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Japanese sake and cuisine, travel and history, literature and art, film and music by Ad Blankestijn
29 Jan
The ancient name for February (Nigatsu) is Kisaragi, meaning "to wear more clothes due to the cold." As it also is the month of plum blossoms which are considered as a harbinger of spring, other names are Ume-zuki (Plum Month), Umemi-zuki (Plum Viewing Month) and Hatsuhana-zuki (First Blossom Month).

Shogoin Setsubun Mamemaki[Setsubun in Shogoin Temple, Kyoto]
The most important festival in February is Setsubun, on either February 3 or 4, although this is not a public holiday. The word "Setsubun" literally means "seasonal division" and used to refer to the day prior to the first day of spring (risshun), summer (rikka)  autumn (risshu) and winter (ritto) in the lunar calendar. Today, however, it is only employed to refer to the festival held on the day prior to risshun, because this day is the most important one as it marks a new start. In that respect, it is comparable to New Year's Eve - as a kind of "Spring's Eve."

Setsubun Tsuinashiki Demon dance in Nagata Shrine, Kobe[Tsuina in the Nagata Shrine Kobe] 
Rituals on Setsubun have to do with chasing out evil influences as a sort of spiritual or ritual house cleaning (or better "soul cleaning") before the start of spring. They are:
Tsuina or oni-yarai. Originally held on New Year's Eve and introduced from Tang-China, this is an exorcism rite. Participants carry bows and clubs made from peach wood and symbolically chase away figures wearing demon masks.Mame-maki. Bean-scattering ceremony. The scattering of roasted soy beans to expel evil spirits began in the 15-16th centuries and in popular folklore became linked with the above Tsuina ceremony. Participants shout "Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!" ("Out with the demons and in with good luck"). The bean scattering is done by a toshi otoko, a male family member born in the same Zodiac year (nowadays, happily, toshi onna also can take part). Afterwards one should eat the same number of beans as one's age to spend the year free from problems. Yaikagashi. Smelly heads of sardines are stuck on thorny holly branches and hung over doorways to drive out the demons.On this day, many shrines and temples hold Setsubun events (some are listed here). Often famous persons from TV, show business or sports (sumo) will take part, and in Kyoto there are even bean-throwing maiko!

The typical food for Setsubun are ehomaki, "Lucky Direction Sushi Rolls," thick uncut sushi rolls in which any combination of ingredients goes.

Ehomaki [Ehomaki]
As stated above, Setsubun is the day before Risshun (February 4 or 5), literally (and rather ironically as this is the coldest time of the year) "the Beginning of Spring (Spring Rises)," the time when the increase in life-giving sunlight becomes noticeable. Traditionally, on this day amulets or lucky couplets (daikichi, good luck) would be hung at the door to avert evil. The period of about a month from risshun is called soshun, "early spring."
February is also the month of various winter festivals. The most famous (and modern) one is probably Sapporo's Snow Festival (Sapporo Yukimatsuri, Feb. 1 to 5), when giant snow sculptures are created in the city's Odori Park. More traditional is the Kamakura Festival in Yokote, a city in Akita Pref., when in several spots in the city igloo-like snow houses (kamakura) are built where children play house (Feb. 15-17). The kamakura feature altars dedicated to the Deity of Water (Suijin-sama) and in the evening rice cakes (mochi) are grilled over charcoals braziers and amazake (a sweet rice drink, not sake!) is served.

Although not Setsubun, there is a national holiday in February and that is National Founding Day (Kenkoku kinen no hi) on February 11. This holiday was first designed in the early Meiji period, in 1872 to be precise, when it was called kigensetsu. It was seen as the date that the (entirely mythical) emperor Jimmu ascended the throne in Kashihara in 660 BCE, after traveling from southern Kyushu to Nara. After WWII this holiday was discontinued, but it was brought back in the mid-sixties under the guise of "national founding day," and meant to serve as an appeal to people to respect their country and to cooperate to make it a better place to live.

A rather tricky day in February is Valentine's Day (as elsewhere February 14), which is being lustily exploited by the Japan Chocolate and Cocoa Association and its members. Although Japan is not a Christian nation and couldn't care less about a saint called Valentine, it has become a "Day of Chocolates" on which women give a box of chocolates to their boyfriend as an expression of love. OLs and other female office staff may also give chocolates to their bosses or other male colleagues, but these are called giri-choko or "obligatory chocolates" and are far removed from any idea of tenderness. Commercial exploitation in Japan has even gone so far that March 14 has been set up as "White Day" on which men have to return the sweet gift.

A more serious matter is that mid-February is also the time of the Entrance Examination Season (Juken shizun), as the new school year starts on April 1. In Japan, it is necessary to do an examination in order to go to a high school (after three years of middle school) or university / college. (In the case of private schools, there are always entrance examinations, starting with kindergarten!). But the heaviest and most stressful entrance examinations are those for prestigious universities, such as Tokyo University or Kyoto University, or among private establishments, Keio, Waseda and Doshisha. It is important for students to join a top-ranking university, as that will make it possible four years later to get a good job with a prestigious company or ministry. So this is a nervous time for hopeful students and you can often see them with their mothers in the Tenmangu Shrines, earnestly praying for some divine assistance from the God of Learning, or writing their wishes on wooden votive tablets.

The food of the season is called nabemono, one pot dishes cooked at the table and served directly out of the cooking pot - the diners can pick the ingredients they want directly from the pot. Further ingredients can also be successively added. It is either eaten with the broth (usually in case of strongly flavored stock) or with a dipping sauce (lightly flavored stock). It is a dish that warms both body and heart - it is after all the most sociable way to eat with family and friends.

Ume in Kyoto Gyoen [Ume in Kyoto Gyoen]
The flower of the season is in the first place the ume or plum blossom (early February through mid-March). Before sakura (cherry blossoms) became popular in medieval times, the ume ruled supreme in Japan's flowery firmament, as it did and still does in China, from where it was brought to Japan in the 7th c. The ume is in fact not really a plum (the official name is prunus mume), but a tree (and fruit) between plum and apricot, so it seems reasonable to use the Japanese word "ume." The ume is the flower of the perfect Confucian gentleman, the junzi (kunshi in Japanese): that it braves the cold to put out its flowers signifies its strength and endurance, while its subtle aroma stands for its virtue that unobtrusively transforms society. The ume trees can grow very old, sometimes even a few centuries, making them with their gnarled trunks a symbol of longevity and happiness.

The ume also has various practical uses: as pickled plums (umeboshi, one of my favorite delicacies) or as umeshu, a liqueur made from ume and either shochu or sake (often called wrongly "plum wine"). Finally, as the ume was the favorite flower of Sugawara no Michizane, a ninth c. statesman, scholar and Sinologist, who was deified after he died in exile, you will find it prominently in the many Tenmangu shrines dedicated to him all over Japan. 
Fallen camellias (tsubaki) in Honenin, Kyoto [Fallen camellias (tsubaki) in Honenin, Kyoto]
The other important flower of February is the camellia or tsubaki, adding a touch of color to gardens in the heart of winter. The Japanese camellia has red, five-petaled flowers. Indigenous to Japan, it has been cultivated for centuries. It is also a useful plant for in traditional times oil obtained from tsubaki seeds was used as hair oil, both for the top-knots of men as for the high coiffure of women. The camellia was also treasured for its hard wood. The notion that samurai hated tsubaki as the flower drops off whole, like a human head falling, is not based on any fact. In reality, both samurai and courtiers loved to grow rare and ornamental varieties of tsubaki. The flowers were also popular as chabana, flowers in the tea room.
Although February is so cold that all you want to do is take shelter with your legs under your kotatsu, its electric heating element going at full blast, your lower body snugly under the futon draped over the table frame, late February (around the 25th) finally is also the time the Haru Ichiban or "First of the Spring Heralding Winds" blows. This is a strong south wind which drives the temperature up, and although it is only temporary (the temperature soon drops again), it provides a welcome foretaste of the approach of spring...


26 Jan
Hyakunin Isshu, Poem 6
kasasagi nowataseru hashi nioku shimo noshiroki wo mirebayo zo fukenikeru

かささぎの
渡せる橋に
置く霜の
白きを見れば
夜ぞふけにける
When I see the whitenessof the frost that lieson Magpie's Bridgethen I knownight has deepened.
Otomo no Yakamochi (718-785)

Shinshinden, Gosho, Kyoto
[Shinshinden Palace, Gosho, Kyoto -
showing the "Magpie Bridge,"
the stairs leading up to the palace]

A fantasy on a cold winter night, while the poet waits in vain for his beloved in the palace.

Central to the poem is the phrase "kasasagi no wataseru hashi," "the bridge that magpies spread," of which two interpretations are possible. The first and most important one reads this in the light of the Tanabata legend of the Ox Herd and Weaver Maid, two constellations in the sky and also lovers, who could only meet once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh month, when magpies would form a bridge across the River of Heaven with their wings so that they could cross. This is such a famous legend that most critics since Teika have read the poem as referring to this beautiful legend. The whole poem should then be interpreted as composed when the poet gazed at the stars in the winter sky which was filled with frost, which he then associated with a frost-covered magpie bridge in the heavens. The silent assumption is, that, like the Ox Herd, he was hoping for a rendez-vous with his beloved, but that the night deepened without her coming.

In waka, magpies are often associated with "frost" (shimo) - the reason being the white spots on their black breasts and wingtips.

The legend of the Ox Herd and Weaver Maiden had already come from China in the Nara period and was very popular in Yakamochi's time - one section in the Manyoshu contains 128 tanka and 5 choka dedicated to the legend. The Tanabata festival was made popular by Yamanoue no Okura, who had studied in China and wrote many Tanabata poems after his return to Japan. In Japan, the story was merged with the legend about a celestial weaver maiden, Tanabatahime.

An interesting point is that the Eurasian magpie (Pica pica) was unknown in Japan until it was brought from Korea in the 16th c. In China, where the legend originated, magpies were common birds, so the Japanese learned the name without knowing the bird (they probably thought the "kasasagi" was a kind of "sagi," a heron). In China the folk story about the Ox Herd and Weaver Maiden already occurs in a book written in the 2nd century.

[The Cow Herd and the Weaver Maiden by Tsukioka Hitoshi]
The other interpretation is based on the modern, scholarly evidence that in the Heian-period, the "Magpie's Bridge" referred to bridges or stairs leading up to palace buildings. In that case, the poet is waiting for his beloved inside the palace grounds and sees actual frost on the actual bridge or staircase while she keeps him waiting. It is however the question, whether this naming of palace staircases already existed in the Nara period when the poem was written, so this interpretation is less certain than the previous one.

And of course, we don't have to make a choice: it is quite possible to read this simultaneously in both interpretations, for while gazing at the staircase leading up to the palace, the name "Magpie's Bridge" will have reminded the poet of that other pair of lovers, Ox Herd and Weaver Maiden, who also had such trouble meeting... 
Statue of Otomo no Yakamochi, Takaoka, Toyama Pref.
[Otomo no Yakamochi, statue in front of
Takaoka Station, Toyama Pref.]

Otomo no Yakamochi (718?-780) is famous as the compiler of the Manyoshu and the last major poet included, with the substantial number of 479 poems, making up 10% of the total Manyoshu volume as a sort of "poem diary." Yakamochi, the scion of an influential family, grew up as a fashionable young man in literary court circles and exchanged love poems with innumerable woman. At age 30 Yakamochi served as governor of Etchu (now Toyama Pref.) where he diverted himself with excursions to scenic spots and parties with other officials, catching everything in his unique poetry, known for its delicate depictions of nature. Unfortunately, after his return to the capital Nara in 751 he was so busy furthering his career and at the same time embroiled in political intrigue, that he wrote little or no poetry anymore. He is a member of the Thirty-six Poetry Immortals. As Donald Keene says in Seeds in the Heart, his poetry lacks the grandeur of Hitomaro, but his voice is distinctive. "Anticipating the Kokinshu, his poetry is often melancholy rather than tragic, exquisitely phrased rather than explosively intense." Yakamochi wrote in almost every mode, from highly personal lyrics to public poems composed to a command from the court.

To commemorate Otomo no Yakamochi's sojourn in Toyama, the city of Takaoka has set up a museum dedicated to Yakamochi and the Manyoshu, the Takaoka-shi Manyo Rekishikan. There is even a "Yakamochi Theater" where the poet's life is introduced by way of computerized life-sized dolls, as well as a garden with 70 plants and flowers mentioned in the Manyoshu. See here for more information. 
[Same poem included in Shinkokinshu 620]References: Pictures of the Heart, The Hyakunin Isshu in Word and Image by Joshua S. Mostow (University of Hawai'i Press, 1996); Traditional Japanese Poetry, An Anthology, by Steven D. Carter (Stanford University Press, 1991); Hyakunin Isshu by Inoue Muneo, etc. (Shinchosha, 1990); Genshoku Hyakunin Isshu by Suzuki Hideo, etc. (Buneido, 1997); Ogura Hyakunin Isshu at Japanese Text Initiative (University of Virginia Library Etext Center); Hyakunin Isshu wo aruku by Shimaoka Shin (Kofusha Shuppan); Basho's Haiku (2 vols) by Toshiharu Oseko (Maruzen, 1990); The Ise Stories by Joshua S. Mostow and Royall Tyler (University of Hawai'i Press, 2010); Kokin Wakashu, The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry by Helen Craig McCullough (Staford University Press, 1985); Kokinshu, A Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern by Laurel Rasplica Rodd and Mary Catherine Henkenius (University of Tokyo Press, 1984); Kokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1994); Shinkokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1995); Taketori Monogatari-Ise Monogatari-Yamato Monogatari-Heichu Monogatari (Shogakkan, 1994). Seeds in the Heart, Japanese Literature from Earliest Times to the Late Sixteenth Century by Donald Keene (Henry Holt and Company, 1993).Hyakunin Isshu Introduction - Poem 1 - Poem 2 - Poem 3 - Poem 4 - Poem 5 - Poem 6 - Poem 7 - Poem 8 - Poem 9 - Poem 10 - Poem 11 - Poem 12 - Poem 13 - Poem 14 - Poem 15 - Poem 16 - Poem 17 - Poem 18 - Poem 19 - Poem 20 -
22 Jan
Hyakunin Isshu, Poem 5
okuyama nimomiji fumiwakenaku shika nokoe kiku toki zoaki wa kanashiki
奥山に紅葉ふみわけ鳴く鹿の声きく時ぞ秋は悲しき
When I hear the voiceof the crying stag stepping through the autumn leavesdeep in the mountains -then I really feel the sadness of autumn

Sarumaru Dayu (late 9th c.?)
Deer in the Kasuga Shrine, Nara
[Deer in the Kasuga Shrine, Nara]

The acute sadness of autumn when one hears the cry of deer deep in the mountains.
When the poet hears the stag crying for its mate, deep in the mountains in autumn, he really feels how sad autumn is, for he, too, is separated from his beloved. This situation (the deer crying for its mate as a symbol for the poet calling for his beloved) occurs often in poetry since the Manyoshu.

A straightforward poem, without any kakekotoba etc., but there are nevertheless some difficulties in interpretation. The first point is: who is stepping through the autumn leaves? Modern commentators of the poem take this to be the poet, and that also seems to be the meaning in the Shinsen Manyoshu (and Kokinshu) in which it is first collected, but the traditional interpretation (also of Teika) is that it is the deer - and that is the one I have followed in my translation.

The second point is: what type of autumn leaves? As Mostow remarks, in another edition of this poem, "momiji" is written with characters that mean "yellow leaves" rather than "scarlet leaves," so originally the yellow leaves of the bushclover may have been meant. But in the medieval and early modern period, it was believed to be set in late autumn and the momiji to refer to fallen maple leaves.

Finally, it should be remarked that the view that autumn is a season of sadness is a typical view of city dwellers. For peasants it is a season of harvest and gladness; one has to live at a remove from the agricultural cycle to be able to see autumn as a season of decay and so as a symbol of the transitoriness of human existence.


About the poet, Sarumaru Dayu (Dayu is an official title, "Senior Assistant Minister") nothing further is known and he is probably a fantasy figure, although counted as one of the Thirty-six Poetic Immortals. Some believe him to have been the son of Prince Yamashiro (who was the son of Prince Shotoku) but there is nothing to substantiate this. Significant is that the present poem is included in the Kokinshu as an anonymous poem. Also, no other poems have been ascribed to Sarumaru Dayu. From the headnote in the Kokinshu we know that this poem was written "at the poetry contest at Prince Koresada's house," which puts it in the late 9th c.

[Also included in: Kokinshu, Autumn Part A, 215]See my post Hyakunin Isshu.References: Pictures of the Heart, The Hyakunin Isshu in Word and Image by Joshua S. Mostow (University of Hawai'i Press, 1996); Traditional Japanese Poetry, An Anthology, by Steven D. Carter (Stanford University Press, 1991); Hyakunin Isshu by Inoue Muneo, etc. (Shinchosha, 1990); Genshoku Hyakunin Isshu by Suzuki Hideo, etc. (Buneido, 1997); Ogura Hyakunin Isshu at Japanese Text Initiative (University of Virginia Library Etext Center); Hyakunin Isshu wo aruku by Shimaoka Shin (Kofusha Shuppan); Basho's Haiku (2 vols) by Toshiharu Oseko (Maruzen, 1990); The Ise Stories by Joshua S. Mostow and Royall Tyler (University of Hawai'i Press, 2010); Kokin Wakashu, The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry by Helen Craig McCullough (Staford University Press, 1985); Kokinshu, A Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern by Laurel Rasplica Rodd and Mary Catherine Henkenius (University of Tokyo Press, 1984); Kokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1994); Shinkokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1995); Taketori Monogatari-Ise Monogatari-Yamato Monogatari-Heichu Monogatari (Shogakkan, 1994).
20 Jan
Matsuo Taisha (also called Matsuonoo Taisha) is one of the oldest shrines of Kyoto. It now is in the first place the tutelary shrine of sake brewers, but that has not always been the case. It was established in 701 by the immigrant Hata clan. The shrine stands facing the Katsura River, with its back to a hill (Mt Matsuo) on which an iwakura can be found: a grouping of large sacred rocks. Such stones were believed to be places where the kami (deities) would take their abode. This was the original cult place and it is still intact; later, the shrine was built at the foot of the hill.

Matsuo Taisha, Kyoto
[Tsuridono Hall in front of the Main Hall,
from where prayers are offered]
The deities honored in Matsuo Taisha are Oyamakui no kami and his consort Nakatsushimahime no mikoto (a third deity, Tsukiyomi no mikoto, the kami of the moon and brother of the Sun Goddess, is housed in a separate shrine a short distance away). Oyamakui was a kami revered by immigrant clans such as the Hata. The Hata probably came to Japan from Korea in the 4th or 5th century. They settled in what is now the Kyoto area and are also connected with the Fushimi Inari Shrine and with Koryuji Temple. They were welcomed in Japan because they brought advanced technologies, such as sericulture, weaving and water control. In the mid-sixth c. the clan comprised more than 7,000 families.

Matsuo Taisha, Kyoto
[Kyokusui Garden, by Shigemori Mirei]
The Hata developed this area and later helped the court to establish the capital here in 794. Oyamakui has been called a mountain god, although that term may obscure his real identity: he is rather the deification of the pure and life-giving water that streams down from the mountain. That is evident from the Reiki no taki ("the Falls of the Holy Turtle"), a waterfall in the grounds behind the main hall, and also from the Kame no i ("Well of the Turtle"), a natural well also on the mountainside. The turtle is the messenger of the kami of Matsuo. After the foundation of Heiankyo, together with the kami of the Kamo Shrines, Matsuo-san was promoted to become one of the protectors of the capital.

Matsuo Taisha, Kyoto
[Shinyoko, with stacked sake barrels]
The link with sake is much more recent. It only comes from the Muromachi period (when sake brewing became an industry) and was connected again with water, in the form of the belief that sake of which the brewing water contained some water from the Turtle Well in the grounds of the shrine, would never turn sour (sourness due to hiochi bacteria was a big problem for early brewers). So Matsuo-san became a protector of the craft of sake brewing, something which is still his most important function today. Sake breweries often have a small Shinto altar (kamidana) dedicated to Matsuo-san in the brewery, near where the actual brewing takes place, and at certain important times such as the beginning of the brewing year, the brewers will worship there together. Every year new amulets from the shrine are received as well and brewers often visit the Matsuo Shrine for the Jo-u Festival in November, when prayers are said for successful brewing.

But the link of sake is not with the actual founding history of the shrine (the Hata brought several new technologies to Japan, but sake brewing was not among them) - this in contrast to the other major "sake shrine," the Miwa Shrine to the south of Nara (in Sakurai), which has a deeper connection with sake, in the sense that sake figures in its foundation legend, where it is presented as a gift to mankind from the gods.

Matsuo Taisha, Kyoto[The torii gate. At the back the Romon gate.]
The Matsuo Shrine stands immediately next to Matsuo Station on the Hankyu Arashiyama Line (running between Katsura and Arashiyama), and the approach to the shrine is brief. The main hall dates from 1397 (with repairs in 1542). An "important cultural property," it has a roof of shingles from cypress bark and long overhanging eaves in the front and back (called ryonagare-zukuri). A stream, the Ichinoigawa ("First Well River") runs through the grounds and has beautiful Japanese rose bushes (yamabuki) from mid April to early May. Two of the wooden statues of male deities the shrine owns are now "national treasures," and one female deity has been declared an "important cultural property." These kami images date from the 9th c. and are among the earliest statues of Shinto gods. They are well worth seeing.
Matsuo Taisha, Kyoto[Iwakura no niwa, garden with huge rocks like the iwakura on top of Mt Matsuo, by Shigemori Mirei]
The shrine gardens have been beautifully laid out by one of the most famous 20th c. garden architects and garden historians of Japan, Shigemori Mirei (1896-1975). The first garden lies in front of the small shrine museum housing the kami statues and is called Kyokusui no niwa (Garden of the Winding Stream - in Heian japan such streams were used to float down sake cups and compose poetry) - it features the big upright rocks Shigemori Mirei became famous for, as well as his modern use of concrete; the second garden, Iwakura no niwa ("Garden of the Sacred Rocks"), lies next to the shrine museum and imitates the iwakura on top of Mt Matsuo, the original cult place of the shrine; the third garden (Horai no niwa or "Paradise Garden") lies to the right between the large torii and the Romon gate, behind a restaurant. It is a pond garden with standing stones, perhaps a bit less typical of Shigemori Mirei's work because of the large pond, but nonetheless beautiful; it was finished by the son of the garden architect, as Shigemori Mirei unfortunately died in the period he was working on this garden.

Matsuo Taisha [The Turtle Well]
The three gardens plus the shrine museum, the waterfall Reiki no taki and the Turtle Well can all be seen together for a small fee. There is another fee to climb Mt Matsuo to view the iwakura. Thanks to its sake connection, the shrine also has a a small sake museum which in recent years has been nicely refurbished. There are old tools, cups and other implements, old labels and advertisements, etc. Entry here is free. It is to the left of the Romon, in the same building as a Mori tsukemono shop - interestingly, they have some pickles made with sakekasu (sake lees) which are only sold here.
The biggest festival of the shrine is the Shinkosai, which is held the first Sunday after April 20; it includes a mikoshi procession where one mikoshi will be boarded on a boat on the Katsura River (it will return three weeks later in a second festival called Kankosai). Other important festivals are Hatsumode (the first shrine visit at New Year), Setsubun on February 3 or 4, the Kerria (Japanese rose bush) Festival (April 10 to May 5), Oharae (Great Purification) on June 30, Ontasai (Rice Planting Festival) on the 3rd Sunday of July, Hassakusai (Harvest Festival) on the first Sunday of September, and the above-mentioned sake brewing prayers on the Jo-u day (old calendar) in November (thanksgiving for successful brewing is likewise held on the Chu-yu day in April).

Immediately next to Matsuo Station on the Hankyu Arashiyama Line. Or take bus 28 or 73 from Kyoto Station; bus 63 from Sanjo Keihan Station.Read more about this and other Shinto shrines in: Shinto Shrines, A Guide to the Sacred Sites of Japan's Ancient Religion by Joseph Cali and John Dougill (University of Hawai'i Press).  Japanese materials: Nihon no Kamigami, Jinja to Seichi edited by Tanikawa Kenichi (13 vols, Hyakusuisha). Shukan Jinja Kiko (50 vols, Gakken). Kyoto Yamashiro Jiin Jinja Daijiten (Heibonsha).
19 Jan
On of the best places to enjoy the sight of wild monkeys in Japan in this Year of the Monkey is Jigokudani Onsen in Nagano Prefecture.

Jigokudani Onsen, Nagano 
"Jigokudani" or "Hell's Valley" is in fact a name also given to other places in Japan with a lot of volcanic activity such as steam rising from between the cliffs - leading to good onsen (hot springs). Jigokudani in Yamanouchi is located 850 meters above sea level, in the mountains of northern Nagano, so there is a lot of snow here in winter. In fact, the area is buried in one meter of snow for a third of the year.
The troupe of about 200 "snow monkeys" you find living here despite the harsh conditions are Japanese macaques, who have adjusted to the cold and the snow. The place is unique as it is the only place in the world where wild monkeys bath in hot springs (but then, they are Japanese monkeys, so they just love hot baths!).

Jigokudani Onsen, Nagano
The bath, by the way, is man-made and the area is a park (Jigokudani Yaen Koen), but left undeveloped thanks to the fact that it is part of the Joshinetsu Kogen National Park. Another reason must be that it is relatively hard to reach, cars and buses have to remain at a far distance and a 30 min. trek through the snow is necessary. The park is open throughout the year.

Jigokudani Onsen, Nagano 
The above pictures are from a visit we made to Jigokudani in a previous Year of the Monkey. The monkeys are quite photogenic and they have a positively blissful look on their faces when they sit soaking in the warm water!

Jigokudani Onsen, Nagano
How to get here: Take the Nagano Dentetsu line from Nagano to Yudanaka Onsen (45 min.). From there, take a bus to the Kanbayashi Onsen bus stop (10-15 min, 1 to 2 buses per hour) and then hike for 30-40 min to the monkey park. Near the park is also the rustic Korakukan ryokan, where you can stay the night and take an onsen bath indoors yourself. There is a small fee for entrance to the park. 
[Live camera of the Monkey Park]
18 Jan
2016 is the Year of the Monkey (sarudoshi) in Japan, the ninth year in the cycle of 12 signs from the Japanese (and originally Chinese) zodiac.

Huge Ema for the Year of the Monkey in Matsuo Taisha, Kyoto[Huge Ema for Year of the Monkey in Matsuo Taisha, Kyoto]
Monkeys are indigenous to Japan in the shape of the Japanese macaque (Macaca fuscata), a medium-sized wild monkey with a short tail, which gets about 60 cm tall. Wild monkeys are relatively common, a number of decades ago when they were counted they numbered 30,000. Wild monkeys are found in Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu, but not in Hokkaido which is too cold (the Shimokita Peninsula at the northern tip of Honshu, where about 100 monkeys live, is the northernmost habitat of any primate in the world). Japanese monkeys live in troops of 20 to 150 individuals organized in strict hierarchy.

