Daibutsu, Kamakura

Daibutsu, Kamakura
Daibutsu in Kamakura, June 2010. There were thousands of school kids visiting that day. It was still great fun.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Taboo (Gohatto)

From legendary director Nagisa Oshima comes a spellbinding samurai action-drama. In 1865, the Shinsengumi samurai corps is combing the new recruits for the next samurai warriors. Two are chosen: Tashiro Hyozo, a low-level samurai, and the dangerously handsome Kano Sozaburo. Rigid rules maintain order and unity, but the Shinsengumi finds itself wrought with rumors and jealously when Kano becomes the object of much fascination. (1 hour 40 minutes, 1999)

The famous and brutal Shinsengumi, the Shogun's last samurai police corps, responsible for a reign of terror against the bakufu's enemies, and infiltrated by homosexual samurai. Not what most people imagine when they think about the famed Shinsengumi of the 1860s but in reality homosexuality among the samurai was not all that uncommon. The Japanese name of the movie is Gohatto which roughly means taboo so with a name like that you pretty much knew what to expect with this film. Taboo is directed by Nagisa Oshima, one of the more highly regarded directors in Japan, and also stars Beat Takeshi. Beat Takeshi is excellent as usual in masterfully depicting the films meaning and the taboo of this time period.

This is really a quiet and plaintive movie, not a slashing sword fighting movie, but it does have an intense sword fight scene at the end. However, the plot of the movie really is rather minimal and essentially boils down to a lot of infatuated desire towards Kano. The difficulties and jealousies begin to emerge during the sparring sessions that highlight the sexual desires of a number of Kano's sparring partners. But maybe the film is deeper than it seems. A friend of mine from the Samurai Archives mentioned how she felt Kano's homosexuality was a smokescreen and I think I might agree. Maybe Kano's homosexuality and stunning looks are a tool he is using to gain power. Kano is no meek effeminate samurai. He is a bloodthirsty sword fighter who joined the Shinsengumi in order to have a license to kill. Kano is really using his beauty to gain power over the others in the organization. In reality, the meek and effeminate looking samurai exercises a much more subtle type of power in contrast to that of the power and authority held by Hijikata. Whether the homosexuality was a smokescreen or not, this was a decent film. Not amazing, not epic, not overwhelming, not shocking, but decent and I would recommend it.

Here is the trailer for the film.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Yes I can Use Chopsticks

There is a website called Yes I Can Use Chopsticks that is from an American who teaches English in Fukushima Japan. I often read his online journal which describes his daily adventures and the silliness of certain aspects of Japanese culture. The way he writes about is daily experiences is often hilarious and below is a perfect example. I was cracking up at how he describes below how the school staff go crazy when the bread truck arrives at school.

"A truck selling bread just pulled up and everyone went F-ing crazy to go get some bread. SOME BREAD. Is it laced with heroin? I don’t know, but everyone truly goes crazy when this bread truck pulls up. They have come probably 100 times since I have been here and I have never understood it. They pull up, the office staff announces “the bread truck is here” and people literally scramble and trip over themselves to get out to it to buy…..bread. Simply bread that can be bought at the store. The only thing I can possibly imagine is they have some special contract with us and the teachers are showing their appreciation or something, but still it’s a bread truck. Now if the truck were made of bread, oh I’d run out to see that."

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Origin of Za in Japan

Did you know that trade guilds in Japan originated as early as the twelfth century or earlier. Trade guilds derived from an early form of association called a za which means a seat and probably signified a place reserved at ceremonies or a market for a group of persons having the same interest. Early za were social groups that developed into occupational groups such as dancers, musicians, and other entertainers that performed for court nobles, powerful religious institutions, or manorial lords. This custom actually has persisted into modern times such as a company of actors, the Kabuki-za.

By the fifteenth century some mercantile za were organized by market rather than just commodity for example in certain towns. However, in the bigger cities such as Kyoto the za still tended to be organized by specific commodity and were usually concentrated in a special quarter of the city. This can still be seen today in certain cities in modern Japan such as the Zaimoku-za (timber merchants) quarter of Kamakura or the famous Gin-za (silver merchants) of Tokyo.

In their earlier forms, these organizations were not independent but were subordinate to a monastery, shrine, or a manor lord for which they served. But eventually these traders began to form quasi-independent za not only for their own protection but to increase their power and their profits. With this increasing power, many za began to have a monopolistic character by preventing competitors from obtaining raw materials within a certain area. A very powerful early za were the salt dealers of the Yamato province which controlled the salt wholesalers, retailers, and pedlars of the entire province. Eventually by the fifteenth century the za made powerful enemies by abusing their privileges and were forced to give way to other forms of mercantile organization such as "free" markets and guilds established by Oda Nobunaga.

