井の中の蛙

4/13/2014

ASPAC 2014 Abstract: Japanese Historical Process in Anglophone Cinema

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 2:29 pm

It’s that time of year again, when procrastinators do their taxes, spring cleaning, and summer abstract writing in one weekend!

My proposed paper for ASPAC this year (at Western Washington in Bellingham) is a variation on something I’ve been working on for a while now, no surprise to longtime readers of this blog, or of HNN, or to my students who have heard me rant and rail about the tragedies of historical fiction and historical movies for a decade or more. I’m going to try to focus on a kind of historiographical reading of the movies, and to talk about how we as public experts, teachers and writers, might productively respond to or use these works.

Here’s the abstract itself, which was limited to 100 words:

Japanese Historical Process in Anglophone Cinema
History is a rich vein of stories and settings, and popular historical movies can have immense effects on the historical understanding of general publics. This is especially true in Japanese history in English-speaking societies, where knowledge is often limited to one-sided understandings of unique episodes and orientalist mythologies of unchanging culture. This paper will examine a number of English-language movies, recent and older, not to catalog historical errors, but to understand how historical memory and Japanese historical processes are understood and portrayed. Finally, this paper will consider how that might affect the work of Japan specialists addressing these audiences.

I have a preliminary list of movies to address, most of which I’ve seen. I’d be interested to know if anyone out there has ideas about other films to consider?

  • The Last Samurai
  • 47 Ronin (see also)
  • Letters from Iwo Jima
  • The Barbarian and the Geisha
  • Memoirs of a Geisha
  • Shogun
  • Karate Kid 2
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III

Obviously, some of these are more important than others, in terms of audience range and likely effect on people’s ability to think about history in a coherent fashion: KK2 is probably more important than TMNT3, and the John Wayne, whatever its flaws or virtues, isn’t going to be more than a faint echo in the historical consciousness of contemporary audiences. The more recent films, including the wretched mess from Christmas, are going to weigh more heavily.

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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9/20/2012

Senkaku Islands: New Sources, New Clarity?

NYT reporter Nick Kristof brought in a guest blogger, Han-Yi Shaw of Taiwan, to examine some new mid-Meiji documentation about Japan’s relationship with the contested Senkaku/Daiyou islands. The core of Shaw’s findings is

the Meiji government acknowledged Chinese ownership of the islands back in 1885.

After several abortive attempts to survey the islands, the Japanese government declared them incorporated Japanese territory during the Sino-Japanese war, despite recognizing that it should have been negotiated with China. As territory seized in 1895, it should have been reverted to China in 1945, but for a variety of reasons, including an administrative shift of the islands from Taiwan to Okinawa prefecture, it remained outside of negotiations until a few years later.

It’s a reasonably persuasive presentation, historically, though I don’t think that these details are going to shift Japanese nationalists, even mild or moderate ones, to support politicians who would abandon Japan’s claim to these useless rocks which sit in such valuable territory. And as long as there’s no particular cost to maintaining the claim — Chinese hostility to Japan is not predicated on this issue sufficiently that abandoning the claim would eliminate anti-Japanese sentiment as a nationalist motivational tool of the mainland regime — it seems unlikely that anything will change, except a few American lectures.

8/8/2012

Atomic Bomb Symposium at Federation of American Scientists

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 11:50 am

Atomic Bombing 50th Anniversary - Ground Zero Dome zoomThere’s almost no new historical content here, aside from some biographical ruminations. Stanley Kutler’s, reprinted at HNN, is the most historically interesting, highlighting the “all or nothing” fallacy in many debates about the use of the bombs versus other tactical options.

Milton Leitenberg’s rejoinder (right after Kutler in the alphabet, by chance) recaps the “saved Japanese lives” argument, but misses something important, as this argument always does.1 Given that the Japanese did surrender after 2 bombs and the Soviet entry into the war, on what grounds does he think that a successful conventional invasion wouldn’t have produced surrender?2

I liked this one, though.

Dr. Richard A. Frankel, government analyst for energy and the environment

My memory of the first use of atomic weapons goes back to my 7th year. At that time, I was a rather precociously educated student of science, so I was able to understand the workings of nuclear weapons and thus recognized the damage done by the Hiroshima bomb.

My political sense wasn’t as advanced, so I wasn’t, at the time, susceptible to the questioning raised then and subsequently by involved scientists and then, later, by writers like Gar Alperovits. But my sense of simple fairness was distressingly violated when, less than one week later, on my 8th birthday, another bomb was loosed on Nagasaki.

Even to a then 8-year-old child, it was clear that once was enough. There was no possible reason to justify doing it again. The arguments about having to show we had more, about convincing the Japanese military, about advancing peace negotiations simply made no sense to me then, any more than now.

There are some odd errors, which you’d think the editors would have caught. One participant says that “The Japanese barely had time to digest what happened at Alamogordo before the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.” But the Alamogordo test was secret: nobody outside of the scientists and military involved, and up the chain of command, knew about it.

All in all, not a bad collection of arguments if you want to engage students. But I’m mostly not impressed.

  1. And calling this argument “a neglected consideration” is just absurd, given that I’ve seen variations of this argument going back to about 1947 []
  2. For an interesting take on this kind of argument, see Chris Bertram on drone ethics. []

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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12/6/2011

SHAFR Roundtable on Pearl Harbor (Plus HNN Bonus Article)

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 10:44 pm

In honor of the 70th anniversary of the Japanese attack on the US at Pearl Harbor, the Society for the History of American Foreign Relations has published a series of essays on the event and historical memory issues; HNN has reprinted it (with a useful index post). John Gripentrog’s “The Road to War” is a solid discussion of the political and ideological differences which put the US and Japan on a collision course. HNN’s supplemental piece, by Rupert Colley, tracks how the attack brought the US into the European conflict. And Emily Rosenberg discusses how iconic attacks like Pearl Harbor and 9/11 and their rhetorical and cultural resonances.

Those are fine, but the articles I find most interesting are the other two. Greg Robinson writes about the effect of the Pearl Harbor attack on Japanese Americans at that time and the way in which it becomes part of the rhetoric of race and bias in the decades to come.1 Finally, Yujin Yaguchi describes an intercultural teachers’ seminar which brought together Japanese and American teachers with time to explore their biases, perspectives, and to encounter new ones. The historiographical issues aren’t terribly new to academic historians, but for teachers working in a national curriculum context, it was quite enlightening.

Update: This article by Jonathan Parshall and J. Michael Wenger is the first interesting new scholarship I’ve seen on Pearl Harbor in years. Mostly it’s about the development of the Japanese aircraft carrier group as an operational unit, an unforseen shift in naval tactics.

  1. The twitter chatter as the disaster this spring unfolded frequently, shockingly, referenced Pearl Harbor with a vicious karmic glee []

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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8/27/2011

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. []

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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