The monkey plays an important role in Japanese folklore. Japanese myth makes mention of a monkey deity, Sarutahiko, and some shrines like the Hiyoshi Taisha Shrine in Otsu treat the monkey as a divine messenger. Until early modern times it was believed that keeping a monkey tied to a post in stables would keep disease away from the horses (going back to the Chinese belief that monkeys could in general drive illness away). Monkey shows (sarumawashi) were once a common street entertainment (happily, not anymore).

In contrast to China, where the monkey is regarded as an emblem of ugliness, lust and trickery, in Japan it is an animal of good standing. It is a fortunate birth year as Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598) was born in a monkey year: he is a singular case in traditional Japan of a man raising himself from a low-born station to the highest rank and power in the country (on top of that, he was said to be "monkey-faced"). But monkey years are considered unlucky for marriage, for "saru," "monkey," is a homonym with "saru," "to leave," suggesting divorce.

[Gibbon reaching for the moon's reflection by Ohara Koson]
Monkeys play a large role in Japanese fairy tales, such as the story of Momotaro or Little Peachling. The animal also figures in many proverbs: "Even a monkey falls sometimes from a tree" ("Anybody can make a mistake"), "To teach a monkey to climb a tree" ("To do something superfluous"), and "The monkey seizes the moon" (an example of delusion: long-armed monkeys made a chain hanging down from a branch in a tree, until the branch broke and they were drowned). "A dog and a monkey" points at the same unfriendly relations as our "a cat and a dog."

[Ukiyoe of Sun Wukong fighting a wind demon]
The most famous Chinese monkey is the monkey king Sun Wukong from the novel Journey to the West (Xiyouji). an extended account of the legendary pilgrimage of the Tang dynasty Buddhist monk Xuanzang who traveled via Central Asia to India to obtain sacred texts (sutras) and statues. In the fantasy novel, he has several supernatural protectors, the most important one being the monkey Sun Wukong, who is also his disciple.

Wild monkey in onsen bath in Jigokudani, Nagano[Wild monkey in onsen bath, Jigokudani, Nagano]
The most famous Japanese wild monkeys live in the Jigokudani Monkey Park in Nagano Pref., called "Hell's Valley" after the boiling water that naturally bubbles up in this volcanic area. This results in a good onsen (hot springs), one inside the rustic hotel for humans, and one outside in the snow for the monkeys. Called "Snow Monkeys," the macaques descend from the steep cliffs and forest to sit in the warm waters of the onsen, looking almost human, and return to the forest in the evenings.

Monkey Carving in Toshogu Shrine, Nikko["See no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil" monkey carving in Toshogu Shrine, Nikko]
The most famous representation of monkeys in Japan is the carving on the Nikko shrine: one covers his eyes with his hands, another his ears and the third one his mouth. With a pun on "saru," they represent mizaru "seeing-not", kikazaru "hearing not" and iwazaru "speaking-not." Such monkeys are also often found as stone statues by the roadside and they are associated with the Koshin cult and the God of the Road. They continue teaching us the moral lesson of "seeing no evil, hearing no evil and speaking no evil."

[Written with information from Japan, An Illustrated Encyclopedia (Kodansha) and We Japanese (an old publication of the Fujiya Hotel)]
13 Jan
Hyakunin Isshu, Poem 4
Tago no ura niuchi-idete mirebashirotae noFuji no takane niyuki wa furitsutsu
田子の浦に打ち出でてみれば白妙の富士の高嶺に雪はふりつつ
As I come out
on the seashore of Tago and look,I see the snow constantly fallingon the lofty peak of Fujiwhite as mulberry cloth

Yamabe no Akahito (fl 724-736)
Mt Fuji
[Mt Fuji]

This poem gives a picture postcard view of the snowy peak of Mt Fuji.

Tago no ura is a coastal area near the mouth of the river Fujikawa in Suruga (Shizuoka Pref.). The coast here offers a beautiful view of Mt Fuji. 
[Tago no ura photographed by Adolfo Farsari (1841 - 1898)]
Shirotae is a pillow word meaning pure whiteness (lit. white cloth made out of a kind of paper mulberry) - we already came across it in Poem No 2.

In the 20th c. this poem was often criticized as not being realistic. After all, it is impossible to see snow falling on Mt Fuji from far away Tago Bay (and anyway, when snow falls on a mountain it is covered by such heavy clouds, that you can't even see the mountain). The intention of the poet is of course just to emphasize the snowy whiteness of Fuji's peak.

[Yamabe no Akahito by Utagawa Kuniyoshi]
The poet is Yamabe no Akahito (early 8th c.), who lived somewhat later than the previous poet, Kakinomoto no Hitomaro, and is also regarded as one of the Thirty-six Poetic Immortals. He is considered as one of the most important poets of the Manyoshu ("The Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves," which was compiled ca 759), which contains 37 tanka and 12 choka by him. A court official, he was one of the last "poets laureate" who composed poetry commemorating events in the imperial house and excursions of the sovereign. All his surviving poems were written during the reign of Emperor Shomu (701-756; r 724-749). He evidently made several long journeys, as he composed poems on various famous sites, as in the present case on Mt Fuji. He is therefore considered as the great nature poet of the Manyoshu.

[Also included in: Shinkokinshu, Winter 675]
References: Pictures of the Heart, The Hyakunin Isshu in Word and Image by Joshua S. Mostow (University of Hawai'i Press, 1996); Traditional Japanese Poetry, An Anthology, by Steven D. Carter (Stanford University Press, 1991); Hyakunin Isshu by Inoue Muneo, etc. (Shinchosha, 1990); Genshoku Hyakunin Isshu by Suzuki Hideo, etc. (Buneido, 1997); Ogura Hyakunin Isshu at Japanese Text Initiative (University of Virginia Library Etext Center); Hyakunin Isshu wo aruku by Shimaoka Shin (Kofusha Shuppan); Basho's Haiku (2 vols) by Toshiharu Oseko (Maruzen, 1990); The Ise Stories by Joshua S. Mostow and Royall Tyler (University of Hawai'i Press, 2010); Kokin Wakashu, The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry by Helen Craig McCullough (Staford University Press, 1985); Kokinshu, A Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern by Laurel Rasplica Rodd and Mary Catherine Henkenius (University of Tokyo Press, 1984); Kokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1994); Shinkokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1995); Taketori Monogatari-Ise Monogatari-Yamato Monogatari-Heichu Monogatari (Shogakkan, 1994).Hyakunin Isshu Introduction - Poem 1 - Poem 2 - Poem 3 - Poem 4 - Poem 5 - Poem 6 - Poem 7 - Poem 8 - Poem 9 - Poem 10 - Poem 11 - Poem 12 - Poem 13 - Poem 14 - Poem 15 - Poem 16 - Poem 17 - Poem 18 - Poem 19 - Poem 20 -
10 Jan
Hyakunin Isshu, Poem 3
ashibiki noyamadori no wo noshidari-wo nonaga-nagashi yo wohitori kamo nemu
あしびきの山鳥の尾のしだり尾のながながし夜をひとりかもねむ
Must I sleep alonethrough the long night,long like the dragging tailof the copper pheasantin the foot-wearying mountains?

Kakinomoto no Hitomaro (fl ca 685-705)
Kakinomoto Jinja in Akashi (Hyogo Pref.)[Kakinomoto Shrine in Akashi (Hyogo Pref.)]
Love poem set on an autumn night. The poet, unable to meet his beloved and having to sleep alone, complains of the length of the night. 
Ashibiki is a pillow word for mountain. The meaning is not clear; it may mean something like "with abundant trees," but as it is most commonly written with characters meaning "foot pulling," it is often translated as "foot wearying" in English. Paraphrases in modern Japanese usually omit it.

[Japanese copper pheasant]
As the long-tailed copper pheasant (yamadori, Syrmaticus soemmerringii) was believed to sleep apart from its mate, in a separate ravine, the bird with its long tail is not only symbolic for the long night, but also for the loneliness of the poet, separated from his beloved. 
Note the repetition of no and wo to suggest the length of the night. 
Besides employing a makura-kotoba, the poem is also a good example of the use of a jo-kotoba or preface: the entire first three lines are a preface for the adjective naga-nagashi, "long."
[Kakinomoto no Hitomaro by Utagawa Kuniyoshi]
The poet, Kakinomoto no Hitomaro (660?-720?; fl ca 685-705) was a court poet serving Emperor Tenmu (r. 672-686), Empress Jito (r. 686-697) and Emperor Monmu (r 697-707). As the most representative Manyoshu poet, he has been worshiped in Japan as the "saint of poetry." He was also counted as one of the Thirty-six Poetic Immortals. It is fitting that Teika puts him near the beginning of his anthology. Among the poems ascribed to Kakinomoto, about 18 choka and 60 tanka are considered as genuine. Hitomaru's art is both natural and complex. Many of his poems were of a public nature, praising the imperial house, but he also wrote work of a more personal type, such as an elegy on the death of his wife. With Saigyo and Basho, Kakinomoto has been called one of the three most esteemed poets in Japanese history. He is honored in the Kakinomoto Jinja in Akashi, where poetry steles are scattered around the grounds, also with the present work.

Poem Stone in Kakinomoto Shrine, Akashi.
[Poem stone with the Hyakunin Isshu poem
by Kakinomoto no Hitomaro in the
Kakinomoto Shrine in Akashi]

[Also included in: Suiishu 778]References: Pictures of the Heart, The Hyakunin Isshu in Word and Image by Joshua S. Mostow (University of Hawai'i Press, 1996); Traditional Japanese Poetry, An Anthology, by Steven D. Carter (Stanford University Press, 1991); Hyakunin Isshu by Inoue Muneo, etc. (Shinchosha, 1990); Genshoku Hyakunin Isshu by Suzuki Hideo, etc. (Buneido, 1997); Ogura Hyakunin Isshu at Japanese Text Initiative (University of Virginia Library Etext Center); Hyakunin Isshu wo aruku by Shimaoka Shin (Kofusha Shuppan); Basho's Haiku (2 vols) by Toshiharu Oseko (Maruzen, 1990); The Ise Stories by Joshua S. Mostow and Royall Tyler (University of Hawai'i Press, 2010); Kokin Wakashu, The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry by Helen Craig McCullough (Staford University Press, 1985); Kokinshu, A Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern by Laurel Rasplica Rodd and Mary Catherine Henkenius (University of Tokyo Press, 1984); Kokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1994); Shinkokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1995); Taketori Monogatari-Ise Monogatari-Yamato Monogatari-Heichu Monogatari (Shogakkan, 1994).Hyakunin Isshu Introduction - Poem 1 - Poem 2 - Poem 3 - Poem 4 - Poem 5 - Poem 6 - Poem 7 - Poem 8 - Poem 9 - Poem 10 - Poem 11 - Poem 12 - Poem 13 - Poem 14 - Poem 15 - Poem 16 - Poem 17 - Poem 18 - Poem 19 - Poem 20 -
9 Jan
Toyama Prefecture boasts magnificent nature in the heart of Japan. It is in the first place well-known for the Tateyama mountain range and the Kurobe Gorge and Dam. Takaoka, a town of iron smiths, also boasts Zenryuji, a great Zen temple of National Treasure class. In Gokayama one finds a World Heritage site with impressive folk houses. Tonami is famous for its tulips. Toyama's foods are masu-sushi (trout sushi), buri (yellowtail), kamaboko (fish paste) and hotaruika (small firefly squid) - all caught in the Bay of Toyama.

Toyama Prefecture abounds in excellent water as snow from the Tateyama mountain range of the northern Alps melts and flows into the region.

Toyama is also well-known as a rice harvesting area. Of old the sakamai (special rice for sake) of Toyama is "Gohyakumangoku," of which production is the highest after Niigata and Fukui; much of it is sold to breweries outside Toyama. A new variant of sakamai is “Oyama Nishiki,” a cross between "Omachi" and "Miyama Nishiki." Breweries in Toyama use a high percentage of special sake rice, including also “Yamada Nishiki” from Hyogo.

Sake from Toyama is dry, elegant and smooth, close in style to Niigata. Not surprisingly, master brewers are often from the Echigo guild.

There 19 active sake breweries in Toyama (2015), the smallest number in Hokuriku, but two of those breweries are among the country's 50 largest.

Some of the major breweries are:
Masuizumi (Masuda Shuzoten, Toyama). Est. 1893. "Well Full of Long Life." This sake brewery stands in Iwase, a historic port town that flourished in the Kitamae sea trade. It was one of the first - already in the mid-1960s - to focus on ginjo sake in which it is still a leading player. Makes ginjos with fine fragrance and full flavor. Toji from Noto brewers guild, who make rich and soft sake. Innovative brewery undertakes various experiments, such as aging sake in wine casks from Burgundy.Sanshoraku (Sanshoraku Shuzo, Nanto). Est. 1880. Small brewery in World Heritage Site Gokayama, lying under deep snow in winter. Production is limited, making Sanshoraku a rare apparition. Uses the Yamahai-method for making the yeast-starter. Individualistic, large-boned and umami-rich character, as befits sake from a mountain region. The name of the company goes back to a Chinese story, "The Three Laughers of Tiger Ravine" (Kokei sansho), about a hermit who vowed never to leave his ravine, but who when talking pleasantly with two poet-friends, unconsciously did step outside, after which all three gave a big laugh.Tateyama (Tateyama Shuzo, Tonami). Est. 1830. Named after Toyama's dominant mountain range. Large brewery (operating in two locations) that produces soft and dry sakes with a good balance.Toyama Sake Brewers Association
When planning a brewery visit, check in advance whether the brewery accepts visitors and whether it is open on the day and time you plan to go, especially if a long trip is necessary to get there (see the brewery's website for tel. no or mail address). Note that brewery tours, if available, always have to be booked in advance. Many breweries, however, do not allow visitors in their production area, or only in certain seasons / for certain sizes of groups. In contrast, if a sake museum or brewery shop is present, this is usually open without reservation. Sake by Region:
Hokkaido/Tohoku: Hokkaido - Aomori - Akita - Iwate - Miyagi - Yamagata - Fukushima
Kanto area: Ibaraki - Tochigi - Gunma - Saitama - Chiba - Tokyo - Kanagawa
Hokushinetsu: Yamanashi - Nagano - Niigata - Toyama - Ichikawa - Fukui
Tokai area: Shizuoka - Aichi - Gifu - Mie
Kansai area: Shiga - Kyoto - Osaka - Hyogo - Nara - Wakayama
Chugoku area: Tottori - Shimane - Okayama - Hiroshima - Yamaguchi
Shikoku: Tokushima - Kagawa - Ehime - Kochi
Kyushu/Okinawa: Fukuoka - Saga - Nagasaki - Kumamoto - Oita - Miyazaki / Kagoshima / OkinawaReference materials: Kikisakeshi Koshukai Tekisuto by Sake Service Institute (Tokyo, 2009); Nihonshu no kyokasho by Kimura Katsumi (Shinsei Shuppansha: Tokyo, 2010); Nihonshu no Tekisuto (2): Sanchi no Tokucho to Tsukuritetachi by Matsuzaki Haruo (Doyukan, 2005); The Book of Sake by Philip Harper (Kodansha International: Tokyo, New York, London, 2006); The Sake Companion by John Gauntner (Running Press: Philadelphia & London, 2000); The Sake Selection by Akiko Tomoda (Gap Japan: Tokyo, 2009).The blog author Ad Blankestijn works for the Daishichi Sake Brewery and is an accredited sake sommelier and sake instructor. He also hosts independent sake seminars to propagate knowledge about his favorite drink. The above text reflects his personal opinion.
8 Jan
Hyakunin Isshu, Poem 2
haru sugitenatsu kinikerashishirotae nokoromo hosutefuama no kaguyama
春過ぎて夏来にけらし白妙の衣ほすてふ天の香具山
Spring has gone away, andsummer come, it seems, for I hear they are drying robes of white mulberry clothon Heavenly Mount Kagu!
Grave of Emperor Tenmu and Empress Jito, Asuka, Nara[Grave of Empress Jito and Emperor Tenmu
in the Asuka area (Kashihara)]
A poem expressing the freshness of early summer. 
Shirotae means white robes made from the fibers of the paper mulberry, typically thin and airy clothes for summer. These have presumably been laid out to bleach against the green of Mt Kagu. Shirotae is also a pillow word (makurakotoba) for things that are very white, such as koromo, "garments." Many commentators take this however as a metaphor:- for rising mists, meaning that the mountain now can be clearly seen;- or on the contrary, for mists covering the mountain;- or for nanohana, white deutzia flowers covering the hillside.

[Mt. Kagu seen from the south]
"Heavenly" Mt Kagu is one of the "Three Mountains of Yamato" ("Yamato Sanzan," with Mt Unebi and Mt Miminashi). All three are in fact low hills - Mt Kagu is only 152 meters high - but as they rise directly out of the plain, they were important landmarks. All three hills figure prominently in the poetry of the time. They were also pivots of cosmic forces, for on the day of the winter solstice the sun would set right over Mt Unebi, and rise that same day over Mt Kagu, thereby symbolically linking these mountains to the imperial power. In addition, Mt Kagu was associated with the legend of the Sun Goddess, who once hid in a grotto (presumably located on the mountain) and withheld her light from the world, until she was enticed out of her cave. 

The author is Empress Jito (645-703), the daughter of Emperor Tenji, and the wife of Emperor Tenmu, who was Tenji's younger half brother; after Tenmu's death, she gained control of state affairs and, following the death of the crown prince, formally ascended the throne as reigning empress in 690, one of the very few women to occupy the chrysanthemum throne. During her reign she was responsible for enacting Japan's first set of administrative and penal laws, the so-called Asuka Kiyomihara Code. After eleven years, she gave up the throne in favor of her grandson (Emperor Monmu). She was the first Japanese monarch to be cremated in Buddhist fashion after her death; with her husband, Emperor Tenmu, she had been involved in building the Yakushiji Temple. She moved the court to Fujiwara no Miya, which was located immediately northwest of Mt Kagu (the then capital Fujiwara-kyo encompassed all Three Mountains of Yamato) - so in the present poem she is writing about a scene before her eyes.

The first poem in the Hyakunin Isshu was by an Emperor and set in autumn; this second poem by imperial hand is set in early summer, thus demonstrating that the seasons are progressing in good order, something which in Sino-Japanese philosophy points at virtuous rule.

[Also included in: Manyoshu I:28; Shinkokunshu 175]References: Pictures of the Heart, The Hyakunin Isshu in Word and Image by Joshua S. Mostow (University of Hawai'i Press, 1996); Traditional Japanese Poetry, An Anthology, by Steven D. Carter (Stanford University Press, 1991); Hyakunin Isshu by Inoue Muneo, etc. (Shinchosha, 1990); Genshoku Hyakunin Isshu by Suzuki Hideo, etc. (Buneido, 1997); Ogura Hyakunin Isshu at Japanese Text Initiative (University of Virginia Library Etext Center); Hyakunin Isshu wo aruku by Shimaoka Shin (Kofusha Shuppan); Basho's Haiku (2 vols) by Toshiharu Oseko (Maruzen, 1990); The Ise Stories by Joshua S. Mostow and Royall Tyler (University of Hawai'i Press, 2010); Kokin Wakashu, The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry by Helen Craig McCullough (Staford University Press, 1985); Kokinshu, A Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern by Laurel Rasplica Rodd and Mary Catherine Henkenius (University of Tokyo Press, 1984); Kokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1994); Shinkokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1995); Taketori Monogatari-Ise Monogatari-Yamato Monogatari-Heichu Monogatari (Shogakkan, 1994).Hyakunin Isshu Introduction - Poem 1 - Poem 2 - Poem 3 - Poem 4 - Poem 5 - Poem 6 - Poem 7 - Poem 8 - Poem 9 - Poem 10 - Poem 11 - Poem 12 - Poem 13 - Poem 14 - Poem 15 - Poem 16 - Poem 17 - Poem 18 - Poem 19 - Poem 20 -
6 Jan
Hyakunin Isshu, Poem 1

aki no ta nokariho no iho notoma wo aramiwaga koromode watsuyu ni nuretsutsu
秋の田のかりほの庵の苫をあらみわが衣手は露にぬれつつ
Because of the rough thatchof the hut, the temporary hut,in the autumn fields,the sleeves of my robeare always getting wet with dew.
Rice Harvest in Autumn
[Rice harvesting in autumn]

A tranquil pastoral scene in late autumn. 
Kariho no iho: kariho is a contraction of kari-iho, "temporary hut." As the hut is mentioned doubly, some commentators (possibly also Fujiwara Teika, the compiler of the Hyakunin Isshu) consider kariho as a pivot word (kakekotoba) with the double meaning of "reaped ears of grain." A "temporary hut" was a makeshift structure in which farmers at night kept watch over the fields during the harvest season, to prevent humans or animals from stealing the rice.

The "dew" in the last line may imply tears (of loneliness or lost love) as well.
Teika ascribes the poem to Emperor Tenji (626-672; name also spelled Tenchi), the son of Emperor Jomei. As crown prince, called Naka no Oe, he broke the power of the Soga clan with the help of Fujiwara no Kamatari, and was also responsible for the Taika Reforms, reorganizing the government on the Chinese model. For many years he continued to rule as regent, even after the death of his mother Empress Saimei, and only was formally enthroned in 668. As Emperor he moved the capital to Omi (now Otsu in Shiga Pref.) and promulgated the Omi Code of Laws. Omi served for five years as the capital.

The ascription of the present poem to Emperor Tenji is however dubious: a similar poem in fact appears in the Manyoshu where it is anonymous. It was first ascribed to Emperor Tenji in the Gosenshu anthology from the mid-tenth century, probably based on a tradition or document outside Manyoshu.


But Teika clearly believed that Emperor Tenji was the author and he must have put the present poem consciously in first position in his anthology: after all, Emperor Tenji was revered as the progenitor of the imperial line and this poem could be interpreted as an expression of the "model" emperor's compassion for the lot of the common peasants.

The poem however says little about the harshness of work in the fields but rather focuses in aristocratic fashion on the beautiful "yugen" aspect of lonely tranquility in late autumn. As such, it has always been much admired.

There are three places associated with Emperor Tenji in Kyoto and Otsu: in Miidera ("Temple of the Three Wells" or, written differently, "Temple of the August Well") in Otsu one finds a well, the Akai, which was supposedly used to supply the water for bathing three newly born imperial infants, the later emperors Tenji, Tenmu and Jito (of course, this is pure legend as they were born in a palace in Asuka, far removed from Otsu); in Yamashina, close to Misasagi Station, one finds the imperial tomb of Emperor Tenji; and in Otsu stands the Omi Jingu, a shrine of state Shinto built in the Meiji-period to honor Emperor Tenji.

[Also included in: Gosenshu 301]
References: Pictures of the Heart, The Hyakunin Isshu in Word and Image by Joshua S. Mostow (University of Hawai'i Press, 1996); Traditional Japanese Poetry, An Anthology, by Steven D. Carter (Stanford University Press, 1991); Hyakunin Isshu by Inoue Muneo, etc. (Shinchosha, 1990); Genshoku Hyakunin Isshu by Suzuki Hideo, etc. (Buneido, 1997); Ogura Hyakunin Isshu at Japanese Text Initiative (University of Virginia Library Etext Center); Hyakunin Isshu wo aruku by Shimaoka Shin (Kofusha Shuppan); Basho's Haiku (2 vols) by Toshiharu Oseko (Maruzen, 1990); The Ise Stories by Joshua S. Mostow and Royall Tyler (University of Hawai'i Press, 2010); Kokin Wakashu, The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry by Helen Craig McCullough (Staford University Press, 1985); Kokinshu, A Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern by Laurel Rasplica Rodd and Mary Catherine Henkenius (University of Tokyo Press, 1984); Kokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1994); Shinkokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1995); Taketori Monogatari-Ise Monogatari-Yamato Monogatari-Heichu Monogatari (Shogakkan, 1994).Hyakunin Isshu Introduction - Poem 1 - Poem 2 - Poem 3 - Poem 4 - Poem 5 - Poem 6 - Poem 7 - Poem 8 - Poem 9 - Poem 10 - Poem 11 - Poem 12 - Poem 13 - Poem 14 - Poem 15 - Poem 16 - Poem 17 - Poem 18 - Poem 19 - Poem 20 -
5 Jan
The Hyakunin Isshu (One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each) is Japan's most popular and widely known poetry collection, containing one hundred poems in the tanka form, selected by the famous poet and scholar Fujiwara Teika (1162-1241). These were in part arranged to represent the history of Japanese poetry from the 7th c. down to Teika's own day. The rough chronological order starts with Emperor Tenchi (626-671) and ends with Retired Emperor Juntoku (1197-1242).

[Fujiwara Teika]
In Teika's time it was common to write one hundred poem sequences with one's own poetry - Teika himself produced twenty - but Teika also compiled several collections of poems with work by other poets, from his own and earlier ages, of which the present one is the best known. As it offered an excellent overview of the living history of poetry, it became a tool for the instruction of novices in the art. The Hyakunin Isshu also became the basis for a popular uta karuta card game, and as such the poems have been memorized by countless Japanese since the Edo period. The game is still widely played today, especially at New Year.

[Poem Card (yomifuda): Emperor Tenchi and his poem]
Fujiwara Teika probably wrote out the single poems by 100 poets to decorate a set of sliding doors, somewhere towards the end of his life between 1235 and 1241. He had written out an almost similar set for the mansion of his son's father-in-law, and later made the present set for his own house. As this was located near Mt Ogura in Arashiyama, west of Kyoto, the collection is also known as Ogura Hyakunin Isshu. Teika put great care into the creation of the collection and the sequence can be seen as his personal version - including his biases - of poetic history, as he saw it towards the end of his life. The most important theme is love (almost half of all poems), the most popular season is autumn. There are also interesting patterns in the poems, both thematic as in the fact that Teika has included several sets of poems by parents and their children, such as the first two poems, by Emperor Tenchi and his daughter, Empress Jito; and the last two, by Emperor Go-Toba and his son Juntoku. Important place names, from Mt Fuji to the sakura spot Yoshino and autumn symbol Tatsuta (both in the wider Nara area) have also been included.

The Hyakunin Isshu has been translated many times in English, but you can do yourself a favor by forgetting all early translations, certainly those made before WWII and those in rhyme. The only truly reliable version is the one by Joshua S. Mostow, which is at the same time the best study of the Hyakunin Isshu in English, called Pictures of the Heart, The Hyakunin Isshu in Word and Image, published by the University of Hawai'i Press in 1996. The problem with early translations (which are still being reprinted, such as the one by William Porter from 1909) is that the knowledge of Japanese and Japanese poetry of the translator is often insufficient (these were pioneers, I am not criticizing them!), but above all that they try to force the poems into a rhymed version. Not only do they have to make significant changes in the meaning of the poem to make the rhyme possible, as a result the poems also read like cheap verse, not like poetry at all.

