井の中の蛙

12/30/2013

Yes, I watched it.

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 12:10 pm Print

As Jamie Noguchi said, I see these movies so you don’t have to: my review of 47 Ronin is up at HNN. As expected, it’s a blazing failure, with few details of either the original incident or famous dramatizations left intact. A subtitled video of the 1748 Bunraku play would have been better, artistically and probably commercially.

I left a few quibbles and comments out of my review, for clarity, space and relevance. That’s what a blog is for, right?

  • Language and accents: The cast is almost entirely Japanese by birth, probably to avoid the “Memoirs of a Geisha” casting backlash. But this means that the entire cast, with three exceptions, speaks with a variety of Japanese accents, often straining; Keanu Reeves flat American sound and two British-sounding Dutch are the only people who sound comfortable, almost improperly casual. Very few untranslated terms, except for “Bushido,” which shows up at the end, unexplained as near as I can recall.
  • Style: I wrote “wacky colors” in my notebook. There are some nice clothes, but neither entirely period nor contemporary, and apparently dramatic collars are in for women in Ancient Feudal Old Japan. White for weddings, of course, and a gold crane for a love token. And men’s hair was a mish-mash, but shaved pates and chon-mage were not at all in evidence. Mostly close crops and flowing locks, some ponytails. Women’s hair included some fairly straight Edo-style updos with lots of bling, as well as some implausibly vertical ponytails, and a half-up/half-down thing that looked like it was cribbed from a Star Wars sketchbook.
  • Weird choices: the armor looked more like leather than lacquer (except for the medieval-style tiger skin helmet brigade, and the big ugly guy in lumpy plate mail), and the horse trappings were leather as well: I thought Japanese used mostly cord, with wooden saddles.
  • For a 2+ hour film, it felt rushed in places, and I suspect a director’s cut might fill in some of the plot holes, psychological implausibilities. Or maybe I’m an optimist, and I’m not sure I care enough to watch a longer version and find out. But the editor should be ashamed of that work: I’m not much of a film auteur, despite Scott Kaufman’s best efforts, but even I could tell that it was a hack job.
  • The only hint of humor in the whole thing was delivered by the fat samurai, who was the only one of the 47 besides Oishi and his son (‘Chikara’ instead of Rikiya) to have any real life, and it was pretty pitiful, at that. Apparently, fat is funny, and fat samurai are stupid and cruel, but nice enough to apologize while dying, and like a good joke, even when choking on blood. At least I think he was choking on blood: you see very little blood in this movie, even after beheadings. The movie is bloodless, literally and figuratively.
  • Remember how, in Chushingura, Oishi and the 47 spend a year pretending to not care to throw off suspicion? This time Oishi gets to spend the year in solitary confinement, “to break his will” and the time is marked with a “one year later” transition card. The unintentional way Oishi and Kai trick Lord Kira into thinking they’re dead – an almost Shakespearean ‘here, use my sword until you die in a fire’ – turns out not to matter much, and nobody seems all that surprised when they turn up alive.
  • The guy playing Lord Kira, coincidentally named Asano, really looked like he was having fun. Apparently he can sing, too, so if someone wants to cast him as Mordred in “Camelot,” I’d probably pay to see that. As for the rest of them, the usual confusion of serious purpose and dour demeanor was rife. Kikuchi Rinko as the fox/witch/dragon/sexpot lady had some life, too, but the writers failed her as badly as everyone else. She tells Lord Kira’s fortune and but misses his impending death, though maybe she was doing the “he will be famous, I just can’t tell for what” trick; the movie wasn’t smart enough to do what “Babylon 5″ did with a similar opportunity.
  • There was a ronin named Basho. No relation to the poet, as near as I can tell. But it’s a little disconcerting when Oishi says suddenly “this was Basho’s sword” as if that should matter, but it really doesn’t.
  • I’m not sure there ever were 47 ronin on screen at once, though the scene when the blood oath was signed came close.
  • There’s a passing reference to the legend of Obasuteyama, and infanticide through exposure is pretty much how Keanu Reeves’ character becomes interesting.

My standard lament, which I mention at the end of the review, still pertains. I maintain that a movie which hewed more closely to either the actual history or to the traditional popular fiction would have been better, and would have performed better, financially. And we would have less un-learning to worry about.

8/10/2012

What do Samurai Have To Do With It?

