Japan Reading, Video, Film, and Museum Lists

The eclectic mix of books, films and videos on these lists will provide a solid introduction (and then some) to the fascinating subject of Japan. The lists are not intended to be comprehensive, but should provide a good foundation for further reading and viewing. Included here is a listing of museums around the country with excellent Japanese art collections.

Books – ArtUKIYO-E: THE ART OF THE JAPANESE PRINT, Frederick Harris. Well-researched, well-organized, thorough introduction to Japanese prints. Excellent chapter on how prints are created. Many illustrations, beautifully photographed. Highly recommended.

 

INK AND GOLD: ART OF THE KANO, Philadelphia Museum of Art in Association with Yale University Press. If you’re willing to splurge a little, or are looking for a beautiful gift for an art lover, this one is my recommendation. Based on a 2015 Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibition of the same title, this book dazzles with its screen and scroll paintings of the Kano School, which dates to the late 15th Century. A huge plus is the explanatory text which accompanies each section of the book. Kano paintings are known for their expansive landscapes and beautifully rendered trees and animals. The great Kano artists had no lack of commissions providing art for the high and mighty, and for wealthy merchants. If you didn’t know otherwise you could easily assume this art is Chinese, and for good reason. Kano, like much of Japanese culture, was heavily influenced by China. As I look through the photographed screens and scrolls, I realize that adjectives like “stunning” and “breathtaking” are simply inadequate. If you get this book you’ll know exactly what I mean.

 

THE FLOATING WORLD, James A. Michener

James Michener, of course, is known to the world for his geographical-historical novels. He picked regions like Hawaii or Israel or Iberia, thoroughly researched their histories and topographies, and produced epic novels which became giant best sellers. What’s far less known about Michener is that he also was an art connoisseur, and nourished a lifelong fascination with Asia. Here, Michener combines both attributes to produce a volume about Japanese prints which is written with the same painstaking research and novelistic flair which characterize his best sellers, and—to add interest for current readers—from the post-war perspective of the 1950s. It quickly became a classic in the world of Japanese prints.

This work is a comprehensive introduction (really more than an introduction) to Ukiyo-e, which translates to Pictures of the Floating World. “Pictures” here refers to prints, primarily prints of the Edo era (17th through mid-19th Centuries). The term “floating world” came to characterize the hedonistic merchant culture of the Tokugawa shogunate—a wonderfully ironic twist on its original Buddhist meaning, which counseled rising above transitory material desire to achieve nirvana. Michener writes in a conversational manner and delivers a big dose of foundational material for understanding Edo era print subject matter. Included is a chapter on the classical Japanese print-making process, which is the finest description of that subject I’ve read—and which reaffirms Michener’s prodigious literary talent.

So rich is this text that it can be read on different levels. You can read for information on prints, artists and the Edo era generally. You can read for Michener’s engaging take on all this. And if you’re looking to start an education in Japanese prints as art, you can study Michener taking apart one print after another—in terms of line, color, spatial relationships, and anything else which makes a print successful or not.

I mentioned that this book was written in the 1950s—published in 1954 to be exact. At the time, it was the only general interest work on the subject published in decades (in English, at least), according to commentary by Howard A. Link which is included as an appendix to the 1983 edition. Since original publication in the 1950s academic specialization in East Asia studies had grown exponentially, making this book something of a target for fact-checking PhDs. You’ll find their comments in the appendix by Mr. Link. My take is that this appendix is intended more for scholars than for the general interest reader—for whom Link’s conclusions are more important:

It is entirely possible that many in the English-speaking world would never have become interested in these “little scraps of paper” (i.e., Japanese prints) if it had not been for James A. Michener... it took a man such as Michener, with the ability to accurately summarize complex issues, to popularize the subject for the average person... and is all the more to his credit that he did so with such affection and enthusiasm for the print and the Japanese artists who produced them.

More than thirty years later—and over sixty years since release of the first edition—these conclusions still look good.

© 2016 Tom Silver

Books – Culture & ReligionGEISHA OF GION, Mineko Iwasaki. Very readable, autobiographical-style account of what it was like to be a geisha in the decades following World War II. The word geisha literally translates to “art person,” which is an accurate description of the kinds of skills a geisha needed to acquire. Top geisha were highly trained in a variety of arts and could earn the same kind of money as very successful doctors and lawyers in the United States. They needed to: their fine, handmade silk kimonos cost a small fortune. “Gion” in the title refers to the most famous geisha district in Japan, which is located in Kyoto. This book does an admirable job correcting common misconceptions about the nature of the geisha profession. Highly recommended building block toward a well-rounded understanding of Japanese culture.

