Category Archives: Japanese culture

My Japanese pantheons


When I began this blog I did not foresee that I would run out of Japanese movies and books to post about. They have not been my exclusive focus, but despite the name of the blog, I’m embarking from that Japanese archipelago—first from Japanese to Javanese, then to rescuing from oblivion various lists I posted on the defunct epinions.

Before making this pivot, I decided to look back and list my favorite Japanese writers and film directors. I think quality has much to do with my esteem, but these are rankings of how well I like their work, not claims that the lists are in order of merit.


Had I been asked a few years ago which Japanese film directors I most venerated, I would have said “Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, and Ozu.” Great as I think “Sanchô, the Bailiff” is, I’ve cooled on Mizoguchi. Before I began blogging, Kobayashi had bumped Mizoguchi from second place. Before 2016 I had never seen a Kinoshita film, and I have been amazed by his successes in diverse genres. And I have decided that at least in the films in which his wife, Wada Natto, was involved in the scripts (credited or not), Ichikawa directed some great films (and many that have not made there way across the Pacific). I think the three films Teshigahara directed written by Kôbô Abe are great, other Tshigahara films (of which there are not many) less so.

I had only seen one Naruse film (A Woman Ascends the Stairs). Seeing more has not impressed me with his visual flair, and, even more than Mizoguchi, they are repetitively portraits of female misery that become tiresome.

I like the least typical Ôshima film (Merry, Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, which is mostly in English) the most, whereas many others try my patience. Imamura made some boring, opaque films, too, but also many very good ones.

So, my new “holy trinity” is Kurosawa, Kinoshita, and Kobayashi. Another, still active K, Koreeda may some day join them, and has already earned a position in (the bottom tier of) my pantheon. The members with my favorite of their films:

Kurosawa Akira, Sanjuro

Kobayashi Masaki, Harakiri

Kinoshita Keisuke, Spring Dreams

Ichikawa Kon, Tokyo Olympiad

Ozu Yasujiro, Ohayo

Shinoda Masahiro, Moonlight Serenade

Imamura, Shohei, The Eel

Mizoguchi Kenji, Sanchô, the Bailiff

Koreeda Hirokazu, I Wish

Shindô Kaneto, Onibaba

(My favorite Japanese movies made by a directors not in my pantheon are Okamoto Kihachi’s “Rainbow Kids” and  Fukasaku Kinji’s “Fall Guy,” both black comedies)



Inoue Yasushi, Tun-Huang

Dazai Osamu, One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji

Mishima Yukiô, After the Banquet

Tanizaki Yunichiro, The Key

Endô Shûsaku, Deep River

Nastume Sôseki, Kokoro

Kawabata Yasunari, The Old Capital

Ranpo Edogawa, The Red Chamber

Murakami Haruki, Kafka on the Shore

Oe Kenzaburô, Prize Stock

(the image at the top is one of Hokusai’s hundred views of Mount Fujiyama)

Kenyan and Hokkaido hill country and fauna

When I was sixteen, I was entranced by the memoir of  Isak Dinesen’s [Karen Baroness von Blixen-Finecke, 1885-1962], Out of Africa (first published in 1937). Kenya had only been independent for three years when I first read the book, which is set in 1913-31. Blixen made many criticisms of colonial paternalism and the expropriation of land (Kikuyus could not legally own land!), but for all the time she spent alone with “the natives,” maintained assumptions of racial superiority that are gratingly obvious now.

I still like her upbeat voice and compassion for all the residents (black, white, animal) of Africa, though the generalizations about tribal characteristics make me suspicious. And the romance wit Dennis Fitch Hatton is mostly about flying and sharing enthusiasm for English poetry, while her husband goes entirely unmentioned until p. 228 (and then goes unmentioned through the rest of the book).

There must be distinctions between Somalis, Maasai, and Kikuyu. Blixen/Dinesen seems to me to romanticize the Somalis and to condescend to Kikukyu, but that she exerted herself to find someplace for her mass of squatters and their cattle to live after she was gone.