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 12:24 am Print

FallsofClydeLongViewI saw Margi Preus’s Heart of a Samurai (Amulet, 2010) and the title alone made me cringe: just what the world needs, another kid book touting the putative values of warrior aristocrats! But when I picked it up, I realized immediately that it was something else entirely (or almost entirely): a fictionalized retelling of John Manjiro‘s adventures as a castaway from Japan. Here’s a story that’s worth retelling — though it’s been done a few times already — and which presents a very different light on Japanese history. I borrowed it from my friend1 and discovered that I was right. Both times.

John Manjiro, also known as John Mung and Nakahama Manjiro, spent most of the 1840s on American ships and American soil, finally returning to Japan not long before Perry’s arrival marked the end of Japan’s relative isolation from foreign contact and trade. I haven’t read any of the other books on castaways, though I’ve heard a number of my friend Stephen Kohl’s panels at ASPAC. Manjiro’s tale is more extreme, both in the length of time he was away and the depth of his experiences, not to mention the timing of his return. When he returned he was interrogated thoroughly, then forced to remain in his hometown before being called to service. With his experience, he became a valuable source for policy-makers, starting with his native Tosa domain, passing to Shogunal service, and then as a promoter of Western learning. Manjiro’s journey was well-documented, and highlights some fascinating aspects of mid-19th century global life, including the whaling industry famously chronicled in Moby Dick, early education, and the tensions engendered by Japan’s isolation. Preus’s handling of the chronology and substantive topics is straightforward and sometimes quite good, including the racism Manjiro encountered both at sea and in New England.2

My reservations about this book stem from the samurai lens which is imposed on a commoner’s tale. The title refers to Manjiro, who is described early in the book as having ambitions to become a samurai, fulfilling the romantic and honorable role laid out in the classic tales. (pp. 13-14) Each section of the book has an epigram from Yamamoto’s Hagakure or something called “the Samurai’s Creed”3 and Manjiro’s elevation to sword-wearing Shogunal retainer is treated as the culmination of a long-held dream (as well as being entirely unprecedented). It’s possible that Manjiro really felt this way — I haven’t been able to find any reference to it in the materials I’ve seen — but it certainly seems odd for a tale about a fisherman who became a proponent of egalitarianism and Westernization to have more references to sources on samurai than on village life or Meiji transformations. There was one bit I liked, though: in New England, Manjiro is demonstrating sword fighting to an American friend, but confesses to himself that he has no idea what he’s doing, and that he and his friends in Japan made up their own moves to go along with the styles of fighting they’d heard about but never saw. (p. 133)

There were a few bothersome details — an anachronistic use of bata-kusai and the misuse of the word “sutra” for “prayer” on the same page (p. 31) was particularly troubling and I’d have been happier if Manjiro’s acknowledgement of Japanese whaling came before he expressed shock and horror at Western whaling (p. 45) — but the errors were not fundamentally damaging to the historical context. The fictionalized characters and conflicts (p. 280) seem a bit overdrawn to me, though the issues they raise were real. The length of the book is something of a problem: though it’s almost 300 pages, they are so sparse and there is so much illustration and blank space that the story felt quite rushed. Perhaps the fictionalized material stands out so much because it’s quite detailed, whereas large sections of equally dramatic real life read like paraphrases of the short histories cited above.4

On the whole, not a terrible book, though I think there’s still room for, say, an kid-oriented abridgement of Manjiro’s own testimony, with annotation by actual experts.

  1. who had bought it as a donation to a youth library based on recommendations from other children []
  2. A really excellent summary of Manjiro’s tale can be found here: Nakahama Manjirō’s Hyōsen Kiryaku: A Companion Book : Produced for the Exhibition “Drifting, Nakahama Manjirōs Tale of Discovery” : an Illustrated Manuscript Recounting Ten Years of Adventure at Sea. Aside from the great pictures and introduction, the book claims that Manjiro was used as a kind of spy, eavesdropping on American negotiators (21) []
  3. that’s before part one. In the bibliography, Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s Hagakure is cited twice, both the 1979 and 2008 translations, his name is cited backwards, and once misspelled []
  4. and the helpful material at the end really is fairly clearly paraphrased material. I understand not footnoting the story, but clear references in reference material seems reasonable, no? []