 

TEA LIFE, TEA MIND, Soshitsu Sen XV, out-of-print but available used. This slim volume provides as concise an explanation of the philosophy behind the famed Japanese Tea Ceremony as a Westerner is likely to get. The writer is a descendant of the great tea master Sen Rikyu, who lived, taught, and practiced the Way of Tea almost 500 years ago. A disciple of Rikyu once asked, “what are the most important things that must be understood at a tea gathering?” When Rikyu answered, make a delicious bowl of tea, arrange the charcoal and flowers properly, prepare for the possibility of rain, and a few similar suggestions—the disciple replied that he already knew those answers. Rikyu shot back: “Then if you can host a tea gathering without deviating from any of the rules I have just stated, I will become your disciple!” Read this incisive book and find out why.

 

SHINTO: THE WAY HOME, Thomas P. Kasulis. Of the three primary spiritual or moral influences in Japanese cultural history—Shinto, Buddhism, and Confucianism—only Shinto is native to Japan, which is why I include a volume on this subject here. In 170 pages, Kasulis does a nice job explaining Shinto to Westerners, who otherwise might have difficulty understanding its subtleties. I found this book very helpful in that respect. Kasulis also traces the history of Shinto from its origins into the modern era.

Central to Shinto is the concept of kami, the sacred essence which manifests itself throughout nature. This essence exists in rocks, trees, even in experiences like thunderstorms, and in ancestors who are long gone. But there’s more to it than that, as you’ll find out in this book.

© 2016 Tom Silver

 Books – HistoryJAPAN: A MODERN HISTORY, James L. McClain. A well-written, readable history of Japan beginning with the early Edo era of the Tokugawa shoguns. The lives of everyday people are a major strand running through the narrative. The majority of this book is devoted to the Meiji era (1868-1912) on into the 20th Century and up through the Pacific War (as the Pacific Theater of World War II is called by scholars). The book is not at all pedantic and is highly recommended for those wishing for a serious but readable Japanese history. That said, this book is limited to the last 400 years. So also consider the book next in line for an understanding of Japan’s history all the way back to its origins.

 

JAPAN: ITS HISTORY AND CULTURE (4th Edition), W. Scott Morton and J. Kenneth Olenik. Excellent, readable survey of Japanese history from its earliest times to the present, in 295 pages of text. Where the previous book is fairly comprehensive in covering modern Japanese history, this volume should be considered only an introduction, though it’s a fine one. Includes a very useful glossary and timeline chart of Japanese history. Read both books and you’ll have an excellent overview of Japanese history that will serve as a foundation for further reading beyond purely historical topics.

 

SAMURAI: THE LAST WARRIOR, John Man
This book is a semi-biographical history of the creation and early years of the Meiji state, which lasted from 1868 to the Meiji Emperor’s death in 1912. The biographical narrative picks up steam after lengthy but interesting introductory material, and relates to Saigo Takamori—sometimes known as “The Last Samurai.” Saigo was born into a low-ranking samurai family in the Satsuma domain (at the southwestern tip of Japan proper, on the island of Kyushu). He rose to become a key figure in the quasi-revolution which ended 265 years of shogunal rule and restored the Emperor to power (the “Meiji Restoration”). Ironically, Saigo’s life was ended by the very Imperial army he helped create.

The story of Saigo is important to understanding Japanese history in the second half of the 19th Century, and the author covers aspects of Saigo’s life which generalized histories may omit—in favor of total focus on his key role in the 1877 Satsuma Rebellion. Saigo met his end in that rebellion, which was the last gasp of protest against a modernizing Meiji state.

But it is the Satsuma Rebellion—the Meiji war against Satsuma samurai who refused to accept the new order—for which Saigo is best known. The great irony of this brief war is that the samurai rebels revered the emperor whose troops they fought. Their goal was a reversal of policies for which they blamed the emperor’s advisors rather than the emperor himself.

The Satsuma Rebellion handed the Imperial Army an opportunity to test its real-world capabilities on a significant scale for the first time, and it was not found wanting. Contrary to Satsuma samurai expectations, the emperor’s new, largely conscript army with its Western weaponry and far superior numbers crushed the rebellion. Overwhelming success in this war emboldened the government, and foreshadowed the aggressive, imperialist moves which lay in the decades to come. But in one more irony, the war made Saigo as rebel a revered figure throughout Japan. The author devotes his last chapter to explaining how that came about. But anyone who knows the 47 Ronin story (see Chushingura under “Books – Literature” in these reviews) will readily understand how a heroic, selfless “traitor” can attain mythic status in Japan.

John Man’s excellent explanation of the Satsuma Rebellion’s genesis, along with that of the earlier, little-known but significant Boshin War, are, in my view, his major contributions to readers interested in the Meiji Era. His blow-by-blow account of the rebellion’s battles may be of more interest to military enthusiasts than to the general reader.

