Archive for the ‘Things Japanese’ category

Spring Break

March 14, 2006

W

ow… It's been a week since I've been here. I have been preoccupied with a number of different things and have neglected to update this record of my life… such as it is. In any event, I have reached a point in my life where there are simply not enough hours in a day to take care of all the things I need to take care. Thank God for Spring Break! Now I can catch up.

Yes, that's right: Catch up. While most of my students have gone home to relax or gone to some exotic locale like Cancun in the hopes to catch a glimpse of the bimbos of Girls Gone Wild, I spend my hours at home… grading. It never seems to end. But at least I don't feel harried as I grade papers at a leisurely pace. Of course, I am doing much more than grading. I am slowly but surely turning my brain into mush by getting involved in two addictions, both of which I thought I had broken…

No, no, no. I'm not talking about sports. That is an addiction that many people will understand, if not totally understand… I mean, they may not really understand why a person will get so involved in watching sports, but will to a degree accept it as something males are wont to do. And indeed, March Madness is upon us and UCLA is a freakin' two seed. Don't worry. If you don't understand what I'm talking about, then you probably don't follow sports and you aren't missing anything. But I am hyped. They have a hell of a defense and I hope to see them to the Elite Eight.

As for my two addictions…

My first addiction–or I should say the resurrection of my first addiction–I lay in the lap of takunishi. He always has music playing on his Xanga and he often allowed people to download them. What a guy! Unfortunately, I once again got sucked into this music, and I have spent hours asking students and searching the Internet for music. While the stumbling back into jpop was not immediate, songs like Dreamland by Bennie K and Haru no Uta by Spitz got me hooked again. *sigh* Now my life is consumed with listening to jpop, everything from 5 Senchi by WaT to Around the World by Monkey Majik. I need kken, Paikey's cousin, to slap me in the face to wake me up… wait, he lives in DC. Never mind…

My other addiction I blame on Hermes–the name of a character in the J-dorama Densha-otoko (Trainman) and a student of mine. I've been slowly watching J TV shows, but most of them were of the samurai/historical category: Yoshitsune, Shinsengumi, you know. While I would rent these tapes, M would also rent the Gekku (譛井ケ・lit. Monday 9 PM) kind of dramas, the ones about friendships, family, romance and other girlie stuff, like Sea Monkeys and Brother Beat. They were okay, but nothing special. But Hermes gave me a disc of the entire Trainman drama and it got me hooked. The story is funny and the tale unfolds nicely. But the bottom line: Ito Misaki is so freakin' cute. Of course, I have o admit that she is irresistably cute as Hermes in this program but just regular cute in other shows. I haven't figured it out yet. Is it her attitude? Is it her character? Oh well, either way, I got sucked into this show and now am watching other programs as well, including Kiken na aneki (Hazardous Sis') which also stars Ito… Hmm… Is there a pattern forming here? And do not mistake this for the movie, TrainMan, which is based on the same story. Nakatani Miki has nothing–NOTHING! I say–on Ito Misaki.

Anyway, back to grading…

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Another Week Another Dollar

March 6, 2006

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ork work work. What a weekend. M was much better by Saturday, which was a relief. But I had so much work, that all I've been doing is grading. I'm trying to figure out what I'm doing wrong. I know that I am teaching more classes than before, but that doesn't really explain the dramatic decrease in my own time. I think I'm gonna keel over if I'm not careful.

To comfort myself, I think I need one of these Cuddle Pillows (daki-makura), except one made for guys. Instead of a dress shirt, a nice soft cashmir sweater? Hmmm, and maybe a slight anatomical alteration for extra comfort…

*sigh*

I think I need to get back to grading before I descend any further….

J-Drama Junkie II

February 15, 2006

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think I’ve OD-ed on J-drama. I’m beginning to hallucinate, I think. Well, not really, but I do think I saw a sign that I should try to break this habit. Over the past few weeks, we saw all 49 episodes of Shinsengumi. For those of you who don’t know, Shinsegumi was an organization that originated as a group of friends and associates of a modest, rural swordsmanship dojo–Shieikan–west of Edo in an area still known as Tama.

