Tag Archives: buddhism

A shy Heian woman’s memoir

Although I was dismayed by rereading The Pillow Book of Sei Shônagon, that did not kill of my interest in Heian Japan. I remain fascinated by the artificial, hyper-aesthetic elite culture/society of which Sei was a passionate devotee.

I went on to read what Ivan Morris translated as As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams: Recollections of a Woman in Eleventh-Century Japan. The author’s name did not come down with the manuscript of her dream-filled memoir. She is generally referred to as Lady Sarashina. She was the daughter of a provincial governor of the Fifth Rank (the lowest of the top ranks), Takasue. Her husband (when she married at the old age of 36) and son (Michitsuna) were also officials of the Fifth Rank.


She was born in 1008, when Lady Murasaki was still working on The Tale of Genji, which the young Sarashina eagerly consumed when she could get access to any of its 51 books. She was born and lived in the capital (Kyô, modern Kytôto) until the age of nine. She then went with her father to “the eastern wilds,” where her father was an Assistant Governor. She returned to the capital at the age of twelve. Her memoir begins with the three-month westward journey back to the center of Heian civilization.

Indeed, the book is something of a travelogue, with terse accounts of many pilgrimages she took. Her elder sister died (in childbirth) in 1023, a great shock to Sarashina, even though her nurse had died two years earlier. She wrote that death, even being told about the death of strangers disturbed her greatly and for long times.

I like Morris’s characterization of her father as “a querulous, self-centered old whiner.” Takasue wanted to keep her home (she was raising her dead sister’s two children as well as pampering him).

She did not go to court, as a lady-in-waiting, like Sei Shônagon and Murasaki, but to a princess rather than an empress, returning home often (it seems that Sei did, too, but her identity was entirely tied to the court and the empress she flattered in person and in her jottings). Sarashina enjoyed the travel to temples much more than Sei says she did. Sarashina’s memoir founded the Japanese genre of travel writing, though her ignorance of Japanese geography was typical of Kyô residents. Sarashina cautioned that “anyone reading the account of visits to one temple after another might well imagine that I was forever going on pilgrimages. In fact, there were log intervals, often several years between my retreats” (at least until her husband died, when they seem to have become more frequent).

There is hardly any mention of her three children or their father, who died when Sarashina was 49. Death again devastated her and her devotion to him after his death seems much greater than any during his lifetime. She almost certainly wrote her memoir after his death. In contrast to the randomness of The Pillow Book of Sei Shônagon, it proceeds in chronological order, though scanting details. There is more about moonlight than about her marital life. And she wrote about a number of dreams, prefiguring a major obsession of later Japanese writers (e.g., Soseki Natsume).

She exhibited compassion for the lower orders in marked contrast to Sei’s horror at their very existence, and she knew about how rice was grown (which I am not sure Murasaki knew, and was certainly of no interest to Sei). Sashira was as timid as Sei was bold. Sashira’s other regarded her as “unfit for normal society,” let alone the hypercritical world of the imperial court.


The most self-analytic passage (#11) relates “I lived forever in a dream world. Though I made occasional pilgrimages to temples, I could never bring myself to pray sincerely for what most people want…. The height of my aspiration was that a man of noble birth, perfect in both looks and manners, someone like the Shining Genji in the Tale, would visit me just once a year in a mountain village where he would have hidden me, like Lady Ukifune [in The Tale of Genj… waiting for an occasional splendid letter.” Even this modest aspiration was delusional, however, for someone as timid as she was (literally hiding behind others when at court).

A particular interest of the book for me is that after she had read The Tale of Genji and other tales which she eagerly sought out was a girl, she came to feel that she had been too enamored of romantic fiction (in some ways prefiguring Don Quixote and Emma Bovary, though far more aware of how she had been harmed by her overeager consumption of romantic fiction). Her yearnings turned, in widowhood, to (Buddhist) merit she could have been making instead. (“If only I had not given myself over to tales and poems since my young days but had spent my time in religious devotion,” the old Sashira came to believe.)

Writing poems to answer others’ poems and appreciation of the aptness of references in the poem was central to Heian court life, as one could not miss in either The Pillow Book of Sei Shônagon or The Tale of Genji. There are many poems in all three books, though the translators say much of the beauty of Heian poems cannot be translated into English.