Much of the material in this book is adequately covered elsewhere, but I’ll give the author this: he writes with a degree of clarity which shows unusual respect for his readers. This volume is well worth reading for its concise but meticulous account of the pivotal events which are its focus.

© 2016 Tom Silver

 Books – LiteratureTHE ESSENTIAL HAIKU, Robert Hass. A big helping of classical haiku poetry by three acknowledged masters of the genre: Basho, Buson, and Issa. I was never satisfied with the translations I came across, so asked a relative, a lifelong poet himself, for a recommendation—which was this collection. Also includes explanatory essays on haiku and related forms of Japanese poetry along with excellent background material on these three poets.

 

CHIYO-NI: WOMAN HAIKU MASTER, Patricia Donegan and Yoshie Ishibashi. In per-modern Japan, as here years ago, a woman’s place was in the home. She was expected to produce children and obey her mother-in-law. So it’s no surprise that most noted Japanese artists, artisans, writers and poets were male. But not all. In fact, the best known work in the history of Japanese literature was written by an 11th Century woman known to us as Lady Murasaki, who wrote what is often considered the world’s first novel—The Tale of Genji.

According to the translators, Chiyo-ni, who wrote 1700 haiku, was a celebrity in her own time (18th Century). Clearly that celebrity extended beyond her lifetime because two great 19th Century print designers—Kuniyoshi and Yoshitoshi—saw fit to further immortalize her in their art. In Yoshitoshi’s case, Chiyo-ni appears in a print from his great “100 Aspects of the Moon” series.

Here’s a sample of her work:

one mountain after another
unveiled
the first mists

You may know that classical haiku follow a three-line pattern of 5,7,5 syllables respectively. Sometimes that pattern translates well to English, sometimes—as here—not. The book contains a number of fine essays and illustrations of classical scroll and woodblock print illustrations (though unfortunately not in color).

 

ANTHOLOGY OF JAPANESE LITERATURE, Compiled and edited by Donald Keene. Keene, a well-known Japan scholar, does a good job putting together selections from Japan’s earliest known literature right up to the dawn of modern times—the start of the Meiji era in 1868. According to Keene, this anthology (published in 1955) is the first of its kind in the English language. The great, early 11th Century Tale of Genji is represented by it’s famous “Yugao” chapter. If you want to read the entire Genji, prepare for a tome more than twice as long as this entire anthology.

My recommendation is to read some Japanese history before delving into its literature. That will give you a better understanding and more enjoyment. Either of the two history volumes in these listings should suffice for that purpose. And by all means get a copy of the following, translated by the compiler of this anthology.

 

CHUSHINGURA: THE TREASURY OF LOYAL RETAINERS—A PUPPET PLAY, translated by Donald Keene. Popularly known as the Tale of the 47 Ronin, this is one of the most famous stories in Japanese history and literature—and one well worth knowing because it is so basic to an understanding of Japanese culture. Based on a series of actual events at the beginning of the 18th Century, Chushingura tells the story of a group of samurai who have lost their Master to ritual suicide (“seppuku”). The suicide was ordered as honorable atonement for the master’s purportedly unjustified treatment of a court official. The term “ronin” refers to samurai (also known as “retainers”) who are masterless—which usually means their master (lord, or daimyo) has been killed or disgraced.

In this story the samurai, now left on their own as ronin, plot revenge against that court official. Without going further with the story, it’s impact was to underscore the basic Japanese virtues of loyalty, bravery, and self-sacrifice. You’ll find treatments of this famous historical incident throughout Japanese literature, art, film and drama. The version I am recommending was written for the puppet theater, known as Bunraku. I don’t want to take time to detail bunraku here, other than to say that it is powerful drama which uses large “puppets”—animated by people rather than strings, as in the West. This particular puppet play is one of the most highly regarded treatments of the ronin story.

Here’s an interesting footnote to the drama, which was written in 1748—nearly half a century after the actual event in 1703. Chushingura takes place in 1338—almost four centuries earlier than the event itself. Why? Government policy forbade portrayal of recent events in the arts. (In the long span of Japanese history, a half century qualified as “recent.”) The shoguns wouldn’t brook criticism of their rule, which often was the intent baked into drama or woodblock prints. Nor would they tolerate art which stirred popular passions based on current events like murder or suicide. A pacified populace going about its mundane business was the best assurance against revolution. So dramatists and artists wishing to exploit recent events for commercial gain routinely disguised their characters as long-ago figures of history or legend, and transplanted their plots back in time accordingly.

© 2016 Tom Silver

 Books – Japan & AmericaTHE GREAT WAVE, Christopher Benfey. Fascinating, highly readable stories of the Americans who traveled to Japan in the wake of its mid-19th Century opening to the West. As a group, these people were largely responsible for introducing Japan and its culture to America in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. From their number came some of the great art and artifact donations which form the basis of major Japan collections in American museums.

