Tag Archives: Japan

Doris Dorrie’s genial and scenic “Cherry Blossoms”

“Kirschblüten” (Cherry Blossoms, 2008) was a big hit in Germany. It evidences a sentimentality that I think is particularly German, though not one I would expect in a Doris Dörrie. Maybe it’s just that her movies that have made it across the Atlantic are comedies with considerable bite: “Männer” (Men, 1985) and “Erleuchtung garantiert” (Enlightenment Guaranteed, 1999). Like the second of those, “Kirschblüten” follows two Germans to Japan.


It starts in Bavaria, however, with Trudi Angermeier (Hannelore Elsner) being told that her husband Rudi (Elmar Wepper) is terminally ill. She avers that his inflexibility is such that he should not be told. Without knowing of his condition or that it is the raison d’être, he goes with her to Berlin, where Klaus (Felix Eitner), a son who is the father of their two grandchildren lives, as does a lesbian daughter Emma (Floriane Daniel).

The children have unresolved issues, particularly the favoritism the parents showed for Karl, who has run further away, to Tokyo. They do not make time for their (admittedly unexpectedly) visiting parents. The one who treats them best, showing them around Berlin and accompany Trudi to a butoh performance is Emma’s lover Franzi (Nadja Uhl).

Trudi wanted to be a butoh dancer and to see her favorite son’s adopted land. When she and Rudi take in how little their children care about them, how ungracefully they tolerate their visit, they continue on to the Baltic coast.


Only one of them will make it to Japan and staying with the other inhospitable, ungrateful child (Maximilian Brückner’s Karl). Considering that they could not figure out Berlin streetcar ticketing (with instructions in their own language), the vastly larger-scale and more alien is bound to be quite a challenge, but there is a homeless (well, she has a tent) butoh waif street performer (actually, she performs in a park) who helps the survivor get to Mount Fujiyama (which she says is “shy,” often hiding from view) and a final butoh dance.

I found the movie slow-paced, though very scenic (the tour of Berlin, cherry blossoms in bloom in Tokyo, Fuji, and the Bavarian Alps). The children who would not make time for their parents and had no patience with them made me cringe (and think of Ozu’s “Tokyo Story”), and is likely to stir guilt in most viewers who have recently become orphans, especially when the parents were very close and one was lost without the other…

Hannelore Elsner is immediately engaging as Trudi. Elmar Wepper, playing a man who always put work ahead of his children (in fact, he seems to have been more like an absent Japanese father than an authoritarian German one), is initially unsympathetic but evolves or unfolds or something. He deservedly won the German Film Award for best actor (losing the European one to Toni Servillo for “Il divo” and “Gomorra”). I’m not sure about Irizuki Aya (the waif/angel). Bruckner is very good as the prodigal son (the child who fled the greatest distance) and the one who is unable to maintain politesse.

BTW, though icons of evanescence, the cherry blossoms live longer than the mayfly (both have weighted places in the movie). And I especially liked the visit to the beach by the Angermeiers in funeral black and wearing shoes mixed with others is normal beach togs.


©2009, Stephen O. Murray

Doris Dorrie bemused by some German men

“Männer” (“Men”, 1985, directed by Doris Dorrie, 4.3/5 stars) is a welcome relief form the all-enveloping depression of the middle-period Fassbinder movies. It is a romantic comedy in which a husband who finds out that his wife has been having an affair leaves, spies on the man, manages to become his roommate, becomes his confidant, and transforms the semi-hipies into an advertising executive who bores his wife. A gorilla mask is used effectively and the ending is very funny.

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“Erleuchtung garantiert” (Enlightenment Guaranteed, 2000) is almost as funny as “Manner” (Men). Like her 1985 movie, this one focuses on two highly contrasted German men with relationship problems. Uwe (Uwe Ochsenknecht, who was also in “Men” and other Dörrie films and looks more than a little like Kelsey Grammer) is a cranky kitchen-remodeling salesman with three noisy young children for whom he has little tolerance. Gustav (Gustav-Peter Wöhler who was in Dörrie’s 1998 “Am I Beautiful ) is a geomancer (feng shui practitioner) and Japanophile who has been looking forward to going to a Zen monastery in Japan to find inner peace, being very out of tune with his feelings and being a perfectionist who comes nowhere close to perfection.


