井の中の蛙

12/30/2013

Yes, I watched it.

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 12:10 pm

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.

6/8/2013

Modern Japan in Anglophone Historical Fiction

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 5:25 pm

ASPAC 2013
Jonathan Dresner
Pittsburg State University

“But writers of fiction do not stumble onto locales or times: they choose them and they use them to serve their narrative and aesthetic ends.” — Jonathan Dresner

“…flaws typical of the genre: a carefully set but very selective milieu; characters cobbled together from cultural and psychosocial fragments; wildly unlikely encounters and inappropriate behavior. … I don’t ever use historical fiction in my teaching, and I rarely read it (especially in my own field!).” — Jonathan Dresner

Roughly Chronologically:

  • Gai-jin (James Clavell, 1993): 1862-1863
  • The Apprentice (Lewis Libby, 1996): 1903
  • The Teahouse Fire (Ellis Avery, 2006): Bakumatsu and Meiji.
  • Memoirs of a Geisha (Arthur Golden, 1997): subject born in 1920, lived until after WWII.

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3/23/2012

Credentialism and Other Modern Traditions

The Japan Times article on Japan’s application to UNESCO to have 和食 [washoku, Japanese cuisine] declared an internationally recognized “intangible cultural asset” is a fantastic display of modern cultural discourses. The combination of bad food history, the distortions of modernism, and abject credentialism is really quite disturbing.
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9/13/2011

The Three Stages of Ninja

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 10:49 pm

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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8/8/2011

Old Myths, New Myths: Problems of Informed Punditry

The Asia/Pacific Journal, aka Japan Focus, has a fascinating interview with Heinrich Reinfried, Senior Lecturer in East Asian Studies at the University St. Gallen, Switzerland, conducted by a Swiss weekly. “Sushi and Samurai: Western Stereotypes and the (Mis)Understanding of Post-Tsunami Japan” begins and ends with a credible historical and thematic deconstruction of some of the less helpful stereotypes of Japan: Japan as samurai state, kamikaze, zen masters. I particularly liked the short bit on Herrigel

Nazi Germany made use of the samurai ideal of one who obeys orders unconditionally, who sacrifices himself on orders from above, who although not a Christian has a noble soul. This is the ideological basis of Zen in the Art of Archery by the Nazi Eugen Herrigel, a book which has exerted a powerful influence over the years. Some Swiss still today regard this book as the open sesame to Japan. It is amusing to hear of Europeans with an anti-authoritarian upbringing who go to Japan to let a Zen master hit them should they doze off during meditation.

He mentions early 20th century ideas about national character, and Saidian othering

we use Japan as a negative role model incorporating the opposite of the positive qualities we attribute to ourselves.

And he talks about the Cold War re-exoticisation of Japan as a land of Geisha and gardens, class-less capitalism. I’m not sure Henry Luce is as much to blame as Reinfried, nor am I terribly convinced by his analysis of Japan’s response/role in the process:
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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? []

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. []

10/12/2009

Lines which make me less likely to adopt a world history textbook

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 10:53 am

So, I got a new one in the mail, and I start scanning through, with the usual particular attention to the Japan material, and right there in the “Cultural Identity and Tokugawa Japan” section is this:

Samurai (former warriors turned bureaucrats) and daimyo (the regional lords) favored a masked theater, called Nō, and an elegant ritual for making tea and engaging in contemplation. In their gardens, the lords built teahouses with stages for Nō drama.

I’ve seen teahouses, and I’ve seen Nō stages. Have any of you ever seen the two combined? Have you ever seen the 15th through 17th centuries collapsed so cavalierly? Then they jump to the “new, roughter urban culture, one that was patronized by artisans and especially merchants.”1 The Japanese sources cited in the “Further Readings” list include only Keene’s The Japanese Discovery of Europe and the Collcutt, Jansen, Kumakura A Cultural Atlas of Japan. Though the work is a collaboration of historians from a high-quality history department, the principal authors include nobody with Japan expertise, nor did any of the names of their “consultants” and “reviewers” jump out at me as familiar in the Japan field.

Now, I’m never going to pretend that Japanese history is central to world history, outside of a few moments, but there’s a great deal of excellent scholarship on Japanese history and culture, and a great deal of interest, still. How hard is it to get this stuff right?