 

MY LIFE BETWEEN JAPAN AND AMERICA, Edwin O. Reischauer. Out-of-print but used copies readily available. Wonderful autobiography by President John F. Kennedy’s ambassador to Japan. You’ll find out how this bookish professor became a rock star to the Japanese people, and why the Kennedys tried so hard to keep him from returning to his Harvard professorship. I was loath to put down this very compelling human story. Reischauer was a pioneering figure in the founding of East Asia Studies Departments at major American universities. Read this one. You’ll love it.

 

DAUGHTERS OF THE SAMURAI, Janice P. Nimura. This is a wonderful book in many ways. It’s a very human story about women’s education in the later 19th Century—both in Japan and in the early years of the Seven Sisters in America. It’s about the end of feudalism in Japan and the birth of a new state which would Westernize and begin to change the status of women in meaningful ways. It’s a story about Japan’s early feminism—it’s travails and successes in the late 19th Century.

The book provides this excerpt from an 1898 speech delivered in America by one of the first Japanese women sent to be educated in the United States:

Thus from one nation to another will be passed on the work of education and elevation for women... thus, step by step will women arise, throughout all the world, from slave and drudge of savage days, from the plaything and doll of later periods, to take her place as helpmate and true equal of man.

Twenty-seven years earlier (in 1871) six-year-old Ume Tsuda, the author of this statement, had been sent to America by the Japanese government. The author tells us that advice to women back then fell under guidelines delineated in the 18th Century treatise Greater Learning for Women, which was based on the Confucian model: “The only qualities that befit a woman are gentle obedience, chastity, mercy, and quietness.” In keeping with that sentiment was this statement by a Meiji minister: “When women are learned and clever in their speech, it is a sign that civil disturbance is not far off.”

But to suggest this book is merely a feminist tract would be to do it a disservice. It’s also a compelling travelogue, with descriptions both of period ship travel across the Pacific, and train travel across America on newly-completed transcontinental track. And it’s a story of Japanese-American relations at the personal rather than the state-to-state level.

In the main however it’s a story of three daughters of samurai under the old shogunate regime who were transplanted to America to be educated, and who then returned to Japan and made their lives extraordinary—each in a different way.

Recommended for general interest readers, and more particularly for anyone desiring a deeper understanding of Japan’s Meiji era than a textbook-style history can provide.

© 2016 Tom Silver

JAPANTOWN, Barry Lancet

This first novel by Mr. Lancet is for thriller-lovers only. Throw in a love for everything Japanese and it’s a must read. I can’t go far into the plot without giving away too much, such is the tight weave of this story. Let’s just say that the opening lines present us with a terrible murder scene in the Japan district of San Francisco, which we soon learn utterly baffles the police – except for their conclusion that the killing is of Japanese origin. So they call on Japanese antiques dealer and professional sleuth Jim Brodie. Brodie inherited a half ownership in a Tokyo detective agency from his father, but prefers to run his antiques business out of San Francisco. He’s helped the cops on matters Japanese in the past and will do so again, but not without a whole lot of assist from his Tokyo people.

With its plots and subplots this story is quite complex, but is told with wonderful imagination and attention to detail, including a harrowing scene in which mosquitos play a tangential but memorable role, such is the quality of Lancet’s writing. Onion layers are peeled back gradually and systematically until all is finally revealed in a series of non-stop action scenes in the last few chapters. A great story for Hollywood, as Lancet must have intended.

Japanese customs, art, and history abound, never failing to enrich the story. And why not? Lancet lived in Japan for over twenty years, working for a publisher “developing books on dozens of Japanese subjects from art to Zen,” he tells us in a brief bio. All in all a worthwhile read.

© 2017 Tom Silver

Videos There are wonderful videos on Japan which present certain subjects in ways no book can. Here are four which I can highly recommend:

 

LIVING TREASURES OF JAPAN, National Geographic. The Japanese government bestows the designation “Living National Treasure” on a very small number of people (or groups of people) who have attained extraordinary mastery of their art or craft—most of which go back centuries, or even a millennium or longer. “Protection of Cultural Properties” is the purpose of a 1950 enabling law for the preservation of Japan’s cultural heritage. This 1980 National Geographic video (converted to DVD) provides examples from the worlds of kabuki theater, handmade paper-making, ceramics, sword-making, and bunraku puppet theater among the other revered arts and crafts it presents. I recommend this video not only for it’s fascinating look at these age-old arts, but for the simple humanity of those Living Treasures selected to appear in this program.

 

SECRETS OF THE SAMURAI SWORD, NOVA, WGBH Boston Video. Nova programs have a scientific bent, of course, and this one is no exception. Samurai swords occupy a special place in Japanese history and culture. Why is it that Japanese sword-making was the world’s best—in an age when metallurgy was trial, error, and apprenticeship without a college degree? Find out in this fascinating video, which shows every step of the process in this ancient craft.