Different as they are in appearance and temperament, Uwe and Gustav are brothers. Both of them are dissatisfied with their lives (Uwe having a more serious midlife crisis, but less aware that he is having one that Gustav is). For reasons that could not be revealed without spoiling the funniest part of the plot, Uwe, who has always scoffed at Gustav’s interest in Buddhism and things Japanese, goes along. Gustav’s considerable frustration with how Uwe acts and thinks makes having Uwe along horrifying to Gustav, but blood is thicker than something or another. (There is some quite beautiful water later, BTW.)

Despite misadventures in Tokyo, they get to the monastery, where Gustav in particular has more problems and frustrations, while Big Brother fits in without any major problems or irritations.

The other monks are patient and helpful, genial and cheerful, with only a few having a smattering of English as a lingua franca. The monastic routines are filmed in detail. I was amazed that a monastery would allow a female film-maker such access. In a DVD bonus interview, Dörrie explained that a condition of being allowed to film in the monastery was that the whole crew (which included another woman) would follow the rigorous monastic discipline.

The two German men in the Monzen monastery is more or less a documentary, though they were acting in a fictional story. Uwe had a video camera and I think that both of them improvised at least some of what they recorded themselves or each other as saying. I think there is too much of this inthe movie, however.

In Munich, in Tokyo, and in Monzen there are some very funny moments (involving furniture, a miniature rock garden, a tent, wiping techniques, etc.). Filming with hand-held digital cameras was, Dörrie, explains not at all unusual in Tokyo, so that Hans Karl Hu seemed to the Tokyoites to be shooting “home movies” rather than a movie for theatrical release.


The subtitles in the movie are clear (both visually and grammatically). The translated interview has some grammatical problems (it scrolls by rather than Dörrie speaking; I thought she spoke fluent English when she was here [the San Francisco International Film Festival] with “Men”). The questions are rather fatuous, too. The only other bonus features are one-page (partial) filmographies of Uwe and Gustav.

©2011, Stephen O. Murray



Chang-Rae Novels (2): A Gesture Life

The protagonist of  Chang-Rae Lee’s A Gesture Life (1999) is Franklin “Doc” Hata, a man of Korean parentage who was adopted by a wealthy Japanese couple and grew up in Japan. Hata, himself, though never married, adopted a racially mixed daughter, Sunny, whom he pushes to excel just as his own adoptive parents pushed him. Sunny, however, proves to be a bit more rebellious than was Hata.


When A Gesture Life opens, Franklin Hata, now retired, is living in Bedley Run, New York, a pillar of respectability and decorum. He takes very good care of his exquisite home, he’s polite to his neighbors and he was almost venerated by the customers who came into his shop. Hata, however, may have missed out on much of life simply because an incident in his youth caused him to “play it safe” and refuse to take chances. Better to live a peaceful, quiet life, albeit a lonely one, Hata decided early on, rather than expose oneself to the pain of heartbreak.

Lee frequently jump-cuts back and forth between Hata’s life “now” in Bedley Run and his youth in Japan. In this way, we learn who Franklin Hata really is and why he makes the choices he does, for even in Japan, Hata felt like an interloper and this feeling of “not belonging” caused him to excel at everything he did, from academic to military work.

The event that, more than any other, set the stage for the rest of Hata’s life occurred while he was in the military: he met and fell in love with a Korean woman called K, a woman sent by the Japanese army to “comfort” its soldiers. Hata denied his feelings for K during the war, and so, partly in an effort to atone and partly to suppress the pain of heartbreak, Hata denied the full flowering to his own emotional life.. He sublimated his own desires.

Lee’s prose in A Gesture Life is elegant and quiet and contains none of the heavy-handed symbolism found in his next (third) novel, Aloft. His transitions from present to past and back again are almost seamless and the pace of the book is slow but steady. A few of the characters are rather one-dimensional, but Hata and Sunny are rich and complex. Although I preferred the narrative that took place during the past, both those and those set in the present are artfully composed.

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A Gesture Life is an elegant and beautiful novel and, one that is ultimately very sad. It reminds me and many others of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. Franklin Hata, is a man, who, like Stevens, tugs at your heart until you find it impossible to forget him.