Japanese poetry does not rhyme; it has a fixed number of syllables (5-7-5-7-7 for tanka), but it is not useful (although some translators do it) to reproduce that in English, as in English we feel stresses, and not syllables. The best translation is a literal and more or less prosaic one, which tries to include everything that is included in the original without trying to recreate poetry - that last is after all impossible without significantly changing the meaning of the original. And we need annotations to explain certain words and phrases, or overtones that could not be covered in the translation - it is meaningless to translate classical Japanese poems in bare translations without giving any background or further explanation. And of course the original Japanese should be included, at least in transliteration. All this is what Mostow does.

[Torifuda]
This year at New Year I wanted to play the karuta game, but I soon noticed that is impossible without a sound knowledge of the poems - so I have decided to translate the Hyakunin Isshu on this website in the course of this year, in the hope that next year I will be able to play the uta karuta game!

By the way, that karuta game is quite interesting. The poems themselves (with an image of the poet) are printed on yomifuda (reading cards) and the last two lines (the lower phrases of each 7 syllables) on torifuda ("grabbing cards"). So there are 100 of each. There are two main ways to play the game. In both cases, the reading cards are shuffled to change the order and then read out one by one by a reader (who doesn't take part in the game itself). In the first way of playing, Chirashi-dori, the torifuda are placed on the tatami around the players, and these grab them as quickly as possible as soon as the first part of the poem is read out. Winner is who has the most cards. In the other way of playing, Genpei-gassen, two teams of each one or more players are formed. Each team has 50 torifuda neatly arranged in front of them. Again they have to grab the torifuda as soon as the first part of the relevant poem is read out. Players can also grab torifuda from the cards laying in front of the opposing team. In that case, they may replace that with a card from their own side. When a wrong card is grabbed, the opponent can also move a card from their side. Winner is the team that first cleans away all torifuda on their side. In both versions of the game players may already grab the torifuda when the first syllable of the poem is being read. As all players have the poems memorized, it is more a match of agility and speed (the torifuda are swept up with a shooting movement) than of poetic knowledge. Players also memorize which lower phrases fit to which initial syllables, and during play they memorize the positions of the torifuda.

References: Pictures of the Heart, The Hyakunin Isshu in Word and Image by Joshua S. Mostow (University of Hawai'i Press, 1996); Traditional Japanese Poetry, An Anthology, by Steven D. Carter (Stanford University Press, 1991); Hyakunin Isshu by Inoue Muneo, etc. (Shinchosha, 1990); Genshoku Hyakunin Isshu by Suzuki Hideo, etc. (Buneido, 1997); Ogura Hyakunin Isshu at Japanese Text Initiative (University of Virginia Library Etext Center); Hyakunin Isshu wo aruku by Shimaoka Shin (Kofusha Shuppan); Basho's Haiku (2 vols) by Toshiharu Oseko (Maruzen, 1990); The Ise Stories by Joshua S. Mostow and Royall Tyler (University of Hawai'i Press, 2010); Kokin Wakashu, The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry by Helen Craig McCullough (Staford University Press, 1985); Kokinshu, A Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern by Laurel Rasplica Rodd and Mary Catherine Henkenius (University of Tokyo Press, 1984); Kokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1994); Shinkokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1995); Taketori Monogatari-Ise Monogatari-Yamato Monogatari-Heichu Monogatari (Shogakkan, 1994).Hyakunin Isshu Introduction - Poem 1 - Poem 2 - Poem 3 - Poem 4 - Poem 5 - Poem 6 - Poem 7 - Poem 8 - Poem 9 - Poem 10 - Poem 11 - Poem 12 - Poem 13 - Poem 14 - Poem 15 - Poem 16 - Poem 17 - Poem 18 - Poem 19 - Poem 20 -
2 Jan
January (Ichigatsu) is the month that the new year starts in the solar or Gregorian calendar, although technically it is still winter. In fact, Daikan, the coldest part of the year, sets in this month, and the scenery presents a bleak and wintry image. People prefer to stay in their warm homes.

January is traditionally called Mutsuki, the month in which acquaintances come and go and spend a happy time together (referring to the traditional New Year visits). Another name is Taro-zuki as Taro was the name for the eldest son, or simply Hatsu-zuki, first month.

New Year (Oshogatsu) is the major annual festival in Japan, in importance comparable to Christmas in Christian countries. Originally, Shogatsu was a religious ritual in which the auspicious New Year's deity (Shogatsu-sama or Toshigami-sama) who was also the God of Grain was welcomed to the people's homes. Of course, today it is in the first place a vacation period, but there is still a religious element in the form of Hatsumode, the first shrine visit of the year. Note that, as Japan used to have a lunar calendar in the past, New Year came later in the seasonal cycle (like Chinese New Year), at a time which was still cold, but could also be considered as the first day of spring. That is why traditionally expressions as "Shinshun" ("New Spring") or "Geishun" ("Welcoming Spring") are used on New Year cards. In the Gregorian calendar, however, New Year comes near the winter solstice when the daylight hours are growing a bit longer but when the really severe cold weather is still ahead.

New Year in Japan lasts several days, one speaks of Sanganichi, the first three days of the New Year which are always a holiday, and also of Matsu no uchi, the period with the holiday decorations, which usually lasts a full week (the decorations, including the shimekazari and kadomatsu, are usually removed on the evening of January 6, but in some regions this may be on January 14). Note that while in the past all shops would be closed, nowadays many establishments remain open during sanganichi or already start on January 2. Offices, however, start in January 4.

New Year's Day (Gantan) is a national holiday. The typical greeting exchanged during shogatsu is "akemashite omedeto gozaimasu." Congratulations are offered ("omedeto") because the New Year's deity brings happiness.

People prepare for New Year by a thorough house cleaning (susuharai) and by setting up the kadomatsu (the decorations of pine tree branches and bamboo) and shimenawa (or shimekazari, a rope made of rice straw). Pine trees are considered as sacred and connected with the arrival of the gods and the shimenawa purifies the area beyond it and exorcises evil from those who pass under it. In the Edo-period, susuharai was performed on December 13.

Matsu no uchi is the time for hatsumode, the first visit of the year to a temple or shrine in one's best clothes (haregi, kimono for women and haori and hakama for men, often with the kamon or family crest on it), to pray for health and happiness in the New Year. Hatsumode starts at midnight on the eve of the New Year and there are huge crowds at famous temples during sanganichi. In olden times people visited shrines and temples located in the best direction of the year from their houses (called "eho"), but now they just visit a neighborhood shrine or a famous temple or shrine.

Just before twelve o'clock on New Year's eve, temple bells are rung in a ceremony called Joya no kane. The bells are struck 108 times to symbolically drive away the 108 "attachments" of humans (Christians would talk about "sins") and start with a clean slate.

Wakamizu is the first water drawn before dawn on New Year's day. As it is believed to possess rejuvenating power, it is often offered to the gods and Buddhas. In Kyoto, people also drink fukucha, tea prepared with the wakamizu water, and flavored with an umeboshi (pickled plum) and a slice of konbu (kelp).

The New Year's holiday is celebrated with a variety of sake called (o-)toso, which is obtained by adding powdered Chinese traditional medicinal herbs to normal sake. This started as a custom for good health and a long life among the nobility and later spread to the people. Nowadays, most Japanese drink ordinary sake instead of toso. After the toast, Ozoni and Osechi-ryori are partaken of. Ozoni is soup served with rice cakes, vegetables, fish etc. in it. There are many varieties of ozoni depending on the family or the region in Japan. In Kyoto, white miso is used as the base for the soup. Be careful when eating these glutinous rice cakes, for they can easily stick in your throat! Osechi consists of a variety of colorful, auspicious ingredients, eaten cold, and prepared in advance (or bought at a department store): black beans. dried small sardines, herring roe, rolled kelp, boiled vegetables, sweetened chestnuts and so on. These all keep well over a long time. The ingredients have been selected for their auspicious names such as mame, beans, because of the saying "mame ni ikiru," to lead a healthy life, or sweetened chestnuts because they look like gold (richness), etc.

Children are given otoshidama during the New year's holidays, an envelop with pocket money, a custom originating in giving pieces of rice cakes to members of the family and servants.

In the past people would also make a round of New Year visits, called (o-)nenshi. Nowadays, except in certain traditional professions, this has been replaced by sending New Year's cards, nengajo, with a drawing of the animal of the zodiac (eto) on it (or even more up-to-date, emails). The official postcards of Japan Post have numbers printed on them among which a lottery is held on January 15.

There are several traditional games (Shogatsu no asobi) played by children at New Year, such as flying a kite (takoage), battledore and shuttlecock (hanetsuki), Japanese backgammon (sugoroku) and spinning a top (komamawashi), but these have nowadays been replaced by electronic games... The only game one sees is karuta, small rectangular cards with poems or proverbs on them, which have to be matched up quickly after the first half has been recited. This is often played with a set featuring the hundred poems from the Hyakunin-isshu. On Jan. 3, karuta-hajime is held in the Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto, by persons wearing beautiful court costumes. By the way, there are also electronic karuta games...

Another popular pastime in the first days of New Year is a tour of the seven temples and shrines of the Seven Deities of Good Fortune, Shichi Fukujin Mode. There are many such circuits in various locations in Japan - popular in Tokyo is for example the circuit of the Sumida River. At the seven temples, people receive a stamp on a shikishi (square piece of cardboard) or on a small scroll, and sometimes they also buy clay effigies of the seven deities that have to be placed on a small clay boat (the Treasure Ship).

Kakizome refers to the first calligraphy practice in the New year, held on January 2. Kakizome contests are held and the calligraphies of children are put on display. People always write something auspicious, such as "Happy New Year" or "The First Dream." That last expression refers to hatsuyume, the first dream of the New Year which was considered especially lucky if one dreamed of Mt Fuji, a hawk or an eggplant (fertility).

There are many other "firsts of the year," such as hatsu-gama (the first tea ceremony), hatsu-ike (the first flower arrangement), hatsu-ni (the first cargo) and hatsu-akinai (the first trade).

On January 2 also the public's New Year's Greeting to the Emperor is held (Kokyo Ippan Sanga). The Emperor will appear behind glass windows at the Imperial palace and greet the public.

The first day after sanganichi, usually January 4 (unless this happens to fall in the weekend) is called Goyo-hajime, the day when government offices start their work after the New year's holiday and now referring to the first working day in general, also in private companies. The president of the company usually gives a speech to set out the plans for the new year, and women often come to work in kimono.

Nanakusa-gayu or "seven herb porridge" is a dish traditionally eaten on January 7. Small amounts of seven different herbs are added to the porridge. This custom is believed to invite good luck and longevity in the new year.

January 11 is called Kagami-biraki, "opening of the mirror", the day that the rice cakes (mochi) that were displayed during New Year as an offer to the gods, are broken into small pieces and eaten in shiruko (a sweet soup made of azuki beans) or as zoni (mochi in New Year soup). To eat them in some sort of soup is necessary as the rice cakes have become hard in the two weeks they have been on display.

While on display, the rice cakes have been sitting on a stand, a smaller cake on top of a larger one, and that again topped by a small daidai orange. The flat rice cakes resemble traditional copper mirrors, which led to the name of the custom. And as words like "breaking" have a negative meaning, the positive "opening" is used - as if opening a road to the future, as the custom of kagami-biraki is supposed to bring good fortune in the New Year.

The second Monday in January is Coming-of-Age Day, Seijin-shiki, the second public holiday in January, when all young people who turned twenty between April 2 the previous year or do so at the latest on April 1 of the current year celebrate that they are now adults and therefore allowed to smoke, drink and vote. They will also finally be punished as adults if they do anything wrong. Of course, on such a momentous day those wild youngsters have to be encouraged to become responsible members of society and therefore local governments host coming-of-age ceremonies (seijin-shiki) where politicians and educators exert themselves to pound some morals in. Considering the festive character of the day it is not surprising that the subjects of those speeches are not always in the same grave mood as their elders (as the press laments more strongly every year) and sometimes follow the letter of the law by grabbing the bottle even before the ceremony is over. After the ceremony, often a visit to a local shrine is made, and then finally everyone is allowed to party. The ceremony, however, is an old and hallowed one. In the past it was called genpuku and the transformation from youth to adult was signified by a change of dress. In those early days maturity came much faster than in our present cutesy times: for boys at 15 and girls already at 13. The boys had their forelocks cut off and the girls had to start the hateful custom of dying their teeth black. 
January 15 is Koshogatsu or "Lesser New Year's Day," going back to the old Japanese custom to start each new month on the day it was full moon. Nowadays, this day has lost most of its importance, but people may eat the remainder of the kagamimochi with rice porridge in which azuki (red beans) have been mixed (again thought effective in preventing illness). It was also called "Onna Shogatsu" or "Women's New Year," because on New Year's Day itself women are usually very busy with osechi-ryori and this was a day they could finally rest (and, ideally, the men would prepare the supper).

On January 14 or 15 the New Year decorations are burned at a nearby shrine in a ceremony called Dondonyaki. As these decorations were offerings to the gods, it is believed that exposing oneself to the flame and smoke of the fire helps prevent illness.

Japanese seasonal customs according to the months of the year:January - February - March - April - May - June - July - August - September - October - November - December
31 Dec
Here is an overview of some major posts on my three blogs, Japan Navigator (about Japanese culture), Japanese Food Dictionary (about Japanese cuisine) and Splendid Labyrinths (about some non-Japan related cultural interests).

Maiko Spring Dance (1) Miyako Odori
Looking back over the past year on my three blogs, I have in the first place been active on Japan Navigator, my blog about Japanese culture, where from March to September I have written a historical overview of Japanese film, from 1895 to 2014, in 17 installments. This was a lot of work (happily, I had already seen many of the films, having been a fan of Japanese films for the past 30 years), but it was interesting to follow the ups and downs in the film industry in detail through the years. Of course, the best years by far were the fifties through the early seventies, from classical films (Ozu, Kurosawa, Naruse, Kinoshita, etc.) to the New Wave and avant-garde (Oshima, Yoshida, Imamura, Shinoda, Masumura, etc.); a second New Wave, of the nineties (Kitano, Koreeda, Miike, Tsukamoto, etc.) unfortunately peaked before its time, and although today the quantity of Japanese films is staggering, quality is only so-so. Here is the list of all my posts from this year about the history of Japanese film:
1896-1909 - First Stirrings
1910-1919 - Development
1920-1929 - Art Films and Nihilistic Heroes
1930-1939 - Social Realism and Shoshimin-Eiga
1940-1949 - Censorship during War and Occupation
1950-1954 - Golden Age of the Classical Studio System
1955-1959 - Taiyozoku and other Youth Films
1960-1964 - The New Wave
1965-1969 - Independent Productions
1970-1974 - Sex and Violence
1975-1979 - Decline and Stagnation
1980-1989 - Disintegration of the Studio System
1990-1994 - The Rise of Indies
1995-1999 - Revival
2000-2004 - Postmodern Peak
2005-2009 - Cinematic Bubble
2010-2014 - Risk AvoidanceI have also picked up an old project, to give an overview of Japanese sake by prefecture. I have started by considerably updating my previous posts (some of them dating back to 2009), and recently added Yamanashi, Nagano and Niigata. This series will be continued in the coming year. So far, the following sake-drenched posts have appeared:

Hokkaido/Tohoku: Hokkaido - Aomori - Akita - Iwate - Miyagi - Yamagata - Fukushima
Kanto area: Ibaraki - Tochigi - Gunma - Saitama - Chiba - Tokyo - Kanagawa
Hokushinetsu: Yamanashi - Nagano - Niigata

On Splendid Labyrinths, my blog about non-Japanese culture - literature, art, classical music and film - my major activity has been to write a series about chamber music for stringed instruments, either with or without piano. In the field of classical music, I am primarily interested in chamber music, symphonic music and 18th century music, all abstract music without words which I regard as the highest achievement of Western art music. My chamber music posts have been as follows:
Best String TriosBest String Quartets, Part One (ca. 1750-1850)Best String Quartets, Part Two (ca. 1850-1900)Best String Quartets, Part Three (ca. 1900-1925)Best String Quartets, Part Four (ca. 1925-1950)Best String Quartets, Part Five (ca. 1950-2000)Best String Quintets Best Piano TriosBest Piano Trios, Part TwoBest Piano QuartetsBest Piano QuintetsPrecisely because of my lifelong focus on symphonic music and neglect of music with words (oratorio, cantata, mass, opera), I decided in early 2012 as a sort of "counterweight" to study the complete series of cantatas by Bach. At the same time, I decided to follow the Lutheran church year from New Year's Day on so that I could place the works in their ideological context. This was no different than my study of Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism or Shinto in the past, and I must say that looking from the outside in, Lutheran culture seemed sometimes stranger to me than Chinese or Japanese culture! I was planning to finish this project in one year, but it took four, also because I didn't want to spam my blog with only posts about Bach cantatas. Via a final spurt in the last few weeks, I have now finished the cantatas for the cycle of the whole church year (I have only left out some cantatas for special occasions). Here is the total cycle of cantatas of that four-year project, from New Year's Day to the Sunday after Christmas:

(1) New Year's Day (2) New Year I (3) Epiphany (4) Epiphany I (5) Epiphany II (6) Epiphany III (7) Epiphany IV (8) Feast of Purification of Mary (9) Septuagesima (10) Sexagesima (11) Quinquagesima (Estomihi) (12) The Consecration of a New Organ (13) The Inauguration of the Town Council (14) Oculi (15) Wedding Cantatas (16) Feast of Annunciation (17) Palm Sunday (18) Easter Sunday (19) Easter Monday (20) Easter Tuesday (21) Easter I (Quasimodogeniti) (22) Easter II (23) Easter III (24) Easter IV (25) Easter V (26) Ascension Day (27) Ascension I (28) Pentecost Sunday (29) Pentecost Monday (30) Pentecost Tuesday (31) Trinity Sunday (32) Trinity I (33) Trinity II (34) Trinity III (35) St. John's Day (36) Trinity IV (37) Visitation (38) Trinity V (39) Trinity VI (40) Trinity VII (41) Trinity VIII (42) Trinity IX (43) Trinity X (44) Trinity XI (45) Trinity XII (46) Trinity XIII (47) Trinity XIV (48) Trinity XV (49) Trinity XVI (50) Trinity XVII (51) Trinity XVIII (52) Trinity XIX (53) Trinity XX (54) Trinity XXI (55) Trinity XXII (56) Trinity XXIII (57) Trinity XXIV (58) Trinity XXV-XXVII (59) Advent I-IV (60) Christmas Day (61) Second Day of Christmas (62) Third Day of Christmas (63) Sunday after Christmas.

And finally, on Japanese Food Dictionary my posts have been fewer, but at the end of the year I have written a small series about the major flavorings of the Japanese cuisine:

The concept of umami which is central to the Japanese kitchen;
based on that idea, dashi, the basic stock which gives Japanese cuisine its "Japanese character;"
konbu (kelp) and katsuobushi (dried, smoked and fermented bonito flakes), the two main ingredients of dashi;
and miso and soy sauce, the other basic flavorings of the Japanese kitchen which are also based on umami.
15 Dec
Niigata Prefecture is one of the most well-known sake prefectures in Japan, front runner of the jizake boom of the 1980s and famous for its "tanrei karakuchi" sake, or light, dry and crisp style. For a long time this style was the height of fashion and it remains popular, as it seems to fit "contemporary city drinkers." As regards the number of breweries, Niigata is the second highest in Japan (after Hyogo), with 92 breweries (2015). It total output is the third largest (after Hyogo and Kyoto).

The natural environment is of course very favorable: cold winters, clean and crisp air, plentiful natural water and in summer relatively many hours of sun which is good for the rice harvest. But most of all it is the snow that makes the sake here: as snow clouds rolling in over the Japan Sea from the Asian continent shed their heavy load in the wide plains of Niigata, the prefecture has seven locations in the top ten of "highest snowfall" in Japan - and we are talking about real snow here, between 11 and 17 meters on an average annual basis! What does the snow do for sake brewing? It not only provides a good cold climate, but also a very stable cold atmosphere, with little ups and downs. This is excellent for long-duration, low-temperature fermentation, which in turn leads to clean, smooth and graceful sake.

Niigata is also one of the country's most important rice producing areas - its food rice Koshihikari is very popular among Japanese consumers. But Niigata has also captured high praise in the field of sake rice, with varieties as Gohyakumangoku and Koshitanrei. Gohyakumangoku was developed in 1957 at the Niigata Agricultural Research Institute (the name refers to a bumper crop of five million koku) and is now is the most popular sake rice in the country, grown in many areas in Hokuriku and Northern Japan. Koshitanrei is a hybrid between Gohyakumangoku and Yamada Nishiki and is used for ginjo sakes.

The sake rice in Niigata is polished to the average ratio of 59%, which is better than the national average. One of the secrets of Niigata's popularity is this advanced polishing ratio, which leads to a more elegant taste, even when the sake is not of the ginjo type.

The brew masters guild of Niigata is called Echigo Toji, and is the second largest in Japan, after the Nanbu Toji. They work primarily in their home prefecture, but traditionally one also finds a scattering of them in Nagano and the Kanto. There are about 250 Echigo toji. They are masters in the karakuchi style.

Niigata also operates the Niigata Prefectural Sake Research Institute, the only independent sake R&D organization in Japan. The institute was set up in 1930 and has greatly contributed to the technical development of Niigata sake. In addition, in 1984 the Niigata Sake Brewers association has set up the Niigata Sake Academy, with the aim of training technical personnel for breweries during a three year course. The Niigata Sake Brewers Association also organizes an annual sake festival, the "Sake no Jin." It is held once a year in the Niigata Convention Center.

But you don't have to wait for that event, for all Niigata sake breweries can be sampled in the Sake Museum Ponshukan inside Echigo Yuzawa Station (small fee). You can even take a sake bath there!

Finally, Niigata boasts a museum set up to the memory of Dr. Sakaguchi Kinichiro (1897-1994), Japan's most famous scholar (at Tokyo University) in the field of fermentation and applied microbiology and the author of many books on sake. The museum, called "Sakaguchi Memorial Museum," stands in the city of Joetsu, where Mr Sakaguchi was born.

As already indicated above, Niigata sake is clean and smooth, without off-tastes, and it is also elegant thanks to the advanced polishing ratio and the soft water. Sake breweries from Niigata market the whole of the prefecture abroad as one brand, as dry and clean sake, comparing themselves to the Bordeaux region in France. This has the advantage that smaller breweries, which perhaps don't have such a strong brand, can ride along with the group.

Some of the major breweries are:
Hakkaisan (Hakkaisan Brewery Co., Ltd., Minami-Uonuma). Est. 1922. "Mt Hakkai," one of the three great mountains in Niigata. The watershed of Mt Hakkai provides excellent water free from impurities, resulting in very smooth sake. Lifted the level of polishing of the rice and established a low temperature storage environment for storing all their products. Has brought regular sake to a higher level. Honjozo and Junmai Ginjo also popular abroad. A favorite in izakaya as standard bearer of the "tanrei karakuchi" style. English website.Ichishima (Ishichima Sake Brewery Inc., Shibata). Est. 1790. The Ichishimas were a large-scale landholding, banking and trading clan from Shibata, besides sake brewers. Innovative sakes, such as "Karen" brand of low-alcohol sake in pastel colored, small-sized bottles. Brewery museum with display about the Ichishima family. Close to JR Shibata St. English website. Kakurei (Aoki Shuzo Co., Ltd., Minami-Uonuma). Est. 1717. One of the snowiest spots in Niigata. Concentrates on making full-flavored sake, different from the usual "light and dry" Niigata style. English website.Kikusui (Kikusui Sake Co., Ltd., Shibata). Est. 1881. "Water of the Chrysanthemum," the name of a Noh song about an old man who enjoyed perpetual youth. One of the three top producers in Niigata. Makes light sake in the representative Niigata fashion. Was a pioneer in the marketing of unpasteurized and undiluted sake ("Funaguchi," in the well-known gold-colored aluminium cans). Also makes an organic junmai ginjo. English website.Kiyoizumi (Kusumi Shuzo Co., Ltd, Nagaoka). "Clear Spring." Est. 1833. In 1981, the president of this company rediscovered the dormant Kame no O sake rice strain - a romantic story that became the basis for the manga series (and anime) Natsuko no Sake by Oze Akira. Through energetic cooperation with local rice farmers, Kame no O sake rice was revived. Makes delicate sake. Koshi no Kanbai (Ishimoto Shuzo Co., Ltd., Niigata City). Est. 1907. Forerunner in the popularization of jizake in the 1980s. Typical "Tanrei Karakuchi," "light and dry" style, which fifty years ago was seen as revolutionary and which drove the popularity of sake from Niigata. Remains a favorite also today.Kubota (Asahi Shuzo Sake Brewing Co., Ltd., Nagaoka). Est. 1830. Other brand names: Asahiyama, Esshu, Etsu no Kagiroi. The brand Kubota became famous for its flagship light and aromatic Manju sake (a junmai daiginjo) in the 1990s. This is part of a series that also contains Senju (tokubetsu honjozo), Suiju (unpasteurized daiginjo), Hekiju (junmai daiginjo made with the Yamahai method), etc. Kubota is a very clean and dry sake that has hardly any tail. Mine no Hakubai (Mine no Hakubai Co., Ltd., Niigata City). "White Plum on the Summit." Est. 1639. Located in a region where in winter cold mountain winds blow. Uses underground water from Mt Kakuda. Clean and dry Niigata sake. Average polishing ratio 59%. Shimeharitsuru (Miyao Sake Brewery Co., Ltd., Murakami). Est. 1819. Umami-rich sake with a clean finish. One of the first breweries to turn to junmai brewing in the 1960s. Uses Gohyakumangoku sake rice.Shirataki Jozen Mizunogotoshi (Shirataki Sake Brewery Co., Ltd., Minami-Uonuma). Est. 1855. Based in Echigo Yuzawa, an area known for its heavy snowfall (and famous through Kawabata's novel Snow Country). Ultra-light style, as the subtitle indicates: "Mizu no Gotoshi," "like water." Also has other brands, as Minatoya Tosuke and Uonuma. No brewery tours but tasting possible. English website.Taiyo (Taiyo Sake Brewery Co., Ltd.). Originates in the merger in 1945 of 14 local breweries in castle town Murakami in northern Niigata. The oldest of these breweries has been in operation since 1635. The Taiyo Sake Brewery was one of the pioneers in ginjo sake, introducing Daiginjo Taiyozakari in 1972. The brewery has won many awards, and was named the best sake in Niigata at the Kanto Shinetsu Taxation Bureau Sake Show in 2007. Murakami is known for its processed salmon with which Taiyo's sake forms a good match. Yoshinogawa (Yoshinogawa Co., Ltd., Nagaoka). Est. 1548, the oldest brewery in Niigata. Uses water from a historic well and rice from local fields, resulting in a true regional sake. Has a subsidiary company that makes yeast; all yeast is thus proprietary. Light sake in typical Niigata style. Sake brewery museum Hisagotei. Brewery tour possible if reserved in advance; also shop and tasting. 12 min by taxi from JR Nagaoka St. English website.Niigata Sake Brewers Association
When planning a brewery visit, check in advance whether the brewery accepts visitors and whether it is open on the day and time you plan to go, especially if a long trip is necessary to get there (see the brewery's website for tel. no or mail address). Note that brewery tours, if available, always have to be booked in advance. Many breweries, however, do not allow visitors in their production area, or only in certain seasons / for certain sizes of groups. In contrast, if a sake museum or brewery shop is present, this is usually open without reservation. Sake by Region:
Hokkaido/Tohoku: Hokkaido - Aomori - Akita - Iwate - Miyagi - Yamagata - Fukushima
Kanto area: Ibaraki - Tochigi - Gunma - Saitama - Chiba - Tokyo - Kanagawa
Hokushinetsu: Yamanashi - Nagano - Niigata - Toyama - Ichikawa - Fukui
Tokai area: Shizuoka - Aichi - Gifu - Mie
Kansai area: Shiga - Kyoto - Osaka - Hyogo - Nara - Wakayama
Chugoku area: Tottori - Shimane - Okayama - Hiroshima - Yamaguchi
Shikoku: Tokushima - Kagawa - Ehime - Kochi
Kyushu/Okinawa: Fukuoka - Saga - Nagasaki - Kumamoto - Oita - Miyazaki / Kagoshima / OkinawaReference materials: Kikisakeshi Koshukai Tekisuto by Sake Service Institute (Tokyo, 2009); Nihonshu no kyokasho by Kimura Katsumi (Shinsei Shuppansha: Tokyo, 2010); Nihonshu no Tekisuto (2): Sanchi no Tokucho to Tsukuritetachi by Matsuzaki Haruo (Doyukan, 2005); The Book of Sake by Philip Harper (Kodansha International: Tokyo, New York, London, 2006); The Sake Companion by John Gauntner (Running Press: Philadelphia & London, 2000); The Sake Selection by Akiko Tomoda (Gap Japan: Tokyo, 2009).The blog author Ad Blankestijn works for the Daishichi Sake Brewery and is an accredited sake sommelier and sake instructor. He also hosts independent sake seminars to propagate knowledge about his favorite drink. The above text reflects his personal opinion.
21 Nov
In 1949, the Dutch Sinologue and diplomat Robert van Gulik translated an 18th century, anonymous Chinese crime novel under the title Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee. He found the original novel in a second-hand bookshop in Tokyo and hoped it would teach Japanese and Chinese authors of detective fiction something about their own rich tradition. When nobody took notice, Van Gulik started to write such detective novels himself, basing his character on the Judge Dee of the novel he had translated. (What Van Gulik perhaps didn't know was that there in fact already existed such a "homegrown" historical detective in modern Japanese fiction. Okamoto Kido had between 1917 and 1937 written a long series of stories featuring Japan's first detective, a trusted old Edo-period sleuth called Hanshichi, who because of the historical setting is comparable to Judge Dee. See my post about Hanshichi.)

