Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Kaiseki Cuisine: An Haute Smorgasbord of High-class Healthiness

Kaiseki: A mega-sampler platter. Via

The dishes keep coming one after another. Smoked duck breast with chrysanthemum sauce, sashimi, crab, pumpkin and butternut squash soup–and the meal still isn’t even halfway through. The waiter presents several choices for the next course, and by the time you’ve decided, you are already thinking about the next six.

If you were at any other restaurant, this would likely be the point at which you would start contemplating how to burn all this off the next day. However, you are at Michelin-Star chef David Bouley’s Brushstroke, patting yourself on the back for sticking to your diet.

Brushstroke, the result of a collaboration between Bouley and the Tsuji Culinary Institute in Osaka, Japan, specializes in a type of seasonal Japanese cuisine known as kaiseki, and Bouley claims it’s one of the healthiest ways to eat.

"About 10 years ago I started to think about how I wanted to do food with a healthier twist," he says. "Why? Because I want to see people more often," Bouley told Town & Country.

But  kaiseki is not just healthy. It is very much a high-class cuisine with centuries of tradition. The food is expensive, meticulously arranged, and served in small portions, much like French haute cuisine. It is believed that the term kaiseki (written with the Japanese characters for “stone” and “chest”) originated from the Zen Monk practice of placing warm stones into the front folds of their robes to ward off hunger.

No two kaiseki menus look the same, and meals can consist of more than 14 courses, decided upon by the head chef. The menu is ever-changing (over 5,000 seasonal dishes at Brushstroke alone), and the food is made to be as aesthetically appealing as possible, often presented on creatively-styled dishes and bowls to enhance the visual effect.

Some common courses include a bite-sized appetizer called sakizuke, a seasonal sashimi called mukozuke, and several soup courses, among others. If you’re somehow still really hungry before dessert, there is one final course known as tomewan, which is simply miso soup and rice. However, people often choose not to eat it, as kaiseki can be very filling.

When Bouley first introduced his tasting menu in the 1980s, he faced a lot of challenges, as he told GrandLife:
People sometimes thought they were going to eat too much, that there was too much food. They thought it was going to take too long. Those folks with the metabolism of being packed in like Thanksgiving dinner? That’s not what this is. This is like being a birdie, you know. I’m seducing you, I’m seducing you, I’m seducing you. And you’re playing. I’m teasing you.
It’s this seduction that gives Bouley a sense of purpose–being able to convert even the most reluctant diners. That trend continues October 23 at Japan Society, where he’ll be holding a lecture all about kaiseki’s past, present and future, followed by a tasting reception where guests will have the opportunity to taste Bouley’s brand of the distinctive cuisine for themselves.

“I’m a chef of ingredients," said Bouley. "That’s my type. That’s what it’s all going to come back to. Ingredients. Your body remembers them your whole life. A beautiful presentation is fun, but you will forget that. You won’t wake up one day with a craving for that. However you will wake up with a craving for a perfect white peach. I’ve always been sensitive to that. That has got me hooked.”

--Mark Gallucci

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Friday, October 10, 2014

Facing Forward, Looking Back: Hisashi Tenmyouya’s 'Street-Samurai' Style

Detail of Tenmyouya's Rhyme.

Hisashi Tenmyouya is a man of many styles. He’s a rebel and an innovator, doing his best to express the diversity of Japanese culture through art.

“Japanese culture has been considered a world that is ascetic, static, simple, minimal, one of anime and manga," Tenmyouya said in an interview with Laura J. Mueller, who co-curated the exhibition Garden of Unearthly Delights: Works by Ikeda, Tenmyouya & teamLab, opening today at Japan Society. "However, that is just one aspect of Japanese culture. It is more diverse. We treasure the sight of cherry blossoms falling from the tree. We amuse ourselves with fireworks exploding like flowers blooming in the sky. We enjoy festivals with elaborately designed floats moving down the street.”

Tenmyouya has invented several self-described styles in the years he's been making art. His Butō-ha (circa 2000) depicts resistance towards the authoritative art system. His Neo-Nihonga (2001) incorporates elements of traditional Japanese art (nihonga), while using contemporary art styles and modern art materials, such as acrylic paint. And most recently, Basara (2010) draws inspiration from the extraordinary beauty of past eras, including the woodblock print artists of the late Edo period (1615 – 1867), and the kabukimono (men, often samurai, who dressed and acted flamboyantly) of the late Sengoku era (mid-15th to late 16th centuries).

