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The First Samurai: Remembering Toshiro Mifune

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 17/04/2021 - 9:11am in

Tags 

articles, culture

Published in Nikkei Asia 14/4/2021

Sixty years ago this month, one of my favourite films hit the cinema screens for the first time. Yojimbo, directed by Akira Kurosawa and starring the inimitable Toshiro Mifune, was an instant success in Japan and was to become highly influential worldwide.

The film gave birth to the “spaghetti western” genre. Indeed, Italian director Sergio Leone had to compensate Kurosawa for plagiarizing the story in A Fistful of Dollars, the film that established Clint Eastwood as a major star. Eastwood’s spaghetti western persona took so much from the Yojimbo character that you could say there would be no Clint without the dishevelled, toothpick-gnawing ronin (“masterless samurai”) that Mifune so memorably portrayed.

yojimbo3

The “yojimbo” (meaning “bodyguard”)  is an existential hero, cool and ironic, driven by chance and sheer whim rather than the knotty moral dilemmas of Kurosawa’s earlier films. Like Eastwood’s “Man with No Name”, his identity is uncertain. When asked to supply his name, the yojimbo simply improvises one, incorporating the name of whatever flower happens to be in view.

He has no back-story, no future plans. He just shows up, turns the world upside down and then disappears. In decades to come, innumerable wisecracking hitmen and mysterious outsiders were to follow in Mifune’s dusty footsteps.

Yojimbo, and the follow-up Sanjuro (1962) which features the same character, catapulted Mifune to international fame and made him the first Asian actor to become a global star, a decade ahead of Bruce Lee. Even now, in terms of the quality of his best performances and the films themselves, he remains in a class of his own. Not for nothing did both the readers and the writers of Kinema Junpo, Japan’s premier film magazine, vote Mifune the greatest Japanese film actor of the twentieth century in two separate polls.

So how and where should such a significant cinematic anniversary be celebrated? My choice of venue was the one remaining Mifune-themed restaurant in Tokyo, in a backstreet of the unfashionable Ningyo-cho district.

You won’t find many tourists here, even in more normal times. It’s an ordinary eatery, offering unpretentious fare to workers from nearby shops and offices. Unusually these days, it retains a smoking corner, which would surely have pleased the cigarette and pipe-puffing Mifune.

There is a Mifune space at the back with a wall display listing some of the roles that the great man played over the years, as well as the Mifune family crest and a four-character phrase dear to his heart – Yuu Mou Jou Jin, which means something like “ferocious courage and intensity”. Yet the décor is unobtrusive. If you have no idea who Mifune is, that’s fine too.  You can concentrate on your set lunch of curried chicken cutlet, solid value at 850 yen with free refills of miso soup and extra rice.

 N.W. The Mifune corner. Photo: N.W.

I couldn’t help contrasting this modest but enjoyable culinary experience with the chain of high-priced, high-concept Kurosawa restaurants, which are clearly aimed at tourists and businessmen with generous expense accounts. Somehow, the difference between the restaurants seems to symbolize the two men’s artistic reputations.

In a 2018 BBC poll of the best non-English language films, as picked by global film experts, two Kurosawa films placed in the top four. The one country where no experts picked a Kurosawa film in their personal top ten was his own country, Japan.  Overseas, though, he goes from strength to strength. It was recently announced that a British version of the Kurosawa classic, Ikiru, is in production, with a script by Sir Kazuo Ishiguro, winner of the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature.

Despite his enduring domestic popularity, Mifune’s legacy been less well tended, not least by himself. Suffering from financial troubles at the film production company he set up in the mid-sixties, he appeared in too many films, Japanese and foreign, that were unworthy of his talents.

Worse, he allowed himself to be typecast as a generic samurai and gruff military commander. In the more than 150 films he made, he played Admiral Togo, the man who sank the Russian fleet in 1905, twice. Likewise he had two shots at Admiral Yamamoto, commander of the attack on Pearl Harbour These were roles he could sleepwalk through.

Whereas Kurosawa ended his life garlanded with honours, having made an artistic and box-office comeback with his two historical epics, Kagemusha (1980) and Ran (1985), Mifune’s career fizzled out in a series of underwhelming performances. Ill with Alzheimer’s and abandoned by his mistress, he cut a forlorn figure. The relationship with Kurosawa, in whose films he had produced his most sublime performances, had soured long before. Indeed, after filming Red Beard (1965), the director and the leading man never spoke again, though they both lived on into the late 1990s.

Critic Donald Richie blamed the estrangement squarely on Kurosawa, though Stuart Galbraith 1V, author of “The Emperor And The Wolf”, a double biography of the two men, suggests that their creative relationship had been exhausted.

What is certain is that no other actor could do what Mifune did in Red Beard – play a humane, progressive doctor who singlehandedly beats the living daylights out of a gang of thugs, all the while reproaching himself for unprofessional conduct. Somehow Mifune makes it look totally credible, to the extent that you wince on behalf of the bad guys.

Yojimbo-4

Both men later acknowledged that their best work had been done together. After the rift, Mifune’s range narrowed and Kurosawa’s leading actors, although excellent, lacked the feral vitality that makes Mifune’s on-screen presence so compelling. In Yojimbo, the combination is at its peak, with the main character being a joint creation of actor and director. The dialogue is minimal. The nature of the man is expressed by the way he moves and eats and laughs.

Watch Mifune toss a stick in the air at the crossroads to determine which direction to take; cut down a pistol-packing psycho with a lightning-fast manoeuvre; gaze down from a bell-tower at the deadly factional battle he has engineered, like a film director pleased with his handiwork. Somehow, he seems to be made of some harder, denser substance than everyone else.

The film feels as fresh today as it did in 1961. As I finish off my meal in the restaurant that bears his name, I realise that Mifune, like all the true greats of cinema, is still with us now.

"Fierce courage and intensity" Photo N.W. “Ferocious courage and intensity” Photo N.W.

 

 

 

Tokyo Junkie: Robert Whiting’s Japan

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 20/03/2021 - 9:43am in

Tags 

culture

Published in Nikkei Asia 17/3/2021 

”Officials from the police agencies came in and sat alongside yakuza bosses who sat next to CIA agents. At times, one might see Catholic priests and missionaries of other faiths sitting next to exotic dancers and hostesses from neighbouring clubs…”

That was the scene in 1962 at a watering hole in the Roppongi entertainment district called Club 88. It was set up by two former Occupation-era intelligence agents who had gone on to work for a Tokyo-based American black ops group, the Canon Agency, fighting North Korean agents smuggling heroin and crystal meth into Japan.

At Club 88, you might see Shirley MacLaine on a trip to visit her Tokyo-based husband, a businessman named Steve Parker. Or Nat King Cole, dropping in to play a few tunes after a gig.

You might also notice a wiry young American in a cheap, three-piece navy-blue suit sitting in a corner soaking up the vibes. That would be the author of this book, who is probably the only person on the planet capable of telling us what it was like to be there at that particular moment in time.

The legendary Mugen discotheque opened in 1968 The legendary Mugen discotheque opened in 1968

“Tokyo Junkie” is a double biography. It describes six decades in the life of Tokyo, and six decades in the life of Robert Whiting. Both would undergo dramatic changes over the years.

The character arc of Tokyo is clear. From a cacophonous, smog-choked sprawl with a limited sewage system to a clean, well-functioning, increasingly vertical city. From “endemic drug use” and rampant burglary to social cohesion and low crime rates. From the ruins of defeat to a city largely at peace with itself.

Bringing the funk in 1972 Bringing the funk in the early 70s

Whiting’s personal journey is more complex and perfectly summed up by his chapter headings – The Soldier, The Student, The Degenerate, The Penitent, The Professional and so on. He presents his young self as a naïve, small-town guy who happened to get a job as a U.S. military data analyst in Japan.

None of his colleagues had any interest in the country to which they had been posted and barely stepped off the base. Whiting was different. As with many long-term residents of Japan, a switch suddenly flicked in his mind and, to continue the metaphor of the book’s title, before he knew it he was hooked on the place.

Several senior figures, including the priest who taught him Japanese, advised young Robert not to waste his time hanging around in a backwater like Japan when there were so many opportunities in “the real world,” whatever that might be. Whiting had the confidence and foresight to ignore them.

Instead, he committed one of the worst offences among Western expats. He “went native,” living in ramshackle apartments, taking his meals in cheap eateries, being moved to tears by an anime series he regularly watched in a neighborhood bar. As time went by, he started to sound Japanese and think Japanese too.

