Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Plum Blossoms in Osaka Castle Plum Garden

This year I have been writing about various plum blossom viewing possibilities in Tokyo, but until yesterday I did not yet have a chance to see the plum blossoms of Osaka.

Yesterday in balmy weather I grasped my lunch-break chance to see the plum blossoms in the park of Osaka Castle. A special section has been set aside as "baien", plum park, and there are in fact lots of plum trees here - about 1,250.

Some trees were already past their prime, but others were just in full bloom. A faint sweet scent wafted through the air.

A pink riot on this tree which just was in full bloom!

Blossoms silhouetted against the blue sky.

People were picnicking under the trees. As real "Osakaens" these women of course carry bags with the "Hanshin Tigers" logo, the local baseball club that is the more popular, the more it loses in the national competition.

Seen through the haze of plum blossoms, even the concrete castle looks good!

Monday, March 17, 2008

Hideyoshi, Osaka Castle and the Toyokuni Shrine

Toyotomi Hideyoshi built Osaka castle in 1585, five years before he completed the reunification of Japan. The donjon was five stories high on the outside and eight on the inside, making it a fitting symbol of the generalissimo's rule.

[Osaka Castle - Photo Ad Blankestijn]

After his death in 1598 Hideyoshi had himself deified and a shrine, Toyokuni Jinja, was established near his grave in Kyoto. His successors, the Tokugawa, were not happy about having Hideyoshi as a deity in their political heaven (Tokugawa Ieyasu in fact copied Hideyoshi's deification for himself in Nikko) and destroyed all vestiges of the cult. But in the Meiji-period, local governments in Kyoto and Osaka started honoring the achievements of Hideyoshi again and also built new Toyokuni shrines for him as an expression of State Shinto.

[Toyokuni Shrine, Osaka - Photo Ad Blankestijn]

One such shrine stands next to Osaka Castle. It is a concrete and rather tasteless affair, aiming at empty grandeur. The best thing to see here lies in a forgotten corner to the right of the shrine hall. It is a fenced in garden designed by great 20th c. garden architect Shigemori Mirei. Characteristic are the huge boulders and the use of tiles and patches of asphalt. Why is this garden not better advertised and open to the public?

[Garden by Shigemori Mirei in Toyokuni Shrine, Osaka - Photo Ad Blankestijn]

Hideyoshi's statue also graces the grounds. He was a shrewd politician and brilliant general, and also seems to have been aware of the many social and economic problems of his age. In his later years, he developed a regrettable megalomania, leading him to invade Korea and even toy with plans to conquer China. Although originally he seems to have been a genial and affable man, he was negatively transformed by his lust for power - a not uncommon story.

[Hideyoshi statue in Toyokuni Shrine - Photo Ad Blankestijn]

After he died and the Tokugawa clan took over the reigns of government, his descendants were seen as a danger to the new authority and exterminated in two campaigns, directed against Osaka Castle where they were holed up. The castle withstood the first siege, but the second campaign, in the summer of 1615, led to its total destruction.

[Lion dog, Toyokuni Shrine, Osaka - Photo Ad Blankestijn]

Subsequently, the victoriuous Tokugawa built their own castle here, but already in the 17th c. the donjon was hit by lightning and destroyed. It was never rebuilt.

The present concrete reincarnation, complete with elevator, was built by Osaka City in 1928 to celebrate the coronation of the Showa Emperor. As a castle it is worthless (I wonder why all the tourists flock here? Better to visit the real castle in Himeji!), as a historical museum exhibiting some items related to Hideyoshi it is worth a look.

[Osaka Business Park seen from Osaka Castle - Photo Ad Blankestijn]

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Moyashimon, or An Eye for Bacteria

In my search for food-related manga, I came across a very interesting specimen: Moyashimon, by Ishikawa Masayuki, which calls itself "Tales of Agriculture," but rather is about a hero with the unique ability to see and talk with bacteria and other micro-organisms.

