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image © Gary Kelley

I ran across this image by the talented artist Gary Kelley, and could not help but recall Abe Kobo‘s 1951 short story, “The Magic Chalk” (魔法のチョーク). In this early Abe gem, a starving artist named Argon sells off most of his possessions for food and is left with a piece of chalk. The significance of the ‘starving artist’ figure is debatable, because in 1951 most people in Japan were starving–the artist here is the everyman in this regard. The significance of Argon is far more apparent: it is a noble gas (希ガス) that takes its name from the Greek for “lazy” (hence used commonly as an inert gas), and despite being a “rare gas” in Japanese, I understand it is the most common of the noble gasses. So there you go–Argon the Idle. Nevertheless, this artist possesses a chalk that brings pictures to life. Food, money, a bed, a beautiful landscape, a beautiful–but troublingly modern–woman. In this respect, Mr. Kelley and Mr. Abe seem to be…ahem…drawing on a similar thought. But just as Abe’s story explores the eternal theme of art’s creative power–the power to create a new world, it also highlights a contemporaneous need for a regenerative force to help Japan through the post-war period.

The short story has been translated as is available, yet again, in The Showa Anthology: Modern Japanese Short Stories (Japan’s Modern Writers) (Bks.1 & 2)

*****/5

One of my favorite Japanese movies is now available to watch on HULU until mid July. When the Last Sword Is Drawn (壬生義士伝 Mibu gishi den), released in 2003 and directed by Yōjirō Takita (the guy who directed the Oscar-winning Departures, and the Molester’s Train series apparently, but you got to start somewhere I suppose), is not your usual slash-em-up samurai flick. It is more in the vein of Yoji Yamada’s 2002 masterpiece Twilight Samurai ( たそがれ清兵  Tasogare seibei) and uses the bakumatsu period more as a motivated setting than an excuse to slice a few heads off. If you prefer slicing and dicing, see the Zatoichi films, also available on HULU. When the Last Sword Is Drawn won the Best Film award in the 2004 from the Japanese Academy, and a few others.

Watch it while you can: http://www.hulu.com/watch/84241/when-the-last-sword-is-drawn

And if you miss it, go rent it. Heck, go buy it.

More from the Mainichi on the Koyanagi File (interviews with WWII naval officers) mentioned in an earlier post. The documents are due to be released this month.

Top secret interviews with WW2 Japanese navy brass to be published in April according to Mainichi. Read the full article here:

http://mdn.mainichi.jp/features/archive/news/2010/03/20100313p2a00m0na021000c.html?inb=rs&utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+mdn%2Fall+%28Mainichi+Daily+News+-+All+Stories%29

This 15-minute documentary, titled “Traces of a City,” focuses on Masaaki Tanabe’s efforts to digitally reconstruct his hometown–Hiroshima–as he remembered it before the destruction of the atomic bomb. Well worth watching, won’t take much out of the day. But it does speak to memory, nostalgia, and the concept of furusato, or “hometown,” which plays an important role in Japanese culture.

Since WordPress does not allow java, check it out at Mainichi.

64 years ago “Enola Gay” dropped 8,900 lbs of uranium on Hiroshima, marking a watershed moment in history.  64 years later opinions have shuffled around in two major camps; the first feels using the atom bomb was fully justified and the second condemns the action. Those that justify the destruction of Hiroshima and, three days later, Nagasaki defend Truman’s decision citing Japan’s role as the aggressor and express the utilitarian belief that “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” saved more lives than they ended, but to be accurate, the argument goes that they saved American lives, and are thereby justified. Those that oppose martial use of nuclear power are convinced that particular American action represents a crime against humanity, citing the massive civilian casualties and the instantaneous, wholesale destruction of two cities.  These people are inclined to consider the firebombing of Tokyo—that resulted in many more civilian casualties—repulsive as well, however the tremendous destructive power of nuclear weapons render their use immoral.

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The major difference between “old/established” religions and “new” religions lies in the name. However, it is not to be found strictly in the chronological position of the two in the temporal sense, but rather in the stage of development. Thus, when we call Buddhism an “old” religion, although the tradition is indeed millennia old, we are primarily referencing its advanced developmental stage, characterized by organization, hierarchy, rules and codes, as well as wide social acceptance. The above devices generally emerge to fill the vacuum created after the founder’s death, who provided the driving force of the nascent religious movement. All religions begin as new religions. All religions face competition from rival movements. As these religions grow “old” they must either adapt to changing social conditions or face replacement by a “new” religion that better addresses the issues of the day. Adaptability characterizes most successful religions. If “old” religions are adaptable and familiar, “new” religions are full of zeal. “New” religions, by their mere existence, challenge the established authority of “old” religions and implicitly dare the established religions to return to the zeal that existed when they were “new.” Therefore, the key difference is not to be found by linear plotting of religions in chronological order on a timeline, but in understanding the cyclical progression of religious development. The “old” religions are “new” religions that have survived the competition.

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Continuing with Manyoshu banka. In the last post we looked at poem #147, and now on to #148. There’s some controversy about this poem, specifically about the headnote. It seems that it doesn’t quite fit with the poem.

The headnote reads:

一書曰近江天皇聖躰不豫御病急時<太>后奉獻御歌一首

According to one source, poem composed by the Empress after the Omi Emperor’s (Emp. Tenchi/Tenji) affliction turned critical.

The poem:

青旗(あおはた)の 木幡(こはた)の上を 通(かよ)ふとは  目には見れども 直(ただ)に逢(あ)はぬかも

My eyes watch you come and go above green-bannered Kohata

Yet we will not meet face to face!

The controversy stems from the observation that if the Empress can see Emp. Tenji’s spirit hovering above Kohata, then to call his situation ‘critical’ is a bit of an understatement. The man is dead. However, in his study of Japanese ritual poetry, Gary Ebersole (history professor at UMKC) suggests that it might well belong here. This is  because in ancient Japan death was not considered to be instant, but a rather drawn out affair, complete only when the spirit cannot be ‘coaxed’ back into the body.

Who knows. At any rate, here’s the breakdown:

青旗(あおはた) is a makura-kotoba for 木幡(こはた), in modern day Yamashina-ku in Kyoto, where Emp. Tenji is entombed. Literally, it means green-or blue-banner. I picture it referring to treetops on a mountain.

見れども is izenkei of みる + ども, which is a concessive, meaning “although.”

逢(あ)はぬかも mizenkei of あふ + rentaikei of negative ず + かも, which is a Nara-period exclamation particle.

There is a kind of reoccurring image of deceased spirits hovering above the ground. So it would seem that Emp. Tenji’s spirit was on his way out.

Stay tuned for #149!

Moving along now on our short trip through Kojiki. In the previous post we saw really a mean-spirited little song from Yamato-takeru. A little smug of him. The story preceding the following song is very brief, essentially Yamato-takeru is travelling. Continue reading for the full analysis:

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Here’s an interesting story today from the Times of India. It seems that every once in a while the shadow of WWII again reminds us of how much Japan–yes, even today’s futuristic Japan–grew out of the war experience.

http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/World/Japan_boys_bring_WWII_bomb_to_school/articleshow/4046874.cms