Five stories by Endô Shûsaku


After Mishima Yukio, Endô Shûsaku (1923-90) is the Japanese novelist of “the third generation,” i.e., those who began publishing after WWII, who has been most translated into English. His tale of the persecution of Jesuit missionaries and Japanese converts in the 17th century, Silence (Chinmoku) has been filmed in Japanese (by Shinoda Masahiro) Portuguese, and in English (by Martin Scorsese).

The first of the five stories in Five by Endo, translated by Van C. Gessel, “Unzen,” also reaches back to the 17th-century persecution, apostasy, and torture, as a 20th-century Japanese man, Suguru, seeks out sites, particularly the “Valley of Hell,” in which Christians were partially boiled before being burned alive (singing a hymn). Suguru lacks their conviction, and his story lacks any closure.

The second story, “A Fifty-Year-Old Man” is more mundane and, for me, more moving. The title character, Mr. Chiba, has been taking ballroom dancing lessons for his health, though they exhaust his legs and back. The story is not about his stint as a dancing student, however. Rather it is about trying to come to terms with his dying brother, who is only three years older than he is, and Whitey, the mutt he adopted thirteen years earlier (that is, a very old dog). Mrs. Chiba suggests that one dies to save the other, an explanation I don’t credit, but his feelings about his own mortality and that of the two creatures closest to himI found affecting.

The story that seems to me to reveal the most about Japanese people and worldview in the collection is “Japanese in Warsaw.” In the latter years of communism in Poland, a Japanese student in Warsaw is a guide for Japanese tourists. They have not interest in Polish history and are appalled at the shoddiness of tourist facilities. Their paramount interest is in hooking up with white women, so that Shimizu feels that he must be a pimp (albeit one who does not take money from the females whose bodies are rented). There is a Catholic angle to this story, and to the next one.


(Endô in 1954)

The Box” of the tale’s tile contains some old (wartime) photos, postcards, and a Bible. The narrator who bought the box (and had spent time evacuated to Ueda during the war) seeks out someone who knew the recipient of the postcards, the daughter of a missionary (from a country that was neutral during WWII; I’d guess Swiss in that her name was Lougert) who was tortured a bit by a diffident secret police agent so that she would spy for the Japanese. The narrator speculates that the cards contained Bible-coded messages. (She was not tortured for being Christian, btw).


(Ueda region (Shinano) in winter)

The final story, “The Case of Ibose,” is actually the first chapter of Endô’s 1993 novel Deep River, involves the death of a dutiful wife who was more concerned about her husband being able to take care of himself without her than with her agony and oncoming death from cancer (which her husband refuses to acknowledge to her, though lying to patients about the seriousness of their ailments was very common practice in Japan). It is moving and is fairly self-contained (though her dying wish for him to seek out her reincarnation propels him into a trip to India with three other Japanese).


I prefer the stories without the weight of Catholic martyrdom, “A Fifty-Year-Old Man” and “The Case of Isobe,” along with the tangential Catholic martyrdom one, “Japanese in Warsaw.” Despite its apparent focus on varying religious beliefs, “Isobe” has interested me in Deep River.

In addition to translating multiple works by Endô (including another collectio of stories that I don’t like as much as this one, Stained Glass Elegies, Van Gessel wrote about Endô in The Sting of Life: Four Contemporary Japanese Novelists.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Divergent accounts of a tragedy


“Yureru,” (2006, written and directed by Nishikawa Miwa) which has been rendered in English as “Sway” (though “swaying” or “shaking” would have been more conventional translations) has some strong resemblances to “Rashômon” (1950) in that there are four (or, arguably, five) accounts of what happened on an outing in the country (Hasumi Gorge in this case). Unlike in Rashomon, the four (or five) accounts come from only two people, the brothers. 29-year-old Takeru (Odagiru Jo [Bright Future]) the scruffy prodigal son who went off to become a fashion photographer in Tokyo, returns for the one-year anniversary memorial for his mother, disruptively late and not wearing a dark suit. The older brother who stayed home and works in the family business (a gas station) Minoru (Kagawa Teruyuki [Tokyo Sontata]), is 35.

Also working there is Cheiko (Maki Yoko) who had spurned the chance to go with Takeru when he left. It is not clear that she is even aware that Minoru is in love with her and that Takeru is not, though he swiftly beds her his first night back in town.