The son of the headmaster, Kondo Isami, was born a peasant, but was adopted to continue school. This, of course, placed him at a disadvantage. Throughout most of the Edo period, members of one class were not allowed to cross lines. A peasant or merchant could not cross lines and become samurai. A samurai, could till the land if he wanted, but he was still considered a samurai. Kondo became skilled enough to become the primary son who would inherit the Shieikan dojo, but he always faced discrimination as an inaka-zamurai (hick warrior). He and his friend Hijikata aimed at being “true” samurai, if not in lineage, then at least in heart. And this probably was their motivation for supporting the Tokugawa Bakufu, the military government of Japan.

When there was a call for masterless samurai–at this time, they used the term roshi instead of ronin–to go to Kyoto help protect the Shogun during his say there, they gladly went with their peer and dojo mates. Upon arriving in Kyoto, there was a call to return to Edo by the organizers Sasaki and Kiyokawa. The story is that this was simply a ruse by Kiyokawa to gather samurai who he would eventually turn against the Bakufu. Kondo and Hijikata for whatever reason remained–according to the drama, they couldn’t accept returning to Edo without having done anything to protect the Shogun. They stayed at an inn in an area of Kyoto called Mibu and were hence known as the Mibu-roshi. From there, they worked to recruit more members and appealed to Lord Matsudaira–leader of the Aizu clan of Fukushima, official protector of the Shogun’s interests in Kyoto–to allow them to participate in their official endeavors of policing Kyoto. They actively worked to police the capital, and their efforts were recognized by Matsudaira, who designated them the Shinsegumi–Company of the Newly Selected. This name reflected what Kondo had always aimed for: a new band of brothers from all walks of life, chosen by merit, not lineage. After the Ikedaya Incident where the Shinsengumi squashed a plot by the anti-Bakufu members from the Choshu clan, Matsudaira named Kondo and the Shinsengumi hatamoto–direct vassals to the Bakufu. Unfortunately for the Shinsengumi, their idealistic image of the samurai led to an undying loyalty to the Bakufu and the inability to recognize the sea change occurring in Japan.

The NHK story, of course, romanticizes a group of men who killed indiscriminately in the name of the Shogun. In many instances, it is also humorous, thanks to the group af actors chosen play the main roles, first and foremost Katori Shingo of SMAP. I’m not sure if anyone noticed this, but on the back wall of the Shieikan are two calligraphy scrolls on which are the names of the gods that protect the way of the sword. One of them is *ahem* Katori Myojin. Still, the drama was fun to watch and I enjoyed Katori a lot. I was sorta sad when I watched the last episode. Maybe too sad…

For two nights after I viewed the last tape, Katori’s appared in my dreams. He wasn’t playing Kondo and IU wasn’t a member of he Shinsengumi. We were just hanging out..

Yup, I think I have definitely OD-ed on J-drama.

J-Drama Junkie

February 14, 2006

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ear my house in Vienna-Fairfax is a Korean supermarket called Lotte. They have a video rental section. I checked it out. They had Japanese animation. They had Japanese movies. They had *gulp* Japanese drama. I told M. They have a bunch of shows! She reminded me that I’m pretty busy with work. They have Taiga dorama! She reminded me Taiga dorama lasted 50 episodes. It’s only $1.50 per tape! She reminded me that our last name was not Rockefeller. But there’s two episodes on each tape! She reminded me that I have a compulsive nature and that once I started watching one episode, I would watch the rest without stopping until I saw the last episode. I had to concur. M won. I tried to forget… really hard…

We soon began shopping at another Korean place called Super H and the videos at Lotte soon became a distant memory. But recently, M has been shopping at Lotte again because sometimes Super H is too far just to get vegetables. Then last November, before Thanksgiving break, I accompanied M to Lotte to do some shopping for Thanksgiving dinner. You never know when you might need some bok choi or daikon or shimeji mushrooms for Thanksgiving dinner, right? So I went and was suddenly reminded of the J-videos.

As M was strolling through the produce section, I sauntered–yes, sauntered–off to the video section. In front of me was a long row of the Taiga dorama. For those of you who don’t know, Taiga dorama is an NHK program that usually focuses on an historic figure or group. It runs for a year, hence the 50 episodes. Many of the stories are martial/samurai and so I used to imagine it meant Tiger Drama, but it really means Great River drama. Well, right in front of me was 44 episodes of Yoshitsune, the tale of the storied Minamoto Yoshitsune, handsome youth and valiant warrior of the late Heian-early Kamakura period. He is the younger brother of the first Kamakura shogun, Yoritomo, and his story is as famous as anyone’s in Japan.