Another famous za that I am sure most of you are familiar that has survived into modern Japan is the Yaku-za. This modern za has interests in many kinds of businesses and trades.

By the 18th and 19th centuries, the trade guilds and associations were transformed into more modern forms of business with the growth of the zaibatsu and keiretsu monopolies of the 20th century.

Sansom, George (1961). A History of Japan: 1334-1615.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Please Do It Again

The muscle man may be politely moving his bag so as not to bump the man behind him or he may actually be protecting his stash from theft. Looks like in the 3rd picture he is saying "look at my muscle little man. I will crush you if you touch my bag again." The guy with the book definitely looks a little terrified. Muscle head man kinda looks like a foreigner to me.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Love and Honor

Unhappy with his food-tasting job, samurai Shinnojo Mimura (Takuya Kimura) dreams of opening a martial arts school for boys. But when eating toxic shellfish leaves him blind, his hopes for the future are dashed. Learning his wife (Rei Dan) has been forced into sexual favors in order to secure a stipend, Shinnojo works to revamp his sword skills and seek revenge. The film is the third in a series from director Yoji Yamada (Twilight Samurai and Hidden Blade).

This film fits in nicely with Yamada's other two films in this series, Twilight Samurai and The Hidden Blade, both good movies. The storyline in this film is not that original but Yamada and actor Kimura do a very good job in telling the story. The ending is straight out of a Zatoichi flick but the sword fight scene is performed superbly and I think realistically, much more believable than any Zatoichi sword fight by a blind man. Gee, what a surprise, Takuya Kimura is a former member of the pop group SMAP. It seems every samurai flick and taiga drama these days includes a present or former member of SMAP. But in reality the SMAP members including Kimura actually put on pretty good performances in their samurai roles. Kimura plays his blind character convincingly. Actress Rei Dan also does a good job as the wife. Mimura's loyal assistant Tokuhei adds a bit of humor and personality to this film. Tokuhei is played by one of my favorite Japanese actors Takashi Sasano who has been in dozens of films and TV shows including Departures and Katen no Shiro.

There is no sword action in this film at all until the end of the film and even then it lasts only about a minute or two so if that is what you are looking for this film is not for you. But it is still a good sword fight scene nonetheless. If you watched Twilight Samurai and The Hidden Blade and enjoyed them then you will probably like this film as well. I certainly enjoyed this film as I also did Yamada's other films in this series so I give this 2006 film my recommendation. (2 hours, 2006)

Thursday, July 08, 2010

The myth of of samurai cavalry

I am republishing this 2009 post because there is such a common misconception regarding medieval samurai cavalry.

This poster from the Akira Kurosawa film Kagemusha illustrates the classic view of early samurai cavalry. Great cavalry charges of thoroughbred looking horses.

But as Karl Friday in his book Samurai, Warfare and the State in Early Medieval Japan reveals, the mounted samurai of the movies bare little resemblance to the actual mounted warriors from medieval Japan. Early medieval Japanese war-horses were actually much smaller and slower than the horses seen in classic samurai movies.

According to Friday, the mounts favored by early medieval samurai were stallions raised in eastern Japan and selected for their size and fierce temperament. They were stout, short-legged, shaggy, short-nosed beasts, tough, unruly and difficult to control.

In 1953, a mass grave at Zaimokuza near Kamakura was unearthed that is believed to contain the remains of men and horses killed during Nitta Yoshisada's attack on the city in 1333. The skeletons show the horses of the period ranged in height from 109 to 140 cm at the shoulder. Modern thoroughbreds by comparison range in height around 160 to 165 cm.

Also, these medieval horses could not sustain high speeds for long distance due to their size and the weight they were carrying, mounted samurai with full armor. Even modern racing horses can only go full out for 200 or 300 meters. Early medieval Japanese horses gave the samurai a rugged, stable, and comfortable platform from which to shoot their arrows, but it was a heavy beast not well designed for high speeds or long distance riding.

Horseman had different roles throughout the samurai era. During the Heian/Early Kamakura era they operated much like skirmishers with bows. They began to make greater use of hand-to-hand weapons like naginata and swords as time went by, ending up using primarily short yari during the sengoku. And by the late Sengoku with the advent of firearms, they did begin to function much like 'trucks'-there are many accounts where samurai were told to dismount before they reached the battlefield so as not to have their horses shot. Horses were rare and expensive, and no samurai was in a hurry to throw their horses lives and training away. (Samurai Archives)

In addition, the amount of dismounted combat in Sengoku jidai increased along with the increase with the number of guns. I think this was probably due to the fact that relatively few number of Japanese cavalry made it easier for concentrated fire of arquebus to defeat them. (Samurai Archives)

So the scenes in the movies with the cavalry charges that seem to go on forever are of course greatly embellished. But they make for an exciting movie.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Ugetsu Monogatari

With 16th century Japan's feudal wars as a backdrop, director Kenji Mizoguchi's lyrical masterpiece delivers a profound message about the ephemeral nature of human life. Despite the conflict raging around them, a potter (Masayuki Mori) and a farmer (Saka Ozawa) -- two peasants with visions of grandeur -- journey to the city seeking wealth and glory. But their blind ambition ultimately takes its toll … on the families they left behind.

