Pale blue scarf

2013-08-16 11.01.32

When I first got this out of its box, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. From the initial look and feel, I thought it was a furoshiki (a square cloth used for wrapping bento boxes) which would have been pretty cool. But then I opened it up further, and was clearly a scarf … or was it? It’s a little long and wide to be a scarf, but not wide enough to be a furoshiki.

Hmmmm ….

I got this courtesy of Biken International and JapanExpo. Biken International does an exhibit called The Wabi Sabi Exhibition that showcases traditional Japanese arts and crafts at the JapanExpo. For those who don’t know, Wabi Sabi is a Japanese art style that emphasizes simplicity and natural materials. However, this scarf is neither.

It’s hard to review a scarf. Fashion is personal, and one person can absolutely hate something that someone else absolutely loves. There are two real components to a scarf—design and material. For me, this scarf fails to wow on either front.

The fabric is nice. I thought it might be silk, but after handling it a bit more I don’t think it is. It feels more like a type of nice cotton. I like the pale blue color. It reminds me of some of the indigo dyes you see in Japan.

The real issue is the design. There is a row of Japanese crests that I found pretty, but the main design is a gilded bird that looks conspicuously European. I’m not sure what kind of bird this is. A cockatiel? I’ve seen this type of design before, with the fancy bird and the golden chain, but I can’t exactly remember where. It looks out of place on the scarf, and odd attempt to blend Japanese and European design that just doesn’t click.

Ultimately, by trying to hit too many targets the scarf fails. It’s too “stuck in the middle.” It isn’t European, it isn’t Japanese. It isn’t a scarf, it isn’t a furoshiki. It needs to go one way or the other.

Oh, and the ultimate test of this scarf. After looking it over for review purposes, I gave it to my wife to see what she thought. She was unimpressed, and her reaction can be summed up as “Meh.” She also would have liked it better if it had been a true furoshiki, because at least then we could have gotten some use out of it.

NOTE: After talking to my wife some more, we figured out this is neither a furoshiki, not a scarf, but a tenegui, a type of hand towel common throughout Japan used for wiping your hands and neck during the hot humid summers. Neither of us had seen a tenegui this fancy–usually they are cotton towels with shop names on them or some kind of design.  Tenegui are usually disposable, because you use them to wipe up sweat and dirty water.  But if you are in the mood for a fashionable one, well … this might be up your alley. But I would almost feel bad using it for its intended purpose.

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai

4.0 out of 5 stars A respectful remake of a classic film

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai

When I heard that Miike Takeshi was doing a remake of Kobayashi Masaki’s 1962 Harakiri (Japanese title: “Seppuku”), I had some trepidation to say the least. I love Miike. I love his over-the-top sensibilities, his ultra-violence Grand Guignols, not to mention his complete mind tweaks. But Kobayashi’s “Harakiri” is the opposite of everything Miike.

A slow, careful essay on the pointlessness of honor, Kobayashi’s “Harakiri” is up there with Seven Samurai as one of the best samurai films ever made, one of the best Japanese films ever made–maybe one of the best films ever made, period. Kobayashi shows the hollowness of the word “honor,” and how elite classes and bureaucrats use “honor” and “duty” to manipulate and control, while showing none of those traits themselves. The film is a metaphor for Japan during WWII, or America during the Iraq war, or any time soldiers have died pointless, anonymous deaths for a cause their leaders assured them was “honorable.” One top of that, the film is about 85% some guy kneeling and talking, and maybe 15% action at best.

And Miike Takeshi was going to remake that? In 3-D?

I was shocked to see what a phenomenal film Miike created. He took Kobayashi’s film and updated it in cinematography and visual splendor, while staying respectful to the original, true to its themes, and restrained in both tone and execution.