“My manifesto, Basara, is based on the subculture of the ‘street-samurai culture’ that is excessively decorative and imbued with a rebellious spirit that defies traditional values. Basara stands for anti-authority and anti-aristocratic culture, which is derived from samurai culture on the streets. Basara represents a counter to the traditional values of wabi, sabi, Zen, and otaku,” he said.

Still, even across multiple styles, there are some common themes to be found in Tenmyouya’s work. His paintings tend to depict subjects that are in direct contrast with each other.

His 2002 work Neo Thousand-Armed Kannon presents Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, with her many arms holding machine guns, army knives and pistols. The piece examines the state of the world in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in the U.S., highlighting the close relationship between violence and faith despite their opposite natures.

These contrasts are not always so serious, however. He also created a poster for the 2006 FIFA World Cup, appropriately titled Football, depicting two soccer players wearing samurai armor and decorative helmets in the midst of a battle for the ball - one player with his leg pulled back, ready to kick, and the other sliding towards him in an attempt to steal the ball away.

"[His] works exude an historic feel that is also wholly contemporary,” wrote Vicente Gutierrez in The Japan Times about Tenmyouya's Tokyo exhibition in 2009.

“Tenmyouya’s paintings of fantastic beasts and tattooed warriors are a record-album-cover designer’s version of Buddhist and Shinto religious icons,” wrote the The New York Times’ Holland Cotter, when Tenmyouya was featured in Japan Society's 2011 exhibition Bye Bye Kitty!!! Between Heaven and Hell in Contemporary Japanese Art.

Even though his solo exhibitions have mainly taken place in Tokyo, people from all around the world have been introduced to Tenmyouya’s unique style when his works have been showcased in places such as Berlin, Sydney and Singapore. He made his U.S. debut in 2002 in One Planet Under a Groove: Hip Hop and Contemporary Art at New York’s Bronx Museum.

He received more worldwide exposure with the 2006 video documentary Near Equal Tenmyouya Hisashi (released internationally as Hisashi Tenmyouya: Samurai Nouveau), in which director Go Ishizaki followed Tenmyouya as he worked on his paintings.



Japan Society’s Garden of Unearthly Delights features Tenmyouya’s first large-scale installation: a room adorned with several of his paintings, placed around a Zen garden with volcanic rocks and skulls planted in a sea of blood-red sand. One of the centerpieces of the room, his most recent work Rhyme, is a sizable painting which depicts yakuza-type men battling each other wearing nothing but fundoshi (ceremonial loincloths). While the subject matter is traditional, there is a sense of surrealism (a tiger and several horses wearing armor against a shimmering gold background), and the style is thought to be influenced by Leonardo de Vinci’s early-Renaissance The Battle of Angihari (1505).

It’s one of the many influences that contribute to Tenmyouya’s distinctive “street-samurai” style, in addition to his striking visual approach. His always-innovating, rebellious mindset makes each of his paintings more unpredictable than the last. With new styles, new ideas and new concepts, Hisashi Tenmyouya will be a fascinating artist to follow in the years to come.

--Mark Gallucci, additional reporting by Younjoo Sang


Images (top to bottom, left to right):  Hisashi Tenmyouya, (b. 1966), Rhyme (Detail), 2012. Acrylic paint, gold leaf on wood; inkjet print on paper, mounted on wood; each 49 7/8 x 118 1/8 in. Chazen Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Colonel Rex W. & Maxine Schuster Radsch Endowment Fund purchase, 2013.23.1-.2a-b.; Neo Thousand Armed Kannon, 2002. Acrylic, wood; 89 ½ x 68 5/16 in. Takahashi Collection, Tokyo. © Hisashi Tenmyouya, courtesy Mizuma Art Gallery; Football, 2004, official poster selection of the 2006 World Cup in Germany; Neo Acalanatha (Detail), 2004. Acrylic, wood; 42 1/3 x 18 5/7 in. Collection of Katsura Yamaguchi. © Hisashi Tenmyouya, courtesy Mizuma Art Gallery.

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Monday, October 6, 2014

Meticulously Monumental: Manabu Ikeda’s Dedication to Perfection

Manabu Ikeda attends to details. Via.

The wave rises. Uprooted buildings, destroyed planes, and derailed trains follow. A giant glacier is swept along, rope-tethered climbers working to scale the massive chunk of ice as it travels. Roads have been split, tunnels upturned, and a raging fire is rapidly consuming what’s left of a small forest. This could be the apocalypse.