 

SAMURAI: LOYALTY, HONOR AND DISCIPLINE History Classics: Samurai (A&E Networks, Lionsgate). This standard size DVD casing packages four DVDs, which include six separate documentaries on the subject of samurai warriors. The set is reasonably priced and offers over six hours of material. It’s designed to appeal to a broad audience rather than to Japanophiles in particular, but you’ll learn much if you can overlook the somewhat commercialized approach.

 

UNDERSTANDING JAPAN: A CULTURAL HISTORY. The Great Courses, presented by Professor Mark J. Ravina. You may know this company by its former name, The Teaching Company. They offer courses on almost every conceivable academic subject, presented by top-rated professors whom they manage to ferret out. I’ve purchased a number of their courses over the years and have generally been satisfied, though occasionally a course can be a mind-numbing fact avalanche. Not this one. I rate Professor Ravina’s course a must experience for anyone wishing for a very high-level introduction to Japan. (Actually, I recommend the course even if you already know quite a bit about Japan.) There are 24 half-hour lectures on 4 DVDs, including a booklet of lecture guides which summarizes each lecture. If you’re going to buy, be sure to get the Video rather than the Audio version—whether you purchase physical disks or downloads. If you go the audio route, you’ll miss out on the terrific illustrations and helpful historical timelines which contribute mightily to making this course so special. The lecture on Japanese Gardens, for example, would hold comparatively little meaning without the spectacular photographs which bring them to life. I won’t take time to outline the lecture topics here because you can easily find them online. A final note: shop around before you buy. These courses can be expensive if you buy at full retail, but periodically they are offered directly by the company at sharply discounted sale prices.

© 2016 Tom Silver

Film NOTE: If you purchase DVDs rather than downloads I recommend purchasing from The Criterion Collection. Their packaging includes an insert (or full booklet) with informative text, often including photos or art. Digital re-mastering is excellent and there are many extras on the disks well worth watching.

 

SEVEN SAMURAI Directed by Akira Kurosawa, this 1954 film regularly appears on best of the best lists. If you see only one film listed here, make it this one. The story is set during Japan’s “warring states” period, just before establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1603. A small agricultural village is threatened by a group of bandits who intend to carry off its crops after the harvest comes in. The farmers are at wits end until the village elder suggests finding samurai who will defend the village in exchange for food, and on principle. Villagers set off on that quest, succeed in finding a willing samurai, and luck out when he manages to recruit five others for the task at hand. A sixth “samurai”—sort of a Falstaff character which Kurosawa must have borrowed from Shakespeare (he was a big fan) rounds out the group of seven. I don’t want to reveal any more of the story, but it’s a great one with plenty of suspense near the end.

What’s compelling about this film, other than plot, acting, and directing (which are reasons enough to see it) are the setting, and interaction among the characters. You’ll be transported in time to a key juncture in Japan’s history, and you’ll see what life was like at the time. Farmers as a class, including these villagers, ranked immediately below samurai warriors in the “status group” pecking order. Farmers fed the country after all, and therefore out-ranked the artisan and merchant classes. But gaps in status and self-esteem between warriors and farmers were cavernous—even here, where the seven samurai are themselves reduced in status because they are “ronin”—roving, masterless samurai.

There’s also a little Buddhist philosophy thrown into this film, and some moral ambiguity which undercuts simplistic conclusions about the farmers as victims. Both add richness to the film and help make it more than a mere action story.

One last thing. If you’re a Hollywood Western fan you’ll be interested in knowing that the 1960 film The Magnificent Seven was based on Seven Samurai—an ironic twist given the fact that Seven Samurai Itself was heavily influenced by American Westerns.

See this masterpiece—if for no other reason than because it will make this important chapter in Japanese history come alive.

The film runs 3 hours 27 minutes.

 

KAGEMUSHA This 1980 film by director Akira Kurosawa, like Seven Samurai, is set during the later 16th Century civil wars which preceded the unification of Japan under the Tokugawa Shogunate at the beginning of the 17th Century. The film revolves around a “kagemusha,” which is a political double, or decoy. In this case, the kagemusha fills in for a historically accurate daimyo (feudal lord) by the name of Takeda Shingen, who dies in the midst of the wars. In the film, Shingen is killed by a sniper (guns were introduced into Japan by 16th Century European explorers and traders). But that cause of death has never been established with historical certainty. Shingen’s kagemusha, who is a fictional character, buys time for the Takeda clan to get its act together before rival warlords can learn of Shingen’s death, and attack. There are plenty of colorful battle scenes but blood and gore have been kept to a minimum. If you enjoy films based on historical events you’ll probably like this one—though ironically the title character is pure fiction. The film runs 3 hours.