Whiting’s range of acquaintance was exceptionally diverse, taking in hard-charging corporate samurai, gangsters, a plastic surgeon related to the Imperial family, and the future head of the Yomiuri media group, Tsuneo Watanabe. Not many people can say they were kept awake by the sound of pro-wrestling icon Giant Baba practicing falls in the apartment above.

Giant Baba in action Giant Baba in action

Particularly memorable is a fire-breathing radical girlfriend who suddenly moves back to her hometown and transmutes into a demure housewife. Whiting does not question her choice. On the contrary, in an endearing flash of self-knowledge, he admits “I didn’t know it at the time, but the same thing would be happening to me.”

Within a few years, Whiting did indeed clean up his act, calling time on the temptations of the Tokyo nightlife which have derailed many a promising career. He found a good woman and the career for which his talents had destined him – as a writer.

One of the highlights of the book is Whiting’s account of the 1964 Olympics, which should be read before viewing Kon Ichikawa’s artistically bold film of the event, Tokyo Olympiad. To clean up the country’s image, the government requested gang bosses to dispatch the most “unpleasant-looking” yakuza to the countryside for “spiritual training,” while street-walkers and vagrants magically disappeared from the city too.

Abebe Bikila winning the marathon in 1964 Abebe Bikila winning the marathon in 1964

The whole nation was agog with excitement, as the Olympics was widely viewed as the symbol of Japan’s re-entry into the cohort of respectable nations. There were shocks and disappointments – in one case, ultimately leading to the tragic suicide of an athlete – but the overall result was a tremendous success for Japan in terms of medals and, far more importantly, in what we now call soft power.

Given that history, it comes as no surprise that the Japanese government is doing everything in its power to stage another Olympics in 2021. The geopolitical map now is very different from what it was in the early phase of the Cold War and Japan is a very different country. Nonetheless, pulling off a successful Games in the era of Covid-19 would be a similarly impressive feat.

The fact that Japan had negative excess mortality in 2020 – meaning fewer deaths than in a usual year – shows that it is highly qualified for the task.

Robert Whiting is the author of several acclaimed books about Japanese baseball and the best-selling Tokyo Underworld, which recounts the secret history of Japan’s post-war era via the biography of pizza entrepreneur and all-round rascal, Nick Zappetti. These are the nominal subjects of the books, but the underlying theme is culture, its importance, and the trouble it causes when you get it wrong.

NicolaZ

In a sense, Whiting is a kind of Lafcadio Hearn for our times. Unlike the pioneering Japanologist, he does not do temples and shrines or wabi sabi aesthetics. He prefers stories about mobsters to ones about goblins, and it is hard to imagine him wandering the streets in a kimono, as Hearn did. Yet the two writers have in common a sense of wonder and empathy toward their chosen subject and adopted home.

Not many foreign writers would have the magnanimity to say what Whiting does about the “salaryman” ethos: “I came to admire them for their dedication to their firms — and to their country. To many Japanese, that gritty all-consuming struggle out of the dust and the ashes was a kind of life fulfilment. There was a certain beauty in it.”

The words of a true Tokyo Junkie. Whiting’s memoir is packed with insights and extremely funny in places. Historians of the post-war period will learn much about the nexus of politics, money, media and organized crime that helped fuel Japan’s phoenix-like rise from the ashes of defeat. It is also a narrative of change and growth – the turbulent maturation of a single individual and of a megalopolis inhabited by some thirty million souls.

And if you simply feel like time-travelling back to Club 88 and chatting to the hoodlums, spies and good-time girls that frequented it, while Nat King Cole tinkles the ivories and Shirley MacLaine flirts with the best-looking missionary, this book is the only way of getting there.

 

Remembering 3.11: Faces and Voices of Resilience Part 2

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 09/03/2021 - 9:26am in

Tags 

articles, culture

Published in Japan Forward  4/3/2021

In June 2011, I went up to Tohoku to visit my friend K. who lives in the coastal town of Ofunato. I hired a car at the nearest bullet train station and set the satnav for Ofunato Station.

When I arrived after a two hour drive, I found that the station no longer existed and neither did the town centre. Instead, my gaze rested on acres of rubble, twisted metal, shattered plastic, wires, shelves, spoiled household goods, unclassifiable objects that once had a purpose.

A mile from the shoreline, a capsized fishing trawler nestled between broken buildings. A dead car sat in a river, water up to its windscreen. The air was acrid with dust.

 credit, Shoko Hashimoto There’s work to be done: credit, Shoko Hashimoto

K. greeted me, smiling and crying. On the phone she had told me “Women are strong.”

Her parents’ house had been close to the port. As soon as the tsunami alert sounded, she went to pick them up in her car and drove them to her place, further up the valley. Now all that remained of the parents’ house was a few bare concrete blocks. Their only surviving possessions were the clothes they were wearing at the time.

“Some people lost much more,” K. told me. “They kept their life savings in cash at home.

Ofunato had been lucky, she continued. It had suffered badly from the last serious tsunami, triggered by the Chilean earthquake of 1960. As a result, the townspeople were sensitized to the risk. Every year there were two or three alerts for a “large-scale tsunami”. Each time, K. would pick up her parents and drink tea with them at her place until the all-clear message appeared on her phone

In contrast, the neighbouring town got off lightly in 1962 and therefore was slow to react this time. Thirty percent of the people working in the local government office died.

“The first thing was the sound,” K. recollected. “A horrible crunching, roaring sound. I went out into the garden and saw the wave coming over the top of the pedestrian bridge. That’s when I knew we had to get out of here too. “

The water flooded into K.’s garden but stopped there. By that time, she and her parents had fled into the mountains. They spent days up there, living in an old people’s home with no electricity, no heating, no phone. After finding some gas canisters and a portable cooker, she defrosted some frozen food and cooked it up for the one hundred inmates.

K.’s father was head of the local post office for fifty years. Long after his retirement, his friends called him “Bureau Chief.” One of the proudest days of his life had been when the Emperor decorated him for his long service at a ceremony in Tokyo.

“We were lucky,” he said. “It would have been much worse if the tsunami had come at night.”

I heard this again and again. These people who had lost so much kept saying they were lucky. But perhaps luck comes to those who believe they are lucky.  A few weeks after the disaster, K. was walking past one of the many piles of rubble that dotted the area when she saw something glinting amongst the lumps of concrete and broken furniture. It was her father’s medal, conferred by the Emperor, still intact. None of their other lost possessions reappeared.

 credit, Shoko Hashimoto Temporarily housed in a school: credit, Shoko Hashimoto

At dusk, she showed me the graveyard of cars, eight hundred of them, some just dented, others squashed like beer cans.

“If you come late at night you can hear voices,” she said. “People trapped inside the cars are calling out for help.”  I checked to see if she was joking. She wasn’t.

I last saw K. in the summer of 2019. When the disaster happened, her husband and son were in Tokyo, working and studying respectively. Now they are all back together in the family home. She works part-time as a juku teacher and volunteers to help aged people, though Covid has disturbed the normal routine.

I stayed at the Ofunato Onsen Hotel, up on a bluff overlooking the bay. The seafood was delicious, the view spectacular. The town was entirely rebuilt, the station shiny new and equipped with all the latest tech.

The material devastation of 2011 had disappeared like a bad dream, but the human damage was irreparable. So many had died, so many lives had been blighted. K.’s father had passed away several years before, never fully recovering from the trauma.

Life is not easy here. It never has been and never will be. The courage is humbling. What is Covid-19 when you’ve been through 3.11?

 credit, Shoko Hashimoto The life-force runs strong: credit, Shoko Hashimoto

COUNT ME IN!

Shoji “Swifty” Sugawara reopened seven weeks after the disaster, half-expecting nobody to come. His top-notch audio equipment was in a sad state. Aftershocks would send the stylus skipping across the vinyl from time to time, but customers didn’t seem to mind. They drifted in straight away, wanting good strong coffee and whisky and, most of all, jazz of all kinds, at full throttle, now more than ever.

Swifty’s place was in Ichinoseki, a town of 110,000 in the south of Iwate Prefecture, a six hour drive from Tokyo. Well away from the coast, the town was protected from the deadly tsunami. Yet he knew people who had disappeared. Nearly everybody did.

 credit, Shoko Hashimoto Praying for the departed: credit, Shoko Hashimoto

The quake knocked down a retaining wall of the building, and the electricity was cut in this part of town. For a week he sat there in the dark, smoking and thinking. When power was restored, the sight that greeted his eyes stunned him. Tangled wires, broken glass, mess everywhere. The institution that he had spent four decades building had taken a hammer blow.