Or it could be a mere fraction of what’s taking place in Manabu Ikeda’s Foretoken, a drawing of a massive, 6 by 11 foot wave crashing through civilization.

Ikeda’s works are examples of precision and persistence which sacrifice neither scope nor detail, depicting painstakingly crafted landscapes laden with subtle touches and sweeping emotion. To achieve this, he uses a small, fine-point acrylic pen for his drawings, working on only a few inches each day for up to eight hours, which will eventually make up the minute details of a much larger piece, which often takes him years to complete. For his current project, Ikeda is in the middle of a three-year residency at the Chazen Museum of Art, working on a single drawing.

Commenting on Meltdown, one of Ikeda’s more recent drawings, Chazen director Russell Panczenko told the Wisconsin State Journal, “if you look closely, with all this detail covering the whole surface, there isn’t a pen stroke that is more than an eighth of an inch in length. So – talk about intensity.”

Ikeda’s meticulous approach is very much connected to Japanese tradition. In Japan the term takumi is reserved for one who has mastered his/her profession at the highest level of technical precision.

“The master does it by hand; that’s what makes him the master. That’s important to him,” Panczenko noted.

Ikeda’s work process tends to be spontaneous, as he either sketches quickly thought-out images in sketchbooks or directly inks his larger works without a sketch draft.

Manabu Ikeda's Foretoken (Detail), 2008. Pen, acrylic ink on paper, mounted on boards; 72 x 132 in. Collection of Sustainable Investor Co., Ltd. © Manabu Ikeda, courtesy Mizuma Art Gallery.

“I use ideas that flash in my mind at the moment,” Ikeda said in an interview with Hi-Fructose Magazine. “From a distance, I look at the whole balance of work, and finally determine the image, which takes about one year after I started drawing. Recently, I try to have a whole solid image in the beginning to shorten the time.”

Ikeda’s works received much critical praise in America during Japan Society's 2011 exhibition Bye Bye Kitty!!!, which highlighted contemporary Japanese artists whose works utilized traditional styles while going against foreign preconceptions of Japanese art.

The New Yorker described Ikeda as “a visionary”, saying, “It would take you hours to explore thoroughly, and then you’d have to start over, to refresh your memory. Does this sound like a stunt? It’s an enchantment.” The New York Times praised Ikeda’s attention to detail:
… nothing tops Manabu Ikeda’s miniaturist ink landscapes and cityscapes. In "Existence" he presents the world as a giant, decomposing tree. In “History of Rise and Fall,” it becomes a shifting, clattering architectural pileup: a million-roofed samurai castle garnished with cherry trees, fragmented Buddhist sculptures and ant-size hanged human figures.
From October 10 to January 11, visitors to Japan Society Gallery can experience the largest number of Manabu Ikeda’s drawings assembled to date, presented alongside works by “ultra technologist” collective teamLab and Neo-Nihonga purveyor Hisashi Tenmyouya in Garden of Unearthly Delights: Works by Ikeda, Tenmyouya & teamLab.

The exhibition showcases a crossover from past to present, according to Japan Society Gallery director and exhibition co-curator Miwako Tezuka. Many of Ikeda’s drawings focus on this transition – more specifically, on the shift from reliance on nature to reliance on technology.

“I agree that we benefit a lot from advanced technology," Ikeda told Hi-Fructose, "but at the same time, I feel that we are acting contrary to nature, which makes me feel endangered. Also, figuratively, accomplished shapes do not move my heart. At the end, for example, the mystery of a caterpillar’s color and shape is much more fun for me than any amazing technology.”

-- Mark Gallucci; additional reporting by Younjoo Sang

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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Seeds of 'Unearthly Delights': teamLab's Digital Garden

teamLab's immersive, interactive art, part of of Japan Society's' fall exhibition Garden of Unearthly Delights.

TeamLab is a collective of around 300 individuals specializing in various areas such as art, design, mathematics, and computer engineering. With their combined efforts, they create works that blur the lines between art and technology.

Although they invent cutting-edge software to create their art, their roots are distinctly traditional, drawing inspiration from scenes of nature and domestic landscapes commonly found in classical Japanese paintings.

Their artistic and technological prowess can be viewed in the exhibition Ultra Subjective Space at Pace Gallery through August 15. Much of the work depicts a three-dimensional world with three-dimensional objects, but “flattened” to emulate the look of Japanese paintings.

Traditional East Asian landscape paintings depict space in layers of picture planes; one at the foreground, the other in the middle-ground, and then the last one indicating the farthest space in the background. Transitional spaces are to be then completed in one’s own (i.e. subjective) imagination. On the other hand, Western art has been using a linear perspective with one fixed point.

