“The one thing that really struck me about The Hidden Fortress, was the fact that the story was told from the [perspective of] the two lowest characters. I decided that would be a nice way to tell the Star Wars story, which was to take the two lowest characters, as Kurosawa did, and tell the story from their point of view, which in the Star Wars case is the two droids.””
George Lucas, 2001
Well. Hell. What more can I say?
Welcome to Japanese Cinema!
Your mission should you choose to accept: We’ll cover 10 films from the cinematic world of Japan, from myth to mythic, fact to fiction. While the West has taken on the mantle of Marvel, Japan continues to explore new territory, preserving the past with such titles as Shin Godzilla, and exploring new frontiers with the likes of Ringu, Battle Royale, and Tampopo. This brilliant industry paved the foundation of what became such treasures as Avatar: The Last Airbender, Star Wars, and new wave of American animation. The list goes on.
Despite having a 120+ year history, beginning in the late 1890s, little is known of 日本映画 (Nihon Eiga) aka 邦画 (hōga, “domestic film”) outside the heartwarming and strange genre of anime or thrilling monster flicks. And I hate to break it to you but Godzilla, Pokemon, Dragon Ball Z, and Miyazaki, these are not the only films coming out of Japan! But it’s not our fault. We don’t ask the questions we simply don’t have the language to ask and frankly the fact that Hollywood does little to expose the West to World Cinema is one of the greater disservices of modern art. This limited exposure obfuscates one of the world’s most rewarding, culturally diverse (sometimes perversely racist), and proactive mediums and it’s my hope to share the pleasures, rewards, and heartache that accompany each film respectively.
From mind-bending soundtracks, to colorful displays of affection. From slapstick “ramen westerns” to various period pieces. From slash-em bash-em samurai flicks to the monster and super hero films that arguable inspired the world as we know it. Addressing such age-old questions as: What is reality? Did George Lucas rip-off Japanese Cinema in the production of Star Wars? And more on point: What is Bunka Eiga What the hell is with those costumes? The charades? Could this all be for nothing? What is Kubuki? What is reality? Again, really, tell me!
I’m looking forward to your feedback and would love to know if any of you out there are interested in the subject because I would absolutely love to take this journey with you. Alternatively, give me a big thumbs down if I’m beating a dead horse because… sometimes I tend to wander aimlessly down rabbit holes. But I figure that if you’re going to join me in this journey across the Floating World, then we best start from a point of familiarity, before diving into the deep past.
10 Films. 10 Weeks. Asynchronous if you wish, for I’ll deliver these beauties weekly, postage paid. Should you choose to join me all you need to do is sign up, I’ll deliver more information on that presently, and you can sit back and enjoy a new film delivered to your mailbox every Sunday for 10 weeks. Additional content will include a breakdown of each film with an attached program explaining, to the best of my knowledge, the significance, importance, and value of the film in question.
I promise you this will be worth your time!
So what will it be? Yes, No? Yea, Nea? はい (hai), or a big resounding いいえ (iie)?
“Japanese Cinema: A 10-Part Choose Your Own Adventure in Subtitles!”
Addressing such age-old questions as:
What is reality?
Did George Lucas rip-off Japanese Cinema in the production of Star Wars?
And more on point:
What is Bunka Eiga
What the hell is with those costumes? The charades? Could this all be for nothing?
What is Kubuki?
What is reality? Again, really, tell me!
Monism is the view that attributes oneness or singleness (Greek:μόνος) to a concept (e.g., existence).
Buddhism is beyond monism, dualism, pluralism etc. Those -istic teachings are like photos. Monism says that there is the best perspective (camera angle) to make a good photo of that particular thing. For example, a person should be photographed from the front, to see the face and body well. Dualism says that there is equally important information in human photos from the back (for medical purposes, for example; some mystics say that looking at the back of a person we can see his state and thoughts easier). That two-photos approach also is used in criminalist photography: getting head photos en face and side-view. That’s like dualism. Then pluralism says that in various cases different angles can be best. Like when an artist paints some person, capturing unique personality and feelings…
What is Buddhism like?