The three go on an outing to Hasumi Gorge, where they went multiple times as children. Minoru had a fear of heights and avoided the swinging suspension bridge. As he had when he was a child, Takeru climbs up from the bed of the swiftly moving but not deep stream, crosses it, and is taking photographs on the other side, when Cheiko follows him and Minoru follows her.


Neither of the latter two make it across the bridge. Cheiko drowns after falling or being pushed off the bridge. How much of what happened Takeru saw is unclear. First he claims to have seen nothing. He rushed up to join Minoru, who was clutching a support on the bridge and instructed him to tell the police Cheiko fell.


Minoru tells the investigators that (offscreen), but later confesses that he pushed her. Then in court he provides a more complicated account of trying to steady her, being rebuffed, and watching her slip off the side. There were marks on his arm consistent with her slipping from his grasp that no one comments on (there are also scars on the inside of his wrists that suggest he had tried to commit suicide at some earlier time). I also wonder why Takeru did not go to try to pull Cheiko out before she drowned (the fall did not kill her).

Takeru tells a new (not least to his uncle, Minoru’s defense attorney) story at the trial, and the movie’s ending is very ambiguous. I find not knowing what really happened in “Sway” far more frustrating than it was in “Rashômon.” Minoru is the only one living who knew what happened, but it is impossible to tell which version he presents is accurate, or to sort out his guilt feelings. One thing that is certain and that he says is that she would not be dead if he had not followed her onto the bridge that he had avoided his whole life until then.

It is far easier to sympathize with the shy and dutiful Minoru than with his arrogant and totally undutiful younger brother, though the one who did not deserve what happened is Cheiko (who might have been planning to go with Takeru this time).

The movie won best movie and best sound from the Mainichi Film Concours, best screenplay (Nishikawa) and best supporting actor (Kagawa) from the Kinema Jump Awards.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

The Chicago Lyric Opera’s adaptation of Bel Canto


PBS (Great Performances) telecast the Chicago Lyric Opera première of “Bel Canto,” the opera by (first-time opera composer) Jimmy Lopez and librettist Nilo Cruz (who won a 2003 Pulitzer Prize for “Anna in the Tropics”) based on Ann Patchett‘s best-sellling novel. The broadcast was hosted by Renée Fleming, thought to be the inspiration for Roxane Coss (Danielle de Niese) the soprano who went to Lima to perform at the birthday party of a Japanese electronics magnate (Cha Jeoncheol looks like a Korean name to me, and I’m not sure what language he sang in). In the four months as hostages of guerillas (Túpac Amaru/MRTA) his adoration of the singer and her singing turns to love that is consummated, while his translator gets it on with a female captor (this is one work in which the Asian men are the ones who have sex!).

As is often the case for me, I like the orchestral writing better than the vocal writing. I don’t think any of the arias will be excerpted, though Coss has an extended dramatic one. She also discovers and tutors young countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo.


The audience is locked in the single set (the residence of the Japanese ambassador). I liked the abstract staging of the Achille Lauro Peter Sellars provided “The Death of Kinghoffer more,” though I thought more of “Dog Day Afternoon” than that hijacking. A four-month captivity is harder to convey than those briefer hostage events.

The plausibility of music stirring love is easier to credit in a grand opera than in Pritchett’s novel that was based on the 1996-97 stalemate at the residence of the Japanese ambassador (President Alberto Fujimori did not show up to be kidnapped, only the vice-president; 72 of the original 700 guests were held hostage for four months). The closeups and roving camera provided an intimacy and visual dynamism that seeing the opera on stage had to have lacked. Still, it seemed too long to me even with strong acting from de Niese et al.


©2016, Stephen O. Murray





The 2009 Oscar winner that no one predicted was the Japanese movie “Okuribito” (Departures) receiving the best foreign-language film award rather than “Waltz with Bashir” or “The Class.” The movie had not been released in America beyond the Hawaii Film Festival and only had a limited release in May 2009 after winning the award. It has now arrived on DVD with a trailer and a (dubbed) eleven-minute interview with director Takita Yôjirô (Onmyoji*, When the Last Sword Is Drawn, both gorgeously shot historical dramas).

Takita said that he wanted the audience to know from the first scene that the movie about a professional cellist, Kobayashi Daigo (Motoki Masahiro), who returns home to Sakata when the orchestra that employed him in Tokyo dissolves and inadvertently discovers a vocation preparing the dead to be encoffined, is not grim. What is comic is not politically correct, but shows not only the tact of the encoffiners but that their work, done in front of funeral audiences can provide comfort to the living.