If you have never seen Kobayashi’s film (And if you haven’t, what is wrong with you? I can only assume that you hate great movies.), the story begins with the ronin Hanshiro Tsugumo appearing on the steps of the manor house of a rich and powerful lord. Like many of his class, Hanshiro has fallen into dismal poverty following the dissolution of his clan. He requests the use of the courtyard to commit honorable, ritual suicide and end his suffering like a warrior. From there, a complex story unfolds as the lord tells the story of another young samurai who recently made the same request, to which Hanshiro has his own story ready in reply. It is soon made aware that this is not a chance meeting, and that Hanshiro did not choose this particular lord’s house blindly to make his final statement about life.

Miike’s version, titled “Hara-Kiri- The Death of a Samurai” (Japanese title: “Ichimei” or “A Life”), plays out an almost identical story. If fact, the only noticeable difference was that he pumped up the violence in the suicide scenes in somewhat typical Miike fashion. The effects are never too gory to distract, but he makes you feel the pain and appreciate the willpower necessary to slowly drive a bamboo stake into your own body. He added a few action scenes–some of the things that appear off-camera in Kobayashi’s film are shown in-your-face in Miike’s. And while Kobayashi’s film is in black-and-white, contributing to its stark, bleak nature, Miike made full use of color and pageantry. This pushes the distance even further between the well-fed, wealthy lord and the desolate ronin Hanshiro.

The cast are all top-notch pros of the Japanese film industry. Kabuki actor Ichizawa Ebizo carries the film in the lead role of Hanshiro. Ichizawa does a fantastic job, with the only mark against him being his age. Really, he is too young. It isn’t fair to compare him to Nakadai Tatsuya who originated the role–seeing as how Nakadai is one of Japan’s greatest actors–but Ichizawa lacks some of the dead-eyed weariness necessary that comes with having lived and suffered too long. Even with that strike against him, however, Ichizawa masters the subtle complexities required of Hanshiro. Yakusho Koji (Babel) plays the Lord Kageyu, and is perfectly suited for the role. Yakusho is a familiar face in Japanese film, a Miike regular, and a consummate professional. More of a surprise was Takenaka Naoto (Shall We Dance?, in which Yakusho also appeared.), the ubiquitous clown that seems to appear in nine-tenths of Japanese films, bugging his eyes and cracking wise. Takenaka was all but indistinguishable in his costume playing Kageyu’s advisor. He played the role straight with none of his usual antics.

The only real disappointment to Hara Kiri-Death of a Samurai was the “in 3-D!!!” tagline. This is just a gimmick, no more no less, and does not at all serve the story. This is not an action flick. This is not a large-scale picture. Remaking “Harakiri” in 3-D is like remaking 12 Angry Men in 3-D. It serves no purpose whatsoever. In his favor, Miike kept the 3-D subtle and unobtrusive, using it to add depth-of-field and little else. The film works 100% as well in regular 2-D, and possibly even better because you aren’t encumbered by the glasses.

But I can see why he did it. The gimmick draws viewers, who would normally pass on the film. It worked to get my wife to go see it, who can’t stand samurai films. But she was lured in by the 3-D, then won by the story.

Totto-Chan: The Little Girl at the Window

5.0 out of 5 stars Children at play during WWII

Totto-Chan: The Little Girl at the Window

Full confession: I bought “Totto-chan, the Little Girl at the Window” almost four years ago and it sat on my shelf ever since. It is one of those classics of Japanese literature that I thought I ought to have read–pretty much every Japanese person I know has read it and recommends it–but I wasn’t looking forward to the actual reading. It looked like one of those sugary sweet books that might make an impression on an 8-year old girl but not on a 40-year old guy.

After reading it, I am reminded once again that classics are classics for a reason. And just like “Anne of Green Gables” there are some books that resonate past age and gender.

From the first page I was hooked on the stories of Totto-chan and the unusual Tomoe school that she attends. Even more so when I read that this book is entirely non-fiction. Author Kuroyanagi Tetsuko (Totto-chan herself) assures us that each event is as true as she remembers it, even if her memory is the fuzzy memory of an adult looking back on her childhood.