Judge Dee (Di Renjie) was a real-life magistrate and statesman of the Tang court, who lived from 630 to 700. He was not a detective (detectives are a modern invention!), but the magistrate of a district, the smallest unit in the Chinese local bureaucracy, which forced him to execute many different duties in own person: head of the administration, head of police, and judge, to name a few (as you see, our modern "separation of powers" didn't exist in ancient China).

Between 1950 and 1968 Van Gulik would write 16 Judge Dee novels. Van Gulik wrote in English, but had the first novel (The Chinese Maze Murders) translated in Japanese by a Japanese friend, and made himself a Chinese translation. The Japanese translation is still available in Japanese bookstores, but as it proved difficult to inspire local detective authors to write about their country's historical heroes, Van Gulik finally resigned himself to writing for an international public in English. That was a good idea. Soon catching on in popularity, the novels were translated into many languages, including Van Gulik's native Dutch (partly by himself).

The first Judge Dee novel I read (a long time ago) was The Chinese Bell Murders, the second one Van Gulik wrote. I was immediately hooked and in high tempo read all the Judge Dee novels the local library had available. After that, I started collecting the missing volumes from second hand bookstores, both in Dutch and in English (at that time, they were out of print in the Netherlands; happily, later new editions appeared).

I was then still in high school, and had already made my decision to study Chinese and Japanese at university. The Judge Dee novels very much strengthened me in that resolve. Reading the novels almost felt as if living in a traditional Chinese city, visiting the market and the temples, the red light district and the Confucius Hall. The books have an original and authentic atmosphere, as nobody knew China better than Van Gulik, who lived there for long periods, was fluent in the language and also wrote many scholarly studies about Chinese culture. In the staunch Confucian Judge Dee, Van Gulik also tried to make us see what the values of educated people in traditional China were, and how their mind worked. We also get fascinating insights into China's material culture, law and punishment, and in human nature in general.

Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee was not translated in full by Van Gulik. He only took the first part, in which Judge Dee solves three cases when he was a local magistrate. And indeed, as a crime novel, that part can stand on its own. In reality, the Chinese original was not a crime novel at all, but a record describing the life of Judge Dee on two levels, first as a loyal servant of the Throne in the provinces, and in the untranslated second part at a high position in the capital, at Court, as a solver of various palace intrigues.

The original Judge Dee novel had one aspect Van Gulik borrowed in most of his own stories: the fact that Judge Dee has to solve several different crimes at the same time, usually three, which Van Gulik considered as more true to life than the single story line in the Western crime novel. But not all aspects of Chinese crime stories were fit for borrowing. Van Gulik rightly skipped such things as that the suspect is known from the start (the emphasis for the Chinese was on crime and retribution, not on suspense and detection) and that the truth is often revealed by supernatural means.

Van Gulik did copy the descriptions of the cruelty of the Chinese police apparatus, where suspects were exposed to severe torture to make them confess (and everyone who entered the magistrate's court was already more or less considered as guilty), although Judge Dee often showed his compassionate side. Van Gulik also included the in China mandatory description of the execution in his own novels (at least in the first five or so). This is also a grisly part (cutting criminals slowly in pieces and things like that), but was necessary in the Chinese context as the stories were after all meant as moralistic admonitions. Happily, there is nothing moralistic about Van Gulik's Judge Dee novels, which are only good fun...

If you have not read Judge Dee yet, I can warmly recommend these novels (both the ones Van Gulik wrote himself and the translation of Celebrated Cases). But be warned, they can be addictive...
Robert van Gulik, Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee (Dover Publications)

Wikipedia article with all titles of the Judge Dee novels.
13 Nov
Nagano Prefecture is landlocked and mountainous - nine of the twelve highest mountains of Japan can be found here. On the south side of the prefecture lie the Southern Alps, and on the north side the Northern Alps. One-fifth of Nagano consists of national parks. The prefecture is a popular destination for mountain climbers and skiers.

The capital Nagano is known for its famous pilgrimage temple, Zenkoji. In Suwa stands one of the oldest shrines of Japan, Suwa Taisha, with its boisterous Onbashira festival, and Matsumoto boasts one of the few original castles of the country.

The prefecture has many electric and optical industries. Agricultural products consist of fruits and vegetables and - beside sake - also miso and wine.

There are 81 sake breweries in Nagano Prefecture (2015), quite a high number. They vary in size from large to small and are mainly distributed in the Saku, Nagano, Suwa and Matsumoto areas. Due to the natural environment, the local market is rather fragmented.

Although small in number (about 50 persons in total), Nagano has its own brewers guilds: the Suwa, Otari and Iiyama toji.

The prefecture has developed its own sake rice called Miyama Nishiki. On the market since 1978, this has become the third popular sake rice in Japan, after Yamada Nishiki and Gohyakumangoku. It is suitable for mountainous areas.

The prefecture has also developed its own yeast for fragrant ginjo sake, called "Alps Yeast."

Usually, sake from Nagano has a full taste, with a plump sweetness to match the relatively salty local food. But recent ginjo sake from the prefecture has a lighter and dryer taste. All the same, sake from Nagano forms a great contrast to that from the neighboring prefecture, Niigata.

Some major breweries:
Chikumanishiki (Chikumanishiki Co., Ltd., Saku). "Brocade of Chikuma (name of the largest river in Nagano Prefecture)." Est. 1681. Uses four wells fed by subsoil water of the Chikuma River, soft with no iron content. Their Kizan sake (all junmai, since 1997) is full-bodied with a high acidity, even for the ginjo types. Uses Miyama Nishiki sake rice. Also makes a low alcohol (7%-8%) sake called Riz Vin 7. Brewery tours upon advance reservation. 15 min walk from Asama-guchi exit of Sakudaira St. on the Hokuriku Shinkansen. Hokko (Kadoguchi Sake Brewery, Iiyama). "Northern Light." Est. 1869, in the cold northern part of the prefecture where the Iiyama Toji hail from. Makes a dry Junmai sake and a sturdy genshu, to give two examples. English website.Kikuhide (Kitsukura Shuzo, Saku). Est. 1675. Uses Alps yeast to produce highly fruity sake, which also has a rich flavor. Uses the local rice for its Junmai products and strives to bring out the umami of the rice. Also makes shochu under the brand name Mine, with Nagano grown buckwheat. Brewery tours possible upon advance reservation. Operates antenna shop for tasting etc. next to the brewery.Kikusui (Kikusui Shuzo Co., Ltd., Iida). "Joy-Long-Water." One of the largest producers in Nagano, set up in 1946 through the mergers of 37 (!) smaller breweries. Uses famous water called "Sarugura no Izumi, "Spring of the Monkey Warehouse." Uses Alps Yeast to make smart ginjo sake. Large line-up, including a seven-year old Daiginjo Koshu. Also makes shochu and cider.  Operates showroom Suishokan (closed June-Sept.) where tasting is possible.Masuichi (Masuichi-Ichimura Sake Brewery, Obuse). "Square One." Set up in 1755 by the Ichimura family, owners of the confectionery shop Obusedo. Iiyama toji. Brewery features a "teppa" counter where sake is sold by the measure (now for tasting). Also store and restaurant. Obuse is a magical town with several interesting museums. The company has revived the Edo-period custom of "Oke-brewing" in wooden vats, which leads to sake with a deeper and more complex taste. English website. Masumi (Miyasaka Brewing Co., Ltd., Suwa). "Truth." Est. 1662. The company that developed the popular Association Yeast No. 7 ("Nanago") in 1946, at that time led by master brewer Kubota Chisato. One of the largest breweries in Nagano. Brews graceful sake and uses special sake rice even for regular sake. Its Daiginjo is called Sanka, "Mountain Flower." Active in exports. Extensive English and French website. Has opened a shop, Cella Masumi, next door to the brewery. Operates two breweries, the traditional one in Suwa, and a new facility at the foot of Mt Yatsugatake (Fushimi kura). Nanawarai (Nanawarai Shuzo, Kiso-Fukushima). "Seven Laughs." Est. 1892. Makes deep tasting sake, fit for its mountain location in the Kiso-Komagatake Highland, with much umami. Also well-known for its ginjo sakes (made with Alps Yeast), which are neither dry nor sweet and which have a pleasing acidity. Became well-known during the early Jizake boom.Reijin (Reijin Shuzo, Suwa). "Beauty." Est. 1789. Offers a wide and unique range of koshu. Rather dry taste for Nagano sake. Daiginjo is called Nozomi, "Hope," made with Alps Yeast. Started selling daiginjo at early date of 1976. Pioneer also in junmai, which it started brewing in 1957. Individualistic brewery.Shinanonishiki (Miyajima Brewery Co., Ina). "Brocade of Shinano (old name for Nagano Pref.)." Est 1911. Specializes in junmai sake and other premium products, pays special attention to the rice, much of which is organic (65%). All Miyama Nishiki variety. Soft subterranean water leads to mellow sake. Shuho Kikuzakari (Shinshu Meijo, Ueda). "Eminent Peak." Set up in late Edo period, after WWII joined with three more breweries to form new company. Makes excellent ginjo sake. Has interesting junmai made with extremely soft water called Kokuyo, "Obsidian." Employs toji from the small Otari guild.Nagano Sake Brewers AssociationWhen planning a brewery visit, check in advance whether the brewery accepts visitors and whether it is open on the day and time you plan to go, especially if a long trip is necessary to get there (see the brewery's website for tel. no or mail address). Note that brewery tours, if available, always have to be booked in advance. Many breweries, however, do not allow visitors in their production area, or only in certain seasons / for certain sizes of groups. In contrast, if a sake museum or brewery shop is present, this is usually open without reservation. Sake by Region:
Hokkaido/Tohoku: Hokkaido - Aomori - Akita - Iwate - Miyagi - Yamagata - Fukushima
Kanto area: Ibaraki - Tochigi - Gunma - Saitama - Chiba - Tokyo - Kanagawa
Hokushinetsu: Yamanashi - Nagano - Niigata - Toyama - Ichikawa - Fukui
Tokai area: Shizuoka - Aichi - Gifu - Mie
Kansai area: Shiga - Kyoto - Osaka - Hyogo - Nara - Wakayama
Chugoku area: Tottori - Shimane - Okayama - Hiroshima - Yamaguchi
Shikoku: Tokushima - Kagawa - Ehime - Kochi
Kyushu/Okinawa: Fukuoka - Saga - Nagasaki - Kumamoto - Oita - Miyazaki / Kagoshima / OkinawaReference materials: Kikisakeshi Koshukai Tekisuto by Sake Service Institute (Tokyo, 2009); Nihonshu no kyokasho by Kimura Katsumi (Shinsei Shuppansha: Tokyo, 2010); Nihonshu no Tekisuto (2): Sanchi no Tokucho to Tsukuritetachi by Matsuzaki Haruo (Doyukan, 2005); The Book of Sake by Philip Harper (Kodansha International: Tokyo, New York, London, 2006); The Sake Companion by John Gauntner (Running Press: Philadelphia & London, 2000); The Sake Selection by Akiko Tomoda (Gap Japan: Tokyo, 2009).The blog author Ad Blankestijn works for the Daishichi Sake Brewery and is an accredited sake sommelier and sake instructor. He also hosts independent sake seminars to propagate knowledge about his favorite drink. The above text reflects his personal opinion.
24 Sep
Although Yamanashi Prefecture has the image of being Japan's wine country, with its fresh water and cold winter climate, conditions for sake brewing are in fact also optimal.

It has much free nature too - with Mt. Fuji straddling the border with Shizuoka Prefecture. Almost one-third of all land in Yamanashi consists of national parks. Besides grapes, the prefecture is also a producer of other fruits and its water quality is more than excellent - 40% of all bottled mineral water sold in Japan comes from Yamanashi and not for nothing Suntory operates its Hakushu whiskey distillery in the prefecture.

On the other hand, conditions for rice growing are not very good in this mountainous prefecture. Not surprisingly, there is no Yamanashi sake rice, although some sake rice from neighboring Nagano, Miyama Nishiki, is grown here.

There are 15 sake breweries in Yamanashi (2015). They lie along the Kamanashi and Fuefuki Rivers, and their confluence, the Fuji River. Toji are from Echigo, but also from neighboring Nagano (Suwa toji).

Sake from Yamanashi is soft and medium dry - one would expect a much sweeter taste from a landlocked prefecture, but that is not the case, perhaps because the water is medium-hard, too.

Some of the main breweries are (in alphabetical order):
Shichiken (Yamanashi Meijo Co., Ltd., Hokuto). "Seven Sages" (goes back to a Chinese group of sages of the 3rd c. who met in a bamboo grove to drink wine). At the eastern foot of the Southern Japanese Alps. Area famous for its water. Contracts with local farmers for growing Miyama Nishiki sake rice. Charming buildings (once a retreat for the Meiji Emperor) with tasting area and restaurant. 15 min by taxi from Nagasaka on the Chuo Main Line. English website.Shunnoten (Yorozuya Jozoten, Fujikawa). Est. 1790. The name "The Warbling of the Nightingale in Spring" goes back to a poem by Yosano Akiko, and is also the name of an ancient piece of Gagaku court music. Specializes in junmai sake, rice locally cultivated by contract farmers. Tasting area and gallery attached to brewery.Yamanashi Sake Breweries AssociationWhen planning a brewery visit, check in advance whether the brewery accepts visitors and whether it is open on the day and time you plan to go, especially if a long trip is necessary to get there (see the brewery's website for tel. no or mail address). Note that brewery tours, if available, always have to be booked in advance. Many breweries, however, do not allow visitors in their production area, or only in certain seasons / for certain sizes of groups. In contrast, if a sake museum or brewery shop is present, this is usually open without reservation. Sake by Region:
Hokkaido/Tohoku: Hokkaido - Aomori - Akita - Iwate - Miyagi - Yamagata - Fukushima
Kanto area: Ibaraki - Tochigi - Gunma - Saitama - Chiba - Tokyo - Kanagawa
Hokushinetsu: Yamanashi - Nagano - Niigata - Toyama - Ichikawa - Fukui
Tokai area: Shizuoka - Aichi - Gifu - Mie
Kansai area: Shiga - Kyoto - Osaka - Hyogo - Nara - Wakayama
Chugoku area: Tottori - Shimane - Okayama - Hiroshima - Yamaguchi
Shikoku: Tokushima - Kagawa - Ehime - Kochi
Kyushu/Okinawa: Fukuoka - Saga - Nagasaki - Kumamoto - Oita - Miyazaki / Kagoshima / OkinawaReference materials: Kikisakeshi Koshukai Tekisuto by Sake Service Institute (Tokyo, 2009); Nihonshu no kyokasho by Kimura Katsumi (Shinsei Shuppansha: Tokyo, 2010); Nihonshu no Tekisuto (2): Sanchi no Tokucho to Tsukuritetachi by Matsuzaki Haruo (Doyukan, 2005); The Book of Sake by Philip Harper (Kodansha International: Tokyo, New York, London, 2006); The Sake Companion by John Gauntner (Running Press: Philadelphia & London, 2000); The Sake Selection by Akiko Tomoda (Gap Japan: Tokyo, 2009).The blog author Ad Blankestijn works for the Daishichi Sake Brewery and is an accredited sake sommelier and sake instructor. He also hosts independent sake seminars to propagate knowledge about his favorite drink. The above text reflects his personal opinion.
17 Sep
In 1868, at the beginning of the Meiji period, a complete transformation of Japanese society started, but that was not immediately true for literature, which continued very much in the old vein for almost two decades. We therefore begin our survey in the Annus Mirabilis of 1885 when finally the clarion call was sounded for a new literature.

1885
Shosetsu Shinzui (The Essence of the Novel) by Tsubouchi Shoyo. A call upon writers to introduce elements of Western psychological realism. Until this time, Japanese literature of the Meiji period had consisted of a continuation of the humorous but frivolous gesaku fiction of the Edo period, of foreign novels in free adaptations and of political novels which were more a vehicle for propagating political ideals than literature (these political novels would remain popular through the late 1880s, until they disappeared naturally after having reached their purpose: the adoption of a constitution and establishment of a parliament in 1890). Shoyo advocated the autonomous value of the novel as a serious form of art, which should represent "the invisible and mysterious mechanism of human life." He emphasized the mimetic depiction of human feelings in contemporary society, portraying subtle, human feelings in ordinary, contemporary characters. The novel should not be a slave to didacticism, but art was important as an end in itself. Shoyo was the first to use the term "shosetsu" as a generic term for prose fiction - the Western novel stood for him at the apex as the "true shosetsu." This new novel should be written in a suitable, new style (in Shoyo's view, this was to be a modern style somewhere between the classical and colloquial style). Shoyo's essay can be understood as part of the larger drive in the 1880s to promote the rapid development and Westernization of Japan as a modern nation state. In Shoyo's view, the creation of a new literature worthy of the enlightened age was an important endeavor - a different assessment of the status of fiction writers than in the Edo-period when they had belonged to the demi-monde, or in early Meiji when they were journalists of sensational tabloids. Shoyo wrote his treatise with only superficial knowledge of Western literature, but it was not meant as a scholarly essay but rather as a "call to arms." His youthful enthusiasm managed to inspire a whole generation of writers, from Futabatei Shimei to Ozaki Koyo and Koda Rohan, however diverse these were in their literary attitudes. Koda Rohan, for example, said that nothing had ever given him such a jolt as The Essence of the Novel - "like tossing a rock into a quiet pond."
(Study: Origins of Modern Japanese Literature by Karatani Kojin, Duke University Press, 1993)


As a critic, playwright, translator and novelist, Tsubouchi Shoyo (1859-1935) ranks at the forefront of modern Japanese literary history. Born in Gifu, he graduated in English from Tokyo University in 1883 and became a professor at Waseda University (where the Tsubouchi Memorial Theater Museum is dedicated to him). Besides being a critic, Tsubouchi was also active as a modernizer of the theater (Shingeki). He is famous for his complete translation of Shakespeare, which he completed in 1928. Shoyo's own attempts to put his ideas about the novel into practice were less successful. That lines were never drawn very sharply is shown by Shoyo's own love of late Edo gesaku fiction, which influenced his 1885 novel The Characters of Modern Students, a work lacking in realism. His best and most modern work of fiction is the short story Saikun (The Wife, 1889), a description of an unhappy household seen through the eyes of the maid.

The Genbun itchi movement (unification of writing and speech) can also be dated to this year, as the term was popularized in 1885 by Kanda Kohei, a scholar of Western (Dutch) learning (it had in fact been first used by Maejima Hisoka, who in 1866 had pleaded for the abolishment of Chinese characters). There was a large disjunction in Japan between the spoken (kogo) and written languages (bungo). There were at least half a dozen distinctive literary styles, some based on Sino-Japanese, others on classical Japanese. Genbun itchi involved the invention of a new concept of writing as equivalent with speech. It was an effort at modernization similar to the Meiji constitution, but it would take until the beginning of the 20th century until a new style was found. There was opposition against it, for example by Koda Rohan, who claimed that speech changed too fast to be a model for writing, and in fact, except for Ukigumo of 1886, most modern literature in the 1880s and 1890s was written in some sort of neo-classical style. All writers, however, experimented with style, also for example a conservative writer as Ozaki Koyo, who popularized the use of "de aru" for the verb "to be." The switch was finally helped by the fact that from 1903 on all school textbooks were written in the genbun itchi style; and five years later - paralleling the rise of Japanese Naturalism - all novels, too, would be written in the genbun itchi style.
(Study: Karatani Kojin, Origins of Modern Japanese Literature; Tomi Suzuki, Narrating the Self, Stanford, 1996)

The first modern literary society, Kenyusha (Friends of the Ink Stone) is set up by the young Ozaki Koyo and others, all linked to Tokyo University (functions until 1903 when Ozaki dies). As a modern literary movement, the Kenyusha was the most important one that was active in the 1990s. Ozaki Koyo himself was a master storyteller who would become one of the most popular novelists of the late 19th c. Although he was inspired by Tsubouchi Shoyo's influential essay (especially its anti-didacticism and its serious approach to fiction), he based his flowery neo-classicist style on that of Edo period writer Ihara Saikaku who was rediscovered in this period, and limited his subject matter mostly to sentimental love stories with highly implausible plots and two-dimensional characters. He used the vernacular for dialogues, but resisted the genbun itchi style. He had a preference for traditional Japan and disliked the mania for European culture of his contemporaries. Ozaki Koyo entertained master-disciple relations with members of his group, which meant he taught them, helped them to get published (often initially under his own name) and generally sponsored their career. This type of master-disciple relation was normal in the Meiji-period (see below for the example of Higuchi Ichiyo). Kenyusha published various periodicals in the years of its existence, to which also non-Kenyusha members as Koda Rohan contributed. The many members of the group (including disciples of disciples) included Hirotsu Ryuro, Izumi Kyoka, Tayama Katai and Nagai Kafu.


Ozaki Koyo (1868-1903) was born in Tokyo. He dropped out of Tokyo University and became a novelist at an early age - his first success was with Ninin bikuni irozange (Love Confessions of Two Nuns) of 1889. The same year he joined the Yomiuri Shinbun newspaper as literary editor; all his subsequent novels were serialized in this large national newspaper. 

1886
Ukigumo (Drifting Clouds) by Futabatei ShimeiUkigumo has been called "the first modern Japanese novel" on the basis of its style and psychological realism, introducing a new spirit into Japanese literature. Futabatei believed that a novelist had the duty to uncover the truths unique to his time. In his case, this meant writing a realistic novel about the society he saw collapsing around him in materialism and lack of morals. This is also reflected in the title: Futabatei saw the Japanese of his time as "drifting clouds," buffeted by new technology and new ideas from the West, which had cut them loose from the moorings of their own civilization. To him, Japanese society in the 1880s had lost its moral center. This is demonstrated through the story of Bunzo, a serious and introspective young man from the provinces, who stands outside the mainstream of modern life but rigidly adheres to traditional values of honesty, sincerity and restraint as a sort of a "superfluous man" of the Meiji period. His unwillingness to compromise and toady to his superiors costs him his government job, which is perceived in a bad light by his aunt, with whom he lodges, and his aunt's daughter Osei (the first Westernesque femme fatale), with whom he is in love. Osei falls under the spell of the shrewd and aggressive Noboru (lit. "Rising"), Bunzo's friend, who is a glib talker on a fast track to advancement in the bureaucracy (he represents the spirit of Meiji). With his half-baked enthusiasm for democracy and admiration for the West, he is portrayed as a model of vulgar success. But Noboru has his sights set higher than Osei... The characters have a life of their own and are developed naturally. Futabatei's primary model and inspiration was Russian realism (especially Turgenev), of which he had made an extensive study. Except in the first chapters where he was still trying to find his way, Futabatei uses the vernacular, undoubtedly helped by his experience as a translator of Russian fiction. Futabatei's landmark novel was enthusiastically praised by his contemporaries for its innovative subject matter and style, and later re-discovered by the Japanese Naturalists.We should however note that it remained an exception, and had no direct influence on the writers of the mid-eighties and nineties, who, instead of trying to write a Russian-type novel, were more interested in a dialogue with the Japanese tradition.
(Translation: excerpts in The Columbia Anthology I; full translation by Marleigh Grayer Ryan, Japan's First Modern Novel: Ukigumo of Futabatei Shimei, New York: Columbia University Press, 1965; Study: Indra E. Levy, Sirens of the Western Shore: The Westernesque Femme Fatale, Translation, and Vernacular Style in Modern Japanese Literature, Columbia Un. Press, 2010).