Morris supplied a 27-page introduction and 32 pages of endnotes. There are also 3 maps, 17 woodblocks from a 1704 printing and seven pages of 20th-century photos of places Sarashina mentioned visiting (these are quite clear in the original Oford University Press edition, not so good in the smaller Penguin one). The actual text takes up only 98 pages.


©2018, Stephen O. Murray

“Walk Cheerfully”


Ozu’s stylized silent film “Walk Cheerfully (1930) is a redemption melodrama centered on small-time hoodlum/ pickpocket Kenji the Knife (Takada Minoru, who does not flash a knife, though he has a gun and is grazed by a derringer shot from his former confederate Gunpei (Mori Teruo) when he refuses to get involved in the heist the guy and Kenji’s former moll, Chieko (Date Satoko), are planning). The camera was sometimes at later Ozu height (one meter) but sometimes higher. There are many scenes in which people or things move through the frame, but there is also some camera movement, even quite gratuitous camera movement. And some location shooting away from any studio.)

The most bizarre aspect of the gangster movie is little synchronized steps by gangsters (three policemen also walk in step with only their feet and lower legs shown).


Takada was strikingly handsome, sort of a mixture of Alain Delon’s boxer Rocco and Buster Keaton with a very aquiline nose. Yasue, the woman for whom Kenji goes straight (taking a job washing windows in a high-rise) is the hard-working, strait-laced Yasue, played by Kawasaki Hiroko (Ornamental Hairpin). His pal, Senko (Yoshitani Hisao) who becomes a chauffeur working for the same company/building is more entertaining.

The movie blurs genres. If I had to pick one, I’d say it is a romantic comedy, but Criterion has packaged it with “That Night’s Wife” (also dating from 1930—before “The Pubic Enemy” and “Little Caesar”, but after Sternberg’s “Underworld” [1927]) and the 1933 “Dragnet Girl” as “Silent Ozu: Three Crime Dramas” in its “Eclipse” (barebones) series.


©2016, Stephen O. Murray


Chinese Wild West: “Tun-Huang” by Inoue Yasushi

tun huang.jpg

The history and the ethnic composition of the population of the interior of Asia are plenty complex. Keeping track of who is ethnically what and following the leadership of what king(dom) is rendered more difficult still by the multiple names. On top of that are the shifting romanizations of the various names.

It is fairly obvious that the region of what is now northwestern China romanized in the Wades-Gilles system as Tun-huang, the romanization used as the title for the 1959 Japanese historical written by Inoue Yasishi (1907-1991) is the same as Dunhuang in the pinyin system. From the documentary miniseries “The Silk Road,” I knew that the “Caves of the Thousand Buddhas” are also known as “the Dunhuang caves,” but the usual name in contemporary Chinese is “mogao.”

It is also fairly obvious that Uyghur, the Turkic people who had lost control of the area in which most of the novel takes place, is the same appellation as “Uighur” in the book (who are Buddhist, not yet Muslim). But it is less obvious that “Wéiwer” names the same people.

The Han Chinese protagonist of Inoue’s novel, Chao Tsing-te fell asleep while waiting for his name to be called for the last cut of imperial examinations held in the Song dynasty capital Chang’an (Xian). In very melodramatic fashion, the failed candidate came into a possession of a pass written in a script he could not decipher, though the characters look like Chinese ones. Rather than wait three years for the next imperial exam, he decides to go west and learn the language.

To make a long story short, Chao does learn the language, and comes to be in charge of translating Buddhist sutras from Chinese into “Hsi-hsia” (Tangut, the language of the Western Xia kingdom that was nominally a vassal of the Southern Song). Because of his literacy (in Chinese, then in “Hsi-hsian” now Romanized “Xi-Xian”) and his fearlessness, Chao Tsing-te becomes a trusted lieutenant of the Han commander Chu Wang-li, as well as an intellectual companion of the Han kinglet Yen-hui.