The books is written without an ongoing plot, but consists of little snacks of story like “Winnie the Pooh” and “Anne of Green Gables.” Kuroyanagi presents those events that stick out in her memory, that made an impression on her or that she learned something from. The stories can be as irrelevant as her first time in a swimming pool, or when her dog accidently bit her while they were playing a game, to more poignant episodes like the funeral of a friend. Her alter-ego, the child Totto-chan, does progress through the years of the book, but there is very little linking of the story.

And just as wonderful as the little stories is the existence of Tomoe school itself. During the hardships and horrors of WWII, a time when Japan was at its very worst both ideologically and economically, this idealist Kobayashi Sosaku created a progressive school that encouraged children to think and feel, to love life and music and nature. To really appreciate how amazing that is you have to juxtapose it with the fact that in the rest of Japan children were being trained to be tiny drones, obeying ritual and form and submitting their own personalities to the will of the state. Truly, for the fifty students of Tomoe school, Kobayashi created an island of calm in the midst of a sea of madness.

Some of Kobayashi’s ideas would be too radical even today, like having all of the children swim naked together so that they wouldn’t be ashamed of their bodies and so that the physically handicapped children would grow up without complexes. Some of his ideas are pure simplicity, like his rule that every lunch consist of “something from the hills, something from the ocean.” Some of them I can see in progressive children’s education today, like schools that allow children to pick their own course of study and progress at their own rate, rather than trying to enforce a single curriculum on a diverse student body. Kobayashi’s ideas only work in a small school like Tomoe, with fifty students spread across first to sixth grade. But for those fifty lucky students it was life-changing.

Another piece I loved about “Totto-chan, The Little Girl at the Window” was the epilogue. Kuroyanagi catches up with some of her old friends–each of whom was a character in “Totto-chan”–to see how they are doing as adults. Predictably, they have lead different lives. One became a world-class physicist. One an expert on orchids. But most were just housewives and office workers like the rest of us. But they all looked back fondly on their days at Tomoe school, as would I if I had been lucky enough to attend.

Sword of Desperation

4.0 out of 5 stars Well done Fujisawa Shuhei adaptation

Sword of Desperation

A film doesn’t need to be innovative to be good. Sometimes it is enough to do a straight take on a classic genre, to hit all the beats in perfect rhythm and fluently play a familiar tune. “Sword of Desperation” does just that. In the opening scene when loyal samurai retainer Kanemi Sanzaemon walks up to Lady Renko, the favored concubine of Kanemi’s lord Ukyo Tabu, and stabs her in the heart, you know just what you are going get. And that it will be good.

The genre here is author Fujisawa Shuhei (The Bamboo Sword: And Other Samurai Tales), whose work has come to define modern Japanese samurai fiction. Far from any kind of “Kill Bill” action, Fujiwara wrote introspective, melancholy tales that dove deep into the psychology of the rank-and-file soldiers or Edo period Japan. Fujisawa’s heroes are not the leaders and great lords of the castle, but stolid, loyal retainers who must fight a constant inner battle between personal feelings and duty to lords who often don’t deserve loyalty.

Ever since director Yamada Yoji re-introduced the world to Fujisawa with his samurai trilogy (The Twilight Samurai, The Hidden Blade, Love and Honor) –arguably the finest samurai films since Kurosawa stepped behind the camera–Fujisawa has become the Zane Grey of Japanese samurai fiction. Kurotsuchi Mitsuo directed The Samurai I Loved based on a Fujisawa tale. And now director Hirayama Hideyuki gives us another.

“Sword of Desperation” (Japanese title: “Hisshiken Torisashi” or “The Bird-Catching Desperate Sword”) is a by-the-numbers Fujisawa story (It even takes place in Unasaka-han, the fictional province that serves as the background for most of his samurai yarns). All of the familiar tropes are present; two righteous men being slowly moved into a confrontation that neither of them desires. A gloomy man living his life under a death sentence who suddenly finds a reason to live in an unlikely love affair, but whose sense of duty is stronger than his passion. Political corruption at the high levels, and lords who use their retainer’s high ideals against them, manipulating them like pieces on a chessboard into battles without honor.