The movie then flashes back to Tokyo and Daigo deciding he does not have enough talent to make a living as a cellist. He has inherited the house (the downstairs of which had been a coffee bar run by his mother until her death a few years earlier and before that as a liquor bar run by his father who ran off with a waitress when Daigo was six) in Sakata, sells the cello which is far from paid off, and is at loss for what to do in his hometown.

He thinks that “arranging departures” in a newspaper want-ad must mean that he is going to a travel agency. He has no idea what “NK” in the ad means (nokanshi is an encoffiner). It turns out that it is arranging the departed. The widower who runs the encoffining business (Yamazaki Tsutomu) is sure that Daigo has a vocation (and/or has been unsuccessful in hiring an assistant). His certainty and upfront cash payments convince Daigo to try.

He gets off to a hideous start with a woman who has been moldering undiscovered for two weeks. After that trauma he rushes to a traditional bathhouse to wash off the stink. The grandmother who runs it is a node of the network of characters in the movie and became the stimulus for tears from me. (I saw the movie on what would have been my deceased mother’s birthday, so may have been extra-susceptible.)


Daigo is shunned for his new occupation, at least until the shunners see him in action. I think we the movie viewers do not need to see him preparing quite as many corpses as we do, but I generally think that Japanese movies are longer than they need to be, beautifully composed as every shot is.

I suppose that some of the outdoor shots of mountains, snow, river, and sea don’t advance the plot either, but I would not cut any of them. The total running time is 131 minutes. Even though the closing credits approach 4 minutes in length, this is a long movie.

Around the half-hour mark I was surprised that the movie had won an Oscar, but eventually it gripped me (and made me cry). Masahiro Motoki and Tsutomu Yamazaki won Japanese Film Academy Awards (actor and supporting actor) for performances of great subtlety and restrained power. As Daigo’s wife, Mika (Hirosue Ryoko) comes into her own late in the movie (having been a dutiful and conventional wife through the first two-thirds).

Yo Kimiko, who won the Japanese Academy Award for best supporting actress, is wry and ultimately moving as the NK receptionist. I didn’t catch the name of the bathhouse owner, but the actresses who played her was also outstanding.

The cello music, written by Joe Hisaishi (who won a Japanese Academy Award for another 2008 score), borders on sentimentality and seems ubiquitous — all the better to set off a crucial scene with no background or foreground music. Motoki Masahiro looks like an earnest man in his late-20s (perhaps having an about-to-turn-30 crisis along with unresolved father issues), though he was 44 (a very fit 44 as the bath scenes show). Takita’s bonus interview reports that the initial idea for the movie had been Motoki’s—15 years earlier. (I remember him as another earnest and more befuddled young man in Miike Takashi’s haunting “The Bird People in China” a decade earlier.)

Perhaps if I had not been recovering from the previous corpse preparations (and the epiphanies of two characters during it), I might have found the ending Disneyesque, but my critical faculty was dimmed.

I’m not sure if “Okuribito” was the best movie not in English from 2008, but even after years of “Six Feet Under,” I was moved by Daigo and his new vocation, and think that it was.

Takita Yojiro ‘s “Onmyoji” (in-Yang Master, 2001) is set back in Hêian times, focusing on a historical figure, Abe no Seimei, who became legendary as a wizard who saved the capital (now Kyoto). Nomura Mansai is very impressive as the most powerful onmyoji (wizard/sorcerer) who is foiling the efforts of the court onmyoji Doson (Sanada Hiroyuki, Twillight Samurai) against the emperor’s newborn son and current favorite (on behalf of a former favorite… and a prince who was unjustly accused of treason a century and a half earlier). There is not much swordplay and audiences unfamiliar with Heian ways (who have not read Tale of Genji) are almost certain to be confused. There seems to me a homoerotic element in the playful/bemused hedonist and slightly fey Abe aiding the earnest and hunky Minamoto no Hiromasa (Ito Hideaki).


The phenomenon of men lost after being cut loose from jobs that was also fundamental to “Tokyo Sonata,”  is only going to become more common from automation more than outsourcing (manufacturing has been returning to the US, but with far fewer jobs performed by humans): see Elizabeth Kolbert’s overview  “Rage Against the Machine.”

©2010, Stephen O. Murray

I think that discussion of this movie, the only one to win a best foreign-language film Oscar (some early ones won special Oscars before the category was institutionalized is it for postings on Japanese culture. I am going to post some of my “best of” lists on the site that are not Japan-focused. Thanks to the readers of my 2016 postings!