I pulled out the first tape. Takizawa Hideaki. Ugh! Isn’t he Tackey of Tackey & Tsubasa, the young boy-band-like singers in the mold of the johnnies? There’s also Matsudaira Ken. Okay, he’s pretty solid in period pieces, although he’s also become well know for his rather corny Matsuken samba. You have to see it to believe it. Can you imagine Toshiro Mifune singing and dancing The Macarena? Well, you get the picture…

But still, I caressed the case. I fondled it, trying futilely to get a sneak preview through my fingertips. I returned the case to its shelf and skipped back to the produce section. I had to tell M.

You know, it’s going to be Thanksgiving break and its been such a long semester, and I’ve been working so hard that I think I need and deserve a break because if I don’t, I’ll go crazy, and it would be really relaxing to just kick back and watch some TV, maybe some Japanese drama, because it would be fun, and… (brief pause for breath) who knows? Maybe it’ll come in handy with my work at school, because it’s in Japanese and maybe I’ll find something I can use in class, so it would be a like killing two birds with one stone, and if I play my cards right, maybe I can even write it off OUR taxes, because it would actually be a legitimate deduction, since it would be something I’d use at work, and…

M put her hands up in that universal sign for “STOP!”

“You win,” she said, “but don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

That’s the way, uh huh, uh huh, I like it, I hummed, skipping back to the video section. I pulled out five tapes, And went to the counter. I gave the lady at the counter my address and she told me what my ID number was. I put down a sawbuck, she gave me back $2.50. I was so happy that when she said “Thank you ” in English, I responded komapsmida, (Okay, my transliteration sucks) and again skipped back to M, showing her what felt like ill gotten goods.

She smiled weakly and once again reminded me check my compulsive nature at the front door. Yeah, yeah. don’t sweat it. doll face. I’m in total control

NOT!

Well I watched fifty 45-minute episodes over the next three weeks, sneaking in as many as I could in between work, grading, eating. when one episode ended, I had to see the next one. And every time I would go back to Lotte to return the tapes, I would look at the shelves and make a mental note of available series for future viewing. I was and am hooked. I have since seen Shinsengumi (50 episodes), Last Christmas (12), Sea Monkeys (12), Brother Beat (11), as well as other miscellaneous programming. We have just started seeing Saiyuki, the story of Son Goku.

I think I need to go into rehab.

Samurai Fiction

February 11, 2006

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very spring semester, I teach a course called Japanese culture through film. It is not really a film class, because I’m not really a film instructor. I can view films and critique them in my own way, but I don’t consider myself a film expert. I couldn’t break down a mis-en-scene if my life depended on it–well, actually, I could but don’t tell anyone at school because they’d just have me teach one more class. I have seen a number of J flicks, but no where near as many as a true film experts. Geez, I’ve probably seen fewer J films than Whonose. Still, I do know Japan and its culture–albeit from a personal point of view–and I have lots of opinions about how it is reflected through film. Take samurai films for example…

Mild spoilers

Note: The following presents basic plot lines and possible spoilers–although I think most have already seen or heard of these movies. But it might, in a small way, provide insights that could make the film more enjoyable to watch.

Chushingura

I have not seen any of the older, silent samurai motion pictures (katsudo shahin), although maybe I should as they are not that old. Bloody Town directed by Yashiro Takeshi was relieased in 1938, eleven years after the first American talkie The Jazz Singer (1927). While there is no audio, the action sequences are purportedly superb. If nothing else, I am tempted to see Makino Shozu’s Chushingura (The 47 Ronin, 1910, 1913), the oldest extant version of the 47 loyal samurai, but to get a good grasp of the symbol of the samurai in J films, one only has to see Mizoguchi Kenji’s version, Genroku chushingura (1941).