 

RASHOMON This 1950 Kurosawa crime drama, set in 11th Century Kyoto, is one of many pictures which contribute to Kurosawa’s reputation as one of the great filmmakers of all time. With its groundbreaking use of flashbacks this picture not only influenced future film-making but also contributed to the lexicon of courtroom justice. Eyewitness stories which contradict each other became known as the “Rashomon” effect. In the story four characters are witnesses to, or participants in, a murder or a suicide—and a possible rape. Each character recounts his or her story seemingly in response to questioning, though we never see or hear from an interrogator. It quickly becomes clear that they can’t all be right, and what really happened is anyone’s guess—until the end of the film.

The deluge at Kyoto’s Rashomon Gate which opens the film made a powerful impression on me. Maybe you’ll have the same reaction.

This picture won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, though for some it may become an acquired taste. That said, it’s worth seeing for the fantastic acting and directing alone—also for the memorable woodsy mountain scenery and thickets (a Kurosawa specialty also featured in Seven Samurai) where the characters go astray both literally and figuratively. All part of Kurosawa’s design, as pointed out in one of the essays included with the Criterion Collection edition of this film.

The picture runs an hour and 28 minutes.

 

SAMURAI REBELLION This 1967 Masaki Kobayashi film is only tangentially about samurai. In notes which accompany the Criterion Collection edition Japanese film expert Donald Richie tells us that the title was designed to attract a Western audience. For domestic consumption a title far more descriptive of the actual story was employed: Rebellion—Receive the Wife, which Mr. Richie concedes is his own loose translation. Samurai action occurs only at the very beginning of the picture and at the end. In between is a story of family, power, love, cowardice, conviction, and rebellion.

Set in the mid-1720s, well into the 250-year Tokugawa shogunate era of peace, the story develops in the domain of an aging daimyo, or warlord. The daimyo takes a beautiful young mistress named Ichi who, upon returning to the castle one day discovers she has a rival. Ichi lets loose on the rival, beating her up—and later expresses her displeasure by repeatedly slapping the daimyo in the face. Rather than have her killed for this affront (the two have had a child together), the daimyo orders that she be married off to the son of one of his vassals, a young samurai named Yogoro. At first, Yogoro’s parents are offended by the daimyo’s abuse of power in making this demand. But the daimyo’s steward makes it clear that the family must obey, which they do.

Happily Yogoro and Ichi fall in love and produce a child, and the father (played by the great Toshiro Mifune) comes to admire and love his new daughter-in-law. But just as Ichi begins to feel herself an integral part of her new family, the daimyo decides he wants her back with him at the castle. Orders come from on high, and Yogoro and his father must decide whether to obey—or stand on principle and love. To find out what happens next, see the film. But here’s a small hint: there’s good reason this film was released in the late 1960s rather than much earlier.

One reason I like these period pieces so much is that they allow us to visualize history. Here you get a few tantalizing glimpses of beautiful Kano School scrolls and screens (see Ink and Gold: Art of the Kano in our book listing). You also see the shoguns’ famous control over travel from one domain to another. A border gate at the boundary of adjacent domains plays an important role in the story’s ending. I highly recommend this picture.

The film runs 2 hours.

 

TOKYO STORY

This 1953 Yasujiro Ozu classic is set mostly in Tokyo but the setting could have been any community in any country, such is the film’s universality. The plot is minimal—an aging couple journeys from their home near Hiroshima to visit their children in Tokyo, a considerable trek before the advent of Japan’s bullet trains. The couple settles in at the home of their eldest son and are visited there by a married daughter who also lives in Tokyo. It quickly becomes clear to us that children and grandchildren are so wrapped up in their own lives that they want the visit cut short. To get the couple out of their house in a conscience-soothing way, the son and his wife shunt them off to a nearby spa-hotel without bothering to find out that its clientele is a younger crowd which loudly cavorts throughout the night. Deprived of sleep, the couple cuts their spa stay short and returns unexpectedly to their son’s home. But when that proves inconvenient to the son and his wife the couple must admit to themselves that they are no longer welcome in their own son’s house. I won’t go further with the story but will suggest that you not see this film when you are in the mood for uplift—or reassurance about human nature.

On one level, the picture is about multi-generational relationships within a single family. But more broadly it can be construed as a portrayal of what human beings are capable of within the larger human family—particularly since the story takes place only eight years after the most cataclysmic event in human history—World War II. Clearly the filmmaker intended a tie-in because we learn that another of the couple’s sons perished in that disaster.

Despite all this, I am very glad I saw the picture. Like all great art—and it surely is that—the film continues to work on you long after you experience it for the first time. Why? I think it’s because of the brilliance of both cast and director. Lesser actors and a lesser director would not have pulled this off. I couldn’t recommend this picture more highly.

The film runs 2 hours 16 minutes.