11/27/2011

Seppuku: A Samurai Suicide Miscellany

For a little entertainment this Thanksgiving, I read Andrew Rankin’s Seppuku: A History of Samurai Suicide (Kodansha, 2011).1 Since I’m teaching both Samurai and Early Japan this semester, seemed like a good supplemental read, and this is the first thing resembling a lull I’ve had all semester. This is an attractive little book, substantially researched, but not much of a history. It’s more like a miscellany, a collection of materials in search of a thesis.
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  1. It helps to have friends who are journal editors: my colleague at Midwest Quarterly passed it on to see if it was worth a review, shortly before the journal gave up reviewing. []

9/13/2011

The Three Stages of Ninja

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 10:49 pm Print

The ninja question came up last week in my Samurai class — we were talking about possible writing projects — so I had to do my ninja spiel, which has become a bit of a set piece. The history of ninja in three stages: Sneaky samurai, literary device, and school.
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8/27/2011

Turnbull Book on Ako

Stephen Turnbull, one of the most prolific and controversial writers on Japanese military history, has written a book on the 47 Samurai incident. The Samurai Archives review is quite positive, though Turnbull’s involvement as historical consultant on the upcoming Keanu Reeves version does raise concerns.

It’s nice to see Turnbull stepping up his game a bit, using front-line scholarship and taking a critical approach, rather than the mish-mash of his earlier books. It seems unlikely to me, though, that the debunking scholarship which has advanced over the last decade or so will have a significant impact on popular versions of the incident. It’s possible, I suppose, that Turnbull’s involvement in the new movie means that it will be a thoroughly revisionist statement1 but the entrenched romantic version is going to remain authoritative until the revisionist history starts to get traction in Japan.

Even then, there’s the Shakespeare problem. We know that his portrayals of English kings and other historical moments were partisan and/or heavily fictionalized, but they remain some of the most enduring images and themes in historical fiction and movies, so that historians are still forced to routinely debunk these myths.2 Chushingura and its ilk created a solid mythology by the dawn of the modern age, and the imperialist valorization of the Ako Roshi and other self-destructive samurai tendencies reinforced a vision of the samurai as abstemious, effective, principled, selfless and frequently violent. It would take a dramatic cultural shift to wipe out this tradition, one that seems unlikely given Japan’s rightward tendencies these days.3

I was screening movies for my Samurai course and came across recommendations (on twitter, I think) for The Twilight Samurai. I was very impressed: the portrayal of samurai poverty, bureaucracy, domainal politics, bakumatsu confusion, and the diversity (and, generally speaking, irrelevance) of fighting styles (and illegality of dueling) was very nicely done. The romantic side was a little over-generous, perhaps, but more realistic that an awful lot of other historical pieces. If you’re looking for a solid historical movie, one that will educate more than it will obscure, it’s very good.

  1. assuming that all the pre-release publicity is wrong []
  2. It doesn’t help that “most historically accurate portrayal ever” in movie advertising usually means precisely the opposite, as the most recent Robin Hood versions demonstrate []
  3. more likely you’d see something like the American transformation of cowboy films: more internal focus and diversity, and an obscuring of the historically undeniable negative sides (i.e., Dances with Wolves and the death of the cowboy-and-indian film) with perhaps some culturally acceptable complications. Frankly, a good Brokeback Mountain treatment would go a long way, plus being historically credible. []

6/2/2011

Ninjas at Night, Dragons at Dawn: Magic Tree House does Japanese History

Lego Ninja 2011 B1Mary Pope Osborne’s Magic Tree House series is intended to educate and entertain by taking its protagonists to different times and places, real and mythical. These Scholastic books are mainstays of schools, libraries, and primary curricula, and some of the books have companion “Research Guide” publications for kids who want to know more about the historical, cultural or scientific background. Some of these books are aimed at early readers: the first 28 in the series are short, with short, simple sentences appropriate to 1st or 2nd graders; after that the series shifts into the slightly more fantastical “Merlin Mission” mode, longer stories with more complex writing suitable for 2nd or 3rd grade students; the research guides seem to be aimed at 2nd through 4th graders.1 In these stories, Jack and Annie are given a book which, combined with the magic of the tree house, takes them to a time and place where they can carry out a mission of some kind, while learning about the site of their adventure. The whole thing is supposed to be an encouragement to learning, so to speak, showing the value of book reading. Twice in the series, Jack and Annie have visited Japanese history: in the earlier, shorter work, we get nature-loving ninja and threatening samurai; in the later adventure, we get the nature-loving poet Basho, a magical dragon, and threatening samurai.2

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  1. Check the Scholastic web site for official suitability levels. Also if you have any doubt about the fact that these are aimed at an education audience…. []
  2. I could put a spoiler alert here, but how many 2nd-4th graders are reading this blog, who haven’t already moved beyond Jack and Annie adventures? Well, my son wants to read this post when I’m finished with it, but other than him? []

5/29/2011

Young Samurai: Way of the Dragon and the Battle of Osaka

The third installment of Chris Bradford’s Young Samurai series shifts modes mid-book, when the action moves from the original Harry Potter-esque bildungsroman mode to the tragic — Young Jack is on the side of the Toyotomi, as it turns out — Battle of Osaka.