And then of course, there is the “Sword of Desperation” itself. Like Fujisawa’s “The Hidden Blade,” the title refers to a secret sword technique known by only one man, an indefensible strike that can only be used at the moment of greatest desperation–the moment of explosive death that we spend the entire film waiting for.

Director Hirayama doesn’t play around too much with “Sword of Desperation.” Fujisawa’s tales are, by their nature, intimate affairs, and Hirayama tries to capture that. He adds a few touches of cinematic flair. The mirroring of the opening Noh performance with the final scene worked very well. His use of the flashback device that fades to black-and-white is effective, but not consistent, leading to some confusion about when you are in a flashback.

A strong cast is necessary for this type of film, and fronting “Sword of Desperation” is veteran actor Toyokawa Etsushi (20th Century Boys) as Kanemi Sanzaemon. Kanemi is a tormented man, whose wife’s death left him depressed and suicidal, until he saw an honorable out for himself by assassinating the favored yet controlling concubine of his lord, the spoiled, weak-willed Ukyo Tabu. Toyokawa gives Kanemi the gravity and presence necessary for the role, and plays all of the faces of Kanemi from groomed court samurai, to scruffy prisoner and wander, to the demon he eventually becomes. Toyokawa is playing somewhat against type in this film, which is probably helped him win the 2011 Japan Academy Award for this role.

Equally strong is Ikewaki Chizuru as Rio, the niece of Kanemi whose love for her uncle is more than familiar. Kikkawa Koji plays a good opposite as Lord Obiya, the righteous noble whose path sets him directly against Kanemi, even though they should be standing together.

If there is any real weakness to “Sword of Desperation,” it is that the film is too by-the-numbers. A straight take on a classic genre can give you a very good film, but not a great one. With his samurai trilogy Yamada Yoji combined Fujisawa’s source material with potent and powerful acting and directing, and set the standard for all others to follow. Hirayama just isn’t the genius that Yamada was. But it seems strange to fault someone for not being a genius. Being very good is good enough.

A few notes on the DVD: Animeigo still does the best subtitles in the business. I know there will never be issues there. The DVD for Sword of Desperation is bare bones, with only a few trailers and some production notes. But still, a nice release.

Tales of the Metropolis – Kaiki: Uncanny Tales from Japan, Vol. 3

5.0 out of 5 starsGhosts of Taisho and Heisei

Tales of the Metropolis – Kaiki: Uncanny Tales from Japan, Vol. 3

My only disappointment with “Kaiki: Uncanny Tales from Japan – Volume 3: Tales of the Metropolis” is that it is the final volume. I could easily read another ten volumes or more in this remarkable series by Kurodahan Press.

Japan’s history of weird and uncanny tales (not to be confused with horror stories) is probably more rich and extensive than any country on earth. As explained in the forward to this volume, “Earthquakes, Lightning, Fire, and Father,” Japan has a history of destruction and renewal, of a populace keenly aware of their own mortality with a horrific death only an earthquake away. Combined with the Japanese sense of art and aesthetic, this has led to the evolution of a style of weird storytelling that is both haunting and beautiful. Kurodahan’s “Kaiki” series is one of the few chances English speakers have ever had to experience this literary heritage.

To be honest, “Tales of the Metropolis” was the volume I was looking forward to the least in this series. My tastes tend to run to the earlier Edo period weird stories which are cruder in execution than the careful, refined prose of the Taisho era, but somehow more real and vital. Edo period stories are like traditional campfire stories, told by people who believed they were passing on a true story. Taisho era writers were fully aware that they were writing fiction.

But those writers knew what they were doing and were able to build on and refine Japan’s storytelling traditions. “Tales of the Metropolis” collects tales from some of Japan’s greatest writers, with stories ranging from 1915-1996. Names like Akutagawa Ryunosuke, Tanizaki Junichiro, Edogawa Rampo, and Kawabata Yasunari should be familiar to anyone with an interest in Japan. Some of the other authors may not be as well known, but they are carefully curated to deliver a slice of the best of Japanese weird fiction.