Yet he was determined to get the place up and running by April 26th. For that was the meijitsu (“date of death”) of the man who gave him his nickname and was the inspiration for his life’s work. The place that Swifty runs is named after him too: the legendary bandleader, Count Basie.

The “jazz kissa” (jazz coffee shop) is a peculiarly Japanese institution, born from the confluence of two booms in the early sixties. The first was the jazz boom set off by the visits to Japan of musicians of the calibre of Art Blakey, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis. The other was the hi-fi boom, which increased the availability of audiophile-class equipment, such as Swifty’s beloved JBL (James Bullough Lansing) speaker system.

Back in the day, the typical jazz kissa would have a “no talking” rule and would serve only coffee, ensuring that there were no drunken interruptions to the flow of sounds. Today, Japan’s six hundred remaining jazz kissas are more broadminded. Some play music that isn’t jazz and offer a good menu. Some, horror of horrors, play CDs.

Basie is probably the most famous of them all. But it isn’t just a place to listen to life-affirming music in the middle of sparsely populated, somewhat left-behind Iwate Prefecture. It is also a node in an invisible network that has a nationwide, indeed a worldwide reach.

Well-known Japanese musicians who have been there, and in many cases performed, include piano pugilist Yosuke Yamashita, avant garde trailblazer Kaoru Abe and Sadao Watanabe, the only bebopper to be awarded the Order of the Rising Sun. Famous foreign visitors include Elvin Jones, Anita O’Day, Freddie Hubbard and sonic bomb-thrower Peter Brotzmann.

How did this come about? Swifty was born and brought up in Ichinoseki. In the late sixties, he spent several years in Tokyo. He attended Waseda University and joined its High Society Orchestra as a drummer, which led to a one month tour of the United States. Several of his pals went on to become highly influential in creative circles, such as veteran comedian Tamori. By chance, he met a well-known music and film critic who became his mentor.

Those few years were enough to provide him with a lifetime of connectivity. In 1970, he returned to his hometown and set up Basie. He has been running it for the last fifty years.

In 1983, Count Basie himself visited the jazz kissa named in his honour. He was using an electric wheelchair which required Swifty to install special “barrier free” ramps to negotiate the stairs. A year later, the great jazzman passed away at the age of 79.

Not many people get the chance to get on friendly terms with their musical heroes. When Swifty is asked what Count Basie was like in person, he answers as follows. “Listen to his music. He’s exactly like his music.”

In September 2011, exactly six months after the quake and tsunami hit, Swifty fixed up a charity concert for the Count Basie Orchestra, featuring several musicians who had played with Basie for decades. It took place at Motsuji Temple, a few miles from Ichinoseki.

Two thousand people attended in the cool of the autumn evening. Arrangements for the gig were helped by the fact that one of the temple’s monks was a jazz fan who frequently patronized the Basie jazz kissa.

***

I’ve gazed at many thousands of Shoko Hashimoto’s photos of the 3.11 disaster. They convey the scale and fury of the destruction, and also the power of the human response.

There are many images of people eating heartily and smiling unfakeable smiles, even while living in disused schools just weeks after the tsunami. Communal ceremonies, such as the New Year’s lion dance, have a deeper significance when dealing with adversity.

 credit, Shoko Hashimoto An unfakeable smile: credit, Shoko Hashimoto

The conclusion: my God, these people are tough. Perhaps all humanity is when survival is at stake. Most of us will never know because we will never have to face the same kind of test.

Let’s hope so anyway.

All photos are by Shoko Hashimoto. His photobooks are available at the Shashasha online bookshop.

 

Remembering 3.11: Faces and Voices of Resilience Part 1

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 05/03/2021 - 10:10am in

Published in Japan Forward 3/3/2021

In the event of an earthquake, you’re supposed to shelter under a table. That’s the official advice, anyway. In the early afternoon of March 11th 2011, when the walls of my dwelling started groaning and shuddering like a creature in pain, primitive instinct took over. Before I knew it, I was outside on the street.

Others were there too, mostly complete strangers. Social distancing comes naturally in Tokyo, but suddenly we were hugging each other for comfort. Waves of energy surged underfoot, causing us to stagger like drunkards. An instant premonition told me that somewhere on this land mass many lives would be lost this day.

In a matter of hours, the giant city had ground to a complete halt. It was unnerving – but as became clear as the days passed, it was nothing compared to the devastation wreaked in the north east region of Japan’s main island. The people of Tohoku, as it is called, had suffered one of the most terrible natural disasters to afflict a developed country in the modern era

The earthquake and tsunami caused 15,899 deaths, nearly all from drowning, with 2,633 missing. The waves of the tsunami are believed to have reached a height of 133 feet and moved at 430 miles per hour, giving people just ten minutes of warning as the wall of water raced to the coast from the epicentre offshore.

The quake itself shoved Honshu, Japan’s largest island, eight feet to the east, and shifted the earth on its axis by some 4-10 inches.

 credit, Soko Hashimoto It looked like a warzone: credit, Shoko Hashimoto

As if to prove the saying that bad news comes in threes, at the end of the week nuclear meltdowns occurred at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant.  In all, over half a million people would have to be relocated.

Such statistics are easily digested. They have a numbing, almost comforting effect, allowing us to think we understand experiences that are unfathomable and unimaginable. How did the people of Tohoku cope with the reality?

***

Shoko Hashimoto’s face is a map of his life. It radiates intensity, strength, humour, boundless curiosity and a wisdom that comes from deeply lived experience. Though he has been based in Tokyo for decades, he seems to come from a different, earthier world – and indeed he does.

He is a native of Ishinomaki, a north eastern port town of some 150,000 souls which was hit hard on March 11th 2011, suffering some 4,000 casualties. He is part of Ishinomaki, and Ishinomaki is part of him.

For many years, Hashimoto held a regular photography workshop for elementary school kids in his hometown. Several of his pupils drowned in the tsunami, which took a terrible toll of schools near the port. Ten years on, he still has some of the photos they took.

A Nichiren priest prays for the dead children A Nichiren priest prays for the dead children: credit, Shoko Hashimoto

He recalls the shock of that dreadful day. “Something awful has happened in my hometown. I don’t know whether my relatives are safe. Kawaguchi Citizens’ Hospital is under water. People are saying that the east side of Kawaguchi Town, the Kadonowaki area, the fish market and the port area have been totally destroyed.  One of the men glimpsed on TV in an evacuation shelter was almost certainly my brother.”

It took over a week to confirm that his family members were indeed safe. On March 27th, sixteen days after the quake, he travelled up to Ishinomaki. He was shocked by what he saw. Some parts of the town looked like a war zone.

People rooted through the ruins of their houses, hoping to find something useable, and lined up for emergency rice rations. The smell of putrid fish was everywhere:  the tsunami had wrecked trucks packed with seafood produce intended for the major urban centres.

Hashimoto decided immediately to make a photographic record of his hometown’s struggle to return to normality. “What has the disaster taken from people?” he asked himself. “What effect will it have on their daily lives, their values and inner selves?”

In an attempt to answer those questions, over the next three years he made thirty six trips to Ishinomaki, spending the equivalent of twelve months there taking many thousands of photographs.

 credit Shoko Hashimoto The empty schoolroom: credit, Shoko Hashimoto

Hashimoto tells me that his childhood ambition was to become a diplomat, as English was his best subject at school. However, he soon came to realize that his heavy Tohoku accent, known as “zuzu-ben” because of the buzz-like intonation, might not go down well in top diplomatic circles. His next ambition was to be a painter, but his elder brother, who went on to become a fine arts teacher in Ishinomaki, got there before him.

In the end, Hashimoto opted for photography, which he studied at Nihon University’s College of Art. After a brief period as an in-house photographer for a monthly magazine – snapping celebrities was “boring”, he says –  he took the plunge and became an independent art photographer.

This was at a time when photography was booming and practitioners like Daido Moriyama had the cachet of rock stars. In the 1970s, the photo magazine Asahi Graph, which backed several of Hashimoto’s projects, was able to sell 100,000 copies a week.