[More Spoilers Ahead]1

The book is considerably longer than the first two installments, a common feature of end-of-series climaxes, and continues with the cultural and historical bad habits noted in the first two works.2 At least, being a climactic moment, many of the historical alterations are clarified — if not well justified. There are two substantial changes to the historical record, which explain most of the other distortions: postponing the Tokugawa dominion of Japan until after the Battle of Osaka, and transforming the banning of Christianity into xenophobic nationalism and a popular movement, rather than a geo-political calculation.3 And ninja. Lots of ninja. I’m going to focus on the historiographical oddities this time, though I reserve the right to note new contextual and literary failings.

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  1. I don’t really consider that a spoiler; it’s an actual event. Knowing how things turn out is fundamental to historical work. Though I must concede that Bradford’s willingness to mess with the timeline does raise some doubt. []
  2. The Way of the Warrior and The Way of the Sword. Also, the book jacket copy is unchanged. []
  3. Needless to say, the historical changes require substantial alterations to the characters of many historical figures. One can only hope that the bad pseudonyms shield young readers from connecting these caricatures with real people. At one point, the Miyamoto Musashi stand-in orders Jack to commit seppuku, then retracts it and calls it a “little joke.” (72) []

9/15/2010

The Lead Poisoning Thesis

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 11:17 pm Print

Some research is startling, and some research confirms what we already guessed or assumed, but there’s some research which falls between these categories: research which reveals things that should have been obvious, if we’d been thinking about it clearly, or asked the right questions earlier. Siniawer’s argument about the consistency of violence in Imperial Japanese politics falls into that category, as does the new transnational migration scholarship that sees migration as a multi-directional, multi-generational process. I’m sure you have other examples

In the same vein, there’s new archaelogical research from Kitakyushu, announced on LiveScience with the headline “Lead Poisoning in Samurai Kids Linked to Mom’s Makeup.” A study of 70 sets of samurai class remains included several of children:
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8/30/2010

Young Samurai: The Way of the Sword: Ancient Culture, Modern Politics

Reading The Way of the Sword while listening to the “Restoring Honor” event, I began to wonder if our current shift to discourses of honor and warriors is a side effect of the ubiquity of martial arts in the US over the last 35 years. The values of martial arts, even the most modern ones, include personal and collective honor in ways that were, for a long time, rather absent in most American rhetoric. Sarah Palin said “If you look for the virtues that have sustained our country, you will find them in those who wear the uniform, who take the oath, who pay the price for our freedom.” That’s as good a paraphrase of the Imperial Rescript for Soldiers and Sailors as I’ve ever heard from an American politician.

The cultural and historical problems which made Young Samurai: The Way of the Warrior such a weak hash of Harry Potter plotting and dojo delusions persist in the second book of the trilogy. Like the first volume, it’s a quick read, probably most suitable for middle school/junior high readers, though older readers with an interest in the martial arts won’t find it childish. Historians of Japan, however, will find this gaijin-boy-in-early-Edo tale a test of character not unlike the one the protagonist faces: to get through it, you must ignore exhaustion, overcome moments of sharp pain, focus on the goal, and achieve a state of no-mind…. [spoilers ahead, of course, though the fact that it's the middle part of a trilogy probably tells you most of what you need to know.]
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7/13/2010

Judge Ooka’s Sidekick, part two: The Ghost In the Tokaido Inn and In Darkness, Death

After reading the last two installments in the Hooblers’ samurai detective series, I got hold of the first two. There are still two I have not read, obviously, but based on these four, I can’t seriously recommend the series: the misinformation and errors just outweigh any value that they have as presentations of Edo life or culture.1 The authors’ notes can’t save these books, because even good information is twisted into such blazingly implausible scenarios that no real understanding could survive, and there’s no end to the errors. [Spoilers, of course, because I don't really want anyone to read these books!]
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  1. I still maintain that the last book, A Samurai Never Fears Death is decent, but it’s clearly the exception. []

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