Futabatei Shimei (1864-1909) was born in Tokyo and studied Russian at the Tokyo Gaigo Gakko foreign language school. He became known as a distinguished translator of Russian literature, especially his Turgenev translations were excellent - his translations of Sketches of a Sportsman would help the development of nature writing in Japan and greatly influenced Kunikida Doppo, Shimazaki Toson and Tayama Katai. Futabatei was a social critic who was constantly dissatisfied with his own work, and steadfastly refused to write for money. He saw literature as a sacred linguistic art for revealing the truth. As Ukigumo was written in a sort of vacuum - no one else was trying to do the same, the book was far in advance of its time - Futabatei fell silent for twenty years. After Ukigumo, Futabatei wrote only two more novels (at the time of the rediscovery of Ukigumo by the Japanese Naturalists), Sono omokage (In His Image aka An Adopted Husband) in 1906, and Heibon (Mediocrity) in 1907, but these were less successful. Shimei initially was a disciple of Tsubouchi Shoyo and Ukigumo was therefore first published under the name of his master.
(Study: Hiroko Cockerell, Style and Narrative in Translations: The Contribution of Futabatei Shimei, Routledge, 2014)

1889
Koda Rohan writes Furyu Butsu (Love Bodhisattva aka The Icon of Liberty), a story of a Buddhist sculptor who seeks artistic perfection so that "Westerners with alabaster noses like statues" will not look in contempt at his country. He has rescued a young woman, Otatsu, from her uncle who wants to sell her into prostitution; later when he falls ill, Otatsu nurses him back to health and they fall in love. After she is called away by her father, he sculpts a statue of the Bodhisattva Kannon in her image. The statue is first normally sculptured with a dress, but the sculptor removes layer upon layer until it becomes a nude statue of the Bodhisattva. In a rage when he hears Otatsu is to marry a certain nobleman, he almost destroys the statue, but then it miraculously comes to life and Otatsu herself stands beside him, like in the Pygmalion legend... so perfect was his art. They then ascend to heaven as husband and wife. The story with its lofty theme (and a new view of love) had an immense impact, despite its lack of realism. It was written in an obscure neo-classical style. Rohan tried to reinvent the Japanese language and its literature for a new era without throwing away its Sino-Japanese heritage (he called the genbun itchi style "Russian style grammar," as the style became first and for all famous through Futabatei Shimei's translations from the Russian).
(Translation in The Columbia Anthology I)

Koda Rohan (1867-1947) was born in Tokyo and educated in the Japanese and Chinese classics. After graduation from a technical school, he turned to literature. Rohan was a Renaissance man, a towering figure who combined immense learning with strong principles - he has been called the last kunshi, Confucian scholar-gentleman. He captured the constructive idealism and vitality of the Meiji period and was a precursor of Japanese romanticism and symbolism. He wrote in a pithy, pseudo-classical style, modeled on that of the great 17th c. author Ihara Saikaku and full of classical allusions. His best fiction was written early in his career; the 1890s were called "the age of Ozaki Koyo and Koda Rohan" (Ko-Ro jidai). Rohan's stories always have an idealistic, didactic intent - he was much more serious than Ozaki Koyo. Later he turned away from the novel to concentrate on essays, and historical and scholarly works, such as commentaries on the haiku from the Basho school. He was awarded the Order of Culture in 1937. His philosophy was an interesting synthesis of Buddhist metaphysics, Daoist mysticism, Confucian activism, Western humanism and Japanese aestheticism. 
(Study: Koda Rohan by Chieko Mulhern, Twayne Publishers, 1977)

1890
Maihime (The Dancing Girl) by Mori Ogai (1862-1922) is a romantic story based on the author's experiences as a foreign student in Germany. Written in the first person, it describes a love affair between a Japanese student in Berlin with Elise, a German dancer, and is innovative in Japanese literature of that time for its expression of personal emotions. Ogai delves deep into the psychology of his protagonist. The student even gives up his studies to support Elise and her mother, and leads a happy life with her, but is tracked down by a friend from Japan who urges him not to throw his future and his career in his home country away. The student then breaks with Elise (who is just then pregnant and goes out of her mind) and returns to Japan, although on the way back he is torn between guilt and regret. This last element seems cynical but is another theme that would occupy Ogai throughout his career as a writer: the clash between duty and self-fulfillment. Although composed in the neo-classical language, and despite its Romanticism (not something innate to Ogai, but rather picked up by him from German literature) qua intent the story is more modern than Futabatei's Ukigumo. It is about a man whose discovery of his inner feelings and individuality clashes with his place in the world and the allegiances that go with it - the larger question is of course the identity of the self. The story is partly based on Ogai's own experiences (his German girlfriend even followed him to Japan, only to be rejected by his family) - it was through the writing of this lyrical story that he found self-expression and self-understanding.

Mori Ogai wrote two more romantic stories in 1890-1891: Utakata no ki (A Sad Tale aka Foam on the Waves) and Fumizukai (The Courier). The first is the story of a Japanese painter in Munich, who is in love with a model; from her he hears the story of the "mad king" Ludwig II who was in love with her mother, as an interesting frame tale; the third tale is about a Japanese officer who is invited by a beautiful princess to climb a pyramid together, but instead of experiencing romance, he is asked to act as courier to carry a letter so that the princess - as he later learns - can join the court as a way to escape a loveless marriage. In both these tales the narrator remains an observer, although his experience as a bystander helps him grow in self-understanding. In all three stories Ogai used elements from his own life in Germany, from military maneuvers to aristocratic court balls, adding authenticity to his tales. In the 1890s, Ogai would be in the first place active as translator - his translation of the romantic novel The Improvisatore by Hans Christian Andersen exerted a great influence in Japan. He also set up an influential magazine which helped spread Romanticism.
(Translation of all three stories: Mori Ogai, Youth and Other Stories, ed. J. Thomas Rimer)


Mori Ogai (1862-1922) was born in Shimane as the son of a surgeon serving the Tsuwano clan. After graduating from the University of Tokyo Faculty of Medicine in 1881 (he was the first generation of students to study modern Western medicine with German professors), he became an army physician and as such, he was sent to Germany to study continental hygiene. He remained in Germany from 1884 to 1888. This experience gave Ogai an important exposure to German and other European literature, as is also clear from Maihime which was among others inspired by Goethe. After his return, Ogai founded a literary journal to introduce the philosophy and literature of European romanticism, particularly Germany, to Japan. He also became known as an important translator of European literature. In 1907, he was promoted to surgeon general and was appointed head of the Medical Division of the Army Ministry. During his whole life, he combined an active bureaucratic career with his literary work. From 1909, inspired by the success of Natsume Soseki, Ogai again started writing fiction, first contemporary short stories and novellas, and - after the death of Emperor Meiji in 1912 - historical tales and scholarly biographies of historical figures. Ogai experimented with different styles and in general cultivated a "distanced" narratorial technique. Different from Tsubouchi Shoyo's one-sided insistence on realism, Ogai insisted on the necessity of ideals in literature - in this, he resembled Koda Rohan. 
(Study: Mori Ogai by J. Thomas Rimer, Twayne Publishers, 1975)

Tai Dokuro (Encounter with a Skull) by Koda Rohan is the story of a young man who, after a terrible trek through the snow, takes refuge in a lonely hut in the mountains where he meets a beautiful woman who invites him to stay the night. After a bath and a simple meal, it is time to go to bed - but unfortunately there is only one bed. The woman offers it to her guest, the guest in his turn asks the lady to sleep in her own bed. When the lady proposes that they share the bed, the highly moral young man shudders and recites a Chinese poem warning against lust. They then decide to stay up both, and the young man asks the lady to tell him the story of her life. She was brought up in comfortable circumstances, she says, but on her deathbed, her mother gave her the injunction never to marry (the lady refuses to narrate the reason behind this injunction, but it might be that she had been taught the meaningless of the flesh). When a noble young man fell in love with her, she kept refusing him. When her suitor finally died, she felt real compassion and retired to this hut in the mountains. As dawn breaks, the house and the woman vanish suddenly and the narrator sees only a bleached white skull lying at his feet. Later he learns that a mad beggar woman (who may have been a leper) has strayed into the mountains about a year ago. He apparently has helped release her spirit - this is all in the eerie tradition and style of a Noh play (although her ghost is not a vengeful one). Now it is his task to tell her tale of Buddhist compassion and salvation to the world. The motif of this story (meeting a beautiful woman in a deserted spot, spending the night in her house, and discovering the next morning that she must have been a ghost) is a traditional one in East Asian literature. This story was much admired by Tanizaki Junichiro. The Buddhist rejection of lust and the ideals of love in this story are typical of Rohan.
(Translation: Pagoda, Skull & Samurai, 3 stories by Rohan Koda by Chieko Irie Mulhern, Tuttle Publishing)

1891
Goju no To (The Five-storied Pagoda) by Koda Rohan again addresses the theme of art and how it can help achieve enlightenment. The story is about a competition between two master builders who both want to be in charge of constructing a pagoda for the Tennoji Temple in Edo. Such an endeavor is in itself a religious act, as the pagoda stands for the Buddha, his teachings through the Lotus Sutra, and the whole universe. Genta is a rich patrician of established social standing, Jubei is poor and socially inept (and has been the disciple of Genta). But he comes into his own as the great craftsman he is when he visits the abbot to present his plan. Although the abbot wants both men to cooperate on the project, Jubei is determined to execute the whole project on his own, and Genta finally yields (a Confucian virtue). Jubei's confidence in his own ability is not hubris or individualism (the pagoda is built by the teamwork of his whole crew) but ambition - willpower on the grandest scale in order to do good for mankind is what separates man from animal, according to the Confucian tenets of Rohan. Jubei builds such a sturdy pagoda that it even withstands the force of a terrible typhoon (the description of the typhoon is famous and was for many decades included in school textbooks). The forces of nature are personified as demons, but note that in Buddhism demons are the guardians of the Law whose mission it is to shepherd erring humans to salvation - intrinsic evil as an antithesis of the Good, as Satan in Christianity, does not exist. Finally Jubei wins even Genta's admiration. Again a story in which the ideals of art and goodness are triumphant. This novella is usually considered as Rohan's best work. Rohan's heroes are not brooding, introspective Meiji protagonists, but masculine heroes who battle with nature and apply their energies positively to their work. Tennoji is located in Tokyo's Yanaka area, but its pagoda unfortunately fell victim to arson (combined with a double suicide) in the 1950s.
(Translation: Pagoda, Skull & Samurai, 3 stories by Rohan Koda by Chieko Irie Mulhern, Tuttle Publishing)

1895
Takekurabe (Child's Play aka Growing Up, lit. Comparing Heights), Nigorie (Troubled Waters) and Jusanya (Two Nights Before the Full Moon aka The Thirteenth Night) are three novellas published by Japan's first modern woman writer, Higuchi Ichiyo. The much acclaimed Takekurabe is a story of loss of innocence, about children growing up in Daionjimae, next to the Yoshiwara brothel district. Among them, the tomboyish, spirited Midori realizes the day her hair is done up in adult style that her childhood is over and that the harsh reality of life as a prostitute awaits her, like her elder sister who is already a celebrated courtesan. One of her playmates, the shy, bookish Nobu, the son of a priest, has fallen silently in love with her, but is so uneasy about his new affection that he can no longer speak to her. The pain of leaving childhood is described intelligently, but without any sentimentality. The style is based on Ihara Saikaku, especially in the descriptive passages. Nigorie is the story of the prostitute Oriki who is unable to forget Genshichi, a former customer, though his extravagance and neglect of his business has driven him and his family into poverty. The story ends with Genshichi killing Oriki and committing suicide afterward. This a modern, critical variant of the love suicides (shinju) in the plays of the Edo playwright Chikamatsu. Jusanya, finally, is a more serenely sad story: a woman who has married above her station and is mistreated by her cruel husband, returns by rickshaw to her parents' home, but they are unwilling to give up the advantages of having a rich son-in-law and persuade their daughter to go back to her husband. She also realizes that she could not leave her young son (in case of a separation, the children stayed with the father according to Meiji law). The rickshaw puller who brings her back happens to be a childhood friend, forced by circumstances to do menial labor. Takekurabe was filmed in 1955 by Gosho Heinosuke with Misora Hibari; Nigorie and The Thirteenth Night (together with another story, The Last Day of the Year), were filmed in 1953 by Imai Tadashi.
(Translation of all three stories: In the Shade of Spring Leaves by Robert Lyons Danly, W.W. Norton & Company; Study: "Their Time as Children, A Study of Higuchi Ichiyo's Growing Up," in Text and the City, Essays on Japanese Modernity by Maeda Ai, Duke Un. Press, 2004)


Higuchi Ichiyo (1872-1896) was born in Tokyo. Interested in literature, she entered a poetry academy, where she was nurtered on the Genji Monogatari and the waka of the Imperial anthologies. But contrary to her fellow students, her family was poor and she was forced to earn her own living by her father's death in 1889. She ran a shop selling household goods and cheap sweets in Daionjimae, in downtown Tokyo, right next to the Yoshiwara prostitution quarter (the setting of Takekurabe). In 1891, she became the pupil of Nakarai Tosui and started writing stories. Tosui was a popular gesaku-style newspaper novelist, but at least helped her publish her first stories. In 1892, Ichiyo had to end all contact with him due to (unfounded) rumors that their relation involved more than literature. Ichiyo was an admirer of Koda Rohan; she was also inspired by the writings of Ihara Saikaku - her style was classical but her content modern. She died in 1896 of tuberculosis, after having written her best stories in a miraculous period of just fourteen months, and being recognized and praised by the literary establishment, such as Mori Ogai. She is the first outstanding female writer in modern Japanese literature.
(Biography: In the Shade of Spring Leaves by Robert Lyons Danly, W.W. Norton & Company. Study: The Uses of Memory, The Critique of Modernity in the Fiction of Higuchi Ichiyo, by Timothy J. Van Compernolle, Harvard 2006)

Gekashitsu (The Operating Room, 1895) by Izumi Kyoka brought a new romantic voice on the literary scene. This short story is impossibly melodramatic, but very beautifully written in the neo-classical style. A countess must undergo a breast operation. She refuses anesthetic as she is afraid she will reveal "her secret" under its influence. The surgeon then agrees to operate without anesthesia. The countess bears the pain without flinching, but suddenly grabs the surgeon's hand and plunges the scalpel deep in her breast. In a flashback we learn that the countess and surgeon - then a medical student - met nine years earlier and fell in love but could not marry due to their difference in status. After the fatal operation the doctor, who has remained unmarried, commits suicide as well. This in itself crude plot was sufficiently unusual for Japanese readers to give it an air of glamour. The story is called kannen shosetsu (idea fiction) because it challenges conventional ideas of love by introducing a couple who die for their "illicit" passion. The story was filmed in 1992 by Bando Tamasaburo with Yoshinaga Sayuri as the countess.
(Translation: Japanese Gothic Tales by Charles Shiro Inouye, Hawaii Un. press)


Izumi Kyoka (1873-1939) was born in Kanazawa. In 1890 he went to Tokyo to become a live-in disciple of Ozaki Koyo. Izumi Kyoka has been called the supreme romanticist of Meiji literature. His stories often deal with the world of fantasy and the supernatural, or are set in the geisha world (these stories often contain interesting descriptions of contemporary Tokyo). Kyoka wrote in a densely, imaginistic style and is in the first place read for the literary excellence of his style, rather than plot - often there is no true story line, but rather a juxtapositioning of individual, almost pictorial scenes. His style owed much to Ozaki Koyo and Edo gesaku writers. As a writer he is often linked with the later Nagai Kafu and Tanizaki Junichiro because of their shared love of Edo culture and their depiction of life in the pleasure quarters. Kyoka was also active as a playwright in the Shinpa style. Later in life he retreated to Zushi, not far from Kamakura. Devoted fans of his work were Akutagawa Ryunosuke, Satomi Ton, Tanizaki Junichiro and, later, also Mishima Yukio and Shibusawa Tatsuhiko. For much of the 20th c. Kyoka was dubbed "a dropout of the modern age," but Mishima asserted that Kyoka was on the contrary too far ahead of his own time to be properly understood. It is indeed true that Kyoka (and also Rohan) look strikingly contemporary when seen from the perspective of the postmodern novel.
(Study: The Similitude of Blossoms: A Critical Biography of Izumi Kyoka by Charles Shiro Inouye, Harvard University Press, 1998)

1896
One of the better Kenyusha writers was Hirotsu Ryuro (1861-1928), who is known for his grave (shinkoku) or tragic (hisan) novels emphasizing the dark aspects of society. He is now almost forgotten, but one of his stories still deserves attention: Imado Shinju (The Love Suicides at Imado), a sort of transposition of Chikamatsu to the realities of Meiji. Yoshizato, a top prostitute, has fallen in love with her customer Hirata, who however urgently has to return to his family in the provinces. She kept an other admirer, Zenkichi, whose infatuation has cost him his business, at a distance. But touched by Zenkichi's sincere love, although he is a rather clownish man, Yoshizato now allows him to stay a few days with her in the brothel, paying his bills herself. In the meantime she hopes that Hirata will come back. That doesn't happen and one day, Yoshizato and Zenkichi throw themselves together in the river. Written in a vivid colloquial style, this story is a superb evocation of the atmosphere of a Yoshiwara brothel. Regrettably, this excellent story has not yet been translated.

1897
Gen Oji (Old Gen) by Kunikida Doppo is the first short story by this romantic author. Although Doppo would become known for his use of the genbun itchi style, this first story is still written in the neo-classical language. The story is based on materials Doppo gathered while working as English teacher in a small town in Kyushu, but the major inspiration was Wordsworth's pastoral poem Michael. Old Gen is a boatman who adopts a vagrant boy after the death of his own son. He attempts to communicate his fatherly feelings, but the wild boy is unable to respond. In the end Old Gen hangs himself, but the idiot boy still understands nothing. More than for its sentimental plot, the story is interesting for its nature descriptions, such as an effective evocation of a storm that wrecks the boat of Old Gen. One can say that Doppo tried to discover the meaning of life in nature, which is also clear from Musashino, a story written in 1898, about the landscape of Musashino in the outskirts of Tokyo. That landscape was not particularly famous or striking, but that was exactly the point, for Doppo saw beauty in ordinary things and ordinary persons. Musashino is a beautiful piece of impressionistic writing.
(Translation Old Gen: "Five Stores by Kunikida Doppo" (tr. Jay Rubin), Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 27 No. 3. (Autumn 1972), pp. 273-341)


Kunikida Doppo (1871-1908) was born in Choshi (Chiba) and studied English literature at the precursor of Waseda University. Inspired by the poetry of Wordsworth, in the mid-nineties he started writing lyric poetry. He was also a convert to Christianity. His early works include a diary (Azamukazaru no ki) and a new-style poetry collection. After an unhappy marriage that ended in divorce in 1896 (and that became the basis for the plot of Arishima Takeo's 1919 novel A Certain Woman), he withdrew from the community of Christian social reformers. Instead, he became a close friend of the writer Tayama Katai. In the late nineties, he started writing short stories, first collected in 1901 as Musashino. He became well-known for his lyrical evocation of natural scenes, although there is also a neurotic form of introspection in his work. A few of his later stories are often seen as precursors of Japanese Naturalism, but fundamentally Doppo was a Romantic. According to Karatani Kojin, Doppo was the first fully modern writer for two reasons: his descriptions of external nature, and his introspection, his internal consciousness (paired with the genbun itchi style). Other excellent stories by Doppo are Takibi (The Bonfire), Wasureenu hitobito (Unforgettable People), Gyuniku to bareisho (Meat and Potatoes), Jonan (Woman Trouble), Unmei ronsha (The Fatalist), and my personal favorite, the bittersweet Kawagiri (River Mist). Doppo died at age 37 of tuberculosis. 

Ozaki Koyo starts serializing his most popular novel Konjiki Yasha (The Gold Demon) in the Yomiuri Shinbun. Ozaki was the most popular novelist of his day. His novels were serialized in the Yomiuri Shinbun, ensuring a wide readership. The Gold Demon was Ozaki's most popular novel, but it remained incomplete at his death in 1903. The book is filled with highly melodramatic scenes, and was so popular it was immediately adapted for the stage, but it has aged badly - no modern reader will enjoy the books' most famous scene, set at the beach in Atami, where the exasperated hero abuses his lover, and when she kneels to beg forgiveness, even kicks her. But the novel's depiction of the rise of aggressive merchant capitalism in Japan at the time is sociologically interesting.
(Translation: excerpt in The Columbia Anthology I; paraphrase by A. and M. LLoyd, Tokyo 1917 as The Gold Demon. Study: Practices of the Sentimental Imagination, Melodrama, the Novel, and the Social Imaginary in Nineteenth Century Japan by Jonathan E. Zwicker, Harvard U.P.)

1899
Tokutomi Roka writes Hototogisu (The Cuckoo aka Nami-ko), about the grossly unequal treatment women received in Meiji Japan due to the supremacy of the family. It is a rather melodramatic tale about the breakup of a marriage in the privileged class, in which a wicked mother-in-law, a former rejected suitor and finally tuberculosis play out their nefarious roles. The novel was very popular - not only in Japan, for it was soon translated into several European languages. In 1901, Roka also wrote Omoide no ki (Footprints in the Snow), a fictionalized story about his own development as a writer, inspired in part by David Copperfield. It is full of lofty ideals, which appealed to contemporary readers, but like Hototogisu, does not rise above the limits of popular fiction. More than for his novels, Roka is interesting for his powerful eccentric individuality.
(Translation: Footprints in the Snow by Kenneth Strong, Tuttle Publishing)

Tokutomi Roka (1868-1926) was born in Kumamoto Prefecture. He was the brother of the historian Tokutomi Soho. Roka corresponded with Tolstoy and in 1906 even traveled to Yasnaya Polyana to meet the great man (he left an interesting record of this visit). From 1907 until his death, he lived in a farm house in Musashino (now Setagaya-ku, Tokyo), where he worked the land in the style of Tolstoy. The property now is a metropolitan park called Roka Koshun-en.

[Reference works used: Dawn to the West by Donald Keene (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984); Modern Japanese Novelists, A Biographical Dictionary by John Lewell (New York, Tokyo and London: Kodansha International, 1993); Narrating the Self, Fictions of Japanese Modernity by Tomi Suzuki (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996); Oe and Beyond, Fiction in Contemporary Japan, ed. by Stephen Snyder and Philip Gabriel (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999); Origins of Modern Japanese Literature by Karatani Kojin (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1993); The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature, 2 vols, ed. by J. Thomas Rimer and Van C. Gessel (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005 and 2007); The Fantastic in Modern Japanese Literature by Susan J. Napier (London and New York: Routledge, 1996); Writers & Society in Modern Japan by Irena Powell (New York, Tokyo and London: Kodansha International, 1983).]Modern Japanese Fiction by Year (1): 1885-1899, Beginnings
Modern Japanese Fiction by Year (2): 1900-1909, The Flourishing of Meiji
12 Sep
Although there exist several interesting, individual breweries here, the Kanto area generally speaking is not a major sake producing area. This despite the presence of towns like Sawara (Chiba) and Ishioka (Ibaraki) where in the Edo-period brewing was flourishing. The vast metropolis of Tokyo and its satellite cities have gradually filled up the Kanto plain and made this into an area of consumers, rather than producers. There are no Toji guilds in the Kanto, but traditionally one finds brewmasters from the Echigo guild (Niigata) here, and recently also from the Nanbu guild.

In line with the citified character of the area, the taste of sake here - although traditionally rich and umami-based - nowadays is mainly fresh, light and elegant.

Ibaraki: fresh, soft and a bit sweet (due to soft water)
Tochigi: sweet in the past, now relatively dry
Gunma: medium dry (sweet in the past)
Saitama: light and fresh
Chiba: several individualistic, sturdy sakes
Tokyo: light
Kanagawa: light and dry

Ibaraki is the prefecture with the largest number of breweries, Kanagawa the smallest (even nationwide). In Chiba prefecture one finds several individualistic breweries producing Kimoto sake, aged sake (Koshu) or junmai sake of which the rice has been milled only slightly.

In total there are 189 active sake breweries in the Kanto area (figures 2015).
Sake by Region:
Hokkaido/Tohoku: Hokkaido - Aomori - Akita - Iwate - Miyagi - Yamagata - Fukushima
Kanto area: Ibaraki - Tochigi - Gunma - Saitama - Chiba - Tokyo - Kanagawa
Shinetsu/Hokuriku: Yamanashi - Nagano - Niigata - Toyama - Ichikawa - Fukui
Tokai area: Shizuoka - Aichi - Gifu - Mie
Kansai area: Shiga - Kyoto - Osaka - Hyogo - Nara - Wakayama
Chugoku area: Tottori - Shimane - Okayama - Hiroshima - Yamaguchi
Shikoku: Tokushima - Kagawa - Ehime - Kochi
Kyushu/Okinawa: Fukuoka - Saga - Nagasaki - Kumamoto - Oita - Miyazaki / Kagoshima / Okinawa
11 Sep
Here are three more updates in the series of sake by region: Chiba, Saitama and Kanagawa.
10 Sep
Two new updates in the sake by region series have appeared on my site: Tochigi and Gunma, both in the Kanto area.
3 Sep
Although the annual production of Japanese films scales new heights (408 in 2010, rising to 615 in 2014), unfortunately the quality of Japanese cinema is not commensurate to these voluminous figures. Instead, the number of artistic and intelligent films rather decreases. After all, more than 60% of Japanese films are anime aimed at below-twelve kids. Another large chunk is made up by the sheer countless teenage dramas (first love and all that heart-breaking matter), and another again by romantic comedies for young women. That leaves little space in the national cinema for serious works. 

But that is not all: also indies and serious films in this period are often limited, due to insufficient depth, the lack of a good narrative, and dearth of social vision; there are also problems with editing and cinematography, and in general too little critical stance. We could say that the creative wave that came up in the 1990s ("The New Wave of the Nineties") peaked before its time and that some directors who were part of the Wave didn't completely fulfill their high expectations. 

Japanese cinema is in the grip of risk avoidance, not only the mainstream (which always plays on safe and follows Hollywood-type investment models), but also indies and other independent films. Subjects are based on already popular manga, television drama, trendy novels and older films, and TV celebrities (who are not always good actors) are used as protagonists to get fans into the theater. The strange circumstance, that one after another great classical films (that in their original form are widely available on DVD) are being remade, is a good indication of the regrettable lack of creativity that plagues Japanese cinema today. 

But despite all this, Japanese cinema remains interesting as a window on Japanese culture and society. 

2010
The best film of the year is Akunin ("Villain") by Lee Sang-Il. Although his Hula Girls showed the potential birth of a safe hack, Lee makes much good in this noir thriller based on an interesting novel by Yoshida Shuichi. It is a story about alienated and lonely young people who meet via dating sites. One young woman (Mitsushima Hikari) who uses these sites to earn money from the men she meets and who brags to her friends about her success in love, meets her destiny on a lonely road. The young man (an unresponsive Tsumabuki Satoshi, but in a way that fits his role) who inadvertent kills her (in fact, it is more like manslaughter) soon after meets the woman of his dreams (a very good Fukatsu Eri), and she the man of her dreams, but it is too late... He looks like a sociopath with his bleached hair, but is in fact a tragic anti-hero. We also have a grandmother (Kirin Kiki) who is cheated out of her savings by gangsters and a father (Emoto Akira) who wants to physically avenge the death of his daughter. An impressive exploration of society's ills. The film earned a much deserved Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film in 2011.


Haru to no tabi ("Haru's Journey," lit. "Journey with Haru") by Kobayashi Masahiro is a road movie in which a young woman, Haru (Tokunaga Eri), living in Mashike, Hokkaido, as a teacher, has just seen her school closed down due to the decline in population. She wants to find work in Tokyo, but these last five years she has been taking care of her widowed grandfather, Tadao (Nakadai Tatsuya), an embittered and angry man who has difficulty walking. They start a trip by train to find a family member who is willing to take grandfather in so that Haru can go to Tokyo. But Tadao has not made things easy as his past egoistic behavior has rather estranged him from his brothers and sister, as well as from his son (Haru's father - who in his turn has discarded Haru). This humanistic film is supported by an excellent cast: Otaki Hideji and Sugai Kin as Tadao's eldest brother and his wife; Tanaka Yuko as the wife of the second brother; Awashima Chikage as the sister who operates a ryokan in Naruko (Miyagi); Emoto Akira and Miho Jun as the younger brother and his wife; and Kagawa Teruyuki as Tadao's son / father of Haru. The film is not only the story of an estranged family, it is also the story of how the uneasy relationship between Haru and her grandfather softens and grows, so much that she finally even decides to return to Hokkaido with him.