Hashimoto’s approach to his work has always been uncompromising and emotionally committed. One of his first projects after turning professional  was to document daily life in Sanya, a rough-and-tumble area of east Tokyo where day labourers scuffle for jobs.

In order to understand their world, Hashimoto became a day labourer himself, unloading ship’s cargoes and cleaning up at construction sites. He even spent three days in the “monkey cage” (police holding cell), after photographing, and participating in, an invasion of Tokyo’s City Hall.

Some of his most interesting work has centred on Japan’s remote regions. Nishiyama Onsen: Empire of Nakedness explores the custom of communal mixed bathing in a medicinal spa high in the Yamanashi mountains. It was quite literally an immersive experience for Hashimoto, as he joined the naked throng singing and laughing in the crowded bath.

His Goze project involved roaming the countryside, mostly by foot in harsh conditions, with a small group of sightless female singers and musicians, the last remnants of an age-old tradition. Gaining the acceptance of the all-female band was no easy matter, but Hashimoto’s engaging, open-hearted personality invites trust.

Altogether, he was with them for three years, and the work he produced won him the prestigious Newcomers’ Award from the Japan Photographic Society. His images of 3.11 and its aftermath are just as visceral and haunting.

 credit, Shoko Hashimoto Trying to make sense of disaster: credit, Shoko Hashimoto

Hashimoto has an obsessive eye for detail. In conversation, he became quite animated on the subject of a classic photo by Bill Brandt. Well-known as the cover image for George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, it portrays a tramp hunting for food in the trash bin of a fancy restaurant while a man in a bowtie and tuxedo looks on.

An academic book had described the bin as being made of plastic. Hashimoto, convinced it was metal, researched the market for bins in 1930s France to prove his point and wrote to the book’s publisher asking for a correction.

The same visual acuity is present in the haiku that he writes. According to the late Tota Kaneko, one of the masters of modern haiku and a stern critic, Hashimoto’s haiku come from the same creative source as his photos and have “a special visual impact”. Here are two examples.

One cold morning

Two people using sign language

Come passing through

 

Fledgling swallows

Having eaten from mother

Snap their beaks shut

Back in Ishinomaki, Hashimoto lost himself in photography. “It was if I was in a boxing match with the actuality before my eyes,” he recollects.  “Day after day, the camera captured piles of rubble, flattened fishing villages, the expressions on people’s faces.”

Sometimes he felt that he was talking to the tsunami itself, which had brought this once-in-a-thousand-years catastrophe. “Why did you do it?” he asked. “What was the real reason?”

The reply was always the same.  “It was you.”

What does that mean? Hashimoto talks of an atonement that human beings must experience if they are to be protected from extinction on this earth, of the need to recognize the underlying principles of nature and the gods.

His heart told him to keep on pressing the shutter button.

All the photos in this two part series were taken by Shoko Hashimoto. His photobooks can be purchased online at the Shashasha bookshop.

To be continued…

Burn On, Joe! A 1960s Manga Icon Lifts Spirits Today

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 20/02/2021 - 10:50am in

Published in Nikkei Asia 17/2/2021

The fate of the 2021 Olympics Games in Tokyo may still be hanging in the balance, but one indirectly related event is already in progress. That is the Tomorrow’s Joe exhibition which I recently viewed at the Bungakukan (“Hall of Literature”) in the city’s Setagaya Ward.

Tomorrow’s Joe is probably Japan’s most famous sports manga. Serialized in the Weekly Shonen Magazine from 1968 to 1973, it has sold over 20 million copies in book form and spawned two hit TV anime series and three films. More than that, it summed up a whole era and way of thinking that still resounds in today’s Japan. Joe Yabuki, the young boxer who is hero of the story, remains a symbol of living with maximum intensity, no matter how daunting the odds.

He is known for his famous words when, toward the end of his last fight, his faithful corner man is about to throw in the towel. “Old man, I’m begging you… let me carry on… until there’s nothing left of me but white ashes,” says Joe.

 Danpei Tange Joe’s trainer: Danpei Tange

On the day I visited, the diverse range of attendees included young women, families and numerous manga geeks as well as some chaps old enough to have read the first instalment when it was hot off the press. Of the two joint creators, story-writer Ikki Kajiwara passed away over 30 years ago, but artist Tetsuya Chiba is still active, a living legend on the manga scene.

In a recent publication, he describes the background to the creation of Joe. “Back then, the economy was developing rapidly, but at the same time there was a negative side to it. We’d lost our Japanese soul and sense of self-respect, also many people were suffering from pollution, and the beauty of the natural environment was being destroyed. Anyway, however you look at it, we wanted to recover from that terrible lost war and charge forward with reckless abandon.”

Young Joe’s story is a dark one. He arrives out of nowhere, with no friends or relatives, and demonstrates his street-fighting prowess on the mean streets of the Sanya flop-house district of Tokyo.  Mythic heroes, from King Arthur to Luke Skywalker, always need a wise mentor to guide them. Joe’s Merlin is a facially scarred, one-eyed ex-boxer who sells his blood for booze money.

Joe is on the cute side of handsome, but the fights are gory and death lurks nearby. In one particularly disturbing scene, we see one of Joe’s opponents as a young boy bashing out the brains of his own father. Chiba based that gruesome incident on his own childhood memories of fleeing Manchuria among scenes of chaos and violence at the end of World War II.

Working class hero Joe Working class hero Joe

The manga was a tremendous success with students, including radical extremists. The leader of the nine-man armed group which hijacked a Japan Airlines plane and flew to North Korea in 1970 declared in their statement of responsibility: “Make no mistake – we are Tomorrow’s Joe.”

Most of the members of the Japanese Communist League Red Army Faction involved in that incident are dead now, but four remain in North Korea, including the former bass player of Les Rallizes Dénudés, a famed proto-punk band.

There were fans on the other side of the political spectrum too. One summer night in 1969, an editor working late at the offices of publisher Kodansha was amazed to find himself confronted by an impatient Yukio Mishima.

“I can’t wait until tomorrow for Tomorrow’s Joe,” quipped the great novelist and militant nationalist and demanded an advance copy of the magazine, so worried was he that his busy schedule would prevent him from procuring one. The editor quickly obliged.

Tomorrow’s Joe reached its apogee of fame in 1970 when poet and countercultural icon Shuji Terayama arranged a funeral to mark the death in the ring of Joe Yabuki’s great rival, Toru Rikiishi. The exhibit in Setagaya features a mock-up of a boxing ring and contemporary photos of this bizarre ceremony.

The funeral of Rikiishi The funeral of Rikiishi

Around 800 mourners, ranging from junior high school kids to office workers, attended that event. Also present was Masahiko “Fighting” Harada, a Terayama pal and a former bantamweight and flyweight world champion, as well as the manga’s two creators.

A senior priest from the Soto Zen sect chanted sutras while musty incense wafted over a black-bordered portrait of the “deceased” manga character. In Japanese Buddhist style, he was given an elaborate “new name” to prevent him being called back to this world.

Terayama claimed that the square-jawed Rikiishi, who was dating the daughter of a super-wealthy zaibatsu family, represented the pro-U.S.moneyed elite. Joe, on the other hand, starts off as a petty criminal who dreams of using his ill-gotten gains to build playgrounds and clinics in the slums. In Terayama’s eyes, he stood for revolution, and his defeat by Rikiishi (who died after winning the bout against Joe) symbolized the establishment’s knockout victory over the radical left.

Rikiishi death match Rikiishi death match

Terayama’s interpretation was creative, but if Tomorrow’s Joe were merely a political fable, it would be forgotten today. The reality is that Joe and Rikiishi had a lot in common. They first meet at a juvenile prison where Rikiishi has been sent for beating up a spectator who insulted him. Joe is in awe of Rikiishi’s prowess and there is a mutual attraction based on their opposing personalities.

In order to make their final match-up possible, Rikiishi reduces his weight by a fifth and drops from welterweight to bantamweight so that he can fight the lighter Joe. This extraordinary feat almost guarantees that Rikiishi will lose.

Haunted by his responsibility for his rival’s death, Joe falls into a deep personal and professional slump, until he learns to take Rikiishi’s courage as his inspiration. His future victories are dedicated to the man he loved, hated and killed.

Joe beaten by Rikiishi

This is a Japanese story, so there is no Hollywood ending. Joe reaches the top rank of boxers but, unlike Fighting Harada, never becomes world champion. The other guy, reigning champion Jose Mendoza, is just too good.