The classical anguish of the last part is still a bit scattershot, but not as miscellaneous as the middle “Immigrant’s Notebook.”

She records a particularly absurd nominalist, Count Schimmelmann, in “In the Menagerie”:

“The wild animals, which run in a wild landscape, do not really exist. This one [in a cage before the interlocutors] exists, we have a name for it, we know what it is like. The others might as well not have been, still they are the large majority. Nature is extravagant.


“They see each other.”

“Even that may be disputed. These giraffes, for instance, have got square markings on the skin. The giraffes looking at each other, will not know a square and consequently will not see a square. Can they be said to have seen each other at all?” [Besides which ,  as the phot above shows, the marks are not square…]


I moved on to Alan Booth’s (1946-93) The Roads to Sata (first published in 1985), an account of walking from the northernmost point of Hokkaido (Soya) to the southernmost point of Kyushu (Sata), approximately 3300 kilometers in 128 days in 1977. After Dinesen, it was a relief at the outset to read; “I have tried to avoid generalizations, especially ‘the Japanese.’” Alas, I don’t find much of interest in his observations of encounters with roughly twelve hundred Japanese.

Alas, what I find most interesting are not the accounts of the encounters, which consist of repeated shock that a gajin (foreigner) can speak Japanese and, secondarily, is not American. The astounded rural Japanese bought him many beers. And students astounded Booth by the English they learned in schools. (The reader can see why there are incomprehensible mangled English words on Japanese t-shirts.)

In the mid-1970s, Booth found the highways littered in discarded, unraveled cassette tapes. He walked through some industrial wastelands as well as beautiful seashores and mountains, refusing the many proferred rides. Pretty much no one could understand his wanting to walk to the next town, let alone all the way (the long way) across three of the four major islands.

The most memorable encounter for me was with a Hokkaido man who had been a Soviet prisoner for years (the Soviet Union only declared war against Japan at the very end, but seized prisoners and held on to them unconscionably long times in Sakhalin or Siberia).begging bear.jpg

The conversation matches Booth’s British dry wit with Japanese fatalism, and concerns Hokkaido bears. (The one pictured above is waiting to catch a food pellet in a Hokkaido bear park.)

The Hokkaido man told Booth that bears are the most predictable of animals—far more predictable than human beings, whom he confessed he had not much interest in and whom he thought overrates as a species.

“There are dozens of bears in the hills around the lake [Shikotsu]. They come down almost daily to the road over there.”

He pointed to the road I had just walked along, and I said “Oh, really?” with a great deal of nonchalance”

“You want to whistle or sing when you walk or have a bell and ring it from time to time, or band a stick. They won’t come near you unless they’re really hungry, and then it’s only your food they’ll want.”

I nodded pleasantly, having no food.

“If you turn a corner and you see a bear and it’s thirty meters away from you, you’ve no need to worry. The bear will run away. It’ll be more frightened than you are. If you turn a corner and you see a bear, say, twenty meters away, there’s still a good chance it won’t bother you. It’ll roar a bit just to let you know it’s there, but if you stand quite still it’ll probably get bored and go back into the forest. And, then, of course, if you turn a corner and you see a bear five or ten meters from you—“

“Then probably, I should start to worry.”

“Not really. You’ve no need to worry, Bears are the most predictable of animals. If it’s five meters away it’ll certainly kill you. There is no point in worrying at all.”

Though I think what the Hokkaido ex-POW said applies to North American bears, too, the artful buildup pleases me, whereas most other encounters Booth had were unilluminating about anything other than smug Japanese ethnocentrism. And these are interspersed with the misery of being rained on, trying to find roads, some of which exist only on maps, others of which are litter-edged motorways, sunburn, and mosquitoes.