Sweet Little Lies by Yazaki Hitoshi (of Strawberry Cakes fame), based on the novel by Ekuni Kaori, is the quiet but clinical story of the disintegration of a marriage, after just three years. Nakatani Miki plays a housewife who designs teddy bears as her hobby and Omori Nao is her IT-employed husband, who locks himself all his free time in his hobby room playing video games. Their emotional distance is so large that they communicate by mobile telephone even in their small apartment. Although they find it convenient to be married, there is no emotion, let alone love, between them and mentally they have little in common. So not surprisingly, when both in turn are aggressively approached by potential adultery partners, they swallow the bait of seduction: the wife with a musician, an arty type (Kobayashi Juichi) she meets in her teddy bear gallery, and the husband with a former schoolmate he sees at a class reunion (Ikewaki Chizuru). We then follow the parallel affairs and the games both play to keep up the deception. The end, however, is a surprise, because both decide to "return home" again...

How many 98 year old directors still make films (how many people reach that age)? Shindo Kaneto (in what would be his last film) has made an incisive anti-war film, Ichimai no hagaki ("One Postcard"), which earned a belated Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film in 2012. It is the tragedy of a peasant women who looses first one, then a second husband and her parents in law to the folly of war. With excellent performances by Otake Shinobu and Toyokawa Etsushi.


Caterpillar by Wakamatsu Koji is an even fiercer anti-war statement, based on a story by Edogawa Ranpo that was also filmed in Rampo Noir (2005), of a war veteran (Kasuya Keigo) who is just a torso and a battered head, like a caterpillar. He can see, but not hear or talk. The ugly lump of flesh of the medal-decorated war hero is considered as a military god by the village from which new men are constantly leaving for the killing fields, until only women, children and the elderly are left behind. But our amputee can only eat, sleep and have sex (he still functions below the waist, although his wife has to do all the work). The wife (Terashima Shinobu in a Berlin Silver Bear winning performance) first is shocked, then decides to stand by her man and care for him, but gradually realizes that she also can exploit her husband's condition and so take revenge on him for his brutish behavior towards her in the past. To pester him, she starts pulling him in a cart through the village, where everyone has to pay their respects to the "war god"...

Tsumetai Nettaigyo ("Cold Fish") by Sono Shion is a return to extreme violence and gore by this provocative director in a film about bullying - not at school but in society. The weak and unsuccessful fish store owner Shamoto (Mitsuru Kukikochi), who is despised by his slutty (second) wife (Kagurazaka Megumi) and rebellious daughter, is sucked up into the orbit of the powerful and unscrupulous Murata (a tour de force performance by Denden). Of course, Murata's fish store Amazon Gold is many times larger than Shamoto's and he employs sexy girls to entice customers. As one of these, Murata also hires Shamoto's disobedient daughter and next seduces his wife. He also does other things: when someone gets in his way, Murata kills him and then cuts up the body and incinerates the parts - something Shamoto is forced to participate in. The first to go is Murata's business partner, for Shamoto will take the place of the poor man - after helping cut up his body in a church. During this all, Shamoto is bullied by the stronger and more successful entrepreneur and his wife, who is his partner in crime (Kurosawa Asuka). In the end something snaps in him, and then he takes a terrible revenge on Murata and all others who have used him as a doormat... showing that the bullied do not become heroes, but are just as mean and vile as their oppressors, as they can only imitate them. There is not inconsiderable gore, but it is all cartoonish. This is not a horror movie, but a (very) black comedy about social breakdown.


Heaven's Story by Zeze Takahisa is a film full of anger, frustration and feelings of revenge - and it lasts four and a half hours, divided into nine episodes. The film follows family members of murder victims and shows how their lives were changed by these terrible events; the film also shows in Babel-like fashion, how the lives of a dozen people intersect over a period of ten years, connected as they are by murder and loss. Revenge will of course create new painful reverberations in this net of connections. The film is as dark as previous work by this initial pink film director, such as Raigyo. A massive monster of film that does not wholly succeed in its high aims, but is still an interesting experiment, showing that there is at least one director left who dares to take risks.

Okan no yomeiri ("Here Comes the Bride, My Mother!") by woman director Oh Mipo starts out in a fresh way. A mother (Otake Shibobu) one day comes home and introduces a young guy with bleached hair (Kiritani Kenta) as "the bridegroom" to the daughter in her twenties with whom she lives together (Miyazaki Aoi) - not a man for her daughter, but for herself. This causes the daughter to start sulking, despite the efforts of the groom to ingratiate himself by being friendly to her. So the first part of the film consists of quiet comedy, before entering into darker territory: Tsukiko, the daughter, is in fact sitting at home - the only thing she does outside is walking the dog - like a hikikomori because she was stalked and harassed by a male colleague in the office where she used to work. Then we get a plot twist which unfortunately spoils the film by dousing it in melodrama: the mother is revealed as having a terminal illness and her boyfriend who knew this is just marrying her to make her last days happy... Why does the director need such a trashy plot twist to justify the second marriage to a much younger man of the mother, as if women in their forties have no right to make new choices in their lives? A disappointment, despite the setting in Kyoto along the Keihan line.


Noruwei no mori ("Norwegian Wood") by Vietnamese/French director Ahn Hung Tran, based on the popular novel by Murakami Haruki, is beautifully filmed (thanks to the richly saturated images of cinematographer Pin Bing Lee), but hampered by the simplistic and sentimental love story that lies at its basis. It is about sub-twenties who are suffering from sexual and emotional angst. Kizuki commits suicide for the silly reason that he is unable to perform the act with his girlfriend Naoko. Naoko looses her mental stability because she blames herself for this and is put away in a mental hospital; she will finally commit suicide as well. Toru, Kizuki's best friend, is in love with Naoko, who still loves Kizuki, but he also meets the forward Midori (the only person who seems to be in charge of herself in this film) and, typically indecisive, finds himself shuttling between both of them. Despite the good performances (especially Kikuchi Rinko of Babel-fame as Naoko), this is mainly a juvenile tearjerker lacking the humor of the original novel.

Kitano Takeshi makes Outrage, a conventional yakuza flick as they are made by the dozen for the straight-to-video market in Japan. It was clearly aimed at a segment of his foreign audience that craved more yakuza films from him, but all he comes up with is a dull and tired story. On top of that, we by now have had enough of Kitano's signature sudden bursts of violence, with chopsticks rammed into eyes or ears. After three autobiographical films which became increasingly trivial, Kitano apparently unashamedly tried to go for the foreign box office. As they liked it in Cannes, Kitano even made a sequel, Beyond Outrage (2012), that gives addicts to cheap violence more of the same (and is marginally better). Instead of "Glory to the Filmmaker," this should be called "The End of a Filmmaker." Kitano Takeshi made some excellent films in the 1990s, starting with Violent Cop, and leading to such highlights as Sonatine and Hana-Bi, with in between more peaceful films as A Scene at the Sea and Kids Return, but in the new century seems to have lost his way, despite his one-off commercial success with Zatoichi.


The same is unfortunately true of Tsukamoto Shinya. Tetsuo the Bulletman is a dull remake of his Tetsuo and Tetsuo II, frenetic and genuinely disturbing films made on a zero budget about 20 years ago. Tsukamoto offers nothing new and, despite the now much larger budget, makes a much lesser and in fact unnecessary film, adding an unconvincing back story to a plot that should have remained mysterious. He ruins his film even more by trying to appeal to a foreign audience by employing an unconvincing American actor as his protagonist.

Another unnecessary movie is Jusannin no shikyaku ("Thirteen Assassins") by Miike Takashi. What is the use of remaking excellent classical films? Doesn't this stem purely from a lack of creativity? The original film by Kudo Eiichi simply can't be improved upon, and Miike's almost shot-by-shot remake is just another piece of evidence of the sad lack of ideas in Japanese cinema in the second decade of the 21st century.

Ototo ("Her Younger Brother") by Yamada Yoji was advertised as a tribute to the then 81-year old Ichikawa Kon, who in 1960 made a famous film of the same title. It is not a remake so much as meant to be an homage to the veteran director. Yamada only borrows the idea of a sister covering for the mistakes of her rowdy brother, in fact the situation he had already borrowed in his Otoko wa tsurai yo films. So this is rather a "remake" of Tora-san, but unfortunately Shofukutei Tsurube (a popular rakugo artist and TV personality, who did a better job in Dear Doctor) is no Atsumi Kiyoshi and the film gets bogged down in sentimentality and tears (the rowdy brother has to die a lonely death), despite the efforts of Yoshinaga Sayuri as the sister and Aoi Yu as her daughter.


Kokuhaku ("Confessions") by Nakashima Tetsuya is a safe journeyman product, based on a popular thriller by Minato Kanae. Like the novel, the film is hopelessly unrealistic, with countless plot holes, but I bring it up here for the insight it offers into Japanese society. The little daughter of a female teacher (Matsu Takako) has been killed by two underage pupils in her class. As the law can't do much, she decides to take revenge by herself and laces the school milk of the two kids with the AIDS virus (conveniently, her boyfriend has AIDS). Although neither of them becomes ill, as a result one boy turns into a hikikomori obsessed with avoiding contact with others so as not to infect them; he eventually kills his mother. The other boy still comes to school but is bullied by the rest of the class as an AIDS victim (the film here shows the sad workings of Japanese society where victims are sometimes bullied). This boy is an inventor (he also had invented the electrical shock purse that killed - or at least stunned - the little girl) and now makes a bomb with which he is planning to blow up himself including the school at the graduation ceremony. The teacher has read his webpage on which he announces this plan (!) and removed the bomb. Instead, she has put it in the university building where the boy's mother works (he hankers after his mother who has discarded him), so when the boy activates the bomb with his mobile phone, he blows up his own mother. The end. The biggest plot hole is of course that there seems to be no police to arrest a teacher who has tried to kill two of her own pupils. And by re-planting the bomb, she becomes a mass-murderer herself - but such niceties are never addressed. The reason I bring up this film is that it was so popular in Japan it was even sent in officially to the Academy Awards - although it is unimaginable that a film about a teacher killing her own pupils would ever win an Oscar. But the movie aptly reveals the feelings of revenge against criminal youths in Japan.

Byakuyako ("Into the White Night") by Fukagawa Yoshihiro is a crime story based on a popular novel by Higashino Keigo. It is a well-made film, shot in a dark and minor mode, focusing on character development and therefore justifiably taking its time. It shows how the murder of their parents by two children (one of them abused and mistreated by both victims) follows the main characters throughout their lives, leading again and again to new crimes. It also shows the utter and altruistic devotion of a boy and young man to the beautiful girl he once saved, and whom he keeps helping, even onto his own death. His love is never requited and is of a kind you'll only find in Japanese culture. The film also shows how different the characters of both protagonists are, he (Kora Kengo) totally unselfish, but cruel on her behalf, she (Horikita Maki) from the start calculating, using the people around her for her own purposes and not allowing anyone to cross her. And, for more than two decades, we also follow the police officer (Funakoshi Eiichiro) who ultimately discovers the truth. The crime is initially shelved, but he keeps doggedly coming back to it and gradually unravels the web of lies, even after he has already been pensioned off.

2011
Aburakasu no Matsuri ("Abraxis") by Kato Naoki is wonderful film about Jonen, a young Buddhist priest and family man - priests are allowed to marry in Japan - who used to be a rock guitarist (played by actual rocker Suneohair). As he is struggling with inner doubts and demons, his spiritual mentor suggests that he once more holds a concert. Jonen decides to reunite for that concert with his old band, but instead of going to Tokyo, selects the grounds of his temple in a quiet coastal town in Fukushima for the concert (the film was made just before the earthquake and tsunami). He has posters made and puts these up himself all over the town. Suneohair gives a sensitive portrayal of Jonen and shows off his guitar playing in a celebration of non-conformity. An excellent feature film, showing the small happenings of daily life, based on a novel by Zen priest / author Genyu Sokyu. Note the sake that Jonen drinks in the film: Daishichi!


Kiseki ("I Wish") by Koreeda Hirokazu is a joyful film about two brothers, small boys, who have been separated because of the divorce of their parents: Koichi lives with his mother in Kagoshima and Ryunosuke with his father in Fukuoka. Their greatest ambition is to reunite their estranged parents. Then they hear the Shinkansen route is being extended from Hakata to Kagoshima. This will not only bring them closer together, but they also believe that a miracle will occur when two Shinkansen trains pass each other in opposite directions. While not reaching the dizzying heights of Still Walking, this is a delightful film with excellent performances.

Household X by Yoshida Koki is a story about alienation and the breakup of a family. A mother on the verge of a breakdown (Minami Kaho), her husband who is only nervous about losing his work (Taguchi Tomorowo) and their uncommunicative son and "freeter" (Kaku Tomohiro) live "together apart." That there is little communication between them is underlined by the fact that they are almost never filmed together. A simple but heart-rending family tragedy.

Tokyo Koen ("Tokyo Park") by Aoyama Shinji, the director who has previously given us Eureka and Sad Vacation, is a youth film about a boy whose hobby is photography and who likes to take stealthy pics of women in parks. This setting seems a bit like Antonioni's mysterious Blow Up, but Aoyama only tells a dull tale about a man asking the youth to photo-stalk a woman (apparently his wife) and her kid through Tokyo's parks. The mystery is too thin to keep viewers interested for a full two and a half hours; the rest of the film is filled with rather boring discussions the boy has with his dead room mate (yes, he has a problem coming to terms with his grief), with his girl friend, a gay barman and with his stepsister who is secretly in love with him. The acting is bad - the protagonist (Miura Haruma) is played totally unconvincing - and the cinematography is as humdrum as your daily TV show.

Also Hiroku Ryuichi makes a film that is inferior to his best ones as Vibrator and It's Only Talk. Keibetsu ("The Egoists", lit. "Contempt"), although based on a novel by Nakagami Kenji, one of Japan's greatest postwar authors, is a sort of "pink" melodrama that flounders due to the incredibly mawkish plot. Moreover, one of the protagonists, Kora Kengo, sports such a weird colored hairstyle that is impossible to take him serious. He plays a gambler (originally the scion of an important local family who has gone astray) who has to flee Tokyo because of his debts. He takes his pole-dancing girlfriend with him (Suzuki Anne), and returns to his hometown (Shingu in the novel), hoping to lead a normal life. That is difficult as the locals look down upon them (the "contempt" of the title) and his family rejects his girlfriend as a suitable marriage partner. Their hot love affair therefore finally descends into self-loathing and ennui. Of course his past also catches up with him and in a long scene that takes its cue from Godard's Breathless, he is killed in the local deserted shotengai. A sentimental love story, played out on the template of doom, without redeeming elements.

Himizu (lit. a sort of mole) by Sono Shion is a brutally violent story based on a cruel manga, to which he has added a background story borrowed rather opportunistically from the 3.11 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, which happened earlier in the year. In other words, this is not a film about the disaster and its human tragedy, but we have a director who (mis-)uses the disaster to make his film more topical. Accidentally, the movie itself is also a total disaster: caricatures of people are killing each other, fighting each other, shouting at each other, and continually hyperventilating. Every inch of the film is blown up. All the usual Sono Shion elements are there, but - besides that we are getting tired of even more weird sects or scenes of meaningless violence - this time it doesn't work. (In his Kibo no kuni ("Land of Hope") of 2012 Sono tries a more serious approach to the Fukushima disaster, but that later attempt plays out like an overblown TV drama and was selected as the worst film of the year 2012 by Eiga Geijutsu).

Ichi Mei ("Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai")  by Miike Takashi again leaves one with the big question: why try to remake one of the undisputed masterpieces of Japanese cinema that everyone can find on DVD (Harakiri by Kobayashi Masaki)? This is truly an excess of the postmodern remake bubble and evidence that many film makers in Japan have no original ideas anymore. It is a flat and ineffective version (who cares for 3D?), with the annoying overuse of CGI many contemporary films suffer from. The best that be can said is that this crappy remake will hopefully inspire some viewers to seek out the 1962 original - which is truly one of the great films of Japanese cinema.

2012
Kazoku no kuni ("Our Homeland") is the first feature film of Yang Yong-hi, made after a series of documentaries in which this director explored issues in her Korean/Japanese family. The film is based on a little known fact of contemporary history: the emigration to North Korea of many Koreans living in Japan (who today still are split in adherents of the South and the North) in the 1950s-1970s, lured by false promises of the Communist paradise. Director Yang follows the story of Sonho (Arata Iura) who as a teenager was sent to North Korea by his father, an ardent supporter of the North, and also staff member of the North Korean culture center, a quasi embassy. Now Sonho is allowed to briefly return to Japan to seek medical care for a serious illness. He meets his family - his father, his mother who runs a small cafe, his younger sister who is a teacher (and the center of the film, played by Ando Sakura), and his uncle - but is all the time under the strict supervision of a North Korean security agent who traces his every step. Sonho would like to persuade his sister to move to North Korea, but has no chance as she rightly hates the regime. And then, out of the blue, after just a few days with his family and one initial medical check-up, without explanation Sonho receives the order to immediately return to North Korea (where he has left his own family behind), although he had permission to stay in Japan for three months. This is not a perfect film (interestingly, the Koreans in the film are even more non-verbal than Japanese usually are, and because of this the film looses something in expressiveness), but it deftly brings out the tensions caused by history in the relations of a family. Winner of the Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film.

Helter Skelter by Ninagawa Mika is just such a colorful spectacle as the director's previous Sakuran, but it is also more lacking in content and often just plays out as a gorgeous fashion show. Top model LiLiCo (a perfect Sawajiri Erika), the most popular model in Japan, is adored by millions of fans, has in fact turned into an arrogant and narcissistic bitch - as her manager Michiko (Terajima Shinobu) knows all too well. But only her stylist Kinji (Arai Hirofumi) and her agency director Hiroko (Momoi Kaori) know another secret: the beautiful shell of the super star is artificial, created by hundreds of beauty operations. Then one day, dark spots appear in LiLiCo's face - is her beauty beginning to peel off? This happens just when a rival, Kozue (Mizuhara Kiko), starts challenging her top status... Not only wonderful eye-candy, but also excellent performances all around.

Yume uru futari ("Dreams For Sale") by Nishikawa Miwa is unfortunately a much lesser film than her previous work as Yureru or Dear Doctor. It is the story of a married couple, Satoko (Matsu Takako) and Kanya (Abe Sadao), whose restaurant burns down. Needing money to build a new place, and after the husband has accidentally received a large sum of money for his equally accidental one-night stand with regular customer Reiko (Suzuki Sawa), the wife comes up with a nifty scam whereby Kanya has to make up to lonely unmarried women and con them out of their savings by pretending to love them. Kanya is indeed able to lend the willing ear these solitary souls crave for. His first victim is prim Satsuki (Tanaka Lena), and there is still comedy here, but afterwards the film drifts into melodramatic territory when the new victims are obese Olympic weightlifter Hitomi (Ebara Yuki), abused prostitute Kana (Ando Tamae), and divorcee with a young son Takiko (Kimura Tae). Not surprisingly, Kanya gets emotionally involved with his victims, spending more and more time with them, and the marriage starts to crack (Satoko in contrast discloses her underlying selfishness by the joy she takes in the suffering of other women) - until a few contrived plot twists bring Kanya in jail and Satoko working at a fish market to pay back the money they have "loaned." The film not only wavers between comedy and melodrama, but also has totally unwarranted moments of knockabout farce, in which the protagonists' exaggerated performances are in the worst tradition of over-acting.

That Miike Takashi has lost his magic touch was already clear from his delving into remakes. Aku no Kyoten ("Lesson of Evil" - in the studio's wrong English called "the Evil" - are there no people left in the Japanese film industry who are capable of checking the grammar of a simple English phrase?), based on a novel by Kishi Yusuke, is a revolting film about a psychopathic teacher who kills off scores of his high-school pupils (and has an affair with one of them). The director revels in one shot after another of blood-smeared pupils or exploding chests - Miike apparently doesn't realize that such crimes are all too real elsewhere in the world. As is usual with him, he refuses to confront his material from a moral point of view, but just makes a slasher gore film as pure "entertainment." But alas, the plot is full of holes and the actors are hamming away in a terrible fashion.

2013
Pekorosu no haha ni ai ni iku ("Pecoross’ Mother and Her Days") by Morisaki Azuma is the story of the sixty-two year old Yuichi (Iwamatsu Ryo), a Nagasaki-born baby-boomer with a shiny bald head (leading to the nickname "pecoross," a small onion), who is a "bad" salaryman who spends most of his days stealthily drawing manga or making music. He lives with his son Masaki and his eighty-nine year old mother Mitsue (Akagi Harue) who the last ten years, since the death of her husband, is suffering from dementia. This is described not with disgust as in some other films, but with humor and sweet sorrow. Mitsue goes out to buy sake for her dead husband, or sits all day waiting for Yuichi to comeback from work at the parking lot of his car. As she keeps going out on her own, it becomes unwise to leave her alone in the house, so Yuichi decides to entrust her to the care of a nursing home. Mitsue, however hates that, and keeps to her room like a hikikomori, drawing further and further back into herself and into her past life (which we get in flashbacks). She even imagines that her little daughter, who died at a young age, is coming to visit her... Based on an essay manga by Okano Yuichi. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film. The director, Morisaki Azuma, is himself 87 and therefore the oldest active film maker in Japan. Surprisingly, he has made a light and heart-warming movie about a serious subject. It is regrettable this wonderful film is not better known.

Soshite Chichi ni Naru ("Like Father, Like Son") by Koreeda Hirokazu is a breakthrough to the mainstream for this director, although to do so, he unfortunately makes several compromises and delivers a film that is rather below his best work. The strength and interest of his best film Still Walking was the lack of an all too obvious plot, the feeling of just looking in on a day in the life of an ordinary family. In this new movie, Koreeda introduces a Hollywood-type plot that is just too obvious from the beginning, and that leads to an iron conclusion we can see coming from afar. Moreover, the acting of protagonist Fukuyama Masaharu, who is originally a singer, is just below par - the kids in the film do a better job. Fukuyama plays a career yuppie who suddenly is informed officially that his six-year old son has accidentally been switched at birth with another baby, who is the son of a poor but laid-back family. Should they be switched back? The question is nature versus nurture, with the father opting for the bloodline (moreover, he already thought his son was too weak to be his real offspring) and the mother for the life lived together, for the shared culture. As the opinion of men still prevails in Japan, the kids are temporarily switched back to the real parents, but of course that doesn't work out. We knew so from the very start. But despite its flaws, this film is well worth watching.

Sayonara Keikoku ("The Ravine of Goodbye") by Omori Tatsushi, based on a novel by Yoshida Shuichi, is about a difficult subject that some might find offensive: a woman, Kanako (Maki Yoko), has been raped by fellow student Shunsuke (Onishi Shima) in high school, something which destroys her life as she can not keep future boyfriends or even hold a job. So when 15 years later she meets her rapist again, she starts living with him. Shunsuke is burdened with guilt, Kanako can't escape her past - she should not be considered as a victim fallen under the spell of her victimizer, but rather as a woman who in Shunsuke finds a refuge from the world outside. Moreover, she has power over him. This story is presented obliquely, as it comes out gradually through the investigation by two journalists of the murder of a child of a family living next door in which Shunsuke may have been implicated (the journalists are played by Omori Nao and Suzuki Anne).


Fune wo Amu ("The Great Passage") by Ishii Yuya is an office drama, set at a publishing company, about the making of a dictionary called "The Great Passage." The small dictionary team has to fight against many odds to complete their ten-year task, such as the danger that the project will be canceled. The protagonist is new member Matsuda Ryuhei, an emotional nerd whose coming of age story this is (his name is "Majime," which means "serious" but is written with different kanji). Shishido Jo plays his extroverted colleague, and it is nice to see Kato Go and Ikewaki Chizuru in small roles, while Miyazaki Aoi is a suitable love interest as the granddaughter of Majime's landlady. In fact, this is a typical Shochiku film promoting all-Japanese values: diligence (even when the task is boring and sheer endless), perseverance ("gambaru"), perfectionism (when one small miss is found, the group spends day and night rechecking all materials), excellent teamwork and "wet" human feelings. It is therefore interesting for the insight it provides into Japanese culture and the values that ideally drive the Japanese.

R100 by Matsumoto Hitoshi (of Big Man Japan fame) has an interesting premise but fails to make the most of it by undermining its own story but not taking it serious enough. A man working as sales manager in a department store, living alone with his young son as his wife is in hospital, joins a mysterious SM club, where the rules are rather different: the membership is for a whole year and cannot be canceled, and what is more, the "playground" is everywhere - wherever the man is, he can suddenly be attacked by a vicious dominatrix swinging her whip through the air, or placing a well-aimed a karate kick in his face. When this escalates and the man is even attacked at his workplace or in the hospital when he visits his wife, things get badly out of hand. In the end, he seeks refuge in the farm of his father-in-law, where a large group of leather-clad women approaches like an army of zombies... Filmed in bleached colors, which are almost black and white. The title is a joke about the rating: not R15 or R17, but "R100."

Kyoaku ("The Devil's Path") by Shiraishi Kazuya is a well-made crime drama about the omnipresence of evil in everyday society. A dogged but tired young reporter (Yamada Takayuki) is contacted by a death row inmate, the yakuza Sudo (Pierre Taki), who seven years ago has committed various murders at the instigation of his boss, a real estate agent called "sensei" (Lily Franky). That boss went scot-free and Sudo now seeks revenge. So he confesses to a series of nihilistic crimes which have not yet been discovered, such as the live burial of a victim and ramming another man into an incinerator. Most sickening for its casualness is the third murder of an elderly man, with the complicity of his family and (initially) the victim himself, in order to pay off a debt with his life assurance. The man is first fed lots of shochu and finally slowly killed by electric shocks from a stun gun, while the killers are rolling on the floor from laughter. This removes any sympathy we may have felt for Sudo, putting his confession in a cynical light. The reporter struggles against his boss who at first doesn't believe in the importance of the article he is writing, and also against his family situation, where his wife is unable to continue caring for his mother suffering from Alzheimer. Performances are excellent, especially Lily Franky, who, expertly cast against type, appears as a demon in human guise. An unembellished study of human nature at its most evil, the only flaw in this film is the cinematography, which doesn't rise above the level of a TV movie.

The remakes roll on, and it gets even more ridiculous. One of the best films ever made in the world is Tokyo Story by Ozu Yasujiro. It is the perfect masterpiece. Yamada Yoji has had the audacity to remake this in a modern setting as Tokyo kazoku ("Tokyo Family"). The new film is dull and plodding and not even good when we forget it is a remake. Compared to Ozu's immortal masterwork, Yamada's film is an ant trying to be a unicorn. Designated as "worst film of the year" by the Eiga Geijutsu magazine.