What actually happens at the end of Joe’s final bout is still a matter of debate amongst fans. One thing is for sure – Mendoza is marked forever by his fifteen round encounter with Joe Yabuki.

Ultimately, Tomorrow’s Joe is a classic because it tells a compelling story of personal growth. Joe is a lazy, thieving street-kid who becomes a man under the influence of mentors, friends and, above all, the sport. Yet it is his inner wildness that makes him such an awesome fighter.

He gives everything he has and more because that is the only way he knows to live.

Joe and me Joe and me

Not many of us can battle on relentlessly like Joe Yabuki, but now more than ever we need his example.

The exhibition at Setagaya Bungakukan continues until March 31st.

Peering into 2021: Tanjiro Kamado Battles Big Tech

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 09/01/2021 - 10:33am in

Published in Japan Forward 2/1/2021

This time last year I wrote in Japan Forward about the concept of “Lenin weeks”.

I was referring to Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin’s dictum that “there are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen.”

My thinking was that a random incident, such as a marine confrontation between China and the U.S. or Japan, could quickly escalate into a conflict that would change our world out of all recognition.

I had no idea that as I wrote a new coronavirus had manifested itself in the Chinese city of Wuhan and was already in the process of seeding a global pandemic that would cause the sharpest economic downturn of the modern era.

At the same time, the corona crisis has accelerated technological, social and political change in a way that Lenin would surely have appreciated.

Propaganda poster of Lenin Propaganda poster of Lenin

The digital economy has powered ahead, while businesses that depend on face-to-face transactions – whether selling pints of beer or automobiles – have suffered. In the wealthy countries, the middle classes with spacious homes and information-processing jobs that can be done remotely have felt no pain. Many low-paid workers have lost jobs that will never return.

In Japan, where such statistics are quickly available, suicides have started to rise after fifteen years of decline. The social malaise will be much deeper in Western countries that have suffered greater economic and human damage. Already, there have been reports of soaring depression, domestic violence and alcoholism.

Meanwhile central bank policies have made the asset rich even richer. Globally, there could hardly be a more favourable environment for populism and social unrest.

The stark contrast between the relatively mild crisis experienced by most East Asian countries and the economic and human carnage suffered by many Western countries raises another question.

Has the coronavirus speeded up the rise of East Asia and the relative decline of the West?  Infections and fatalities in Japan have hit new highs at the turn of the year, yet the gap with other G7 countries continues to widen even further in Japan’s favour.

None of this looked likely on New Year’s Day 2020, though with the advantage of hindsight, it now seems obvious and logical. Likewise, what seems improbable now may look obvious and logical in twelve months’ time. Trying to forecast the future is always mug’s game, but the uncertainties are even greater than usual after the extraordinary events of the last twelve months.

One of the key questions is to what extent the changes that have taken place in this tumultuous period are permanent and irreversible. To put it another way, will people continue to cocoon at home, with the aid of Zoom, Amazon, Uber Eats etc., even after the corona crisis has faded? If so, the structure of our cities, social lives, education systems and much else is set to undergo an almighty “reset”.

Clearly, some of the most powerful entities in the world are solidly behind this agenda, including the so-called FAANGs (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google), various financial and entertainment behemoths and the World Economic Forum, famous for its annual confab at Davos. It is the WEF that pioneered the concept of the Great Reset, which it has been promoting for several years.

Klaus Schwab, founder of the WEF Klaus Schwab, founder of the WEF

This is not a conspiracy, as some cranks believe. Rather, to quote an article in the UK’s Spectator magazine, Davos functions as “an ideological synchronization environment for individuals, corporations, and governments to keep on the same page.”

Intrinsic to the ideology is a kind of technological determinism that holds that innovations are always beneficial and must be embraced without question or concern about the downside risks.

Working with impressive speed, this July WEF kingpin Klaus Schwab published “Covid-19: The Great Reset,” written in collaboration with economist Thierry Malleret.

“The corona pandemic marks a fundamental inflection point in our global trajectory,” the authors declare. “The world as we knew it in the early months of 2020 is no more.”

Standing up against these powerful forces is a pure-hearted young man of amazing bravery who hails from a remote village in the Japan Alps. He is of course Tanjiro Kamado, the hero of Demon Slayer, the hit manga, anime TV series and movie.

It is the success of the movie version which is most impressive and most encouraging for what it portends.

To recap, Demon Slayer, which was released in mid-October 2020,  has just broken Japan’s movie box office record, which was set in 2001 by another anime film, the Oscar-winning Spirited Away.  Total takings to date are $316 million, the equivalent of 23 million admissions.

Think about that. In the year of the coronavirus, more than one sixth of the entire Japanese population went to the cinema to watch Demon Slayer, or Kimetsu No Yaiba, as it is known in Japanese.

They clearly did not get the “everything has changed” memo from Klaus Schwab.

oni4

The film is smashing records in Taiwan too, luring over one tenth of the population into cinemas. Despite the fact that it has yet to be released in China, the US or any other major overseas markets, it was the sixth most successful film worldwide in 2020.

Why did so many people choose to go to the cinema, rather than wait for the film to be made available on streaming sites, as will happen at some point? There are two obvious reasons. Firstly, watching the film is only half the fun. Discussing it with your friends, swapping gossip about the mysterious authoress, reading the reviews –   this is all part of a communal experience that can only enjoyed when the film is hot.

Secondly, cinemas provide far better visual and auditory quality, which means a greater sense of immersion in the world of the film. Binge-watching on a TV screen at home or, worst of all, squinting at a smartphone screen, is the equivalent of gobbling a fast food takeout.

Likewise, there is no comparison between live music and a Spotify playlist, or a real conversation with work colleagues and a Zoom meeting.

The lesson of Demon Slayer is that most people are not willing to accept indefinite hikikomori (“social recluse”) lockdown lifestyles. They want to participate in what is happening in the society and culture around them. They want to travel, and will even try flights and cruises to nowhere, as happened in Singapore, just to have the feeling of being in motion.

Japan’s “Go To” subsidized domestic travel campaign was taken up fifty million people, which must be reckoned a tremendous success. It had to be suspended as infections rose late in the year. But did it cause the rise? Probably not.  Neighbouring South Korea has experienced a very similar mini-surge, despite the absence of any travel promotion campaign. Seasonality is the most likely culprit. Hopefully, “Go To” will be restarted as soon as conditions allow. The demand is clearly there.

As mentioned above, 2020 saw the sharpest economic decline of the modern era. For some countries, such as the UK, it was the steepest in centuries. It was also the strangest, being caused not by problems intrinsic to the economy, but by governments preventing certain kinds of consumption for reasons of public health.

The result is that almost everywhere household savings ratios soared to record highs as people were unable to spend.  They have subsequently fallen as restrictions eased, but the level of savings is still at historically elevated levels.

What comes next? Fear is a very powerful emotion.  If it dominates public psychology, savings rates will stay high, the recovery will fizzle out and the FAANGs will become ever more dominant in our economic and social lives.

Muzan Kibutsuji, supreme commander of the demons Muzan Kibutsuji, supreme commander of the demons

Yet fear tends to fade as people learn to adapt to whatever threat they face. If their innate sociability and lust for life comes to the fore, as I hope and expect, a splurge of spending, traveling and enjoying should lie ahead in 2021.

There are three core demon slayers; the brave, but brainless Inosuke, who charges around like a wild boar; the cry-baby Zenitsu who has childish tantrums; and the empathetic but super-tough Tanjiro.

What would happen to them if they were alive in 2020, rather than in the early years of the twentieth century, the story’s actual setting?

My guess is that Inosuke refused to wear a mask, took no notice of social distancing guidelines and ended up in hospital with a nasty dose of the coronavirus. Zenitsu spent the entire year cowering in his apartment and now has an eating disorder, depression and an addiction to social media.

As for Tanjiro, he went shopping for the old ladies in his neighbourhood, learnt how to play the shakuhachi and practiced his “water breathing” fight technique every day at dawn in the local shrine.

In 2021 he’s set to confront some gruesome demons, including those that belong to the highest rank of all, the FAANG brotherhood.

Good luck, Tanjiro!

Mishima in the Twenty First Century

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 26/11/2020 - 12:54pm in

Tags 

articles, culture

Published in Nikkei Asia 23/11/2020

Can you imagine best-selling novelist Haruki Murakami leading a coup attempt against Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga? Or Booker Prize winner Ian McEwan taking a top general hostage in a British army base and inciting a rebellion against Boris Johnson’s government? Or any of the legions of writers and artists who regularly hammered President Donald Trump on social media choosing to die for their cause?