Buddhism sees the difference between the object and its photos. That’s what we realize well in awakening. All the photos are dropped. We could use them but are not caught by them. So sometimes Buddhist teachings might look monistic; or not monistic — that depends rather on a person that perceives them.
A Zen Master asked a monk, pointing at the portrait of bearded patriarch Bodhidharma: “Why this foreigner has no beard?”
Many Chinese fables tell an entertaining story to illustrate a moral lesson. Here are a few such stories.
Stopping Halfway, Never Comes One’s Day
In the Warring States Period, in the state of Wei lived a man called Leyangtsi. His wife was very angelic and virtuous, who was loved and respected dearly by the husband.
One day, Leyangtsi found a piece of gold on his way home, and he was so delighted that he ran home as fast as he could to tell his wife. Looking at the gold, his wife said calmly and gently, “As you know, it is usually said that a true man never drinks the stolen water. How can you take such a piece of gold home which is not yours?” Leyangtsi was greatly moved by the words, and he immediately replaced it where it was.
The next year, Leyangtsi went to a distant place to study classics with a talented teacher, leaving his wife home alone. One day, his wife was weaving on the loom, when Leyangtsi entered. At his coming, the wife seemed to be worried, and she at once asked the reason why he came back so soon. The husband explained how he missed her. The wife got angry with what the husband did. Advising her husband to have fortitude and not be too indulged in the love, the wife took up a pair of scissors and cut down what she had woven on the loom, which made Leyangtsi very puzzled. His wife declared, “If something is stopped halfway, it is just like the cut cloth on the loom. The cloth will only be useful if finished. But now, it has been nothing but a mess, and so it is with your study.”
Leyangtsi was greatly moved by his wife. He left home resolutely and went on with his study. He didn’t return home to see his beloved wife until gaining great achievements.
Afterward, the story was often used as a model to inspire those who would back out in competitions.
Ask a Fox for Its Skin
Long ago, there lived a young man, called Lisheng, who had just married a beauty. The bride was very willful. One day, she had an idea that a coat of fox fur would look pretty on her. So she asked her husband to get her one. But the coat was rare and too expensive. The helpless husband was forced to walk around on the hillside. Just at the moment, a fox was walking by. He lost no time to catch it by the tail. “Well, dear fox, let’s make an agreement. Could you offer me a sheet of your skin? That isn’t a big deal, is it?”
The fox was shocked at the request, but she replied calmly, “Well, my dear, that’s easy. But let my tail go so that I can pull off the skin for you.” So the delighted man let her free and waited for the skin. But the moment the fox got free, she ran away as quickly as she could into the forest.
The story can be well used for reference that it is hard to ask someone to act against his own will, even though only a little sometimes.
Bian Heh’s Jade
In the Spring and Autumn Period, Bian Heh in the Chu state got a rough jade on Mount Chu. He decided to present the valuable jade to the emperor to show his official loyalty to his sovereign, Chuli. Unluckily, the jade was judged as a common stone by the court jaders, which made Emperor Chuli very angry and had Bian Heh’s left foot cut down cruelly.
After the enthronement of the new emperor Chuwu, Bian Heh decided to submit the jade to Chuwu to clarify matters. Emperor Chuwu also had it checked by the jaders in the court. And the conclusion resulted in the same fact that Bian Heh lost the other foot.
After the death of Emperor Chuwu, the prince Chuwen was enthroned, that gave the poor Bian Heh a gleam of light of proving his clear conscience. However, the moment he thought of what he had incurred, he couldn’t help crying beside a hill. He could not stop crying for several days and nights; he almost wept his heart out and even blood was dropping from his eyes. And it happened to be heard by the emperor in the court. He ordered his men to find out why he was so sad. Bian Heh sobbed out “Call a spade a spade. Why was a real jade mistaken as a plain stone again and again? Why was a loyal man thought faithless time and time?” Emperor Chuwen was touched by Bian Heh’s deep grief and ordered the jaders to open the jade to have a close look. To their astonishment, in the rough coat, the pure content was sparkling and translucent. Then it was carefully cut and polished fine and at last, the jade became a rare treasure of the state of Chu. In memory of the faithful man Bian Heh, the Emperor named the jade by Bian Heh.