2014
Soko nomi nite hikari kagayaku ("The Light Shines Only There") by Oh Mipo is the tragic story of three young people set in Hakodate. Tatsuo (Ayano Go) is traumatized because he has caused an accidental death of a colleague in his job as stone worker - he now spends his days playing pachinko and his nights drinking; his new friend Takuji (Suda Masaki) is on parole after stabbing a man; and his sister Chinatsu (Ikewaki Chizuru) provides for the family by working as a prostitute. Tatsuo and Chinatsu set tentative steps towards a relation, but it is clear that luck will not be on their side. A grim film, but as there are no strange plot twists, much better than Oh's previous comedy. Not only the acting, but also the cinematography (by Kondo Ryuto) are first class.

Kami no Tsuki ("Pale Moon") by Yoshida Daihachi stars Miyazawa Rie as Rika, working at a bank where she is in charge of wealthy customers to whom she has to make home visits, and unhappily married to a busy salaryman. She thinks she has found something more in life when she meets the young nephew of one of her clients, a student half her age, and starts an affair with him. Unfortunately, the bland boy is played by a juvenile who considering his non-existent acting, still has to go to Theater School. But also from the side of Miyazawa there is not a single spark of screen passion, so their relation is unconvincing, to say the least. Rika is more like an elder sister or surrogate mother, also when she starts stealing money out of the accounts of her clients, first to help the boy through college, later to buy him increasingly expensive presents. Yoshida nowhere makes plausible why she would take such a high risk, nor what she gets out of it. The boy leaves her finally in the lurch for a girl his own age and Rika's embezzling is caught by her shrewd supervisor, Ms Sumi (played by Kobayashi Satomi), a colleague who supports the system although she has reached a dead end in her career. The direction by Yoshida is dull like a TV film, the story is predictable, and even Miyazawa Rie, who elsewhere is a forthright presence, seems nervous and uncertain. This film is unfortunately too flawed to be a statement about the empowerment and liberation of a forty-year old woman in stratified Japanese society.

Miike Takashi makes Kuime ("Over Your Dead Body"), a dull version of the classical ghost story Yotsuya Kaidan that has already been filmed countless times. Although this a not a straight remake as Miike introduces a new perspective by presenting the play in the form of a rehearsal by actors whose lives start running parallel to those of the protagonists of the play, the film never comes to life. The reason is that Miike forgets to fill in the lives and characters of the contemporary actors - we mainly see them in their luxury cars riding to and from the studio - and for the rest we have to watch a rather boring rehearsal. As regards Yotsuya Kaidan, I advise you to watch the version Nakagawa Nobuo made in 1959.

Miike Takashi also makes Kamisama no iu-tori ("As the Gods Will"), an old-fashioned splatter-fest based on a manga about "killer dolls:" a Daruma doll, a Maneki-neko cat, four Kokeshi dolls, a wood-carved ice bear and even a set of Matrioshka dolls. It is another gleeful carnage of high-school teenagers, although this time the story is so cartoonish and silly (taking its cue partly from Gantz) that it is less offensive than Aku no kyoten. But isn't this all old hat?

Another director who surprisingly has lost her magic is Kawase Naomi. Futatsume no mado ("Still the Water") is for the first time set outside Kawase's native Nara Prefecture, on Japan's southern island of Amami-Oshima. It is a coming of age story that unfortunately is overshadowed by boring touristy images of various festivals and songs and dances. Instead of making a film like a documentary, as many directors who started filming in the 1990s did, including Kawase herself, Kawase here just inserts documentary elements in a feature film, without proper justification. Her first work, Suzaku, remains my favorite among her films.

The remake machine rolls on. This time the perpetrator is Lee Sang-Il, who made the excellent The Villain (2010) discussed above. Now he derails by remaking Clint Eastwood's Western The Unforgiven in a late Edo samurai setting. Again, the original (as all originals) is much superior, and Lee has ended up making another unnecessary film. There are so many historical novels in Japan, was there really no original story to be found?

The remake merry-go-round takes another swing. Another famous film gets the treatment, this time Ichikawa Kon's Nobi, based on a novel by Ooka Shohei, remade by Tsukamoto Shinya. Where Ichikawa's artful and humanistic work was a "horror of war" film, Tsukamoto's giallo product is a mere "war horror" film, with stacked corpses, decapitated heads and other splatter effects. When the subplot of cannibalism kicks in, we are finally and truly in zombie-land. Tsukamoto plays the lead character, inviting a negative comparison with the excellent Funakoshi Eiji of the earlier film. More than that, this awful movie almost invites a reevaluation of Tsukamoto's earlier work as a director.

A History of Japanese Film by Year:1896-1909 - First Stirrings
1910-1919 - Development
1920-1929 - Art Films and Nihilistic Heroes
1930-1939 - Social Realism and Shoshimin-Eiga
1940-1949 - Censorship during War and Occupation
1950-1954 - Golden Age of the Classical Studio System
1955-1959 - Taiyozoku and other Youth Films
1960-1964 - The New Wave
1965-1969 - Independent Productions
1970-1974 - Sex and Violence
1975-1979 - Decline and Stagnation
1980-1989 - Disintegration of the Studio System
1990-1994 - The Rise of Indies
1995-1999 - Revival
2000-2004 - Postmodern Peak
2005-2009 - Cinematic Bubble
2010-2014 - Risk Avoidance[Reference works used: Currents In Japanese Cinema by Tadao Sato (Tokyo, 1987); The Japanese Film: Art and Industry by Joseph L. Anderson and Donald Richie (reprint Tokyo, 1983); A Hundred Years of Japanese Film by Donald Richie (Tokyo, 2001); Japanese Film Directors by Audrie Bock (Tokyo, 1985); A Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors by Alexander Jacoby (Berkeley, 2008); A New History of Japanese Cinema by Isolde Standish (New York, 2005); The Japanese Period Film by S.A. Thornton (Jefferson & London, 2008); Eros plus Massacre, An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema by David Desser (Bloomington and Indianopolis, 1988); Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema by David Bordwell (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1988); Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema by Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto (Duke University Press: Durham, 2000); The Waves at Genji's Door by Joan Mellen (Pantheon Books: New York, 1976); Japanese Classical Theatre in Film by Keiko I. Macdonald (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994); From Book to Screen by Keiko I. Macdonald (M.E. Sharpe: New York and London, 2000); Reading a Japanese Film by Keiko I. Macdonald (University of Hawai'i Press: Honolulu, 2006); Behind the Pink Curtain, A Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema, by Jasper Sharp (Fab Press: Godalming, 2008); Contemporary Japanese Film by Mark Schilling (Weatherhill: New York and Tokyo, 1999); The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film by Tom Mes and Jasper Sharp (Stone Bridge Press: Berkeley, 2005); Kitano Takeshi by Aaron Gerow (British Film Institute: London, 2007); Iron Man: the Cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto by Tom Mes (Fab Press: Godalming, 2005); Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike by Jasper Sharp (Fab Press: Godalming, 2003); Nihon Eigashi by Sato Tadao (Iwanami Shoten: Tokyo, 2008, 4 vols.); Nihon Eigashi 110-nen by Yomota Inuhiko (Shueisha; Tokyo, 2014). All images are linked from Wikipedia.]
1 Sep
Two posts in the Sake by Region series which is under revision, have been updated and expanded and are available at: Ibaraki and Tokyo.
5 Aug
Here are some characteristic trends of the years 2005-2009: 

- An overproduction of films, a sort of cinematic bubble (of course also thanks to digital video, which has lowered the barrier to film making by significantly lowering the costs of equipment, also for editing). When more than 400 Japanese films are made in one year (on a total of more than 800 released in that same year), it is impossible they all find a public or even are brought out on DVD. Many are probably scrapped without finding viewers. After all, the cinema is no longer the sole way to spend one's free time as in the 1950s, on the contrary.

- An absolute dominance of anime, which now takes up at least 60% of film production (like pink films did in the 1970s and 1980s). Most of these are for under-twelves. 

- Dominance of manga as the source for films, not only anime, but also live action films. This is not necessarily beneficial, as manga are two-dimensional and lack the depth possible in novels.

- Just like elsewhere in the world, CGI (computer graphics) are often added to live feature films. It seems to be very addictive for directors and producers, so much so that many films suffer from an overuse of CGI. Basically, CGI can always be detected and looks unrealistic. I definitely prefer films without these cheap effects. 

Conservatism and risk aversity in choice of subject. Not only are these the years of the remake, even of such classical films as Kurosawa's Tsubaki Sanjuro (2007) or his Hidden Fortress (2008) - something which to me makes no sense at all as the easily available originals are a million times superior to their cheap rip-offs - a playing on safe attitude also speaks from the numerous films that are based on already popular manga, TV series and mass fiction bestsellers. 

- In the mainstream, a large number of nostalgic films is made, looking back to the "glorious" fifties or even the war, emphasizing the sense of community among the Japanese in those periods. 

- Also in the mainstream, there is a dominance of major TV stations in the sense that popular series are made into films for the cinema by the TV stations. These are often conventional mysteries or police procedurals; others are pure idol vehicles. 

- Previous indies directors (including all famous names as Miike, Tsukamoto, Sono, Hiroki, Koreeda and Kurosawa) who have made it also internationally, are accepted by a more mainstream public and start making films aimed at such a public. This often - although not always - leads to a decrease in artistic quality.

- The positive trend noted in my previous post of more women being active as directors continues. 

- Visitors at film festivals abroad seem to expect that Japanese films are violent and filled with gore and some directors unfortunately consciously cater to that preference. 

- Due to the collapse of the DVD market, it is difficult for new indies film makers to grow, as there is almost no market between their no budget first films and expensive mainstream films (as the straight-to-video market was in the 1990s). Foreign film festivals and, increasingly, foreign financing therefore are important. Happily, Japanese films remain popular at such festivals. 

2005
- This year, there are 2,926 screens in Japan, of which 1,954 in cinema complexes. 356 Japanese films are produced (41.3 % of total). Admissions stand at 160,453,000.

The best film of the year is Yawarakai Seikatsu ("It's Only Talk") by Hiroki Ryuichi, starring Terajima Shinobu who already played the lead in the same director's Vibrator. It is the story of Yuko, a thirty-five year old, unemployed and mentally unstable urbanite. She suffers from regular bouts of deep depression. Her parents have died in an accident and she lives off the insurance money, spending her days writing a blog. When she discovers the decidedly unglamorous attraction of the Kamata area in Tokyo, she moves there, as it seems to fit her. She sometimes meets men (usually via her blog), but without forming any fixed ties. That is not very surprising, for one of them is a young yakuza who is also manic depressive (she shows him the park in Kamata where a Godzilla statue has been built of old tires), another is a former school pal who is now a politician but who suffers from erectile dysfunction, and a third a married pervert who wants to bring her to orgasm in public places. Then one day her cousin Shoichi (Toyokawa Etsushi) appears on her doorstep - he has left his family to be with his mistress, but has been dumped in his turn - looking for a place to stay the night, but when he sees the demons Yuko is fighting with (she just has an attack of depression when he is with her), he decides to stay and help her. Terashima Shinobu (the daughter of Hibotan Bakuto actress Fuji Junko) plays the greatest part of her career, with a fearless honesty, willing to appear damaged and flawed, completely open to the camera. Toyokawa Estushi is also excellent as the slightly behind-the-times country cousin in his leather jacket and driving an antique American convertible. Arguably the best film by Hiroki Ryuichi (who later in the decade would start making more commercial work), an intriguing insight into the mixed-up mind of present-day Japan and its drifting young generation, shot in a near documentary style. Also captures the old-fashioned charms of Kamata with a loving gaze.


Noriko no shokutaku ("Noriko's Dinner Table") by Sono Shion starts out as a family comedy about a busy father (Mitsuichi Ken), mother and two daughters, Noriko (Fukiishi Kazue) and Yuka (Yoshitaka Yuriko), with a communication problem based on intergenerational tension. The sisters are also bored with life in the dull town of Toyokawa. Noriko then runs away to Tokyo where via a chatroom on the web she has come into contact with the mysterious Kumiko (Tsugumi), who is later revealed as the figurehead of a shady cult that dismantles its members' "false" personalities. The sinister group is also responsible for the mass suicide from Sono's previous film Suicide Club. The cult hides behind the facade of a rent-a-family business, The Family Circle, where anyone can rent grandchildren for an afternoon visit or a wife for a walk in the park (we even see an instance of a man who wants to kill a cheating lover, and is allowed to really murder the role playing woman). The elaborate role playing of the cult members is made possible by the fact that their real personalities have been deconstructed. Later, the sister Yuka also runs away to join the same Family Circle, but as both have new identities, they are not "sisters" anymore. Finally, mayhem breaks out when the father - after the suicide of the mother - comes to Tokyo to find his daughters and claim them back, turning the film into a bloody psychological thriller. He has discovered what happened and uses the trick of renting a family to come into contact with them, but can role-playing really replace family ties? And are Noriko and Yuka still the same persons? Interesting film about identity and alienation, without the extreme splatter of Suicide Club.


Kimyo na circus ("Strange Circus"), also by Sono Shion, is a bizarre and hallucinatory film about incest, murder, suicide and switched identities, framed by Felliniesque theatrical scenes at a transvestite night club (which give the film its title). There is also a wheelchair bound woman, a writer, who may or may not have made up the first half of the film, and her unstable, androgynous assistant, who may be a transsexual. The line between reality and fantasy is crossed and recrossed and in the end the question remains: what is real and what not? With Miyazaki Masumi in a triple role as Sayuri / Mitsuko and the writer Taeko. An outrageous revival of the ero-guro tradition.

Tsuki to cherri ("Moon and Cherry") by Tanada Yuki is a bright comedy about a student called Tadokoro (Nagaoka Tasuku) who, to get extra credits, joins his university's most obscure extracurricular circle, the erotic writing club, led by a grumpy Emoto Akira. Here he is quickly picked up by the club's only female member, the spunky Mayama (Eguchi Noriko), who in a funny gender reversal uses the men around her for her own ends. She is already a successful writer of erotic stories and soon deflowers the shy virgin Tadakoro to get material for a new story. Next she also sends him to an SM dominatrix to write up his shocking experiences. Eguchi is a captivating presence, a strong, independent-minded woman. Tanada Yuki is one of the several women directors who came up at the start of the new millennium. (In fact, this film was brought out 25 Dec., 2004.)

Kanaria ("Canary") by Shiota Akihiko - the director of the 1999 Moonlight Whispers -  shows how deep the Aum Shinrikyo trauma has cut into Japanese society. Shiota highlights the most vulnerable group, the children of the cult members, and his film is set after the murderous attack and consequent disbanding of the cult (here called "Nirvana"). A mother had joined the cult with her son and daughter. After the disbanding of the cult, the mother who is a cadre member, flees, the twelve-year old Koichi (Ichida Hoshi) is taken into child welfare and his younger sister goes to live with their grandfather. But Koichi wants to be with his sister and breaks out of the welfare unit in the Kansai to travel to Tokyo. He soon meets Yuki (Tanimura Mitsuki), a girl desperate to flee from her abusive father, and the scarred youths decide to make the journey together. The film sometimes reminded me of Koreeda's Nobody Knows, another study about child abuse. The first half of the film is best, as a sort of road movie. In the second half we get flash backs to the misbehavior and cruelty of the cult, but also the harshness of the reaction of Japanese society: the grandfather is deemed guilty just because he is a family member and has been driven out of his house in Tokyo. The films ends on a note of hope as Koichi and Yuki develop a sort of familial bond and symbolically form a new family with Koichi's little sister.


Linda Linda Linda by Yamashita Nobuhiro is a film about high school girls who start their own band to take part in a school contest. The teenage girls have to learn to play their instruments from the bottom up and then practice a single song, "Linda Linda Linda" (from the real life 1980s band The Blue Hearts). Their lead singer is a Korean girl with only little Japanese, played by Bae Du-na (who would later become famous for her title role in Koreeda's Air Doll). Happily, there are no idols in the cast, and also for the rest this is a laid-back story, with no unwanted dramatizing of the proceedings. A laconic and pleasantly minimalist film.

Itsuka dokusho suru hi ("The Milkwoman," lit. "One day when reading books") by Ogata Akira is a poetical film about the unconsumed love between a 50-year old woman, who works as a milk woman and also as cashier in a supermarket, and her former school mate who has a position in Children's Affairs at the City Hall. He is married, but his wife is mortally ill, which is also the weakest point of the film, for it drags it down into sentimentality. The wife finally sends a letter to the "milk woman," asking her to marry her husband after her own death. Another less strong point is that several problems of contemporary Japan have been pulled in: problems of children abandoned by their parents and the problem of an aging population having to cope with senility. But the beautiful setting in Nagasaki with its hills and endless staircases makes much good. With Tanaka Yuko (who won Best Actress at the Yokohama Film Festival for this role) and Kishibe Ittoku.

Kuchu teien ("Hanging Garden") by Toyoda Toshiaki is a drama about a family (father, mother, daughter and son) living in Japan's soulless new apartment suburbia, whose members have decided they will hide nothing from each other and be strictly honest. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. The mother (Koizumi Kyoko) is hiding her own violent youth - she even tried to kill her own mother (Imajuku Asami) - and the fact that she meticulously planned her present-day life by seducing her husband on a "fertile day." As his wife has to work to pay back the apartment loan, and is too tired at night for lovemaking, the husband (Itao Itsuji) seeks his pleasure with several mistresses. In fact, the family is like a hanging garden, without any stability. Things come to head at a birthday party for the tutor of the son, who is also the father's mistress, a catharsis which is also helped by the presence of the chain smoking grandmother. The love hotel where the daughter was conceived on the above mentioned "fertile day" also plays a role in the film, as it is visited by the father with a mistress, by the daughter who wants to see where she was conceived, by the son with his tutor, and by the grandmother who enjoys the big revolving bed. A satire that is both funny and chilling and deserves to be better known.

Ranpo jigoku ("Rampo Noir") is an omnibus movie based on four stories by the ever-popular Edogawa Ranpo. Asano Tadanobu plays in all four episodes, by four different directors, as Jissoji Akio and Sato Hisayasu. The film is rather arty and ponderous, with beautiful shots (especially in the second section "Mirror Hell" with all its mirrors) but lacks impact. The third story, "Caterpillar," was in 2010 remade as a full feature film by Wakamatsu Koji.

Pacchigi! ("Break Through!") by Izutsu Kazuyuki, although brought out in 2004, won the Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year in 2006. That award is something I don't agree with: although the issue of ethnic Koreans living in Japan is an important one, Izutsu treats it even less serious than Yukisada Isao did in Go (2001): by dressing it up in cartoonish high school violence plus some Romeo and Julia romance. That may have been the only way to make the problem palatable to young film goers, but with all the over the top violence and manga-type faces the result is too artificial.

In his black comedy Takeshis', Kitano Takeshi examines the relationship between himself and his media generated public persona. He tells the story of Beat Takeshi, a prominent actor, driven around in a limousine, who meets his double named Kitano, a convenience store clerk with bleached hair who dreams of becoming an actor and is always humiliated when he goes to auditions. When their paths cross, however, the clerk starts hallucinating about becoming Beat. All the actors have double roles, with Kitano in several disguises. The film is rather a collection of loose gags, full of references to Kitano's other movies, which becomes tiresome after a while. Kitano unfortunately would continue doing the same thing in Glory to the Filmmaker (2007) and Achilles and the Tortoise (2008), two odd films which seem insider jokes for his own amusement. Fortunately, Kitano made several excellent films in the 1990s, for which he will be remembered in cinematic history.


Yokai Daisenso ("The Great Yokai War") by Miike Takashi is, like the same director's Zebraman (2004) and Yatterman (2009), basically a mainstream film for children (although some of the yokai-monsters are so frightening that the film is not suitable for those of a tender age). I don't like the CGI - the old-fashioned 1968 Yokai Hyaku Monogatari, a Daiei tokusatsu film, was more fun in that respect. But I appreciate that Miike pays homage to yokai manga artist Mizuki Shigeru by having him appear as demon king and by setting one scene in Sakaiminato, the Tottori town that has a Mizuki Shigeru Museum and a road decorated with sculptures made after his manga creations.

2006
- This year, there are 3,062 screens in Japan, a number for the first time since 1970 higher than 3,000. With a production figure of 417 films, Japanese films have a higher proportion (53.2) than foreign films, something which would only grow stronger over the next years (in total, 821 films were released this year). But this number also points at a cinematic bubble, as many of these films never reach a wider public (or a public at all) or are never released on DVD. 

My favorite film of this year is Kamome shokudo ("Seagull Diner") by Ogigami Naoko, a quietly humorous drama filmed in Helsinki, where a Japanese woman (Kobayashi Satomi) tries to run a diner. She is joined by two other Japanese women stranded in Helsinki (Katagiri Hairi and Motai Masako). At first there are no customers at all, then a Fin comes who studies Japanese and has questions about Japanese culture, and finally more and more follow. The diner serves coffee and cinnamon rolls, but also onigiri, although these take some time to become popular among Fins (the diner doesn't want to cater to Japanese travelers, but aims at the locals). A subtle portrait of three independent women, succeeding in a foreign culture by patience and small daily efforts. The interaction with the Finnish people (played by Tarja Markus and Markku Peltola - known from the films of Aki Kaurismäki) is also very nicely done. Based on a novel by Mure Yoko.

Another excellent film by a woman director is Yureru ("Sway") by Nishikawa Miwa, a family drama formatted around a courtroom drama. When trendy Tokyo photographer Takeru (Odagiri Joe) visits the countrytown where his family lives, we notice various tensions between him and his father, his elder brother Minoru (who has remained at home; played by Kagawa Teruyuki) and his ex-girlfriend Chieko (Maki Yoko). The still unmarried Minoru harbors romantic feelings for Chieko - she works as an assistant in his gas station. Unfortunately, the family's black sheep Takeru is an irresponsible boy who not only consciously enrages his father, but also spends the night with the ex-girlfriend, thereby reviving Chieko's unrealistic hope of joining him in Tokyo, and damaging his brother's prospects. That brother, by the way, has his own problems, for he is fed-up with being treated as a "doormat" by everybody else. The next day, the two brothers and Chieko make an outing to the Hasumi Gorge, a place they often visited in their youth. When Minoru and Chieko are crossing the dangerously swaying suspension bridge over the gorge, Chieko falls to her death in the raging river below. Was there a quarrel and did Minoru push her off? Was Takeru a witness to the incident, and if so, will he be a reliable witness? Sway is a film about the chasm between social pressure and individualism, the countryside and Tokyo, family life and freelancing. But it also shows that the foundation of glitter, fashion and acting cool on which Takeru has built his life is innately unstable. Therefore, as many young people in Japan today, he is "swaying." Official selection for Cannes (the only Japanese film this year).

Strawberry Shortcakes by Yazaki Hitoshi is a a poignant look at loneliness in the socially fragmented big city, through the prism of the lives of four young women, filmed as a near documentary. The story is based on a popular manga by Nananan Kiriko, who writes for a public of adult females. The four self-sufficient women living in contemporary Tokyo are followed two by two and their lives run parallel through the whole film, with subtle interactions. We have cheerful Satoko (Ikewaki Chizuru) who works as a receptionist for a call girl service. Satoko has found a small black stone that fell from the sky and that she has christened "god." She mumbles prayers to the stone to let her find someone who will love her. The classy Akiyo (Nakamura Yuko) works at the above call girl service. She is so death-obsessed that she even sleeps in a coffin - it is fun to see the smoke of her morning cigarette rise up from the window in the lid. She diligently saves the money she earns with her often degrading work in order to buy a condo situated on the 5th floor or higher - so she can jump out and kill herself efficiently when she gets old and senile and can no longer manage on her own. The reclusive Toko (Iwase Toko aka manga author Nananan Kiriko herself) is a book illustrator who works obsessively to forget the recent separation from her husband. Toko represses past memories and suffers from severe bulimia - so realistically acted by Iwase that it is painful to watch. The cutesy Chihiro (Nakagoshi Noriko) is Toko's roommate. She is an office worker (OL) who loves shopping, fashion and makeup and dreams about the ideal boyfriend who will fulfill all her wishes - for her, such a boyfriend is "god." All these four women struggle with their loneliness and try to find a patch of warmth in the cold concrete of the vast city. The film is very authentic in its portrayal of these largely "normal" young women and presents their sometimes melancholy situation without getting sweet or melodramatic - on the contrary, all scenes are infused with a fine sense of humor.


Bushi no ichibun ("Love and Honor") by Yamada Yoji is the third film in the director's "samurai trilogy." While the second film had a bit of a wandering plot, this is again a tight story like the first one, and a great revisionist period film with social criticism. Rather than repeating the plot, I feel I have to say a few more general words in defense of Yamada Yoji who is often regarded in English criticism as a "journeyman contract director" who just did what the studio asked him to do. Well, on the contrary, Yamada Yoji is an auteur and not a contract director (as also pointed out by Alexander Jacoby) - the proof is in the fact that he writes all his own scenarios like Ozu and Kinoshita did, and that he does express his own ideas in his films. These are generally socially critical from a leftist point of view and carry on the tradition of the shoshimin eiga (also by being somewhat sentimental as other films in that tradition). I believe it was his own choice to make all the 48 Tora-san films, and not pressure from Shochiku, because these movies allowed him to express his own ideas. But in between he also made a number of excellent other films like Where Spring Comes Late and Home from the Sea. In fact, his ideology has not changed since he made Shitamachi no taiyo ("The Sun of Shitamachi (=downtown area)") in 1963, where the heroine decides to marry a steelworker rather than the office worker who is courting her. In that same tradition fit these three period films in which he deconstructs the heroic image of the samurai as presented in other movies, and shows them to be what they really were in the Edo period: (often underpaid) local government officials.

Akumu Tantei ("Nightmare Detective") by Tsukamoto Shinya is the director's contribution to J-Horror. The film starts from a good premise: a danger that manifests itself from dreams, but that seems to have no physical form, although later it takes on the shape of a killer played by Tsukamoto himself. The "Nightmare Detective" is a tormented, reclusive young man called Kagenuma (Matsuda Ryuhei, the "beautiful boy" from Gohatto), who dresses in a simple hooded cloak. He has the power to enter the dreams of other people, but this a painful process for him and he sees his gift as a curse. The heroine of the film is yuppie female cop Kirishima Keiko (pop star Hitomi in her first film role), who has just transferred to homicide. Her first two cases are the bizarre deaths of a punk girl and an obese salaryman, who have both slit their throats in apparent suicide while they were asleep. Kirishima realizes that the deaths may not be suicides at all, but her bored, elder partner Sekiya (Osugi Ren) disagrees. Kirishima notices that just before their deaths both victims received a call from somebody identified as "0" on their cellphone screens. "Zero" of course denotes emptiness and death. The parapsychological killer apparently does his grizzly work by entering the dreams of his victims. Kirishima enlists the support of the - first unwilling - Nightmare Detective. She decides to be bait herself and dials "0". And so a mad chase ensues through a terrible nightmare world...