Probably not, but that would be the modern equivalent of what happened on Nov. 25, 1970, when the brilliant Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima and four accomplices invaded the office of the commander of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, called on his troops to topple the government of Prime Minister Eisaku Sato, and then committed seppuku, or ritual disembowelment (vulgarly known as hara-kiri).NARMishima

Mishima had been nominated three times for the Nobel Prize for Literature, but he was not just a writer. He was a major celebrity in Japan, the first to be described as a supasuta (superstar) by the media, and one of the best-known Japanese writers abroad. In the late 1960s the magazine Heibon Punch nominated him the “coolest male” in Japan in its “Mr. Dandy” awards, ahead of movie star Toshiro Mifune and baseball hero Shigeo Nagashima.

Since his shocking suicide, establishment Japan has preferred not to dwell on the “Mishima incident,” and only ultra-rightwing groups have seemed happy to mark the various anniversaries of his death. For the 50th anniversary, though, the vibe has been different. A few days ago, I managed to catch Mishima: The Last Debate, a documentary that uses recently discovered footage of a face-off between Mishima and hundreds of radical students during violent street protests in 1969.

The film was released in March, but was still screening in Tokyo’s central Shibuya district. I half-expected the audience to be dominated by elderly rightists in combat gear. I was wrong. There were women in their 20s and 30s wearing designer masks, some students, ordinary looking couples and solitary intellectual types. Although the film was advertised as a tense confrontation between violence-prone right and violence left-wing groups, the debate was mostly respectful on both sides, with Mishima’s wit drawing gales of laughter from the students and, indeed, the cinema audience.

Other films about Mishima have been made this century. The late Koji Wakamatsu, a radical left sympathizer once known as the “Kurosawa of pink [erotic] movies,” directed 11.25: The Day He Chose His Own Fate (2012). This biopic offers a straightforward factual account of Mishima’s last months. There is also a film version of Spring Snow, the first and best volume in his Sea of Fertility tetralogy.

His books are still popular too. Mishima wrote intense, heavyweight novels conveying his philosophical ideas, but also less serious fare as entertainments for the mass market. Interestingly it is the latter that have been doing particularly well these days. A light novel called Yukio Mishima’s Letter Writing Class has consistently ranked in Amazon Japan’s Top 10 for Japanese literature.  Another entertainment called Life for Sale was the top seller of 2016 in the Japanese literature department of Kinokuniya, Japan’s largest bookshop, with total sales topping 250,000.

 Giles Murray) Mishima display at Maruzen bookshop (photo: Giles Murray)

At least 30 novels and essays have been translated into English, including Life for Sale. There are also two more biographies. Persona is a meticulously researched doorstopper by Naoki Inose, novelist and ex-governor of Tokyo, and Hiroaki Sato. Yukio Mishima is by British author Damian Flanagan.

Another British Mishima enthusiast was the rock star David Bowie, who appears to have planned his own death in 2016 with Mishima-like artistic precision. Bowie painted a portrait of Mishima, which he hung on the wall of his Berlin apartment in the late 1970s. In the 1990s, he bought a bronze bust of Mishima by British sculptor Sir Eduardo Paolozzi at Sotheby’s.  More recently, he referred to the opening of Spring Snow in his 2013 album The Next Day: “Then we saw Mishima’s dog / Trapped between the rocks / Blocking the waterfall.”

The accent on the lighter, more humorous side of Mishima may have contributed to what seems to be a subconscious reassessment within Japan. There is also the fact that some of his political stances — on validating the constitutional status of the Self-Defense Forces, on protecting Japan’s traditional culture — no longer seem extreme.

Another impression came to me forcefully while watching the debate between Mishima and the radical students who were occupying the Tokyo University lecture hall. The cinema audience was agog at the huge moral issues that were being argued in a way that could never happen in today’s world.

Mishima engages with student Masahiko Akuta, now a respected theatrical impresario and actor Mishima engages with student Masahiko Akuta, now a respected theatrical impresario and actor

In his much-misunderstood book, The End of History and the Last Man,  Francis Fukuyama uses the ideas of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche to speculate about what kind of landscape the post-historical “last men” will inhabit, once liberal democracy has triumphed everywhere. The answer is a world devoid of great art, struggle, risk, wisdom and self-knowledge. The last men, Fukuyama posits, “will be concerned above all for personal health and safety … content to sit at home congratulating themselves on their own broadmindedness and lack of fanaticism.”

Mishima’s dislike of Anglo-Saxon liberal democracy came from Nietzsche. According to Flanagan, “Mishima’s bond with Nietzsche was described by Mishima’s father after his son’s death as of an intensity beyond imagination.”

Mishima committed seppuku just 25 years after the end of World War II, much too soon for him to escape being dismissed as an unbalanced reactionary throwback to the age of militarism. Fifty years on, the last man is here, placidly enjoying his lockdown thanks to Zoom, Netflix and Uber Eats, totally comfortable with the prospect of a future controlled by artificial intelligence and big data.

Perhaps we need a Mishima to shock us out of our complacency.

The Return of Yukio Mishima

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 22/11/2020 - 5:49pm in

Tags 

articles, culture

Published in Japan Forward 22/ 11/2020

On November 25th 1970, novelist Yukio Mishima put the finishing touches to the last instalment of his Sea of Fertility tetralogy. Then, together with four members of his Tate no Kai (“Shield Society”) private army, he drove to the headquarters of Japan’s Self-Defence Forces and asked for an audience with the four star general in charge.

Once in the general’s office, Mishima produced a seventeenth century sword, gagged and bound the man and demanded that troops be gathered in the square below so that he could harangue them from the balcony.

MishJF4

When they answered his call for insurrection against Japan’s democratic government with heckling and jeers, Mishima went back inside and committed seppuku, an agonizing form of ritual suicide which involved disembowelling himself and being decapitated by one of his young comrades.

I’m old enough to have watched the BBC news report about the “Mishima incident”, and young enough not have had a clue what it meant. I seem to remember dark words about “rising Japanese militarism” and a general feeling that such an act was only to be expected from the Japanese.

Some years later, I came to work in Japan and found that both ideas were false. There was no trace of militarism in the air, and seppuku, vulgarly known as “hara-kiri”, had not been practiced since the end of the war. Mishima’s act was a deliberately anachronistic one-off that seemed to bewilder Japanese acquaintances as much as me.

MishJF1

When I asked a business colleague what he thought of it, he answered “crazy,” echoing the word used by Prime Minister Sato when he heard of Mishima’s suicide. It was a convenient way of dismissing the whole disturbing episode from the national consciousness, which as the eighties boom gathered momentum, seemed to be what people wanted.

By this time, I had enjoyed several of Mishima’s novels in translation and had also read biographies by Henry Scott-Stokes and John Nathan, both of whom had known him well. There was no doubt that Mishima was an extraordinarily talented writer who would have been worthy of the Nobel Prize that he was nominated for three times.

He was also extraordinarily active in a wide variety of fields, such as Noh theatre, kabuki, photography, body-building, boxing, karate, kendo, night-clubbing, acting in gangster and samurai films, appearing in a BBC documentary, breaking the sound barrier in a jet-fighter, as well as drilling his paramilitary outfit and planning his own death in minute detail.

All this while maintaining his prolific literary output, divided into serious novels of ideas and entertainments dashed off for the mass market.

Readers of Heibon Punch magazine, the Japanese equivalent of Playboy, crowned him the coolest man in Japan, ahead of actor Toshiro Mifune and baseball hero Shigeo Nagashima. The word the magazine used to describe him was the English “superstar.”

Many famous writers, Japanese and non-Japanese, have committed suicide. Many have strongly held political opinions. Generally, though, writers write and talk and, these days, publicize their opinions on social media. It is impossible to imagine Haruki Murakami or, for that matter, Jonathan Franzen or Margaret Atwood organizing a private army and inciting a coup d’état.

Mishima adhered to a Japanese version of Wang Yangming Confucianism, which holds that “knowing without acting is not knowing.” In other words, you have to walk the talk.

As the events of fifty years ago slip further into the past, they seem more astonishing not less; something that might happen in one of Mishima’s stranger stories, rather than in everyday life.