And so the term “Bian’s Jade” came into being.
People usually describe something extremely precious in its value with Bian’s Jade.
Cheap Tricks Never Last – The Donkey of Guizhou
Thousands of years ago, donkeys were not found in Guizhou province. But meddlers were always allured by anything. So they shipped one into this area.
One day, a tiger was walking around to find something to eat, when he saw the strange animal. The huge newcomer frightened him quite a bit. He hid between the bushes to study the donkey watchfully. It seemed all right. So the tiger came near to the donkey to have a close look. “Hawhee¡” a loud noise burst upon, which sent the tiger running away as fast as he could. He could not have any time to think before he settled himself home. The humiliation stung in him. He must come back to that strange thing to see it clear though he was still haunted by the terrible noise.
The donkey was enraged when the tiger got too close. So the donkey brought his unique skill to bear on the offender —- to kick with his hooves. After several bouts, it became very clear that what the donkey had was so much. The tiger jumped upon the donkey in time and cut its throat.
People are always told the story to speak of one’s limited tricks.
A Painted Snake Makes a Man Sick
In the Jin Dynasty, there lived a man named Le Guang, who had a bold and uninhibited character and was very friendly. One day Le Guang sent for one of his close friends since the friend had not turned out for long.
At the first sight of his friend, Le Guang realized that something must have happened to his friend for his friend has no peace of mind all the time. So he asked his friend what was the matter. “It was all because of that banquet held at your home. At the banquet, you proposed a toast to me and just when we raised the glasses, I noticed that there was a little snake lying in the wine and I felt particularly sick. Since then, I lay in bed unable to do anything.”
Le Guang was very puzzled at the matter. He looked around and then saw a bow with a painted snake hung on the wall of his room.
So Le Guang laid the table at the original place and asked his friend again to have a drink. When the glass was filled with wine, he pointed to the shade of the bow in the glass and asked his friend to see. His friend observed nervously, “Well, well, that is what I saw last time. It is the same snake.” Le Guang laughed and took off the bow on the wall. “Could you see the snake anymore?” he asked. His friend was surprised to find that the snake was no longer in the wine. Since the whole truth had come out, his friend recovered from his prolonged illness right away.
For thousands of years, the story has been told to advise people not to be too suspicious unnecessarily.
KuaFu Chased the Sun
It is said that in antiquity a god named KuaFu determined to have a race with the Sun and catch up with Him. So he rushed in the direction of the Sun. Finally, he almost ran neck and neck with the Sun, when he was too thirsty and hot to continue. Where could he find some water? Just then the Yellow River and Wei River came into sight, roaring on. He swooped upon them earnestly and drank the whole river. But he still felt thirsty and hot, thereupon, he marched northward for the lakes in the north of China. Unfortunately, he fell down and died halfway because of thirst. With his fall, down dropped his cane. Then the cane became a stretch of peach, green and lush.
And so comes the idiom, KuaFu chased the Sun, which becomes the trope of man’s determination and volition against nature.
Fish for the Moon in the Well
One evening, the clever man, Huojia went to fetch some water from the well. To his surprise, when he looked into the well, he found the moon sunk in the well shining. “Oh, good Heavens, what a pity! The beautiful moon has dropped into the well!” so he dashed home for a hook, and tied it with the rope for his bucket, then put it into the well to fish for the moon.
After some time of hunting for the moon, Haojia was pleased to find that something was caught by the hook. He must have thought it was the moon. He pulled hard on the rope. Due to the excessive pulling, the rope broke into apart and Haojia fell flat on his back. Taking the advantage of that post, Haojia saw the moon again high in the sky. He sighed with emotion, “Aha, it finally came back to its place! What a good job! He felt very happy and told whomever he met with about the wonderment proudly without knowing what he did was something impractical.