What an incredible film. A true classic film by director Kenji Mizoguchi. Filmed in 1953, this is film is part ghost story but not like any ghost story I have ever seen. Incredible. This film is on the same level as Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon, another masterpiece of a film. I've read other opinions that Ugetsu is one of the top ten Japanese films of all time and I might have to agree. Aside from the story and the masterful directing, this film has magnificent acting and stunning photography, especially the eerie Lake Biwa scene in the fog. This film deals with both the devastation of war and the greed of the male dominated society and it's effects on the wives and family of the potter and the farmer. Mizoguchi (1898–1956) began his career in the silent era. Later, during the early 1940s, Mizoguchi was hampered by the nation's war propaganda effort, but in spite of that he did make a highly regarded two-part version of The 47 Ronin.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Japanese castle ramparts constructed in California

I came across this website today called Stoneworld.com that has an interesting story regarding the construction of replica Japanese castle stone ramparts at a park here in California. The stone ramparts were constructed in January of this year in Ventura, a small city of about 100,000 people 2 hours north of Los Angeles. Master stonemasons came from Japan to California to supervise their North American counterparts in the construction of a traditional Japanese structure — castle ramparts — using ancient but still viable techniques.

They used nearly 400 tons of sandstone, a very common stone here in Southern California. This is different from the type of stone used in castle building in Japan which I believe is granite. If someone knows for sure the specific type of stone used in Japan, please let me know. The Japanese stonemasons used a traditional method of splitting the stones called mame-ya.

The article talks about Auchi castle, the magnificent castle built by the great warlord Oda Nobunaga at the height of his power. Azuchi was was of the grandest castles in Japanese history, rivaling or exceeding Osaka or Edo castle in grandeur. Oda Nobunaga is infamous for his destruction of the Buddhist temple complex on Mt. Hiei. The warrior monks from Mt. Hiei had long been a dangerous thorn in the side of Nobunaga. In 1571 Nobunaga dealt with the warrior monks in a most brutal way, laying waste to everything and everyone on Mt. Hiei, killing everyone who did not escape. However, Nobunaga did find something he truly appreciated on Mt. Hiei, very well built stone walls. The walls were apparently built by a community of stonemasons who lived at the foot of Mt. Hiei and known as the Anoh. The Anoh were originally brought from Korea to Japan in the 6th century and later it was the Anoh stonemasons who helped construct Nobunaga's Azuchi castle in 1579. Unfortunately for Nobunaga, he would be dead by 1582 and his beautiful castle burned to the ground after being completed only three years prior.

Azuchi Castle ruins

According the Stone World article, there still lives a family at the foot of Mt. Hiei who carry on the traditional way of stone working. Jyunji and Suminori Awata are father and son 14th and 15th generation stonemasons. The Awatas were even commissioned to help stabilize the stone rampart remains of Azuchi Castle according to the article. It was the Awata Construction Company that was incentive for the Ventura California project. The article has additional interesting information about the Awata's and their trade.

Arsenal Manager Wenger Labels Japan's Keisuke Honda the Player of the Tournament

This is impressive coming from the manager of the English Premier League team Arsenal. Too bad the United States does not have an exciting striker like Honda. American strikers went scoreless in the 2010 World Cup. American Jozy Altidore has potential with his strength and speed but needs to mature as his inexperience leads him to do too much on his own.

From Goal.com

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has hailed Keisuke Honda as "a genius" and the star player at World Cup 2010.

The Japan international wowed supporters with his performances for the Asian challengers and grabbed three goals before dropping out of the competition at the second round phase. Comfortable up front or on either wing, this versatility made him hot property before CSKA Moscow scooped him up for £5 million in December.

Wenger had been believed to have been close to making a bid for his services, along with Tottenham Hotspur, Ajax, PSV and Twente. Speaking to Eurosport, he couldn't hide his admiration for the 24-year-old, who is also believed to be a target for Barcelona.

"This Japansese team is based on a solid and collective defence in which everybody knows exactly what to do," Wenger said.

"When they get the ball they can give it to Honda - and the magic starts.

"When they get that genius Honda playing up front, he has shown what a top class player he is. For me he's the best performer of the competition so far."

By Matt Monaghan
Jul 1, 2010 6:38:00 PM