  1. both quotations are from page 614. I’m not identifying the text because I’m not trying to target them specifically — the text looks interesting, and I’ll look at it again when the memory fades — but anyone who’s getting review textbooks can figure out what I mean. []

7/29/2009

Imperial Visits and Attitudes

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 12:57 am

I just learned of the Japanese Emperor and Empress’ visit to Hawai’i [via]. It’s not the first time that a member of the Japanese Imperial family has visited the islands, though you would hardly know it from the gushing “historic” reports of the media. Though this is the first visit by Akihito as Emperor, Akihito has visited the islands before, as have other members of Japan’s now-symbolic dynasty. In addition to the Advertiser’s photo gallery, there are some excellent shots on Flickr by “731photo” and “onecardshort”, as well as one picture from the US Pacific Command.1

The continuing connection between the Hawai’i Japanese immigrant community and Japan was a matter of strategic concern from the beginning: The Kingdom of Hawai’i wanted to use Japan as a counterweight against US power; the Republic of Hawai’i used the threat of Japan — which was actively concerned about the treatment of Japanese in Hawai’i — to support the annexation of the islands by the US; in the Territorial era, disputes about immigration and about labor organization often involved the Japanese consulate.2 Yamaguchi Prefecture immigration memorial -FullCentennial And it’s also true that the Japanese government considered Japanese emigrants to be an extension of the nation3 , and tried, in a fairly blunt fashion, to influence foreign opinion through the overseas communities. By the 1910s and 20s, discussion in the media and halls of power of the Hawaiian Japanese community as a potential “fifth column” was pretty common, and that view was also common on the mainland. It took an immigration ban, a war, Japan’s crushing defeat and entry into the US security system, and the “blood sacrifice” of Nikkei serving with distinction in the US military to overcome those fears, and transform the Japanese immigrant community and their descendants into simply “ethnic” Americans. So, a little over twenty years past the end of WWII, fifteen past the end of the US occupation, the centennial of Japanese immigration into Hawai’i could be celebrated with public monuments, publications and events.

This history is why I was so disturbed to read about PRC policy which sees overseas Chinese as intelligence and lobbying agents. There’s a reasonable argument to be made — as Ichioka does — that Japanese government policy towards emigrants gave support to anti-immigrant attitudes in the US and elsewhere. It’s true that other governments treat emigres as resources to some extent, and urge their citizens overseas to represent the nation well, but the level of coordination, and open encouragement distinguishes pre-war Japanese policy and current PRC policy from the rest of the pack. I don’t think we’re on the verge of a “Yellow Peril” panic in the US at this point, but there’s no question that this has lead to serious negative consequences for individuals, and could lead to wider problems in the future.

x-posted.

  1. That it’s a better shot of the Admiral than of the Emperor is, I suppose, not surprising. []
  2. See Gary Okihiro, John Stephan, also Morris-Suzuki []
  3. see also []

7/23/2009

Online Image Resources: Pedagogy and Geeky Fun

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 10:03 pm

One of my projects this summer has to do with the use of images in history classes: I’m trying to improve my teaching, and perhaps help others, by scanning pictures1 and identifying online sources for good images, as well as trying to figure out ways to do more with the images in the classroom. There’s been some great discussion of powerpoint and images in the classroom at Edge of the American West over the last week, the upshot of which is that images don’t really help all that much, unless you use them well. Not a surprising result, but the fact is that I use images sparingly in the classroom (and have never used powerpoint) because my training — and natural talents, I think — is heavily textual. I love a good map or chart, and I do use art in class both for cultural history and as historical documentation, but not enough. It’s not about “appealing to visual learners” as much as it is my belief that visual and physical materials are going to be increasingly important in historical analysis, both as sources and as forms of presentation. This isn’t cutting edge theory, or at least it shouldn’t be.

Anyway, that’s by way of preface for some of the stuff I hope to be posting here2 over the next few months: images from my collection, and discussions of what they might mean, historically and pedagogically; other resources for visual materials and commentary on potential uses; links to other discussions of visual analysis; that sort of thing.

So, here’s my first collection of links:
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  1. both from books, which has copyright limitations, and from my own collection of slides and digital pictures, which doesn’t (at least for me, which is what matters!) []
  2. and at the other Frog blogs []

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