Despite the myriad distractions of the modern world, the noise pollution, and all those 21st-century distractions, we are extremely fortunate to live in the Age of Information. I don’t know about you but I for one am prone to info-overload with a somewhat sadistic habit of opening dozens of browsers, windows which I proceed to overload with content, intent on returning… eventually… only to result in a frozen computer.
It’s a work in progress. I am a work in progress.
Still, despite all that, we are quite fortunate! And I want to take this time, as I complete the final touches of the Floating World, to share some of the podcasts, blogs, sites, and content that helped me through the ethereal and too often beligerant film that was Two-Thousand and Twenty.
Of That Which Kept Me Sane Through 2020. Ranking #3 in the world’s countries (measuring economy, quality of life, opportunity, & education), Japan is home to an extraordinary array of cultures and lifestyles. May these pods and resources provide you with countless hours of inspiration for the months to come.
Isaac Meyer’s History of Japan: This podcast, assembled by a former PhD student in History at the University of Washington, covers the entire span of Japanese history. Each week we’ll tackle a new topic, ranging from prehistoric Japan to the modern day.
Japan Times: Deep Dive A great conversational and informative dive into the stories behind Japan’s headlines. The Japan Times is one of the oldest sources of English-language information about Japan, and it’s great to see them moving into podcasting.
NHK World Even though I don’t listen to this much anymore, I feel obliged to include it for the sake of completeness. It’s the news. In English. Read to you by NHK. It is always exactly what you expect it to be.
Japan Eats Everyone loves Japanese food, but if you really want to understand it you should listen to Japan Eats. Each week, New York-based food writer Akiko Katayama and her guests dive in-depth into a specific Japanese dish, drink or aspect of Japanese food culture.
Uncanny Japan Every month Thersa Matsuura explores a different and little-known area of Japanese culture, folklore, and language. Uncanny Japan leans towards the creepy side of Japan, which is kind of a refreshing counterpoint to the cuteness that permeates modern Japanese culture.
PODCASTS FOR LEARNING JAPANESE
News in Slow Japanese Each week Sakura picks an article from the news and reads it to you twice. Once is slow Japanese and once at regular speed. It’s a great way to practice your listening skills. They don’t link to the podcast on the site, but a quick iTunes search will turn it up.
Bilingual News Despite the title, this is not really a news podcast. Each week, Michael & Mami read a few current event stories in both Japanese and English and then chat about them while bouncing back and forth between the two languages. It’s perfect for making sure you can talk about current events with your Japanese colleagues.
Japanese Pod 101: You have to buy a separate subscription if you want access to the full library of Japanese lessons and learning tools, but their free podcast and video lessons are well worth your time. A few times a week, Japanese Pod puts out lessons ranging from the very beginner to intermediate levels.
セラムーンSarah Moon: The “Pretty Translator Sarah Moon” shines between two distinct, yet glowing celestial worlds. She at once captures an entertaining approach to shedding light on Japanese culture, particularly for those Otaku out there, while dishing out lessons for aspiring translators (such as yours truly). What makes her work so powerful is her approach, breaking down familiar anime into their linguistic components providing key insight on the craft and work of translation. What’s more, she has a phenomenal series out offering guidance through the Japan Time’s Genki textbook series, for those learning Nihongo!
JAPANESE HISTORY PODCASTS
Samurai Archives Japanese History Podcast This is the official podcast of the Samurai Archives History Forum. The emphasis here is less on historical storytelling and more on a detailed analysis of specific events in Japanese history. The hosts also discuss how historical events still influence Japanese society today.
EVEN MORE PODCASTS ABOUT JAPAN + EAST ASIA
When I first starting maintaining this list, I actually listened to all of the English-language podcasts about Japan. However, since independent podcasting has grown so much in Japan, I can’t possibly keep up with them all. I don’t want to leave anyone out, so I’ve extended my Japan-podcast list to include podcasts that I don’t listen to regularly, but that are created by people passionate about their subject, and that have been recommended to me by podcast fans in Japan
With so many new independent podcasts being created (and abandoned) all the time, I’ll need your help to keep this list current. Please let me know if I’ve overlooked anyone.