"Western approach to spatial representation is based on optical illusion," explains Miwako Tezuka, director of Japan Society Gallery. "Before Japanese learned the linear perspective system to create visual illusion in painting, I think they felt, rather than saw the depth by empathetically entering into the planes of foreground, middle-ground, and background of paintings.

Teamlab shares this point of view, stating in their manifesto:
We propose that people in Japan at that time may have actually seen the world as they chose to depict it in Japanese painting. People of today have a perception of space that is based on the perspective they see in photos and paintings, but is it not possible that people of old saw and were able to feel space in the art work they looked at?” teamLab wrote on their website.
In an evocative review of the Pace exhibition, VICE illustrated teamLab's achievement of capturing this:
The European standard of linear perspective is absent from these compositions, allowing viewers to place themselves anywhere inside the scene, rather than being limited to a single point of view… [The works] each capture a celebratory perspective on nature, effortlessly combined with the sleek, clean, hi-tech texture intrinsic in their medium.
The combination of design and technology also makes their work an interactive experience.



The Ever Blossoming Life series, for example, shows a cluster of flowers in a gold background and a dark blue-black background where flowers bloom, drop their petals, wither, and die with progression of time. While the flowers collectively bloom and wilt ad infinitum, they are programmed so that they display the images in real time and never duplicate their previous states. Just like real flowers, each flower bud blooming, wilting and falling cannot be repeated exactly the same again. The life of each plant, the duration of each flower is a unique image in space and time.

After their Pace Gallery show, teamLab will have their first major museum presentation in Japan Society Gallery's fall exhibition Garden of Unearthly Delights: Works by Ikeda, Tenmyouya & teamLab. Their work is a perfect fit for the show that highlights visionaries shaping the present and future of Japanese art while harkening to the past.

The moving images that teamLab creates are extraordinary in the original sense of the word: their nature-filled landscapes not only reminisce one of the classical Japanese painting subjects of “flowering plants of four seasons” but also are truly out of this world, says Tezuka.

"They contain so much more visual and philosophical information than what our mere eyes can perceive. They invite our multi-sensory participation, and this fall, we will have that very chance to participate in strolling through a brand-new digital garden that will blossom in Japan Society Gallery."

--Younjoo Sang

Photo: teamLab (est. 2001), United, Fragmented, Repeated, and Impermanent World, 2013 (detail). Interactive digital work, 8 screens; endless, 9:16; sound by Hideaki Takahashi. Courtesy of the artist and Pace Gallery.

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Monday, August 4, 2014

Taiko Drumming: The Whole Body Pulse of Japan's Resounding 'Heartbeat'

Does Kodo have a workout video? Image via.

Learning an instrument is a physical challenge as much as a musical one, from proper finger placement on guitar, to shoulder and back strength for cello, to mastering a variety of breathing techniques needed to sound any wind instrument. After thousands of hours of rigorous practice, the sole motivator for taking on such an arduous task may be the rewarding feeling when a song finally plays to perfection.

But motivators can also be mental health, a means of meditation or a whole body workout. All three are possible with taiko, the word for Japanese drums and traditional Japanese drumming, often considered the resounding 'heartbeat' of Japanese culture.

The popularity of taiko can be seen in its many benefits. Some choose to play taiko because of their love of music or their interest in Japanese culture. The meditative aspect stems from the instruments' roots in religion, specifically Buddhism. In terms of full body workout, the physical stamina required increases depending on the size of the drums and weight of the drumsticks, as well as the degree of strength and control needed to create different sounds. This does not necessarily mean taiko players must be physically fit to learn to play (though they probably will be after a few years of playing regularly). Anyone can learn from small children to the elderly, and benefits abound for people with disabilities (taiko has been used as therapy for people with Downs Syndrome and autism, and deaf people can play by feeling the vibrations made by other players).

Originally, taiko was not the big production that it is today. According to Japanzine, a national magazine about Japan, the clay figure of a man beating a drum dated around the 6th or 7th centuries is the earliest evidence of taiko in Japan. Further evidence supports that it was originally used on the battlefield as a way to intimidate the enemy.

Over the centuries, taiko was incorporated into daily village life as a timekeeper, into imperial court music, into religious activities as the powerful sounds became associated with the gods, and  has become the centerpiece of many matsuri (Japanese festivals). It was not until post-war Jazz musician Daihachi Oguchi created the first ensemble format of taiko with multiple drums and rhythms that taiko developed into the arrangements seen today.

