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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.

Neat article in the Japan Times on aphorisms, saying, etc. Well worth a read:

http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/ek20100224a1.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+japantimes+%28The+Japan+Times%3A+All+Stories%29

石の上にも三年!

Count our lucky stars. The old Zatoichi movies are available to view on HULU: http://www.hulu.com/zatoichi-the-blind-swordsman

If you like old samurai flicks these are very cool. Well, technically he’s a blind masseur played by Katsu Shintaro who is more gamler-type than samurai. But plenty of swordplay is involved. Check it out (especially the early ones).

Kojima Nobuo (小島信夫) wrote the short story “American School” (アメリカンスクール) the same year as “Stars” (星). The similarities in tone and approach are readily noticeable. Although written in 1954, the story is set in 1948 in the midst of the US occupation of Japan. It centers on a visit of a group of Japanese teachers of English to a school run by the Occupation forces, hence the title.

The characters are archetypes and the lampooning of the contemporaneous social realities is representative of Kojima’s satiric approach. Personal relationships between the characters drive the story, the majority of which centers on a group march to the American school. Isa, a cowardly fellow who is scared to death of speaking English—yes he is an English teacher—wants only to be left alone. Yamada, a sycophant to authority and overweening jackass to everyone else, is above all an opportunist (there is a similar character in “Stars”). Yamada sees Isa as a non-hacker and desires to publicly humiliate him. Isa, in turn, despises Yamada. Michiko, the only woman in the group and very popular with the Occupation forces, sticks close to Isa, for a variety of reasons. The most apparent reason is that he has something she wants.

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The Sea and Poison 海と毒薬 (1958, serialized in 1957)

Endō Shūsaku – 遠藤周作

Translated by Michael Gallagher

There are two types of sins, we are often told—the sins of commission and the sins of omission. The former are the committed through immoral actions, the latter through the failure to exercise moral actions. The former is simple enough; if you murder someone you are guilty by your action. The latter is more subtle; what if you did nothing to stop the murder? Edmund Burke once said something about “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” He might have liked this book.

Read the rest of this entry »

Kojima Nobuo’s (小島信夫) 1954 short story “Stars” (星) is first of all a humorous read. On the surface its wit expertly pillories the system of rank in the Japanese military during WWII. Like most good humor, however, this story functions on more than one level. The protagonist, a second-generation Japanese-American by the name of George Sugihara, is unfortunate enough to be visiting his grandfather in Japan during the war, and is drafted into the army. The story follows the insecure George (Jōji), who is routinely disparaged for being American, on his journey from buck private to PFC. [Note that there were more than a few cases of Japanese-Americans being drafted in the Japanese army during WWII, see Iwao Peter Sano’s 1,000 Days in Siberia.]

The story quickly becomes a theatre of the absurd. Read the rest of this entry »

http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/01/04/showcase-101/

Shiho Fukada is an amazing photojournalist. I highly recommend her work. In this particular spot from the NYT, she focuses her lens on Kamagasaki, an area in Osaka that used to be known as “labor town,” but has recently been dubbed “welfare town.” The economic downturn put a stop to much of construction work in Japan, rendering most of these day laborers unemployed. Please see the slide show and story on the NYT Lens Blog or on Fukada’s personal website.

The Blue Bird (Aoi Tori) 青い鳥  2008 – Nakanishi Kenji

****/5

Bullying has been a widely acknowledged problem in Japan, and this isn’t the first movie to explore it. But Aoi Tori, based on a novel by Shigematsu Kiyoshi, does something most other movies dealing with this issue fail to do. It explores the gray areas, between outright physical violence against and the virtuous defense of the weak, in which many instances of bullying probably occur.

Abe Hiroshi (who has a few outstanding roles in TV dramas and won the Mainichi Film Concours award for his role in this movie) plays Mr. Murauchi, a stuttering substitute teacher who comes to a school in the aftermath of bullying incidents, which the entire school wants to forget. Murauchi actively dredges up those memories, forcing the students to reassess their own responsibility in the matter they’d rather move past.

This film is worth watching and I don’t want to give anything away. Not because there are any plot twists or clever tricks the directors pulls—there aren’t any—but because watching the story gently unfold is better done without much knowledge of the relationship of each student to the incident in question. I am not a fan of heavy-handed message-driven movies, but I can say I enjoyed this one. And you probably will, too.

Notes:

The director, Nakanishi Kenji, won the special mention SIGNIS Award for this film in his directorial debut.

Do not confuse this film with a TV drama of a similar name, but an entirely different story.

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.