I had originally read and enjoyed some excerpts from Donald Richie's The Inland Sea (1971) in The Donald Richie Reader (2002). I have always thought that Richie has done some of the best writing about Japan from a foreigner's perspective and have been sympathetic to many of his opinions about Japan and the Japanese. After reading his journals last year after his death, I decided that there were several complete works that are worthwhile searching out and reading and this was at the top of the list. However, there are still several others to explore. It is at once a travel memoir, a love letter to a region and way of life that no longer exists, and a mediation on life in a strange country that he was not born in but elected to live in despite the fact it would never truly accept him. Richie also has musing about life in Tokyo versus the country, puritanism, the individual's place in the world, and the things he appreciates about living in Japan. He also makes some revelatory observations about his marriage and sexuality. Some of the experiences he has with locals have to be read between the lines and are not explicit admissions of couplings, but obviously are. There was an interesting scene where an old woman in Miyajima tells Richie a story about a boy who is excommunicated from the village for cutting the fishing nets-an act synonymous with barn burning at the turn of the century in America.
Here are some of the more interesting observations that I largely agree with and find true even today some 40 plus years later:
So the people are indeed backward, if this means a people living eternally in the present, a people for whom becoming means little and being everything.
Words make you visible in Japan. Until you speak, until you commit yourself to communication, you are not visible at all. You might travel from one end and, unless you open your mouth or get set upon by English-speaking students, be assured of the most complete privacy.
But to believe this is to disregard a great truth that all of Asia knows: appearances are the only reality.
Japan is the most modern of all countries perhaps because, having a full secure past, it can afford to live in the instantaneous present.
I answer as best as I can, aware-as one is always in Japan-that I have ceased being myself. Rather, I have become-once again-a Representative of My Country.
The white man who goes native in Samoa or Marrakesh, the Japanese who goes native in New York or Paris-this is possible, but it is, I think impossible for anyone but a Japanese to go Japanese.
Japanese loyalty. I cannot approve of it, and I certainly do not like it. Mindless devotion-whether of samurai or kamikaze-leaves me as unmoved as does the less spectacular variety from I come from. It is actually a kind of laziness.
The Japanese carry it one step further. Nothing is anyone's fault. This is because no one will take responsibility for anything.
Asia does not, I think, hoard and treasure life as we do. Life, to be sure, is nto considered cheap, but at the same time, one does not see the tenacious clinging to it that is one of the distinguishing marks of the West.
There is no tradition of anything but a politely hidden suspicion of the unknown wanderer. To be anonymous is in Japan, to be nothing. Only after your name, occupation, family, history are known do you become real.
Here, I thought, is a glimpse into the real Japan. This is the way the Japanese mind works. Appearances are reality without a doubt, and if the reality is not sufficient, then change the appearances.
An early symptom (of the influence of the West) was that everything somehow had to become respectable-not according to Japanese standards, where everything was already respectable, but according to the half-understood and even the dissolving standards of the West.
(As someone has remarked, the Japanese have fifty-three words for "prostitute" and yet do not distinguish between "lock" and "key"-which must be a commentary of some sort upon the importance they assign to things).
This nightly closing of all forms of public transportation is, I suggest, but one of the many forms that Japanese puritanism takes.
Europe , America-these lands are also inferior, but their ideas and products may be put to good use if they are first run through the Japanese mill and emerge unrecognizableand therefore very Japanese.
I really enjoyed tagging along with Richie on his journey to the Inland Sea and within himself. Luckily, there is more by him for me to explore.
The Meiji restoration has always fascinated me since it was such a turning point for modern Japan, so I decided to try and get some more information on this momentous event. I thought a book on Sakamoto Ryoma, one of the most loved figures of the era would be a good place to start, so I started with Marius Jansen's book Sakamoto Ryoma and the Meiji Restoration (1995). I wish more of the book had been written in the style of Jansen's preface to the Morningside Edition, where he discusses how Sakamoto's reputation grew with the postwar democracy movement and was brought into the mainstream by the popularity of Shiba Ryutaro's novel Ryoma ga yuku (1966), which then spread to depictions in a NHK TV series and a host of films, where I got my idea of Sakamoto as an agent of change in films like Masahiro Shinoda's Assassination (1964) and Hideo Gosha's Tenchu! (1969). The tone of the book is very academic and the events that led up to the restoration are confusing since there are so many different alliances and figures that were associated with these epochal changes in Japan at the time. I guess my take away about Sakamoto's contributions that he was able to see past his initial radical viewpoints and make alliances that would be beneficial for the nation. He seemed to be charismatic person and a natural unifier. That being said it was a struggle to get through Jansen's turgid prose, so I will search for a more readable version of the restoration and Sakamoto's role in it.