From the first page I was swept into this collection. Some of the stories here I have read before, like Kawabata’s “The Arm” and Tanizaki’s “The Face.” Both come from that tradition of “erotic-grotesque nonsense” that focused on the objectification of body parts, human deformity, and the celebration of the bizarre. Kawabata’s story is sensuous and nostalgic, while Tanizaki’s tale jams together modern technology and Japan’s yokai tradition for an unsettling effect. Rampo’s “Doctor Mera’s Mysterious Crime” is an interesting story featuring the author as a character.

But the stories that really affected me were the ones I was reading for the first time. Toyoshima Yoshio’s “Ghosts of the Metropolis” tells of a haunted Tokyo packed with billowing ghosts with an unmistakable debt to Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd.” Minigawa Hiroko plays a lovely game of “Who’s dead here?” with the story “The Midsummer Emissary” about a chance meeting between three people and the nature of lingering desire. Endo Shushaku’s “Spider” is a classic modern haunted taxi story with a twist ending that I wasn’t expecting. Yamakawa Masao’s “The Talisman” could have been an episode of “The Twilight Zone.”

My favorite in the volume was Akae Baku “Expunged by Yakumo,” a brilliant retelling and “finishing” of Lafcadio Hearn’s story “In a Cup of Tea” that began the first volume of the “Kaiki” series. Akae managed that delicious writer’s trick of leaving the reader in suspense as to whether this is a fiction or non-fiction story. Is there really an undiscovered ending to Hearn’s famous unfinished tale? Akae skillfully weaved a personal ghost story into this quest for the understanding of “In a Cup of Tea,” and the sequel here made me appreciate the original all the more. Brilliant stuff.

The translations for the “Kaiki” series have improved with every volume. I am a translator myself, and so I can be nitpicky when it comes to awkward phrases or poor word choice. Almost every story in “Tales of the Metropolis” accomplishes the goal of reading as if it was originally written in English. I got so engrossed in the tales I forgot I was reading translations, which is the mark of a job well done.

Hopefully Kurodahan Press will be able to publish further volumes of this series in the future, or a companions series in the same style. Anyone interested in weird fiction or Japanese literature is going to want the entire series on their shelf.

Judge Bao Volume 1: Judge Bao and the Jade Phoenix

4.0 out of 5 stars Astounding art

Judge Bao Volume 1: Judge Bao and the Jade Phoenix

“Judge Bao and the Jade Phoenix” took me by surprise. I thought the premise sounded cool; Judge Bao is a historical figure from China who, like Robin Hood and King Arthur, has spawned his own folklore. Judge Bao the character has appeared in numerous books, TV shows, and films, wandering ancient China, investigating crimes, and dispensing his own brand of tough-but-fair justice that does not discriminate between people of different classes.

Storywise, the book lived up to my expectations for the most part. It is like the best of Chinese historical films, with intrigue, action and mystery. Judge Bao is like a Chinese Sherlock Holmes, with ninjas. (Or perhaps Nero Wolfe would be a better analogy, with Bao’s right-hand man Zhan Zhao making a capable Archie Goodwin.)

But what I wasn’t prepared for was art so brilliant it leaps right off the page and smacks you in the face. Seriously. I can’t remember the last time I saw art this beautiful in a comic.

Chongrui Nie is phenomenal. Looking at “Judge Bao and the Jade Phoenix”, I have no idea why he hasn’t been recruited by one of the major comic companies. I imagine it takes him a long time to create artwork this detailed, but that is no reason not to hire him for a graphic novel project or something. I really don’t know how he pulls this level of artwork off.

I assume he uses some sort of photo-reference , although there is nothing stilted or lifeless about his work like I have seen in other photo-reference heavy artists. His lines are fluid and show an easy hand, while all of his surfaces are dense and rough as if they were scratched onto a board. There is fluency and attention paid to even the smallest detail. This is the kind of comic art that makes you re-think the potential of what comic art can be.