Filmed and released during the Pacific War, Mizoguchi’s Chushingura seems to represent many of the values that the Japanese expect from their warriors. The story itself is about a group of 47 loyal samurai who avenge the death of their lord, Asano, who was forced to commit seppuku (ritual disembowelment) because he unsheathed his sword and slightly injured another lord, Kira, within the shogun’s palace. Kira was a petty conniving lord who often insulted Asano. He went too far once, inducing Asano to draw his sword in the palace, a serious crime–can you imagine drawing a gun in the Capitol? The penalty is death–albeit an honorable one, it seems that all crimes commited by samurai are resolved by death. The 47 loyal samurai plot for years to exact revenge, after which they all commit seppuku for murdering Kira, a vassal of the shogun.

The interesting aspect of this film is the fact that there is virtually no swordplay. No, I take that back. There is exactly no swordplay. Every act of violence–the seppuku of Asano and his loyal retainers, as well as the murder of Kira–takes place off screen. It is, for a samurai movie, incredibly non-violent. The movie, however, does focus on the honor and loyalty expected of these warriors: They demonstrate loyalty to Asano by exacting revenge, and manifest honor because they exact this revenge knowing and accepting the consequences of their actions. Mizoguchi (remember this name) was a talented and highly respected director, so perhaps it would not be so far-fetched to suggest that his image of the samurai–in step with the romantic figure already cut in Japanese tradition–became the baseline, the foundation to which future directors would look when creating their own version of the samurai image.

The Seven Samurai

The director most non-Japanese are familiar with is Kurosawa Akira. Indeed, he is more revered overseas than at home, and virtually everyone of his films can be found in the Criterion DVD Collection. My personal favorite is Yojimbo and its sequal Sanjuro, but his most famous film is, I think, the Seven Samurai (1954). In it, Kurosawa tries to recast the samurai not as a retainer loyal to his lord, but as one who is loyal to his profession, one who manifests all the appropriate principles of “one who serves” which is the literal translation of the Chinese character for samurai 侍. The story revolves around a village regularly raided by bandits. The villagers, at the sugestion of its Elder, go to the city in search for “hungry” samurai. The Village Elder suggests ronin–masterless samurai who have no income and wander the country in search of a lord to serve. The subtext, of course, is the idea of a samurai who is hungry to fulfill his purpose in life as well, one who seeks to serve, to do what is right and just. They find Kambei and he assembles a team of seven, leading them against the bandits.

The film presents the image of samurai with which most of us are familiar. Kurosawa’s influence plays no small role in this. As the more represented director of Japanese film, it is his samurai that is embedded in our consciousness: strong, fierce, courageous, independent, just, honorable. And the seven samurai manifest these traits, even the one samurai who was actually the son of a peasant, Kikuchiyo. He was coarse and dirty and often drunk, but in the end, he fought fiercely and bravely for a just and honorable cause, consequently being recognized as a samurai at the end of the movie, as reflected in his burial mound at the top of the hill along with three fallen comrades. His death underscores the rigid class lines established by the Tokugawa Bakufu–no one can cross classes. His fellow samurai (and Kurosawa) allow Kikuchiyo to cross that line, but only in death.

As in Yojimbo, Sanjuro, and the samurai trilogy depicting the life of Miyamoto Musashi (Inagaki Hiroshi), the samurai of the 50s and early 60s continue to manifest the characteristics established in Mizoguchi’s Chushingura. Althought masterless, they all try to live there lives by a code of conduct representing the samurai ideal of loyalty and hard work, righteousness and courage. And indeed, they still want to serve. As Kambei says at the end of the Seven Samurai, the farmers won but they lost. By defeating the bandits, the farmers were able to return to their way of life, but the samurai remained masterless. Kambei’s words underscore their desire to return to a life of service.

Unlike Mizoguchi’s film, Kurosawa’s films are full of action. In the first samurai scenei n the movie, Kambei kills a criminal holding a baby hostage. But like Mizoguchi, the killing is done off screen inside a house. But after that, there is plenty of stabbing and slashing and death. Strong samurai, brave samurai, killing for what they believe is right, even if they have no master. I often wonder if this as a reflection of the times. In the late 40s and through the 50s, immediately after losing WWII, many of the Japanese felt betrayed by the government leaders that led them down the path of national disaster. Is it a coincidence that the samurai warriors depicted in films from this era wander about Japan as ronin–strong, willing to fight for what is right and yet leaderless?

Maybe. Maybe not….

Later, I will write a bit about Okamoto Kihachi’s Kill! and Nakano Hiroyuki’s Samurai Fiction.