Masato Harada’s Kamikaze Taxi (1995), once again shows that is not afraid of taking on controversial contemporary issue in Japan in the context of a compelling narrative (see Bounce Kogals-teen compensation dating and corruption). These issues include discrimination against nisei (second generation Japanese) workers and foreigners in general, as well as political corruption that has ties with the yakuza. The social commentary is tied to the story of a young chinpira (low level yakuza), Tatsuo, who is a pimp for a corrupt former kamikaze pilot nationalist politician, Doumon. Doumon resembles every Tokyo governor that has held office since I have been in Japan-nationalist and discriminatory. After Doumon beats Tatsuo girl and his girlfriend, who is part of the organization is beat to death in front of his eyes, he vows revenge on Dumon. He decides with five buddies to rob him of $2 million dollars stashed at his house. Only Tatsuo survives and the film takes a turn to become a road story as he hires a Peruvian Japanese nisei taxi driver (played by the always reliable Koji Yakusho-Shall We Dance? And Babel)) to be his driver to help him to do some final tasks. Tatsuo wants to replace his mother’s gravestone with something more fitting for a woman who sacrificed her life to him and along the way they learn about each other’s predicaments and Tatsuo finds a natural ally in the driver who faces discrimination that is preached by the corrupt Duomon. There is a trip to an onsen and other high jinks before the final showdown. The movie is almost overlong at two hours and 49 minutes, but most of that is needed to tell this particular story full of insight and social commentary about contemporary Japanese society.
The Juzo Itami Museum. Itami made some great films as a director and was also a gifted actor. Currently I am reading a book based on him by his brother-in-law Nobel Prize Literature Award winner Kenzaburo Oe, The Changeling.
My two favorite Itami directed films, that I've seen so far (not all of them have English subtitles).
I decided to make a quick visit to Okazaki to see my friend Craig, above in front of his house with his tanuki, and try his new craft beers, Ale Capone ESB and Ieyesu B Ale, that he has brewed for his bar Izakaya Janai.
Outside Higashi Okazaki station.
In Toyohashi station to transfer to the shinkansen.
Craft Beer In Japan by Mark Meli is an excellent introduction to the world of craft beer that is really taking off in Japan at the moment-so the timing for the book is excellent. After the preface in which he talks about his background and how he first got interested in craft beers, there is a section of Introductory essays. These essay are as follows: 1. A Brief History of Beer in Japan 2. Ji-biru Style 3. Ji-biru and Japanese Cultural Identity 4. The Economics of Beer in Japan 5. Japanese 6. Beer and the Japanese Language 7. Best-of-Lists 8. Ji-biru Festivals.I agree with him on several of his picks for best of beers like Shiga Kogen and Baird. This is followed by a Japanese Craft Brewery Guide, Japan's Major Breweries, and Ji-biru Places. I think he could have included more photos in the Brewery Guide and Ji-biru Places. I think he did a pretty good job on Ji-biru places, but left out some in the Kanto area that I am pretty sure were there before he published. Then again he is not based in Kanto, so that can be forgiven. But I mostly bought this book to learn about places to go when outside Kanto and breweries that I haven't heard of before. Just before this book came out I was at the Watering Hole in Shinjuku and discovered the wonderful beers from Aqula of Akita for the first time, one of Meli's favorites. It is the best guide available, but not without a few minor flaws-I think it's worth the purchase for aficionados.
Mark Schilling has written the only comprehensive yakuza book to date in English with The Yakuza Movie Book (2003). It is a genre that I mostly know from masters like Kinji Fukusaku, Takashi Miike, Seijun Suzuki, and Takeshi Kitano. After an informative short history of the genre, Schilling has a section of "Director Profiles & Interviews" with the likes of Fukasaku, Miike, Suzuki, and Kitano among lesser know directors like Teru Ishii, Tai Kato, and Rokuro Mochizuki. This section is followed by a number of "Actor Profiles & Interviews" with stars like Shintaro Katsu, Akira Koyabashi, Jo Shisido, Bunta Sugawara, Ken Takakura, Tetsuya Watari among others. The final section is a number of "Film Reviews." Many of them divided into "Story" and "Critique" sections. I have to admit I skimmed this section reading reviews of films I had seen and those that I was interested in seeing. It is a useful guide for anyone interested in the genre. I was impressed that he included international productions that were join ventures between US and Japanese companies like Sydney Pollack The Yakuza starring Robert Mitchum among others. However, it is now 10 years old and somewhat outdated in that doesn't include newer films from the likes of Kitano.
Keiko McDonald’s book, Reading A Japanese Film: Cinema In Context (2006) is meant to be an updated text for use in Japanese film classes. In her introduction she says that sees this book as a companion to Donald Richie’s book, A Hundred Years of Japanese Film. It would serve as an useful companion, but it stands alone well by itself. McDonald has chosen 16 films from various directors, genres, and periods to analyze. Many I have seen before: Sisters of the Gion (1936) Kenji Mizoguchi, Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel (1948) & Madadayo (1993), Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai trilogy (1954-1956), Ozu’s Floating Weeds (1959), Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba (1963), Juzo Itami’s A Taxing Woman (1987), Hiroshi Koreda’s Maboroshi (1995), and Takeshi Kitano’s Kids Return (1995). But there are several that were new to me or I hadn’t gotten around to seeing yet and I have subsequently watched: My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Yoichi Higashi’s Village of Dreams (1996), and Naomi’s Kawase’s Suzaku (1997). Although, McDonald states that all of the films are available with English subtitles (and this may have been true when it was published in 2006),however, I have had trouble tracking down several of them. For example, Shiro Toyoda’s The Mistress (1954), Kohei Ogura’s Muddy River (1981), and Masahiro Shinoda’s MacArthur’s Children (1984). McDonald generally analyzes the film in a linear narrative fashion, but often draws attention to cultural details that only a person intimately associated with Japanese culture could understand. I found the essays insightful and thorough in their discussions of the themes and issues explored by the directors. It is a welcome addition to the library of Japanese film.