Ivan Morris’s anthology of Japanese short fiction


Ivan Morris’s (1962) collection of modern (up to Mishima) Japanese stories includes one (“The moon on the water”) by Kawabata that I can appreciate, and a very funny one by Dazai about an unwelcome visitor drinking all his whiskey (“The Courtesy Call”), a Wildean early Tanizaki story (“Tattooer” who is erotically enslaved by a beautiful woman whose foot [quel surprise!] first drew his attention), a Buddhist tale of lust and detachment by Mishima (“The priest and his love”) and, my favorite, Akutagawa Ryunosuke’s (also Wildean) tale of a quest to see a painting, “Autumn mountain,” which may have been imagined rather than seen. (I had not realized that Tanizaki was born before Akutagawa.) Also a satire of uniformed Japanese authoritarians (the driver of the passive passengers in “The charcoal bus”) by Dazai’s master, Ibuse Masuji (though the story dates from 1952, four years after Dazai killed himself).

Morris (1925-76) was Donald Keene’s colleague at Columbia, the other scholar who brought Japanese literature (Tales of Genij, The Pillow Book of Sei Shônagon and modern work), including Mishima’s Temple of the Golden Pavilion and Ōka Shōhe’s Fires on the Plain, to English-reading audiences in general and me in particular. Morris (1925-1976) seems to me more sociological (not least in the analysis of Heian society, The World of the Shining Prince), Keene (born in 1922 and still going strong) more of an aesthete, and/or Morris valued comedy more than Keene.

I wonder about Morris’s statement “The confessional, diary type of writing, in which everything is seen through the eyes of one lone sensitive individual, continues to be far more popular in Japan than in the West (23), however. I thought “confession” was a genre pioneered in the west (Augustine, Cellini, Casanova, Rousseau…) Perhaps the Japanese were ahead of the development of American fiction (and now, even when writing about Others). The themes and, certainly, the preferred metaphors and images in these stories seems very Japanese to me. Ibusé’s is the only story I can imagine being written about some place other than Japan (or, in a few cases, China).

©1996, 2017, Stephen O. Murray



Laid off and pretending to go to work every day


Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s (Bright Future) 2008 “Tokyo Sonata” would have profited from some trimming, especially of the younger son playing “Claire de lune” and the father stumbling through garbage piled along the street.

Kagawa Teruyuki (Devils on the Doorstep, Sway) plays a business executive, Sasaki Ryûhei) who is made redundant by moving operations from Japan to China. Unable to tell his wife (Koizumi Kyôko [Kaza-hana, Hanging Garden]) that he no longer has a job, he puts on a dark suit and tie and goes off for the day on his usual schedule. He runs into a high-school classmate (Tsuda Kanji) who was laid off earlier and mentors him in unemployment survival tactics.

Mr. Sasaki is an authoritarian father, whose elder son, Takashi (the exceptionaly tall Koyanagi Yû) is already rebelling and out on his own a lot. Mr. Sasaki is stressed out and not earning money when the younger son, Kenji (Inowaki Kai) wants to take piano lessons. His father forbids it and he diverts his school lunch money for the lessons. When his father finds out that he is not the only one sneaking around and trying to keep Mrs. Sasaki from finding out, he is quite brutal.


The wife-mother learns about both deceptions, and then is taken on a wild ride by an inexperienced and desperate burglar (Yokusho Koji). The stressors seem to me a bit piled on (straining credulity, upping the melodrama proportion, and the black humor proportion). The humiliation of a salaryman losing his salary and identity as an executive and having to take a job as a janitor in a shopping mall is acutely shaming for him. It exacerbates his concern about his lack of paternal authority.

Though the camera is not fixed, there are few closeups, and the inclusion of multiple characters in shots is reminiscent of Ozu, along with the focus on social change speeding family disintegration, the great Ozu theme. (The ending seems to have been added after the initial release, providing more catharsis than the, I think, longer version of the previous scene being the last one.)