Sakebi ("Retribution") by Kurosawa Kiyoshi is a perfect film-noir that treads a fine line between thriller and horror. As always by Kurosawa, there is also a wider, philosophical context. The Japanese title of this film is Sakebi or "Scream" - in the most haunting moments of this dark film we see a woman in red who utters an incredible, ear-splitting wail... But the title Retribution fits just as well, as it suggests the film's underlying idea: we are all collectively guilty, both for things we did and for things we neglected to do, and will get our "retribution" when time is ripe. Retribution starts out like just another thriller, with a cop, Yoshioka (Yakusho Koji, a favorite actor of Kurosawa), investigating the murder of a woman on a plot of reclaimed wasteland. A woman in a vivid red dress lies murdered with her face down in a pool of water. In the pool Yoshioka finds a coat button that matches his, and later his fingerprints are discovered on the body. He also starts seeing a ghost in just such a red dress (played by Hazuki Riona). Is he himself the murderer? Also his partner in the investigation starts having doubts. In the end, in a final twist, Yoshioka learns a terrible secret about himself - no one can escape the misdeeds done in the past...


Sakuran by Ninagawa Mika, based on a popular manga by Anno Moyoco, tells how a little girl is sold into the harsh world of the Yoshiwara pleasure district and grows up to be an oiran, a top prostitute. Played by Tsuchiya Anna, rebellious Kiyoha stands out for breaking all rules, brazenly talking back, challenging authority, and even running away. She next grows into a beautiful but straight-talking courtesan with a quick temper, who is popular among the men who frequent the brothel. Finally she becomes a Yoshiwara star, the top-prostitute who can show off her beauty slowly parading in super-high geta through Yoshiwara with her retinue. Ninagawa Mika's background is photography and not only the costumes and sets, but also all colors in this film are fabulous. Ninagawa turns her back on convention by the utterly modern, over-the-top beauty of the flamboyant kimonos, the contemporary ikebana flower arrangements, and a rock soundtrack. There are also other great ideas, such as making the top part of the gate leading into Yoshiwara into a goldfish bowl, a most fitting symbol for the women inside.


Hana yori mo nao ("Hana: The Tale of a Reluctant Samurai") by Koreeda Hirokazu is a revisionist period film in a humorous vein, that also contains a homage to Yamanaka Sadao's 1937 Humanity and Paper Balloons. Soza (Okada Junichi) has been mandated by his clan to track down and punish the murderer of his father (Asano Tadanobu). But Soza is a reluctant warrior, he is terrible with a sword and hates violence and revenge. He prefers being a teacher for the children of the slummy tenement building where he resides (in fact, close to where the man he seeks is staying) and develop a relation with a kind young widow there (Miyazawa Rie). Soza prefers friendship, peace and family to bushido, and Koreeda tells us that, instead of the message of revenge, a father should leave his son the gift of peace and happiness. Koreeda reinforces this theme by setting the film in the year after the seppuku of the Lord of Ako from the Chushingura tale, while the 47 ronin are in hiding (some in the same tenement as where Soza lives) and waiting their chance of revenge on Lord Kira, something the director clearly disapproves of.


M ("M: A Married Woman") by Hiroki Ryuichi is about a housewife, Satoko (Miwon), who, like a Japanese Belle de Jour, starts working as a prostitute by meeting strangers in motels. She seems an impeccable person, but in reality is oppressed by a strange Freudian guilt fantasy. She soon falls in the hands of a yakuza pimp (Taguchi Tomorowo) who starts blackmailing her. In the meantime, her husband (Omori Nao) gets suspicious when he sees what looks like her picture when browsing porn online. And, above all, a newspaper boy, Minoru (Kora Kengo), who has a mother fixation (he has obeyed Freud by killing his father) develops a crush on her and spies on her when she has her trysts. He finally wants to help her cut her ties with her yakuza. But the film is not a sensationalist, sleazy thriller, as Hiroki pays the necessary attention to character development and the ending is a pleasant surprise. M may stand for "Married," for "Minoru," but also considering all the violence that Satoko has to suffer from various men, for "Masochism" - and perhaps all three.

Taiyo no kizu ("Sun Scarred") by Miike Takashi is a restrained film (as far as Miike goes), but also a little known one which in fact shows the director in top form. A salaryman, Katayama (Aikawa Sho, interestingly cast against type), on his way home stumbles on a gang of teenage punks beating up an innocent man. When Katamaya breaks up the fight, the sinister, hooded and lollipop sucking teenager (Morimoto Satoshi) who leads the punks decides to revenge himself. He kidnaps and murders the small daughter of Katayama. Despite all this, the justice system sees Katayama as responsible for what happened and after just one year and a half the young murderer is released from prison. While fighting the obstruction from the justice system, Katayama tries to find out the murder's location in order to take revenge (in the meantime, his wife has committed suicide). And indeed, instead of starting a new life, the young killer is up to no good at all...

Another film Miike Takashi makes this year is 46-okunen no koi ("Big bang Love, Juvenile A"), an experimental movie featuring Matsuda Ryuhei and Ando Masanobu, about the bonds of love and murder between two male prisoners, filmed in the bare-bones style of Lars von Triers' Dogville. A surprising film, somewhat in the tradition of Izo.

Mamiya kyodai ("The Mamiya Borthers") by Morita Yoshimitsu (of The Family Game) is one of the best among the many Japanese quirky comedies about arrested development. Two otaku brothers live a contented bachelor life together, watching baseball and DVDs, playing Monopoly, collecting model trains, and eating gyoza. Akinobu (Kuranosuke Sasaki), the long and slim older brother, works at a beer plant and the short and fat younger brother, Tetsunobu (Muga Tsukaji), is a school janitor. Still, although they are decidedly uncool, they feel a wish to be accepted by others. But how? What about having a curry party and inviting some women, such as Tetsunobu's colleague, the shy teacher Yoriko (Tokiwa Takako) and the cute girl from the DVD rental shop, Naomi (Sawajiri Erika)? Will that work? By the way, well-known singer Nakajima Miyuki appears as the mama of the Mamiya brothers.

The darling of Japanese critics this year is feel-good film Hula Girls by Lee Sang-il, as it wins both the Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year and the Japan Academy Prize for Picture of the Year. After the Joban coal mines in southern Fukushima close in 1965, the town (now Iwaki) decides to fight the economic crisis by building a Hawaiian-themed tourist attraction with hot springs and hula dancers. Central to the film is the story of the young women drafted as entertainers for the new attraction, who have to overcome many (even violent) patriarchal objections when they start practicing with a professional dancer hired from Tokyo. The dance sequences are well done, but in the end this is a rather superficial and predictable film (Lee Sang-Il would make a come-back with the superior Akunin in 2010).


Kiraware Matsuko no Issho ("Memories of Matsuko") by Nakashima Tetsuya, with Nakatani Miki in the title role, received many accolades and certainly looks sleek (even too much so, the CGI gets awfully tiring)... but this story of a woman going down the drain because she picks the wrong men in her life, was too conservative and old-fashioned for me - and I disliked it all the more as this was presented in a funny light with a huge dose of sentimentality. I'm afraid the memories presented here are false.

Ojisan Tengoku ("Uncle's Paradise") by Imaoka Shinji is a modern pink film set in an ordinary, quiet fishing port. A young guy is visited by his mysterious uncle (pink film veteran Shimomoto Shiro), who has bad dreams and therefore tries to keep awake by imbibing endless vitamin drinks. But that makes him incredibly horny and he seduces all the women of the small town, signing his name on the naked bodies with a red felt pen. And that is only the beginning of the weirdness...

I only mention Shisei ("Shisei: The Tattooer") by Sato Hisayasu because it is part of a wave of remakes in this period of films based on stories by Tanizaki Junichiro, besides The Tattooer (Shisei) also Manji and Shunkisho. The Tattooer of course is the story of a tattoo artist who tattoos a spider on the back of a demure young woman, thereby changing her into a sadistic dominatrix. As pink director, Sato plays up the sexual side of the story, but he also concentrates on the tattooer: what is necessary to inspire an artist to his greatest creation? The remake by Zeze Takahisa in 2007 would focus on the woman and what the huge spider tattoo on her back does to her personality. Unfortunately, neither film is very good, and the best adaptations of these Tanizaki works date from the sixties, by for example Masumura Yasuzo.


Paprika, an animation film by Kon Satoshi, is based on a science-fiction novel by Tsutsui Yasutaka, and comparable in its high quality and mysterious atmosphere to the same director's Perfect Blue and Millennium Actress. An instrument that allows therapists to enter their patients' dreams is stolen, and the fear is that it will be misused for criminal purposes. There is also the worry that it may have been an inside job. Only one person is able to retrieve the tool: Dr Chiba Atsuko, whose dream world avatar Paprika can jump from mind to mind... Unfortunately, this was Kon Satoshi's last feature film. He died in 2010 at the young age of 46.

2007
The best film of the year is Mogari no mori ("The Mourning Forest") by Kawase Naomi, which won the Jury Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival, although it was shamefully ignored by Japanese critics. Set in the fields and woods of Kawase's native Nara Prefecture, it is the story of a woman who becomes a caretaker at a home for the aged following the death of her child – and finds herself on a quest with a senile man still mourning the wife he lost 33 years ago. In the film, both try to come to terms with their bereavement. As usual, Kawase's style is close to documentary, avoiding melodramatic developments or complex plot, and opting for location shooting in the beautiful nature of Nara. The performances are partly by amateurs, and their improvisations give a raw edge to the film that is balanced by the director's ability to catch subtle nuances of behavior and capture the momentary.



Megane
("Glasses") by Ogigami Naoko is about Taeko (Kobayashi Satomi), a professor who comes to the tiny Okinawan island of Yoron to spend a vacation in a place where her mobile phone doesn't work. She is the only guest in a quirky hotel managed by the cheery Yuji (Mitsuishi Ken), located where there is literally nothing to do but sit still and think - called "twilighting" in the film. It takes some time before the busy professor can adjust to the slow life, and the same is probably true for the viewers of this film, which proceeds very slowly, with beautiful shots of seascapes and Ozu-like scenes of people just sitting still. Taeko meets Sakura (Motai Masako) and elderly woman who comes every spring to the hotel to make shaved ice flavored with syrup and azuki beans (kakigori) in a stand on the beach - but she asks no money. She has a Buddha-like smile and seems always content. That is not the case with Haruna (Ichikawa Mikako), a teacher at the local high school, who also hangs around at the hotel and the beach and is rather argumentative - but her questions help Taeko think about her life. Finally, Taeko is traced by a male student (Kase Ryo), but this doesn't lead to any of the expected dramatic scenes (although we must surmise that he is in love with her and that Taeko came all the way to Yoron so that he couldn't call her on her mobile phone ) - almost no information about the characters is provided, the viewer has to guess. Thanks to the offbeat humor this "slow life" film is never boring and like Taeko we slowly succumb to the local custom of "twilighting." By the way, as in Ogigami's previous Seagull Diner, there is again a lot of delicious food in this movie. P.S. As regards the title: all characters in the film wear glasses, and Taeko looses hers when she leaves after the first visit as a symbol of her adjustment to the slow life on the island.


Exte ("Exte: Hair Extensions) by Sono Shion and with Kuriyama Chiaki, Osugi Ren and Tsugumi. This film about "killer black hair" is a spoof on J-Horror and the tradition of ghostly females with long, black hair. A dead woman keeps sprouting hair and a goofy hair fetishist decides to make money out if it by selling "hair extensions" to a beauty shop (where Kuriyama Chiaki works as a walking shampoo ad). Being from a dead female with a deep grudge, the hair extensions start killing their wearers in interesting ways. Finally, the film enters cult territory when a sort of hairy womb appears to regenerate the protagonists. Some campy fun. After watching, you will feel as if your mouth is full of hair... (See my more detailed post about this film)


Sad Vacation by Aoyama Shinji is the story of Kenji (Asano Tadanobu) who earns his living by doing various odd, half-legal jobs. He has an emotional scar as his mother abandoned him as a child and his father committed suicide. But he is kind to a Chinese boy, an illegal immigrant, and also to the traumatized sister (Miyazaki Aoi from Eureka) of a friend who sits in jail. Then his life takes a big turn: he thinks he recognizes his mother (Ishida Eri)  in the wife of a transport company owner who is soliciting his help in running the company. Will this be his chance to take revenge and settle the score with his mother? Set in Kitakyushu.

Tenten ("Adrift in Tokyo") by Miki Satoshi is about impoverished student Fumiya (Odagiri Joe), who owes the loan sharks big money, and debt collector Fukuhara (Miura Tomokazu), who proposes to make a walking trip together from the western part of Tokyo to Kasumigaseki - in this way the student can earn the money he owes. In fact, Fukuhara tells he has killed his wife because she was unfaithful to him and is making a last trip through Tokyo before turning himself in. What follows is a road movie with quirky encounters along the way, basically just two men walking and talking. While talking, Fumiya gets the feeling that he was the man with whom Fukuhara's wife was in love...

Groping women on packed trains is such a social problem in Japan that most commuter trains now have "Women Only" cars and men accused of this crime are almost automatically deemed guilty. But what if such an accusation is false? That is the problem addressed in Soredemo boku wa yattenai ("I Just Didn't Do It") by Suo Masayuki, a realistic and relatively light-hearted courtroom drama with Kase Ryo as a salaryman unjustly accused of groping a teenage girl on a packed commuter train. Suo uses the case to criticize aspects of the Confucian Japanese justice system, but the result is a rather labored one-issue film without further depth, despite winning the Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year.

Maiko Haaaan!!! by Mizuta Nobuo is a manic comedy about a instant ramen factory worker (Abe Sadao) who is obsessed with Kyoto's maiko, apprentice geisha. He spends most of his time writing posts and taking pictures for his maiko website and is very happy when he is transferred to the company's Kyoto plant so that he can fully indulge in his passion. His obsession also means he is neglecting his girlfriend (Shibasaki Kou), but she has a good idea: she will try to become a maiko to win him back...

Funuke domo, kanashimi no ai wo misero ("Funuke: Show Some Love You Losers!") by Yoshida Daihachi. When the parents of the Funuke family die in an accident, the three siblings (suffering from arrested development) are in desperate straits, facing conflicts and bloody quarrels. The eldest sibling, Shinji (Nagase Masatoshi), lives in the parents’ home with his friendly mail order bride Machiko (Nagasaku Hiromi). The youngest, Kiyomi (Satsukawa Aimi), is a high-schooler who hopes to become a manga artist. They are joined by their sister from Tokyo, Sumika (Sato Eriko), who is trying to pursue an acting career. The result is mayhem.

Although not on the same level of his "Black Society" or "Dead or Alive" trilogies, Ryu ga gotoku ("Like a Dragon") is an action packed and entertaining yakuza flick where director Miike Takashi is on his home turf. We have the usual psychopathic gangster with an eye patch, carrying a golden baseball bat, and a fine Shinjuku atmosphere. The film is set during one, sweltering hot night, in which the city explodes into violence.

Sukiyaki Western Django, also by Miike Takashi, is a postmodern mix of a Western with a samurai film - not such a strange idea, as Japanese period drama was partly inspired by American Western, while Kurosawa in his turn inspired not only the serious Western (The Magnificent Seven) but also Sergio Leone's Spaghetti westerns. Miike has transplanted the medieval struggle between the Heike and the Taira to an American Western town, and both swords and guns serve as weapons. That the film does not really work is the fault of another idiosyncrasy: Miike has the Japanese actors speak phonetic (broken) English, which is so silly that it makes the film almost impossible to watch.

A third film this year by Miike Takashi, Crows Zero ("Crows: Episode Zero"), is based on a manga by Takahashi Hiroshi about high school gangs. The school is a stylish ruin, and the boys do nothing but fight for dominance - a bit like Toyoda Toshiaki's earlier Blue Spring. The ultra-violence is typically cartoonish and over the top, as are the various characters. This became one of Miike's most successful films in Japan, also because he cast hot young male stars with large female followings. Despite the black humor, in a two-dimensional film like this Miike has really sunk to becoming just another mainstream director.


Dainipponjin ("Big Man Japan") was written, played and directed by Matsumoto Hitoshi, in real life the "dim-witted" half of a highly popular "manzai" comic duo.  The film is a cross between a "mockumentary" and a riff on the giant monster genre - and the result is entertaining, although also somewhat tiresome. Matsumoto plays an elderly looser, living in a dirty wooden house, who however leads a double life as Great Defender of Japan against wacky, invading monsters - his fights are always shown on TV, but rather at midnight than prime time. Before these monster fights he connects to a power station to be blown up himself to gigantic size. The weirder the monster, the more serious Matsumoto Hitoshi, who never even smiles in the film and plays all the wackiness with a perfectly straight face.

2008The best film of the year is Aruitemo Aruitemo ("Still Walking") by Koreeda Hirokazu. A lyrical film about one day in the life of the Yokoyama family: the aged parents (the father a retired doctor, played by Harada Yoshio; the mother played by Kiri Kirin), who are visited for the death anniversary (meinichi) of the eldest son by their married daughter (played by You who also appeared in Nobody Knows) with husband and two children and their son (Abe Hiroshi), who has just married a widow (Natsukawa Yui) with her small son. Koreeda just shows us the family's domestic routines, the ordinary conversations, the visit to the graveyard, the family dinner, the kids playing around the house and garden, without any big dramatic moments, but through these small daily events the entire universe of the family life with its simmering tensions is gradually revealed. The elder brother died fifteen years ago when trying to save another boy from drowning. Not only is that boy now a fatty good-for-nothing (he is forced to make a brief visit on this special day), the father also secretly regrets that the elder brother died and not the second one. He had wanted one of his sons to take over his clinic, but the second son is an art restorer (and on top of that out of a job, something he hides from his parents). The parents also dislike the fact that he has married a widow who already has a child. The mother and sister are rather argumentative and are all the time talking in a smallish quarrelsome fashion (showing how much Japan has changed since Ozu, whose characters showed so much self-discipline!). The sister comes up and down on the same day by car, but the brother who can't afford a car yet, has to stay the night, very much against his wishes. As usual with Koreeda, the movie has been shot in a strong documentary style, as if we are eavesdropping on a real family and gradually learning their secrets. The performances are all very natural. A wonderful movie, of the kind that makes you exclaim "Good there is Japanese cinema!", and in my view Koreeda's best.


A close runner-up is Tokyo Sonata by Kurosawa Kiyoshi, a realistic film (and not one of the director's horror movies, as most critics hasten to add) about a salaryman (Kagawa Teruyuki) who looses his job at a prominent company due to restructuring and joins the endless ranks of job seekers at Japan's labor office optimistically called "Hello Work." He spends his days in full suit and tie in a park, for he doesn't want to tell his wife (Koizumi Kyoko, the mother from Kuchu teien) about his loss of job and status. As a sort of compensation, he clings desperately and angrily to his patriarchal authority, forbidding one son who sees no future in Japan for himself to join (a non-existent foreign legion of) the American army, and the other, younger one, to have piano lessons (with a beautiful private teacher played by Igawa Haruka). As a result, the family starts disintegrating - the sons of course ignore him. But this is not just a film about a family tragedy leading to resolution and catharsis, Kurosawa shows us instead how the financial emergency is just a catalyst to reveal how lives and ties were damaged all along. The facade is destroyed, but that is a good thing as it allows the family members to make a new, more honest start. An excellent film about the agony induced by the Japanese economic crisis; only the sequence with an overacting Yakusho Koji as a desperate thief is weaker.


Zenzen daijobu ("Fine, Totally Fine") by Fujita Yosuke is one of those quietly quirky, but highly enjoyable Japanese films. It is a comedy about two unmarried friends with some sort of arrested development, one working as administrator in a hospital (Okada Yoshinori), the other (Arakawa Yoshiyoshi) as tree pruner in a park or helping out in his father's second-hand bookstore - he also has a dream of setting up the ultimate "house of horror" attraction. Both fall in love with a nerdy young woman (Kimura Yoshino) who is a walking disaster - she breaks expensive equipment in the hospital and has problems wrapping up pornographic magazines when she works in the bookstore, leading to great customer embarrassment. This is not slapstick, however, but a quiet comedy with lots of goofy ideas, perfect timing and excellent casting.


Ai no mukidashi ("Love Exposure") by Sono Shion is an absurdist story of epic length (clocking in at four hours) that mixes voyeurism, sexual perversion, religious cults, martial arts, humor and above all, romance. In fact it is a spoof of the ever popular youth film with its struggle towards sexual maturity. And as a postmodern statement it also references several other films, such as Sasori from the 1970s. The naive Yu (Nishijima Takahiro) is the son of a devout Catholic woman whose widowed husband next enters the priesthood. The pious mother also has installed a wish to marry a girl like the Virgin Mary in her son. But the father falls prey to a libidinous vixen (Watanabe Makiko) who seeks religion as a cover for her sexual urges. When she leaves the priest in the lurch after having seduced him, his own feeling of guilt makes him take it out on Yu, who has to confess non-existent sins on a daily basis. To have something bad to confess, Yu starts upskirt photography with a couple of friends (in fact, a serious social problem in Japan). Then, one day, when he happens to be in drag, he falls in love with Yoko (Mitsushima Hikari), his Virgin Mary, but unfortunately also a man-hating martial arts artist who prefers lesbianism. And then there is Koike (Ando Sakura), the female leader of a mysterious cult who seems enamored of both Yu and Yoko... The result is a blasphemous romp that would even have made Bunuel jealous.


Okuribihito ("Departures") by ex-pink film director Takita Yojiro becomes the first Japanese film to win an Oscar since 1955 - it also won both the Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year and Japan Academy Prize for Picture of the Year. All these awards are unbelievable for what is just a sentimental, exploitative film made according to a typical feel-good and predictable Hollywood template. It is far inferior to above films as Still Walking, Tokyo Sonata, Fine, Totally Fine and Love Exposure. An unemployed cellist (Motoki Masahiro) takes a job preparing the dead for funerals (a job which today is rare even in the countryside, as this is nowadays usually done by the hospital). As working with dead bodies was seen as impure and therefore a job for Japan's lowest caste, his wife (Hirosue Ryoko) leaves him. However, she later comes back because she has discovered that she is pregnant for a Hollywood happy end.

Yamada Yoji's Kaabee ("Kabei - Our Mother") is a family drama based on the wartime memoir of Nogami Teruyo, Kurosawa Akira’s long time script supervisor. Yoshinaga Sayuri plays the title role of a mother who all alone has to take care of her two young daughters after her professor husband is arrested for "thought crime" one night in 1940. Filmed with restraint. Screened in competition at the Berlin Film Festival and also proved to be popular in Japan.

Yogisha X no kenshin ("Suspect X") by Nishitani Hiroshi is a solid suspense movie based on the eponymous popular novel by Higashino Keigo, which has also been translated into English (and also made into a TV series). Hanaoka Yasuko (Matsuyuki Yasuko) is in her home attacked by her ex-husband. When the brutal guy puts his hands on her daughter, both women strangle him. Neighbor Ishigami Tetsuya (Tsutsumi Shinichi), a reclusive math teacher, has heard the noise and helps the women get rid of the body. A day later the body of the dead man is found in a park, his clothes burned, his face bashed in. The young police woman Utsumi Kaoru (Shibasaki Koh) asks help from Tokyo University physicist professor Yukawa Manabu (Fukuyama Masaharu), alias detective Galileo, who sometimes assists the police in difficult cases. He is an old study mate of Ishigami and thinks Ishigami is a genius. Between both super brains a cat and mouse game starts...

2009
Kuki ningyo ("Air Doll") by Koreeda Hirokazu is a Pygmalion-type story, about a sex doll that turns into a real woman. The inflatable plastic doll belongs to a middle-aged waiter, who has dressed it up in maid costume and also has endless conversations with it after he returns home at night. He apparently prefers the plastic doll to a real woman because she doesn't talk back or have her own ideas. But one morning (when the waiter is at work) the doll magically comes to life and starts walking around the neighborhood, an old part of Tokyo. She even gets a job, makes various friends, but above all, develops a mind of her own. She starts hating her sex slavery with the waiter and falls in love with a young guy. The living air doll is played by the perfectly cast Korean actress Bae Du-Na who brings much depth to her difficult role. A wonderful film, sophisticated and sensitive.


Dear Doctor by Nishikawa Miwa (known for Yureru) is about a doctor working at a small clinic in the countryside. He is a much-loved man (played by popular rakugo star Shofukutei Tsurube), especially because of the human care he gives to his patients, almost more like a priest than a doctor. That is in fact the problem: he is not really a doctor, as slowly becomes clear. The secret gets gradually out when a young intern shows up on his doorstep, and especially when an elderly widow (who is in fact dying from a serious disease but wants the "doctor" to keep quiet about it) is visited by her daughter who has really studied medicine. A quiet and low-keyed film that questions the model of modern medicine that is more based on business and technology than human care. A very humane story with subtle humor. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film of the Year.



A History of Japanese Film by Year:1896-1909 - First Stirrings
1910-1919 - Development
1920-1929 - Art Films and Nihilistic Heroes
1930-1939 - Social Realism and Shoshimin-Eiga
1940-1949 - Censorship during War and Occupation
1950-1954 - Golden Age of the Classical Studio System
1955-1959 - Taiyozoku and other Youth Films
1960-1964 - The New Wave
1965-1969 - Independent Productions
1970-1974 - Sex and Violence
1975-1979 - Decline and Stagnation
1980-1989 - Disintegration of the Studio System
1990-1994 - The Rise of Indies
1995-1999 - Revival
2000-2004 - Postmodern Peak
2005-2009 - Cinematic Bubble
2010-2014 - Risk Avoidance[Reference works used: Currents In Japanese Cinema by Tadao Sato (Tokyo, 1987); The Japanese Film: Art and Industry by Joseph L. Anderson and Donald Richie (reprint Tokyo, 1983); A Hundred Years of Japanese Film by Donald Richie (Tokyo, 2001); Japanese Film Directors by Audrie Bock (Tokyo, 1985); A Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors by Alexander Jacoby (Berkeley, 2008); A New History of Japanese Cinema by Isolde Standish (New York, 2005); The Japanese Period Film by S.A. Thornton (Jefferson & London, 2008); Eros plus Massacre, An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema by David Desser (Bloomington and Indianopolis, 1988); Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema by David Bordwell (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1988); Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema by Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto (Duke University Press: Durham, 2000); The Waves at Genji's Door by Joan Mellen (Pantheon Books: New York, 1976); Japanese Classical Theatre in Film by Keiko I. Macdonald (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994); From Book to Screen by Keiko I. Macdonald (M.E. Sharpe: New York and London, 2000); Reading a Japanese Film by Keiko I. Macdonald (University of Hawai'i Press: Honolulu, 2006); Behind the Pink Curtain, A Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema, by Jasper Sharp (Fab Press: Godalming, 2008); Contemporary Japanese Film by Mark Schilling (Weatherhill: New York and Tokyo, 1999); The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film by Tom Mes and Jasper Sharp (Stone Bridge Press: Berkeley, 2005); Kitano Takeshi by Aaron Gerow (British Film Institute: London, 2007); Iron Man: the Cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto by Tom Mes (Fab Press: Godalming, 2005); Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike by Jasper Sharp (Fab Press: Godalming, 2003); Nihon Eigashi by Sato Tadao (Iwanami Shoten: Tokyo, 2008, 4 vols.); Nihon Eigashi 110-nen by Yomota Inuhiko (Shueisha; Tokyo, 2014). All images are linked from Wikipedia.]
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