Indeed, violent death figured prominently in Mishima’s literary production, beginning with his startlingly frank autobiographical novel, Confessions of a Mask, written when he was 24 and replete with masochistic fantasies. In 1965, Mishima wrote, directed and starred in a film called Patriotism (Japanese title: Yukoku, meaning “Grieving for Your Country”), which depicts the act of seppuku in slow, lingering detail.

A scene from "Yukoku." The calligraphy, "supreme sincerity", is by Mishima himself. A scene from “Yukoku.” The calligraphy, “supreme sincerity”, is by Mishima himself.

If Mishima was acting out some dark private desires, he was also making a clear political statement by imploring the soldiers in his last speech to ”protect our emperor-centred Japanese tradition, our history, our culture” by rising up and forcing constitutional change. It is impossible to separate the personal from the political in Mishima’s ultimate piece of performance art.

That’s not to say that he didn’t see the absurd side of his project, which he hinted at in a published conversation with poet-playwright Shuji Terayama five months before his death. “It’s not an accident that Don Quixote encounters strange things,” he mused. “It’s caused by his personality… Don Quixote is a daydreamer. Things that a daydreamer encounters in this world are windmills and suchlike. So I’m a Don Quixote.”

Japan’s 1980s boom has slipped into the past too, and some of Mishima’s ideological positions – on constitutional approval of the Self-Defence Forces, on protecting cultural traditions – no longer seem so extreme. Perhaps it is for this reason that Mishima seems more popular than before.

At time of writing, Amazon Japan ranks one of Mishima’s light novels, Yukio Mishima’s Letter-Writing Class, as number two best-seller in the Japanese language literature section, placing far above works by Beat Takeshi and mystery queen Natsuo Kirino. Not bad for a writer who has been dead for half a century. Another entertaining work, Life for Sale, was turned into a six part Amazon Prime series for Japanese viewers in 2016.

Meanwhile, doing the round of Japanese cinemas is a fascinating documentary called Mishima: The Last Debate. Compiled from recently discovered footage, it shows Mishima’s face-off with 1,000 student radicals, who were occupying a Tokyo University lecture hall during the violent street protests of 1969.

The clash between extreme left and extreme right turns out be nothing of the sort as Mishima disarms the hotheads with his wit and charm. Such is the meeting of minds that he even attempts later to recruit one of the student leaders into his private army!

More of Mishima’s work is becoming available in English, including the aforementioned Life for Sale. There are also two more biographies. Persona is a meticulously researched doorstopper by Naoki Inose, novelist and ex-governor of Tokyo, and Hiroaki Sato. Yukio Mishima in the Critical Lives series is by Britain’s own Damian Flanagan.

Another British Mishima enthusiast was the late David Bowie, who appears to have planned his own death in 2016 with Mishima-like artistic precision. Bowie painted a portrait of Mishima, which he hung on the wall of his Berlin apartment in the late 1970s. In the 1990s, he bought a bronze bust of Mishima by British sculptor Sir Eduardo Paolozzi at Sotheby’s.

Paolozzis Mishima Paolozzi’s Mishima

More recently, Bowie found a place for Mishima’s The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea in his list of 100 favourite books, compiled in 2013. In the same year, he alluded to the opening of Mishima’s novel Spring Snow in his album The Next Day.

Then we saw Mishima’s dog

Trapped between the rocks

Blocking the waterfall

In continental Europe, Mishima never really went away. Marguerite Yourcenar,  the first woman to become a member of the Académie Francaise,  published a highly sympathetic portrait in 1983, describing him as “a true representative of a Japan which was, like Mishima himself, violently Westernized, and yet remained distinguished by certain immutable characteristics.”

In the 1990s, Isabelle Huppert starred in a French adaptation of Mishima’s novel The School of Flesh, and the great Ingmar Bergman directed theatrical and TV versions of Mishima’s play, Madame de Sade.

All this would have been music to the ears of Mishima, who craved international recognition and revelled in his domestic stardom. On the day of his death, he left a note behind declaring “human life is limited, but I want to live forever.”  Immortality is a tall order even for this brilliant and dangerous man, but he seems to be back in the public consciousness in a way that would surely have delighted him.

 

The Gambler Vs. The Bodybuilder: Shuji Terayama Meets Yukio Mishima

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 18/11/2020 - 11:24pm in

Mishima: You may think I’m an old fashioned classicist, but I don’t trust language without a logical structure.

Terayama: Then you couldn’t put up with a dog sitting on a book by Aristotle. I think it would be erotic if Brigitte Bardot was carrying Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.

On the fiftieth anniversary of Yukio Mishima’s sensational death by seppuku (ritual suicide, vulgarly known as hara-kiri), it is worth looking back at the conversation he had with Shuji Terayama just five months earlier.

It was originally published in the July 1970 edition of Ushio magazine, and I am grateful to Professor Nobuko Anan of Kansai University for her English translation.

At the time, Mishima was a huge celebrity who had been nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature three times. Ten years older than Terayama, he came from a super-privileged background – Gakushuin school, the Eton of Japan, then Tokyo University. Before becoming a full-time-writer, he had joined the Ministry of Finance, the bastion of Japan’s ruling elite.

Terayama, by contrast, came from Aomori Prefecture in the far north of Honshu, Japan’s largest island, and consciously maintained his strong regional accent throughout his life.

From Terayama's autobiographical "To Die in the Country" From Terayama’s autobiographical “To Die in the Country”

His father was a policeman who died of illness after being drafted to South East Asia. His mother sent young Shuji to live with relatives when she went away to work as a cleaner on a distant American military base.

At first sight, Mishima, the fervent nationalist who sought to revive Japan’s martial traditions, would seem to have little in common with Terayama, the pied piper of the Japanese counterculture.

In fact, as the published dialogue demonstrates, these two sacred monsters of  post-war Japan shared several interests. They included writing for theatre, making experimental films, the possibilities of eroticism, mocking mainstream politics, breaking taboos and causing trouble.

Another point of similarity: they both died in early middle age, Mishima at 45, Terayama at 48. Mishima planned his death far in advance. Terayama suffered from an incurable illness. Awareness of their limited lifespans must have influenced their work and thinking.

The dialogue starts with an exchange of compliments. Mishima declares that he has seen several of Terayama’s plays and found them “quite interesting.” Terayama mentions that he sent Mishima a fan letter when he was young, but received no reply. That is quite plausible. Terayama often sent fan mail to writers and other prominent people he admired.

After a brief detour about theatre, Mishima compares the failure of the New Left’s street protests with his own strategy of forming a private army, the Tate no Kai (literally, “Shield Society”).

Mishima’s private army Mishima’s private army

“Theory is not meaningful unless it appears in action,” he asserts. “If theory doesn’t transform into action, it’s like the university teachers they despise…What connects theory and action is training. This is what soldiers do.”

The comment is in line with Mishima’s version of Wang Yangming Confucianism that preaches the unity of action and thought. It is also a hint that Mishima himself would not stop at words and empty gestures.

Terayama could not have had any idea what would happen on November 25th 1970, when Mishima and four Tate no Kai members would take a four star general hostage on a military base and attempt to incite a rebellion against the Japanese government.

But further hints appeared in the discussion about bodybuilding, which was one of Mishima’s obsessions.

Mishima: Here is the principle of bodybuilding. It’s to get rid of the involuntary muscles in your body.

Terayama: In short, getting rid of unpredictability from the body?

Mishima: You’re right. For example, look at my chest. I can move it freely to the music [he moves the muscles in his chest]. Does your chest move?

Terayama: I’m an unpredictable being.

Mishima: It may move all of a sudden one night.

Terayama: I can’t have any enjoyment without the fantasy that an unknown treasure may be hidden in my small body. Mishima-san, if you learn all about the structure of your body, you’ll find that it’s only water and fibre.

Mishima: You’ll live longer than me.

Yukio

Much of the conversation consists of intellectual sparring in which the two participants hop from topic to topic and namedrop Genet, Kant, Poe, Paul Valery, Bertrand Russell, Socrates and others. After several detours, they return to the subject later.

Terayama: Mishima-san, the day will suddenly come when you can’t move your involuntary muscles, even if you throw out your chest.

Mishima: That day won’t come.

Terayama: Yes, it will. Eroticism overflows at a time like that.

Mishima: A day like that won’t come. Never.

The discussion about bodybuilding is a proxy for the larger philosophical differences between the two men. In art, life and politics, Mishima prizes control, predictability and structure and finds flexibility “scary”. He obsesses about the smallest details, such as the design of the uniforms for his private army.