Now this is a nice proposition, because Japanese food culture is after all a culture of micro organisms: take koji, a mold called officially Aspergillus Oryzae. This is used in the manufacture of sake, soy sauce, miso and mirin and Japanese cuisine has been rightly called a "Koji Cuisine."

The protagonist of the story, Sawaki Tadayasu, is the son of a tane-koji-ya, a producer of such koji spores. Since his youth, he can see koji and other micro-organisms much larger than they appear under a microscope and even communicate with them, a weird faculty...

Sawaki has become freshman at an agricultural university in Tokyo. He attends the opening ceremony together with his childhood friend and fellow-freshman Yuki Kei, whose parents run a sake brewery (making them customers for koji spores of Sawaki's parents).

They become students of Itsuki Keizo, an aged professor with a mania for fermented foods who is an acquaintance of Sawaki's family and already knows about his amazing ability. At their first meeting, he shocks both freshmen by setting his teeth in Kiviak, a weird dish from Greenland made from the raw flesh of an auk which has been buried under a stone inside a sealskin (!) until reaching an advanced stage of decomposition. (Yuk!) Talking about fermented foods...

The most impressive member of the study group of the professor is postgraduate student Hasegawa Haruka, a young women who for personal reasons always wears sexy bondage-style clothing under her lab coat. She is rather violent and likes to swing her little whip around. In the beginning, she has some difficulty believing Sawaki's microbe-spotting faculties are real.

Other characters include Oikawa Hazuki, a woman with an obsession against bacteria (she always carries a spray) and two fellow students Misato and Kawahama, who try to make easy money out of Sawaki's abilities.

But the real protagonists are of course the micro-organisms, who appear with faces and in animated form. The most important is the above-mentioned Aspergillus Oryzea or koji mold; others are Baccillus Natto used to make the fermented beans so popular among foreigners, Lactobacillus Bulgaricus used to make yoghurt, Trichophyton Rubrum which causes Miss Hasegawa to suffer athlete's foot, the common green mold Penicillium Chrysogenum and the bad boy of the story, Lactobacillus Fructivorans or Hiochi-kin which causes sake to go bad.

The manga has been running in Kodansha's Evening magazine since August 2004. In 2007, eleven installments of an anime television series were aired by Fuji TV. I have enjoyed it very much, as well as the anime version (based closely on the manga) - it is a great lesson about all the micro-organisms that surround us daily here in Japan!

Friday, March 14, 2008

Dead Wet Girls - Review of David Kalat's J-Horror

Why do I watch horror films? I do not even believe in the supernatural, let alone ghosts. Probably some childhood fear of darkness stays lodged in our minds, providing even those who consider themselves enlightened with a bridge to horror. And the atmosphere of horror films grabs you: the slow threat, the sure sense that something is about to happen...

[J-Horror poster for Kansen (Infection)]

J-Horror is a genre of Japanese film that originated somewhere in the middle of the nineties of the last century, culminated in films as Ringu and The Grudge, and now still leads a ghostly existence. It is a type of horror film that does away with baroque effects, has little or no CGI and seeks to shock with quiet understatement. This all in part, because the directors had only small budgets - most films were initially made for the direct-to-video market. As so often happens, compelling circumstances gave birth to a new genre.

Although J-Horror uses certain elements that are common to Japanese horror in general (whether film, Kabuki, drama etc.), such as female ghosts without feet but with grudges, it is a sub-genre and not representative of all Japanese horror. For example, in the sixties, much more lavish horror films were made and in 19th c. Kabuki grande-guignol was popular. (For a wider view of horror films in Japan and Asia see my review of Galloway's Asia Shock)

In most J-Horror a dead girl appears, often with the long black hair hanging down in front of her face. That not only makes her spookish, it also signifies that she is loose from all moral bearings and following her own desires - loose hair is traditionally an indication of wantonness in women.

Water also plays a large role, many of the girls have been involuntary exposed to the wet element (drowned in an old well, to mention something) and are therefore both wet and dead. Ask Freud whether he thinks this signifies anything special.