There are epic battles among Buddhists. Muslims mounted on elephants do not show up, though the Han good guys foresee invasion from the southwest (and the area of what is now Gansu province was Islamized both before and after the Buddhist Mongols from the north conquered it). There is not one but two great loves for a Uyghur princess that contribute to fervent enmity for a governor who forced her into concubinage. And there is a very mercenary Silk Road trader from a deposed ruling family with whom Chao Tsing-te travels four times. The first two take Chao to and from learning Hsi-hsian), the last two provide a story of how the vast trove of scrolls found early in the 20th century came to be walled in within one of the Thousand Buddhist caves of Dunhuang nine centuries earlier. Inoue even provides a plausible explanation for the mix of written materials (what were rare Buddhist manuscripts in the eleventh century with administrative documents, Daoist manuscripts, and Nestorian Christian documents).


I did not learn much about what life on the frontier of the Song was like nearly a millennium ago, and am puzzled at the start date of 1026, since the Tangut writing system was not created until 1038 (on the orders of Jingzong (formerly Li Yuanhao; he cast off his Chinese name, this is not just another confusion induced by differing romanization systems), who at the same time dubbed himself emperor of Da Xia (Song officials eventually bribed him to give up the title “governor” instead while de facto paying rather than receiving tribute). The shifting condition of Han Chinese, who had recently been subservient to Uighurs and would become subservient to Tangut (Hsi-hsian in the book) and the spread of Buddhism in central Asia are accurate and made interesting in this fiction’s solution of the mystery of the trove of scrolls in the Dunhuang caves.

What Inoue’s novel is most like is a segment of The Romance of Three Kingdoms (written by Luo Guanzhong during the 14th century, spanning centuries and including more than a thousand named characters), which is set eight and more centuries earlier and further south, but also features shifting fortunes, fearless warriors, and civilian populations recurrently forced to flee.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray


Ichikawa’s 1958 “Enjo”

Ichikawa’s 1958 film “Enjo” (1958) has been variously titled in English “Conflagration,” “Flame of Torment,” and “The Temple of the Golden Pavilion.” The last is the usual translation of the title of the Mishima 1956 novel that it illustrates, the Kinkakuji temple in Kyoto that was burned down in 1950 by a 22-year-old novice monk. It is very hard to formulate any common themes or to find any visual pattern in the Ichikawa films I’ve been able to see, though the despair of “Enjo” is at least somewhat connectable to the defeat and destruction of the war of “The Burmese Harp” and “Fires on the Plain.”


When I saw it for the first time long ago (on a date!), I thought that the film aimed to make the audience forgive the very antisocial act of burning down a “national treasure,” the exquisite ancient temple that had survived American fire bombing of Japanese cities. Watching it again on video(tape; it’s not, alas, available on DVD), I think that Mishima thought that the stuttering boy who destroys what he loves more than anything (or anyone) else—the temple—was justified, because it was being profaned by ignorant and unreverent tourists and by an abbot whose mistress bears a son the night that Mizoguchi Goichi (Ichikawa Raizô) sets the fire. Mishima himself was given to excessive reactions to what he considered the trampling of what he considered the glories of Japaneseness, culminating in his theatrical suicide.


There is also the Buddhist perspective, which may be that attachments, especially attachment to things, make attaining enlightenment impossible. Against such musings is the lack of enlightenment—and even of the prime Buddhist virtue of compassion—of any of the characters.

That Goichi burns down the temple is established at the very beginning (so noting it is not a “plot spoiler”!), because he is in police custody, not responding to interrogation. The flashbacks begin with him bearing a letter from his father to the abbot Tayama Dosen (Nakamura Ganjiro, who was an Ichikawa core trouper {An Actor’s Revenge, The Key]) who had been a friend since student days of the elder Mizoguchi. The abbot takes the now-fatherless boy in, provides for him, sends him to school, and considers him a possible successor despite Goichi’s painful stutter. The abbot is very disappointed in Goichi, and Goichi is very pained by what the abbot believes are his failings. (The abbot reflects on some of his own failings and sees the conflagration as due to his sins and unfitness as its custodian.)

Goichi is shy and venerates the temple more than anything else, including any possible vocation as a priest. He forms a fairly insidious relationship with a nihilistic, crippled student Tokari (Nakadai Tatsuya [who also starred in “The Key”]). He suffers inarticulately, but visibly. If he were an American teenager in 2016, he might go on a killing rampage. He is the 1950s, Japanese version of the puzzle of violent lashing out. Except, as I said, I am less convinced now than I was the first time I saw “Enjo” that Mishima and Ichikawa consider it senseless violence. I still feel sorry for Goichi, and perhaps it is a latent pyromania in me that find the conflagration of that old, polished wood quite beautiful.