Kenny Endo Taiko Ensemble performs in 2012. 

Taiko has spread across the globe with world renowned professional groups like Tao and Kodo, purveyors such as Kenny Endo and hundreds of esteemed amateur ensembles. Among several in New York are the New York Suwa Taiko Association, which has performed at several Japan Society events; the New York Taiko Aiko Kai, a resident group of the TC Taiko Society at Columbia University's Teachers College; and Brooklyn's only taiko group Taiko Masala, which will head up the taiko portion of Japan Society's 2014 summer high school workshop, From Taiko Drumming to J-Pop Music & Dance.

Everywhere people are inspired to play taiko with its unforgettable sound and enriching benefits. As much as an opportunity to learn an instrument, taiko is a way to experience and contribute to the heartbeat of Japan.

As the old kakegoe goes, SO-RE!

--Ana Belen Gomez Flor
The New York Suwa Taiko Association launched Japan Society's all day j-CATION festival in 2012. Photo by George Hirose.

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Thursday, July 31, 2014

Japan and Working Women: The Swelling Wave of Abe’s 'Womenomics'

Via The Economist.

The situation of working women has been tenuous in Japan, which ranked 103 out of 136 countries in World Economic Forum's 2013’s Global Gender Gap Report. This is due in part to traditional gender roles that expect women to tend for her family at home. And while more women have joined the workforce in modern times, they are still expected to return home after marriage and childbirth. (A July poll found that 40 percent of both men and women in their 20s to 40s believed that husbands should work and wives should care for the home.)

This had not gone unnoticed to Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. After his election in 2013, Abe outlined his economic growth strategy dubbed “Abenomics”, saying, “Private consumption and investment will come much sooner than we expected,” and  "to enhance Japan's productivity" and "to retool Japan's economic structure... Women should be given much greater opportunities." A year later, his revised plan gave more details (and urgency) to the initiative.

“Under my administration, women’s active participation constitutes the core of the growth strategy, rather than social policy,” he said during a speech in the OECD Forum held in Paris in May. “By encouraging the advancement of women in society we will raise our growth rate and promote ‘womenomics.’”

The term “womenomics” was first coined by managing director of Goldman Sachs Japan Co Kathy Matsui over a decade ago, and became a keyword in Abe’s economic plan.

“Abenomics won’t succeed without ‘womenomics’,” he said during the opening ceremony of 2014 Women in Business Summit in Tokyo. “Half of all consumers are women and by making use of women’s ideas there will be new innovations.”

Abe’s “womenomics” initiatives include creating up to 400,000 new daycare facilities within the next four years, as well as having increasing women in leadership positions for public and private sectors at least 30 percent by 2020.

The Japan Times reported that 399 women out of 1,918 applicants (20.8 percent) passed the civil service exams in 2014, a record number of women to pass the exams and the second-highest percentage after 2012 (22.9 percent passed), showing an increasing number of women willing to work.

Japan analyst Devin Stewart, a former head of business and policy programs at Japan Society, wrote in The Diplomat that attitudes on gender roles have slowly been shifting in Japan.

“Surveys in Japan show that particularly younger Japanese are less tied to traditional gender roles – including a greater desire to pursue careers and a more accepting attitude toward divorce – and are also more tolerant of gays and lesbians,” Stewart said.

He added that in addition to younger Japanese adapting more liberal attitudes, events such as the March 11 earthquake and tsunami have left people rethinking their lives.

“People now question the value of long-suffering, dreary careers in the bureaucracy and corporations,” he said.

Since Abe’s statements, some companies have jumped into employing more women. In June, delivery company Sagawa Express stated that they will employ around 10,000 housewives as part-time delivery staff around their neighborhood by 2016. This arrangement, they said, would help housewives earn extra income as well as still manage tending for their homes.

Additionally, the Japanese government is also considering cutting a tax benefit that dependent spouses, mostly housewives, receive, hoping to incentivize women to seek full-time employment. (Households receive more tax deductions when one spouse does not work or works part-time, compared to when both spouses work full-time.)

However, there are still many difficulties ahead for working women in Japan. In June 2014, lawmaker Ayaka Shiomura received sexist heckling during a Tokyo assembly debate by Assemblyman Akihiro Suzuki and other unidentified members of the Liberal Democratic Party while discussing conditions for working mothers.

After receiving much criticism in both Japanese and international press, Suzuki publicly apologized to Shiomura.