Archaia Comics has also put together a pretty little package to contain that art. It is a canvas-bound hardcover that is smaller and wider than your typical Japanese comic. “Judge Bao and the Jade Phoenix” was originally a French publication, so I don’t know if Archaia simply reproduced the original or came up with a new design, but either way this is a very well put together book.

Unfortunately, what keeps the book from being perfect is that the story falls away towards the end. The all-important denouement, where Judge Bao reveals his hand and shows that he has seen through the tangled weave of the crime—just doesn’t play out. I am left with plot threads untangled. (Who really killed Red-Cloud?) and some unsatisfying dispersions of justice. I don’t know if the story continues in the next book, but it is dissatisfying for a first-time reader.

I’ll Give It My All…Tomorrow, Vol. 4

4.0 out of 5 stars Fall down seven times, stand up eight

I’ll Give It My All…Tomorrow, Vol. 4

I’m not sure if it is a good thing or a bad thing that I can relate so much to Shizuo Oguro, the protagonist of “I’ll Give It My All … Tomorrow” (Japanese title: “Ore wa Mada Honki Dashitenai, Dake” or “It’s Just That I Haven’t Given It My All Yet.”) At 42 years old, he has decided to ditch his unfulfilling job as a soulless office worker and pursue his dream of becoming a manga artist. Shizuo has neither talent nor experience, but he does have that most necessary trait of persistence—coupled with a thick skin that isn’t deterred by countless rejections.

Approaching 40, I see something of myself in Shizuo—not much, thankfully, as Shizuo has Charlie Brown karma and is a loveable loser at everything he tries—but I understand that sense of “If not now, when?” that drives the mid-life pursuit of dreams. Most likely failure lies at the end of both mine and Shizuo’s path, but at least we can be happy that we gave it a shot, if not our all.

This forth volume of writer/artist Shunju Aono’s series test just how thick-skinned Shizuo is. Up until now, he has had a fairly supportive editor working with him and giving him encouragement if not publication. But suddenly Shizuo finds himself with a new editor, Unami Aya, who is determined to show Shizuo the folly of his ways and make him give up his dreams. Aya’s own father spent wasted decades trying to pursue his dream of becoming a novelist, and she despises middle age men in pursuit of their last glimpse of youth.

Although I have enjoyed it, “I’ll Give It My All … Tomorrow” has been a hit-or-miss series. The first volume was brilliant, but the second volume was just too depressing, dwelling more on the “loser” aspect of the story and less on the “lovable.” Volume 4 has the correct balance again. We get to root for Shizuo, hoping that this perpetual underdog will get at least one small chance to see his dreams come true. At the same time, I thought the new character of Umami Aya brought some depth to the series, as we see the child’s perspective of having a parent that refuses to acknowledge reality and their own limitations.

“I’ll Give It My All … Tomorrow” is a good book for those who think that “manga” is a genre, with one style of art and one style of story. Artist Shunju Aono has more in common with Daniel Clowes than with Eiichiro Oda. His panels are sparse, with almost no extraneous decoration. Everything has an amateurish feel, as if we are reading the comic that Shizuo Oguro will eventually publish (and perhaps we are. I have my suspicions along that line). Yet even with limited detail and facial expression, Shunju manages to tell an emotional story. He uses a few tricks, like the slogans on Shizuo’s perpetual black t-shirts to let us know what mood our hero is in. And occasional visits from God who talks to Shizuo adds a nice fantasy element that keeps the story from being too grounded in depressing reality.

I don’t think you have to be a 40-year old guy with unfulfilled ambitions to enjoy “I’ll Give It My All … Tomorrow”, but it certainly helps. This is a comic for adults, and it is interesting that it is being published by pop culture purveyors Viz Media instead of art-focused publishers like Fantagraphics or Drawn & Quarterly. I don’t know if Shizuo will ever get a comic published—Charlie Brown never did kick that football, after all. But in reading his story I can borrow a little of his persistence to pursue my own dreams.

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