More likely, it is the cinematography of Miyagawa Kazuo. Most of the film is very dark (and I remember this being true when I saw it projected, so it is not the video transfer)—dimly lit, but in sharp focus. The scenes are beautifully framed. I don’t remember any camera movement, and frequently there is very little movement of the actors either. Miyagawa filmed some of the greatest of Japanese films, including “Ugetsu” and “Sansho the Bailiff” for Mizoguchi. “Rashomon,” “Yojimbo,” and some of “Kagemusha” for Kurosawa. Thus, he did much to define the look of classic Japanese films, at least the American canon of classic Japanese films. (The Japanese I meet know nothing of these films. It’s not that they have an alternate canon of postwar Japanese films, but that they cannot conceive of anyone being interested in old black and white films. Perhaps, I meet the wrong Japanese, and there are admirers of the heritage of the great masters—though Donald Richie, the person most responsible for introducing Japanese art films to American audiences, agreed with me when I recently asked him] Mishima also seems better known in America than in Japan now.

The film may be a meditation on vandalism and isolation or on the dangers of attachment. There is a plot and some action, but the main reason to see “Enjo” is its visual brilliance.

(The real arsonist, Yoken Hayashi, attempted suicide, but survived to be tried and sentenced to seven years imprisonment, He was released in 1955, because he was considered mentally ill (shizophrenci) and soon died of tuberculosis. The abbot of the rebuiltpavilion asked that the movie not use the old name, Kinkauji, which had been Mishima’s title. The official name is now Rokuon-ji, “Deer Garden Temple.”)


©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Ichikawa’s “Harp of Burma” (1956)


“Biruma no tategoto” (The Burmese Harp/Harp of Burma, 1956), directed by Ichikawa Kon from an adaptation (by Ichikawa’s wife Wada Natto) of Takeyama Michio ‘s novel is one of the 1950s films that put Japan on the map of international cinema (with a tie for the top prize at the Venice Film Festival). Like Ichikawa’s later “Nobi” (Fires on the Plain, 1959) and the third part of Kobayashi’s “The Human Condition trilogy (1959), “Burmese Heart” shows the aftermath of World War II for Japanese soldiers far from home. The ones in “Burmese Harp” are not as desperate for food as those in the other two movies, though before they learn that Japan has surrendered, foraging food is a problem.

Led by Captain Inouye (Mikuni Rentaro, who later appeared in “Harakiri” and “Kwaidan”), who is very concerned about the well-being of the men he commands and who was a music teacher in civilian life, the company sings (in two-part harmony) when they are not concerned about being ambushed. Mizushima (rank unspecified, played by Yasui Shoji) is a scout who can pass for Burmese and has mastered the Burmese harp.

Ichikawa had  the eye for composition of John Ford (except Ichikawa had two to Ford’s one) and was not one to leave lighting to his cinematographer (Yokoyama Minoru here). There are many, many shots that are visually very striking and the Criterion bonus feature interview with Mikuni stresses that every scene followed very closely Ichikawa’s storyboarding). There is also something of Ford’s sentimentality and its expression in music. “Home, Sweet Home” plays a significant part in the plot, more than once. And there is a very long letter that, in a bonus feature on the Criterion DVD, Mikuni recalls thinking very sentimental. Ichikawa restrained his getting too emotional reading it (which takes about six minutes) by shooting it from last page to first (so that Mikuni could not build histrionics).

“Burmese Harp” has the reputation of being an anti-war film. I think that it a Buddhist film focused on compassion rather than a war film or an anti-war film (or a POW film). I’ve already mentioned Capt. Inouye’s concern for his men, but the main exemplar is Mizushima.

After the company surrenders, the British seek Capt. Inouye’s aid to send an emissary to another company of Japanese soldiers that is holed up (literally) in a cave. I think that Inouye does not go himself, because he feels that his paramount duty is to do all he can to take care of the men in his command in the ordeal of prison. He asks Mizushima to go, and Mizushima immediately agrees.