Abroad in Japan Abroad in Japan is the podcast companion to one of the biggest English-language YouTube channels in Japan. It features Chris Broad’s sarcastic take on life in Japan.
Beyond Huaxia: A college history of China and Japan—minus debt, dorms, and diplomas. Hosted by Justin Jacobs, professor of history at American University. IndianaJonesInHistory.com
Got Faded Japan Johnny and his friends get drunk and talk about Japanese events, music, and sub-culture. Got Faded Japan was one of the first English-language podcasts about Japan and is still going strong after more than 10 years.
Inside Japan Originally called the ALTInisder, James rebranded to reflect the range of topics he covers. There is a lot of English-instruction-related content, the show also covers culture and current events.
Japan 2.0 David and Matt are two friends that seem to have a great time podcasting about Japan’s pop-culture, little-known festivals, and off-the-wall fashion trends.
Learn Japanese Pod Alex started podcasting as he was learning Japanese to share his journey to fluency. He and his Japanese friends team up to help others learn Japanese and to share tips he wishes someone had shared with him.
Tofugu Tofugu is one of the biggest Japanese-language learning sites out there, so it was only a matter of time until they expanded to podcasting. Lots of mini-lessons and practical advice on speaking everyday Japanese.
Tokyo on Fire If you are a Japanese policy wonk, you need to be listening to Tokyo on Fire. In short, weekly videos, Tim Langley and Michael Cucek tear apart a current event and explain what they think the Japanese press is overlooking. Tim seems to be taking some time off. Hopefully, he’ll release some new episodes in 2020.
Tokyo Speaks This podcast introduces you to a wide cross-section of Japan’s international community. There are interviews with entrepreneurs, artists, social advocates, salarymen. and people are still trying to figure out who they are. Early episodes were recorded in the back of the host’s 1999 Chevy Van, but the podcast has a more fixed address these days.
Voices in Japan Podacasting from (usually) snowy Sapporo, Burke and Ben talk about what it’s like to live in Japan. They talk about work, studying Japanese, customs, holidays, traditions, and anything else that comes to mind in their weekly show.
Pods On General Topics
The New Books Network: Covering everything from Literary to East Asian to African Studies. From Anthropology to Medicine. If its a topic, they likely have a podcast dedicated to it! “a consortium of author-interview podcast channels dedicated to raising the level of public discourse by introducing scholars and other serious writers to a wide public via new media. Covering 90+ subjects, disciplines, and genres”
Stuff You Should Know: Covering just about any topic with an air of comedy, wit, and a just the right dash of intellect, Josh and Chuck are brilliant hosts who will, and do, captivate starry eyed listeners regardless of topic. Seriously, I once listened to an hour long podcast on Lawsuits… why? Because they’re just that good! On that note, so far as podcasts are concerned, anything from the “How Stuff Works” network is worthy of a subscription.
What the Folklore: “A comedy podcast that exposes the absurd side of folklore. Each week we read a story, fix plotholes and create new ones, and invent unintended connections between tales.”
I’d love to hear what you’re listening to, the pods and inspiring coming your way. Drop a comment below!
In a world where technological advancement seems to be at the forefront of almost everything, it can sometimes feel like if it doesn’t have a screen or a keyboard, it isn’t worth engaging with.
Yet despite this backdrop of ongoing high tech developments, a centuries-old Japanese storytelling tradition is being revived for modern audiences. Meet kamishibai – from kami, meaning paper and shibai, meaning play or theatre – the ancient Japanese storytelling tool that many librarians, nursing-homes and schools use in several countries around the world.
Pronounced ka-mee-shee-bye, kamishibai is such a powerful medium that Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) adopted it in 2011 as part of its AIDS campaign: “Befriend Malik”.
And more recently a French organisation promoting multilingualism, DULALA – which stands for D’Une Langue A L’Autre, and translates as “from one language to the other” – encouraged French schools to enter its first national kamishibai competition. This year, DULALA launched its first international “Plurilingual Kamishibai competition”.