The movie won the Un Certain Regard jury prize at Cannes. The disc includes a director and cast appearance after the first Tokyo showing following that win, and an hour-long making-of feature, as well as a trailer for the movie.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

The phenomenon of men lost after being cut loose from jobs is only going to become more common from automation more than outsourcing (manufacturing is returning to the US, but with far fewer jobs performed by humans): see Elizabeth Kolbert’s “Rage Against the Machine.” For another view of a Japanese man adjusting to downward mobility, see “Departures.”

Family dramas wrapped inside a frame of betrayal and homicide


Philip Kan Gotanda was born in 1951 to parents who had been interred in the Manzanar concentration camp on the east side of the Sierra Nevadas. The work of his with which I had some familiarity dealt with Japanese Americans during the 1940s—in the Manzanar concentration camp east of Mount Whitney (Manzanar: An American Story) and the Japantown Fillmore District of San Francisco into which black workers had filtered during World War II (After the War)—and aging Filipino men during the 1970s (Remember the I-Hotel) .


(2012 photo of Gotanda by Lia Chang (Creative Commons)

I didn’t know that some of Gotanda’s work had been filmed — low-budget, independent films based on his plays “The Wash” (1988) and “Life Tastes Good” (1999), which he directed and played a small part in.

Involving “missing” money, the search for the money by its gangster owner, homicide, and San Francisco homicide detectives (Kelvin Han Yee, Tim Lounibos), I thought that “Life Tastes Good” (1999) would be like “Chan Is Missing,” the very low-budget movie with an Asian American cast that launched the career of Wayne Wang (Eat a Bowl of Tea, The Joy Luck Club, Chinese Box). It has a lot less sardonic humor than “Chan Is Missing,” and, although it is a neo-noir, the movie that “Life Tastes Good” most reminded me of was Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang’s early (1994) “Vive l’amour.” The reason is that much of it takes place in what is supposed to be a vacant apartment. The man (Sab Shimono) who hides and observes the female occupant (Julia Nickson) is much older than the one in Tsai’s movies. But, as in “Vive l’amour,” there is a lot of dialogless watching—not just of the woman getting into a shower, but compulsively scrubbing a spot on the floor of the apartment that he has rented for a week.

I was afraid that the motivations of the characters were going to remain opaque, but was relieved that by the end I understood the relationships of the characters and the motivations for their seemingly odd behavior—well, at least most of the motivations. Why one became a junkie remains mysterious—as drug abuse often does.

Like many a noir and neo-noir, most notably “Sunset Boulevard” and “American Beauty,” the tale is told by someone who is dead at the start. With the corpse found in an abandoned car and a wallet with money, there is a tape recorder with recordings of musings (a memoir?) by Harry Sado (Shimono).

Early on, it becomes obvious that Harry has been involved in money-laundering for Mr Jones (Gotando) and that his partner had been cheating him, and that Harry has made off with a briefcase full of money belonging to Mr. Jones.

Harry has a junkie daughter, Julie (Tamlyn Tomita) and a nerdy, bespectacled son (Greg Watanabe, who looks quite hunky once his glasses and shirt come off) whom he abandoned when his wife died. Harry wants to explain things to them, though they don’t want to know about his criminal occupation.


So along with gang-related homicides, police investigations, a gangland manhunt, the ghost-like woman scrubbing the floor, there is a family reunion trying to overcome years of silence and miscommunication. Quite a lot to be going on in one movie, along with the suspense about whether these matters are going to be tied together in ways that make some sense.

Providing reassurance that they do isn’t—at least I don’t think it is—plot spoiling. I found the denouement(s) quite satisfying.

I thought that “Life Tastes Good” was quite cinematic despite the obvious budgetary constraints and being the work of a writer for the stage. I don’t think that it is a great movie, but it is inventive with a satisfying ending, not just a showcase for talented and underemployed Asian American actors.

©2007, Stephen O. Murray