A final word: Prof. Ravina discusses this film at length and from a different perspective in his lecture series Understanding Japan: A Cultural History (recommended in “Videos’).

 

THE ULTIMATE WARRIOR: MIYAMOTO MUSASHI, 5 Disc Collector’s Edition, directed by Tomu Uchida. Miyamoto Musashi is generally considered one of the greatest swordsmen in Japanese history—and that’s saying something because Japan produced countless sword masters. Born in 1584, Musashi fought in the pivotal Battle of Sekigahara (in the year 1600), which figures in the opening scene. Sekigahara ended centuries of bloody clashes among competing domains, and led to 250+ years of peace under the Tokugawa shogunate. You might think the absence of war defeated the need for swordsmanship in Japan, and that’s true to some extent.

Only samurai were permitted to keep weapons, and wear the famous long and short sword combination in their sashes. (It was Musashi who pioneered simultaneous use of both swords, which let him defeat multiple opponents attacking from all directions.) When did samurai draw their swords in anger? Samurai could cut down a commoner with impunity for the high crime of failing to show respect—and each samurai was judge and jury as to what constituted that respect. But more important, each domain was law unto itself. There was no central system of law such as existed in England at the time. And samurai were their domain lord's enforcers, particularly as regards collecting taxes. The razor sharp samurai sword was persuasive among the populace.

In this epic series of five films, Musashi rises to samurai rank—though the domain lord who elevated Musashi allows him to leave the domain without having rendered it service. Turns out Musashi has an ancestral relationship with the domain castle, a fact which the lord respects deeply. More important, Musashi has just completed three years of intense study using the castle's immense library of Chinese classics. Through this study Musashi changes from impetuous, arrogant youth to the early stages of maturity. Presumably this also has made an impression on the domain lord. Musashi leaves the castle to seek further understanding and personal growth—and to become the best swordsman in Japan.

Earlier I brought up the question of need for swordsmanship in an era of peace. As it happens the samurai sword had a purpose outside either war or keeping commoners in line—and that was competition. Japan boasted martial arts training schools (dojos) with superlatively skilled masters. What better way to earn a reputation as a swordsman than to best sword masters from dojos run by renowned hereditary clans? This is what Musashi had in mind, and the series spends a great deal of time on these duels and how they came about. (There’s also a romantic thread running through the series.)

There are five discs in this partially-fictionalized telling of Musashi’s life, released annually from 1961 to 1965. The entire series is based on a novel by Eiji Yoshikawa which also was released serially—in a newspaper from 1935 to 1939. Yoshikawa’s novel was the basis for another, earlier Musashi film, The Samurai Trilogy, but I suggest purchasing the 5-disc version instead. It’s far superior. The acting is first class. The scenery is spectacular and so is the photography. More than once I found a particular frame suggestive of Dutch Golden Age genre painting. Composition of these frames alone is proof of Uchida's directing brilliance—regardless of whether he intended the Dutch reference. But the Dutch Golden Age does happen to overlap Musashi’s life. It’s also true that the Dutch were the only Europeans permitted to remain in Japan beginning early in the Tokugawa period.

The film makes Musashi out to be not just one of the greatest, but the greatest Japanese swordsman, at least of his time. That view, however, isn’t unanimous. One expert I read claims that Musashi's ability to assess an opponent's skill allowed him to avoid duels he might otherwise lose. If true, maybe the awesome legend of Musashi’s sixty successful lifetime duels is really less awesome than this picture would have us believe. (Definition of a successful duel: the other guy gets killed.)

Regardless, Musashi left behind more than the iconic legend of his life. We have his enduring testament—The Book of Five Rings—along with other writings. These texts will best be enjoyed by martial arts students, as a quick scan through their pages makes evident—though the come-on is that the sword strategizing is transferable to more traditional arts like painting, sculpture and calligraphy - at each of which Musashi is said to have excelled.

The bottom line for me? I love this series and recommend it unconditionally.

The films combined run 9 hours 30 minutes.

 

CHUSHINGURA (1962, Toho Co., Ltd.), DVD by Image Entertainment, Inc., Directed by Hiroshi Inagaki.
One of many film versions of this famous episode in Japanese history and legend, popularly known as “The Tale of the 47 Ronin.” I couldn't recommend this particular version more highly. Acting, directing, photography—all wonderful.

I won’t summarize the story or its significance here because both are covered in Chushingura: The Treasury of Loyal Retainers – A Puppet Play under “Books – Literature” in these listings. As explained there, the 1748 puppet version had to be set centuries earlier to avoid the shogunal censor's ax. There’s no such problem with a 1962 film, so you get the essential, original 1701-03 story as best it is known to history.

If this will be your first exposure to the 47 Ronin story I recommend doing an online search for “the 47 Ronin,” and reading some detail on the plot and characters. That will make the picture easier to follow and more enjoyable. But do see it.