Donald Keene’s Memoir: Chronicles of My Life: An American in the Heart of Japan



I have an enormous debt of gratitude to two Americans with the given name of “Donald” for introducing me to much of the best of 20th-century Japanese literature and Japanese cinema: Donald Keene (born in New York in 1922) and Donald Richie (born in Lima, Ohio in 1924, died in Tokyo in 2013). In Japan, where their service in explicating Japanese culture is also appreciated, some think they must be brothers or spouses (family name coming first in Japanese and other West Pacific languages), I read in Donald Richie’s very entertaining Japan Journals.

Both of them knew Mishima Yukiô — Keene translated After the Banquet , Madame de Sade, and Mishima’s modern Nô plays — and failed to anticipate Mishima’s very public suicide, though recognizing later that they had been forewarned in more specific senses than a reading or viewing of “Patriotism.”

Keene also translated Nobel laureate Kawabata Yasunari, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, and Abe Kôbô and was close to both of them, and for a time to the second Japanese winner of the Nobel Prize for literature Ôe Kenzaburo He also knew Tanizaki Jun’ichiro (who IMO should have been the first Japanese writer to win the prize, though he had died a few years before Kawabata received it), Arthur Waley (the great English translator from both Chinese and Japanese), Bertrand Russell (who went out for beer after classes at Cambridge while Keene was there), and (of course) the other prominent American translators of contemporary Japanese literature, Ivan Morris, and Edward Seidensticker (both of whom joined him at Columbia University; Seidensticker makes frequent appearances in Richie’s Japan Journals; Morris only lived to the age of 51).

Kodansha published an insightful and entertaining memoir, titled On Familiar Terms: To Japan and Back, a Lifetime Across Cultures in 1996. The 2008 Columbia University Press Chronicles of My Life: An American in the Heart of Japan is not more revealing, though it is somewhat more conversational in tone. It covers research on the Emperor Meiji that went into Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852-1912 (Columbia UP, 2002) and his continuing productivity.

The second memoir is not notably more revealing than the first and repeats a number of anecdotes. This is not to challenge the need for a second memoir. The first is out of print and the newer one has very entertaining drawings by Yamaguchi Akira that are somewhere between 19th-cemtury woodblocks and manga illustrations. Keene has written about Japanese prints as well as about Japanese plays, poetry, fiction, and (especially) diaries.

Keene recalls that “Japanese, which at first had no connection with my ancestors, my literary tastes, or my awareness of myself as a person, has become the central element of my life.” What became his vocation as well as career began as a Columbia undergraduate, when he started to learn Chinese from a classmate, and then was enraptured by reading Arthur Waley’s translation of The Tale of Genji. His learning of Japanese accelerated into a full-time occupation during WWII, first a year of immersion language learning at Berkeley, then in active duty in the US Navy in the Aleutians and then Okinawa. His interest in Japanese diaries began with ones recovered from the corpses of Japanese soldiers (the official rationale was to glean information from them, the reason US troops were not allowed to keep diaries).

Spite got him assigned to a posting in China rather than Japan after Japan surrendered, so Keene was not part of the Occupation authority. He had a dismal teacher at Harvard: Serge Elisséeff is the only Japanologist about whom Keene records anything negative in either memoir. But he was able to go to Cambridge and work with Waley (and Russell). And to return to his alma mater in his hometown to earn his PhD (1951) and to stay on as a faculty member, and to travel to Japan and meet writers already mentioned. (Keene translated both the novels written by Dazai Osamu, but Dazai had taken his own life in mid-1948, five years before Keene got to Japan).

There is some wry humor about those who have condescended to Keene as a big frog in a little pond (when he reviewed a book by (Argentine writer) Julio Cortazar in the New York Times, some readers thought that it was written by someone else with the same name). Keene came along in what seems to have been a golden age of Japanese fiction writing, and has been lucky in other ways, but mastering Japanese (first the language, then the literature and its history) are major accomplishments, and ones from which I have profited. I find this book charming as well as insightful. His enthusiasms are infectious, and he has provided access to Japanese literature in his own translations and in analyses such as Dawn to the West.

(The photo is the cover one, showing Keene in 1953 in front of Bashô’s grave)

©2016, Stephen O. Murray