With J-Horror, the Definitive Guide to The Ring, The Grudge and Beyond, David Kalat has written a history of J-Horror and done a very fine job. He dedicates whole chapters to the large franchises as Ringu, The Grudge and Tomie, listing the numerous films and their differences. He is a great help for navigating the dark landscape of J-Horror. And he does not confine himself to Japan, but also unravels the ramifications of J-Horror in Korea, Hong Kong and the United States.

In "J-Horror has Two Daddies" he detailes the history of the huge Ringu franchise and its founders, author Suzuki Koji and helmer Nakata Hideo. The surprising thing is that neither is really interested in horror: Suzuki seems more interested in how to be the perfect pappa for his children and Nakata has since switched to samurai movies. But perhaps for that very reason they created the first peak of J-Horror and put the new genre firmly on the ghostly map. I'll never forget how the ghost of Sadako crawls out of the old well, a bit further each time we see her, long black hair in front of her face, and finally comes slithering out of the TV...

"The Haunted School" is about scared kids, for scared kids - demonstrating the strong roots of the genre in young heroes/heroines and juvenile audiences - no other than the American slasher films. The nineties saw an avalanche of movies about haunted schools, among which Hanako, Phantom of the Toilet is my favorite, if only for the title.

"Junji Ito will not die" delves into the macabre manga of Ito Junji (strongly recommended to those with strong stomachs) and the films based upon them, in the first place the Tomie franchise about a girl who is killed but refuses to die, her voracious appetite for love time and again bringing her back to life again. She seduces legions of young guys with only one objective: to kill them and then get herself killed...

While the Tomie films are not as good as the original manga, another work based on Ito's nightmarish stories, Uzumaki (The Spiral), made by (despite the name, Japanese director) Higuchinsky, is a great art film. Higuchinsky wonderfully captures the madness of Ito's universe in its total obsession with killing spirals.

In "You are the disease and Kiyoshi Kurokawa is the cure" another art director is introduced: Kurosawa Kiyoshi who far transcends the horror genre and often only plays with its conventions. The only pure J-Horror film he made is Pulse, the rest does not fit in any genre - Cure, for example, is more a dark thriller in the vein of Seven.

"A Ghost is Born" introduces the other great franchise of Ju-On, The Grudge, and its director Shimizu Takashi. At first sight a normal haunted house story, the terrible grudge these Japanese ghosts bear becomes a virus that threatens society. And that little boy with his white face and empty stare is really frightening, even more than his ghostly mother crawling down the stairs.

In "The Unquiet Dead" Kalat provides a round-up of the countless other J-Horror movies from this ten-year period. Some flicks worth watching are Shikoku, Inugami, Trick, Parasite Eve, Suicide Club... although none of these really fits the genre. It was all-round indie Miike Takashi who hit the bull's eye with One Missed Call. The film became famous because of its "ringtone of death," and I can assure you, you will look very differently at your cell phone after watching this movie.

"Whispering Corridors" takes us to Korea and K-Horror, a substantial amount of atmospheric, supernatural shockers. Whispering Corridors is one of them, as is Memento Mori, both in the haunted school tradition, but for me the strongest by far is A Tale of Two Sisters by Kim Ji-Woon. It is a creepy psychological horror tale with a convoluted plot that will leave you speechless.

We next travel to Hong Kong for the Chinese take on nightmares and ghouls, in the sophisticated The Eye of the Pang Brothers (what if your eyes become unreliable and in fact belong to someone else?) and the final chapter brings on the American remakes, which - although they cannot touch the originals and I do not see the reason for such remakes as everyone can watch the original films with subtitles - at least had the effect of bringing people to the original J-Horror films - including David Kalat as he tells in the opening of the book.

The book closes with a useful filmography running from 1990 to Kurosawa's recent Retribution. I only missed an index, which would have been useful in a book with so many names. On a positive note, the notes at the end of the individual chapters also have many pointers to articles on the web.

Kalat's prose is a pleasure to read. How "definitive" the book is, time will tell, but it certainly is a very detailed and balanced account, and warmly recommended to all film fans.
See my post on Japanese Horror Films.