The film runs 3 hours 27 minutes.

© 2016 Tom Silver

THE LEGEND OF HAGOROMO, Aaron Larget-Caplan, guitar

The Legend of Hagoromo is the latest of guitarist Aaron Larget-Caplan’s CD offerings to showcase his eclectic repertoire, impressive interpretive skills, and all-around musicality.

The Hagoromo legend dates back at least to eighth century Japan and has put its stamp on a variety of artistic creations over the centuries – with perhaps the latest this wonderful 1992 guitar work by Japanese guitarist and composer Keigo Fujii.

Everything about this album is Japanese – in one way or another. Each of the nine tracks was written by a Japanese, arranged by a Japanese, or dedicated to a Japanese. If you are a Japonophile as I am, you'll love it. What I found a particularly special treat was the final two tracks – Two Japanese Idylls by Martin Max Schreiner. These pieces skillfully quote instantly recognizable classical Japanese musical idioms on classical guitar - in a way that's sure to delight. And why not? You normally hear these excerpts as parts of larger pieces played on the koto, another plucked instrument - and one which has long been central to Japanese music.

One of the things Mr. Larget-Caplan has done in this album is prove himself a worthy advocate and performer of contemporary guitar music. It’s obvious he loves it, has the necessary skill to make it come to life, and does not play this music merely to demonstrate he can do more than play the standard guitar repertoire of the past.

Hagoromo is a particularly difficult guitar piece, but you never think about that listening to this guitarist grab onto the music and surely wring out everything it has to offer. Which is a lot. The composer himself is a guitarist and knows well the capabilities of his instrument. In this piece you will find most of the guitar’s wonderful range of possibilities, from Mr. Larget-Caplan's crystalline harmonics to the flamenco rasgueado of Spanish guitar. It's also worth noting that the guitarist does a whole lot with the instrument's dynamic and coloristic possibilities.

The album’s title piece starts out with an air of mystery quickly enhanced by Mr. Larget-Caplan's gossamer-like brushing over the guitar strings. Soon you’re confronted by a bass line dramatically sculpted as a counterpoint to the quieter action on the higher strings. It's quickly evident that the guitarist owns this piece, obviously having worked through it's nuance opportunities.

Those unfamiliar with the more modern classical guitar repertoire may not know the composer and arranger Toru Takemitsu. But if you're a fan of the Great American Songbook you’ll really appreciate what he was able to do with Harold Arlen’s Over the Rainbow, and George Gershwin’s Summertime. (I suspect Arlen and Gershwin would have appreciated it too). Needless to say, Larget-Caplan does an outstanding job with both arrangements.

This album deserves five stars not only because of the wonderful things Mr. Larget-Caplan was able to do with this technically challenging music, but also because of his willingness to do more than his fair share in bringing the classical guitar into the contemporary music arena.

© 2017 Tom Silver

 Museum ListingsSELECTED MUSEUMS WITH JAPANESE ART COLLECTIONS

NOTE: Be sure to check with each museum to find out what’s currently on exhibit. Museums typically will not have a large selection of Japanese prints on permanent display because prolonged exposure to light is an issue. But they do present limited print exhibitions from their collections along with permanent displays of other art and artifacts – such as scroll and screen paintings, ceramics, and carvings.

NEW ENGLAND

Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) – Boston, MA
Harvard Art Museums – Cambridge, MA
Peabody Essex Museum – Salem, MA
Worcester Art Museum – Worcester, MA
Hood Museum of Art – Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH
Yale University Art Gallery – New Haven, CT

MID-ATLANTIC

Metropolitan Museum of Art – New York City
The Asia Society – New York City
Brooklyn Museum – New York City
New York Public Library – New York City
Newark Museum – Newark, NJ
Newark Public Library – Newark, NJ
Philadelphia Museum of Art – Philadelphia, PA
Freer and Sackler Galleries – Washington, DC (Nat’l Museums of Asian Art, Smithsonian Institution)

SOUTH

Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens – Delray Beach, FL

MIDWEST

Cleveland Museum of Art – Cleveland, OH
Toledo Museum of Art – Toledo, OH
Art Institute of Chicago – Chicago, IL
University of Michigan Museum of Art – Ann Arbor, MI
Minneapolis Institute of Art – Minneapolis, MN
Spencer Museum of Art, Univ. of Kansas – Lawrence, Kansas

WEST

Asian Art Museum – San Francisco, CA
Los Angeles County Museum of Art – Los Angeles, CA
Santa Barbara Museum of Art – Santa Barbara, CA
Portland Art Museum – Portland, OR
Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, Univ. of Oregon – Eugene, OR
Seattle Art Museum (Asian Art Museum) – Seattle, WA
Honolulu Museum of Art – Honolulu, HI