The British officer at the site of the battle that has continued days after Japan has surrendered, only gives Mizushima half an hour of cease-fire to get up to the Japanese position and convince those there to surrender. He attempts to convince them that they can do more for Japan by returning and helping rebuild than by dying, but convinces none of them.

I will skip over what then happens (which is quite interesting) to Mizushima regaining consciousness among many corpses. Disguised as a Buddhist monk, Mizushima makes his way to where his company is imprisoned. Along the way, he finds many more corpses. He buries one, but feels that his duty is to return to his own company.

The cumulative force of seeing so many unburied countrymen, however, along with being treated by Burmese as an itinerant monk changes his mind, and he decides to remain in Burma, burying and praying for his fallen countrymen.(Though initially a disguise, the role of being a Buddhist monk engulfs Mizushima.)


In the interview on the Criterion DVD, Ichikawa says that Yasui lost weight to play the part. Yasui still looked fairly well fed (monk robes leave one shoulder exposed), but other than that, he is astounding in the role of the one crossing cultures (already as a scout dressed in Burmese sarongs, before donning monk’s robes and eventually becoming a monk).

Mikuni and the sergeant are also outstanding. Returning again to John Ford, Ford said that the most interesting geography to him was that of human faces. There are close-ups and recurrent panning of faces in “Burmese Harp” that recalled this statement to me.

Although containing some stark images of unburied corpses, “Burmese Harp” is more a fable than a realist film. (It is less a horror film than its companion piece, “Fires on the Plain” is!) And more a film about compassion than about war. The carnage of war is an occasion for the compassion (in my view at least).

The war movie part is above average, but not what makes “Burmese Harp” a great movie. What makes it a great movie (IMO) is the striking visuals and the character(/performance) of Yasui’s Mizushima.

The print is far from perfect, but what makes this a great DVD—aside form containing a great but not always good movie—are the very informative interview of Ichikawa (running 16 minutes) and the genuinely moving (and also very informative) interview of Mikuni (running 12 minutes). Mikuni stressed how important Wada was. He recalls that she and Ichikawa were the only ones who watched rushes and attributes whatever reshootings the following day that there were primarily to her inputs. As I already noted, Ichikawa had the shots storyboarded and the timings thought out in advance. (Ichikawa began as an animator. The pre-WWII American directors he mentions are Walt Disney, Frank Capra, and Ernst Lubitsch—the last one is a bit of a puzzle to me! Elsewhere he cited Chaplin’s “The Gold Rush” as a particular inspiration. His 26 movies before “Harp of Burma” wre comedies, the 1954 “Mr. Pu” was an “unusually inventive” satire according to Tony Rayns in the essay for the Criterion booklet.) Mikuni attributes the visual glories of the film to Ichikawa but opines that Wada had great influence on the characterizations even beyond having written the lines the actors speak and the timing of the dialogue.

(Only Yasui’ and the crew went to Burma, though I would never have guessed this from watching the film, and did not suspect it when I first saw the film years ago at the Pacific Film Archives. The main locations wre Hakone, Odwara, and hte Izu peninsula.)

I suspect that the film would seem mystifying to those without some familiarity with Buddhism. There are aspects of Japanese behavior and expectations that seem very odd to me, despite having read shelves of books about Japanese culture and repeated viewings of many of the great post-WWII Japanese movies. The way groups rush to inspect some report (the young samurai in Kurosawa’s “Sanjuro” provide a very memorable example—Mifune strides, but they rush) seems comic to me and there are several instances in “Burmese Harp.”

A considerable part of the film is the other men in the company trying to solve the mystery of whether Mizushima survived the slaughter of the troops who refused to surrender and then the mystery of his not rejoining them. The aforementioned long letter to Capt. Inoyue crosses the t’s and dots the i’s on this (while providing more opportunity to scan their faces as the captain reads Mizushima’s letter to them on the boat that is taking them back to Japan).

Ichikawa shot a color version in 1985 that runs 17 minutes longer. (The original plan was to shoot in color, but taking the unwieldy camera to jungle locations where there would be no one to fix anything that went wrong dissuaded Ichikawa, he says in the included interview. The color version was the #1 grossing film of the year in Japan, but, like most of Ichikawa’s large body of work,  was not exported)


©2016, Stephen O. Murray