The street style of storytelling is reminiscent of two Japanese traditions: etoki, the art of picture telling which dates back to the 12th century and benshi – the silent film narrators of the 1900s. But unlike a picture book which is designed to be enjoyed by an individual, kamishibai is a group activity – a shared experience. Storytellers engage their audience, eliciting reactions and answers from their public.
A brief history of kamishibai
From the 1920s to the early 1950s, Japanese sweet sellers and storytellers travelled by bicycle from town to town, village to village, drawing large, young audiences. Kamishibai men would secure their butai – a wooden structure, half picture frame, half theatre stage – to the back of their bicycle, and would use wooden clappers (hyoshigi) to beckon their young spectators.
The children who had purchased sweets from him were allowed to sit at the front. Once everyone was settled, the kamishibai man would start telling a story – pulling each of his numbered storyboards from the side, and sliding it at the back of the stack, one after the other.
On the front of the boards were illustrations for the audience to enjoy, whereas on the back of the previous storyboard was the corresponding passage, which the storyteller would read aloud.
To ensure repeat custom, the kamishibai man stopped at a cliffhanger point. The children, eager to know the end of his story, would come back and buy more sweets.
The storyboards can introduce audiences to folktales from Japan – such as the Hats for the Jizos. Or for European audiences, they might focus on tales from closer to home, such as The legend of the fir tree from Alsace – a cultural and historical region in eastern France.
Kamishibai is an extremely versatile and entertaining tool, which explains why schools in many countries have adopted it in the classroom. It offers an integrated approach not only to learning or revising, but also to drama and visual art. So it’s not really surprising then that more and more kamishibai stories are available in several languages – and some offer up to three levels of reading difficulty per story.
As a result, kamishibai performances can take various forms. At times, the storyteller reads a published kamishibai, but occasionally improvises and incorporates the audience’s perspectives during the telling. At other times, members of the audience may take over the reading or performance of published kamishibai stories. Ultimately, participants can create and perform a kamishibai – individually or as a group – writing an original tale and illustrating their own storyboards using drawing, painting, and collage.
You can make your own butai in cardboard or in wood. Some butais look rather plain, while others are real works of art – the audience feels transported to another world before the story has even begun.
Welcome to Ukiyo, the Floating World. I’m in final stages of relaunching my website furnished with an entirely new interface and a fresh approach which i’m thrilled to share with you.
Throughout 2020, beyond its obviously dreamlike texture of this unsettling year, I found myself returning to the University of Missouri to pursue a degree in Japanese and Literary studies, intent on a career in translation, comparative literature, and Japanese language. With this i’ve decided to revamp my website as mosaic of musings from my research. This ranges from the artistic and cultural movements of Japan and East Asia throughout history. And what an immense privilege to share this journey with you. Until then explore the archive and be sure to sign up to my mailing list so we can stay in contact.
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But wait, WHAT even is this “Floating World” you speak of and how do we get there? To that I say patience, patience. Here’s a slippery spoiler: The “Floating World” is a reference to the fleeting, airy space which at once expresses joy and sorrow. Ukiyo, or “Floating World” comes from the Japanese kanji, but when read aloud the word can mean both floating and/or sorrow it’s all in the context! Oh, how very Japanese.
OK, wait. But that’s still not very clear. Well, that’s the point. Think of the bohemians of 19th century paris, the cafe culture of 20th century artists, or the folk movements throughout America. Most artistic movements bundle together this ebb and flow of hopeful optimism with dark cynicism. For it truly was the best of times. And it was the worst of times. Ukiyo is many things. A concept. A lifestyle. But most importantly a artistic, literary, and theatrical movement. A time and place where caution is thrown to the wind, passions embraced.
Welcome to the Floating World of Ukiyo. But we’re not going to stop here, oh, no, we’ll encounter literary and artistic movements from throughout the brilliant minds of East Asia. Great and minor, from modern to the ends of memory, time, space.