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.


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? []


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:


Dinner first, then dessert

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 5:53 pm Print

I was going to post about it here, but Another Damned Medievalist raised the question of how to deal with primary sources in a class where students lack important background concepts, and so I’m going to share the comment I made over there and then expand on it a bit:

I’m not sure if I’d call it a ‘brilliant’ idea, but I faced a similar dilemma in my Early Japan course: rich primary sources, but weak general knowledge. The way I handled it this time was to break the semester up into two units: in the first, we went through the textbook and political/economic source reader, covering the basic narrative, political and economic and religious history in a fairly traditional fashion; in the second half of the course, I went back over the same history through the primary sources — Genji, Heike, etc. — with a big secondary work on mentalite at the end. The goal, obviously, was to give the students the context first, along with some basic skill-building, then to delve deeper into the material that they were now more comfortable with, without all the “you don’t know it yet, but this is important because…” stuff that drove me crazy. The class size wasn’t big enough for a definitive result, but I think it worked pretty well. Our second-half discussions, in particular, were much better informed than I’d gotten in the past.

As a side benefit, by the way, we’d gone through the entire history before students got into their end-of-semester research projects, so they actually could pick topics they were interested in with some level of informed judgement and without a bias towards the early stuff (or pop culture-privileged topics in the later stuff).

This is something which I’ve considered doing for a long time, but not all of my courses break down quite so neatly in terms of the material I use. On the whole, as I said, I think it was quite successful. One of my students suggested a change which makes a great deal of sense: instead of putting Mary Beth Berry’s Japan in Print at the end, after the primary sources — I was using it instead of any particular 17th century reading — she pointed out that it would be a good transition reading. That made a great deal of sense: it introduces a great deal of theory about reading and audiences, and the argument creates a tension between classical/medieval and early modern culture which would be give more focus to the primary source discussions. I would have to add another 17th century reading: Given the rumors of a Chushingura movie in the works, maybe it’s time to bring that back into my syllabi!


Tomb Near Artifacts that Date to Himiko’s Purported Reign Dates Identified

Am I the only person who had a bad reaction to the Tomb of legendary Japanese Queen Himiko found headlines I’ve been seeing?

The article says

Archaeologists had previously claimed that the tomb, built in the traditional keyhole-shape design, was built in the fourth century and therefore too modern for Queen Himiko.

But a team led by Professor Hideki Harunari has discovered new clay artefacts close to the site, which radiocarbon dating indicates were made between 240AD and 260AD. According to records from the Chinese court, with which the Yamatai kingdom had links, Queen Himiko died around 250 AD.

The evidence seems quite circumstantial to me, from the oddly specific radio-carbon dating to the fact that they haven’t studied the tomb itself, to the treatment of Himiko and Yamatai as unequivocally Nara-centered.

I was just commenting on Jonathan Jarrett’s article about rehdroxylation rate dating that it would be nice to have better dating technology, as a safeguard against wishful thinking and distortions of the archaeological record.


Reflecting on a semester

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 1:22 am Print

We’ve been talking about our syllabi for a while here at the Frogs, but we haven’t done a lot of post-semester commentary. I had two Asia courses this semester: Early Japan and Problems and Issues of Contemporary China.

The China course went like gangbusters, and the books worked surprisingly well as a set. The Hessler was a solid starter, and I think I’m going to use it as my closer next time I teach the 20c China course. I followed it up with Cohen’s historiography, which was risky: only one of the five students in the class had anything like a serious historical background. Still, the theoretical perspectives he was describing are still very much alive, and it gave us a structure to talk about a lot of what came after. Qian Qichen’s diplomatic memoir was a nice corrective — focusing on strengths, and the Chinese perspective on the world — and the pre/post-9/11 talks transcribed in the appendices are great texts in themselves: I highly recommend them for anyone teaching a world politics or recent China course. My only concern is that it felt a little light. But if there had been more students, then the student-led reading/discussion section would have been denser. Anyway, aside from one supplemental reference which got underused, if I get to teach this course again, I’m keeping everything. I think it would work pretty well for undergrads, too.

The Early Japan course was a bit more mixed. I’m still trying to do too much, it seems: I need to spend more time on skills in the surveys, especially when I don’t have a core text. Berry’s Culture of Civil War in Kyoto was a great “slice of life” text, and actually sparked some discussion at a point in the semester when interest has often flagged. I can’t in good conscience give up the Genji and Heike readings, but I think I’m going to have to be more selective about the rest of the readings. I really want to add at least one good monograph on an earlier period, to parallel Berry. I’m thinking about Farris or Friday, and about adding student research and presentations to the document-based analysis assignments.

I need to look ahead now. I’ll be teaching my Qing course in the Fall, and so far it’s looking like a small crowd: perfect for the kind of scholarship I’m assigning. I want to work in a stronger research component than I had last time, though, to give students more of a chance to stretch their legs, so to speak.


Imperial Tombs Finally Opened to Archaeologists…Sorta

Filed under: — Nick Kapur @ 10:10 pm Print

It was quietly announced this week that researchers would be allowed to examine 11 ancient Japanese tombs, said to be the final resting places of Japan’s earliest emperors. 

The Japanese islands are dotted with thousands of kofun – hill tombs that house the remains of some of Japan’s earliest bigwigs.  While a few of these tombs have been excavated, most of the largest ones have never been touched, because local tradition has assigned them to be the tomb of one or another of Japan’s quasi-mythical early emperors; in the Meiji period, ownership of kofun associated with emperors, no matter how tenuously, was turned over to the Imperial Household Agency, which has not allowed archaeologists to even so much as set foot on them in over a century.

This prohibition has been unfortunate because contents of these tombs promise answers about one of the least understood and most controversial era’s in Japanese history, if only they could be examined.  Circumstantial archaeological evidence has increasingly pointed to Japan’s imperial family having strong connections to Korea, but without examining the contents of the tombs it has been hard to definitively confirm or deny these theories.

Alas, the current relaxation of restrictions–the result of a 2005 petition to the Japanese government by a consortium of concerned scholars from Japan and abroad–only eases the prohibition against walking on the hill tombs, but excavations of any kind are still forbidden, so it is unclear what new information, if any, can be gleaned by just walking around on top of these huge man-made hills.

Still it’s a step forward of sorts, if only a baby step.  I am still hopeful that one day we will not only know the contents of these tombs, but also that they will get the attention they deserve as some of the most amazing constructions ever built by man.  After all, the supposed tomb of Emperor Nintoku, which is among the 11 opened to examination, is the largest tomb ever built in history, about two times as big as the Great Pyramid by total volume. But hardly anyone even knows about it because nobody is allowed to go near it.

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