and blogger Mai Yururi lived with her mom and grandma in an old house in Sendai – when 3.11 hit, the house was left standing but the colossal amount of stuff, accumulated over the years, came down in an avalanche and nearly killed them. After that, the two older women finally agreed to throw out some things, but if not for the earthquake, Yururi writes: “I could have never convinced them to de-clutter.”
There’s no doubt about it, the path to a clean, spare room with things that only spark joy is not just littered with stuff no one wants anymore, it’s practically a hallucination glimpsed among the dunes in the Sahara Desert. Oh, for a bottle of water.