Terayama prizes randomness, chaos and spontaneity and is frightened by the idea of pre-determination. He loves horseracing and writes a column on it for a sports newspaper.

Terayama: Mishima-san, you don’t gamble. Is it because you think it’s not logical?

Mishima: I don’t like accident…

Terayama: Don’t you think we were accidentally thrown into the universe?

Mishima: No. In short, necessity is god.

Strangely enough, it is the approach of the iconoclastic Terayama that seems more in tune with traditional Japanese aesthetics as expressed in calligraphy or Bizen ceramics and cultural practices such as I-Ching divination. All of these leave space for spontaneity and chance. Mishima, the political nativist, has a fixation on structure and control that seems classically Western.

After Mishima committed seppuku, Terayama – who was in hospital at the time – commented that he should have done it in the cherry blossom season.

That is sometimes taken as a sarcastic dig at Mishima’s reverence for tradition, but it may not have been. Terayama could have simply meant that a backdrop of cherry blossoms would have intensified the drama of Mishima’s act. As theatre men, they would have both appreciated that.

Mishima might have preferred a spring death, but he had a book to finish, the last volume in his Sea of Fertility tetralogy. He finished the manuscript in the early morning of November 25th 1970.

Terayama: Mishima-san, have you heard this story? There was a man who said “I’m an Edokko [inhabitant of  pre-modern Tokyo] so I don’t accept the existence of trains” Then a train hit him straight on and ran him over. As he was dying, he said “there was no train.”

Sayonara, Bondo-san: Sean Connery’s Japan

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 08/11/2020 - 5:21am in

Published in Japan Forward 6/11/2020

“You only live twice, or so it seems
One life for yourself, and one for your dreams”

From the theme song of “You Only Live Twice.”

Sean Connery, who passed away in late October, inhabited the role of James Bond in a way that none of his successors could match.

From the very first shot of him in the very first Bond film, Dr. No, sitting at a casino table with a cigarette draped from his mouth, he exuded an ironic cool that contained a hard core of menace.

BondCasino

That was helped by the fact that Connery was a tough guy in real life. The son of a truck-driver and a cleaner, he had worked as a bricklayer and bouncer.

In his pre-Bond years, he punched out Johnny Stompanato, the gangster boyfriend of Hollywood star Lana Turner, who was making trouble on a movie set. For the Bond films, the tattoos that Connery had acquired in the Navy – “Scotland Forever” and “Mum and Dad”  – had to be concealed..

Connery had the same animal magnetism as Toshiro Mifune in the films of Akira Kurosawa’s golden era. And just as Mifune’s alpha male credentials were affirmed by facial hair in the samurai films, so Connery’s were established by his plentiful chest hair – a source of particular interest to Japanese women, according to Tiger Tanaka, head of the Japanese secret service.

Tiger: You know what it is about you that fascinates them, don’t you? It’s the hair on your chest. Japanese men all have beautiful bare skin.

For the film version of You Only Live Twice, Connery and the rest of the production team arrived in Japan in July 1966, just a few weeks after The Beatles had completed their series of concerts at the Budokan. He stayed at the Tokyo Hilton, now the Capitol Hotel Tokyu, in room 1007.

Unusually for the globe-trotting Bond series, almost all the film’s action takes place in one country – Japan. Several of the scenic backdrops used are little changed today.

Examples are the New Otani Hotel, which does service as the HQ of the nefarious Osato Chemicals; the neon drenched area of Ginza 5-chome where Bond locates a sumo hall and receives a ticket from Grand Champion Sadanoyama; Nakano-shimbashi metro station, where Tiger Tanaka takes the train that doubles as his mobile office.

Bond explores Suzuran-dori in the Ginza Bond explores Suzuran-dori in the Ginza

Just twenty years on from the end of the Second World War, the film presents an early version of “Cool Japan,” as exemplified by Tiger’s video monitors, leading edge for their time, and the six-cylinder Toyota 2000GT fastback, a harbinger of the Japanese prowess in auto manufacturing which would sweep the world in decades to come.

In Ian Fleming’s original novel, Tiger Tanaka, based on Asahi Shimbun reporter Torao (“Tiger Man”) Saito, was a scary ex-kamikaze pilot who voiced Fleming’s own highly reactionary opinions about race and American decadence.

The Tiger of the film – played by Tetsuro Tanba – was totally different, a man of the swinging sixties, debonair, witty and sexy. Just as the film presents Japan as a mirror image of sixties Britain, eccentrically traditional yet exciting and forward-looking, so it presents Tiger Tanaka as a smooth-chested mirror image of James Bond.

Tiger: You like Japanese saké, Mr. Bond? Or would you prefer a vodka martini?

Bond: No, no, I like saké. Especially when it’s served at the right temperature, 98.4 degrees, as this is.

Tiger: For a European, you are exceptionally cultivated.

It is a relationship of equals. Tanaka becomes Bond’s mentor in things Japanese, providing him with girlfriends and saving his life at the film’s climax.

Tiger's immaculate suit Tiger’s immaculate suit

The “bromance” between the two reflects the friendly relations between the two island nations who had been firm allies in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Not for nothing is the code phrase they use for identification “I love you.”  That’s also the message that the film directs at Japan.

The villain of the piece, the cat-stroking Blofeld, is of Greek-Polish origin. Helga Brandt, who both tortures and seduces Bond (“Oh, the things I do for England…”) is German, as she confirms by yelling Nein as she disappears into the piranha pool. With the exception of businessman Osato, the film contains no Japanese bad guys of note.

In Fleming’s novel, Bond loses his memory while completing his mission and stays on at Kissy Suzuki’s fishing village and fathers a child with her. He has a Japanese name, Taro Todoroki, and believes himself to be Japanese.

Sean Connery’s Bond doesn’t go the full Lafcadio Hearn, but Tanaka does insist that he “become Japanese” in order to go undercover. That involves having his eyelids fixed, his skin dyed, wearing a wig and going through a Shinto marriage ceremony with Kissy Suzuki at a rural shrine. The six foot two Connery carries it off with mischievous humour.

Bond and Tiger at Bond's arranged marriage to Kissy Suzuki Bond and Tiger at Bond’s arranged marriage to Kissy Suzuki

Not wanting to be typecast as an action hero, Connery quit the Bond franchise after You Only Live Twice, though he did return for the jokey Diamonds Are Forever (1971) and the feeble Never Say Never (1983).

Connery had done serious theatre, including works by Eugene O’Neil, before turning to film. So unlike Toshiro Mifune, he had no trouble in expanding his range.

Over the years, he put in several excellent performances in successful films such as The Name of the Rose (1986, directed by Jean-Jacques Arnaud), The Hunt for Red October (1990, directed by John McTiernan) and The Untouchables (1987, directed by Brian de Palma), which won him an Oscar for best supporting actor.

He also appeared in numerous clunkers, including Rising Sun (1993, directed by Philip Kaufman), based on Michael Crichton’s Japan-bashing novel of the same name. Connery plays a Japanologist, and his twinkly good humour (“shumimasen, kohai”) defuses the unpleasant conspiracy-mongering of Crichton’s plot.

His other engagement with Japan was via TV commercials for Suntory whiskey and others products.

Is it strange for a proud Scotsman like Connery to peddle Japanese whiskey? Not really. Ian Fleming, who was also Scottish, described Japanese whiskey as “very good” when he was in Tokyo in 1959. It has got a lot better since then. Fleming, Connery and Bond would all appreciate a 25-year old Yamazaki single malt.

Bond himself has become a character that, like Sherlock Holmes, can be played by different actors. Yet the template was set by Connery.

In the opinion of Connery biographer Christopher Bray, “while Fleming might have kick-started this fantasy, it was Sean Connery who got it on the road and motored it round the world.” He believes that without Connery the first Bond film would have been the last.

Certainly, his Bond is quite different from the humourless, snobby depressive of the novels. Instead Connery brings an easy classlessness and irreverence that is much more sympathetic.

In comparison, subsequent Bonds seem lacking. George Lazenby is too wooden, Roger Moore too much of a softie, Timothy Dalton too short, Piers Brosnan too effete, Daniel Craig too glum.

None of the above could have made love to Japan the way that Sean Connery did in You Only Live Twice.

connery3

This dream is for you, so pay the price

Make one dream come true, you only live twice

From the theme song of “You Only Live Twice.”

 

R.I.P. Sean Connery

 

 

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