Akihiro Suzuki publicly apologizes to Ayaka Shiomura. Via Quartz

In response, the Tokyo Metropolitan assembly approved a resolution that would prevent discriminatory comments towards assembly members.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Shiomura said that her “head went blank” upon being heckled and that no one appeared to think the remarks were inappropriate.

“Overall, I support [Abe’s] policies. However, in relation to this incident, I think policymakers need to listen to and understand the voices of the actual women that the policies target,” she said. “The male members’ offensive remarks indicate they think women who aren’t married, or can’t bear a child, aren’t worth listening to.”

Shiomura called for a need for more female politicians to prevent such instances and to pay better attention to politicians that people vote for.

Additionally, various reports show that it is still an uphill battle for working women. According to government data, over half of all Japanese women attend college (similar to that of men), but after university, only 63% of them work, and 70% of those who work stop working for ten or more years after having children (compared to 30% in America), and often end up quitting permanently.

The Daily Journal reported that many Japanese companies still overtly discriminate women in hiring, promoting, and pay, reporting that women were paid 70 percent of that of men for equal work, according to government data.

Japan Times also published an article saying Abe’s “womenomics” is not substantive to improve the situation of working women in Japan, noting blind spots such as companies conventionally using loopholes of Equal Employment Opportunities Law to create two-tiered career tracks and pushing most women in second-tier careers.

They also reported that “womenomics” would have little impact on small and midsized companies, which lack resources to provide family-friendly policies unlike big firms, and in academia, where networking within the “gentleman’s club” determines employment more than actual hiring processes.

Shihoko Goto, the Northeast Asia Associate of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars’ Asia Program, said that Abe’s administration needs to be more attentive.

“First, Abe’s team must understand that mothers of young children who need day care centers make up only a small percentage of the potential female labor force,” Goto said, saying older women also wish to be involved in their children’s lives. “Teenagers, meanwhile, may spend more time at school and with their peers after class, but they need adult guidance more than ever.”

“[T]here also needs to be a national dialogue about the role fathers play in family life, and how there can be a true partnership between mothers and fathers in raising their children.”

“The impact of Abe’s stimulative Abenomics policies is still questionable but his “womenomics” rhetoric has sparked a conversation,” noted Devin Stewart. “The notion that a leader like Abe can make a decree like that may sound dirigiste to some Western readers, but it seems to be having a significant impact on the mindsets of some professionals.”

--Younjoo Sang

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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

DEEP CUTS: The Head and Heart of JAPAN CUTS 2014

© 2013 “Pecoross’ Mother and Her Days” Production Committee

A selection of films from JAPAN CUTS 2014 (through July 20) provides deep,  illuminating commentary on contemporary Japanese society, from social shifts and inequalities to the ramifications of natural disasters.

More than three years after the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami, the Fukushima nuclear power plant crisis continues, with the amount of radiation and its effects still a subject of much debate.

The burakumin were a lower social caste that traditionally dealt with butchering and other professions dealing with death. Although the caste system was abolished in the 19th century, many still face discrimination even today.

Two powerful documentaries in the JAPAN CUTS lineup examine these disparate, divisive issues. Particularly fascinating is how both films use animals to tell their stories, notes festival programmer Joel Neville Anderson.

“Nonhuman beings’ appearance on film and television is often relegated to anthropomorphism, in which they are observed for qualities shared with people,” he said. “However, in Yoju Matsubayashi’s Horses of Fukushima and Aya Hanabusa’s Tale of a Butcher Shop, animals (horses and cows, respectively), feature specifically as animals. They are approached with respect for their long history living alongside humans and contemporary intersection with tragedies precipitated by the nuclear power industry, as well as the prolonged discrimination of oppressed communities of people.”

The Horses of Fukushima, which screened yesterday follows rancher Shinichiro Tanaka’s horse, Mirror’s Quest, after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Tanaka takes in his surviving horses from Fukushima despite the government’s order to kill them, and cares for Mirror’s Quest and the other horses exposed to radiation.

Tale of a Butcher Shop (Jul 19) follows the Kitade family, who has been running a butcher shop for seven generations, and their struggles to stay afloat as corporate supermarkets threaten their business. At the same time it is a look into burakumin issues as the family participates in the buraku liberation movement.

Another significant aspect of social relations that comes to light in this year's JAPAN CUTS is the tension between rural and urban life in Japan. People – especially youth – increasingly leave rural towns for schools and jobs in the city, and those living in the countryside face issues of both aging populations and competition with urban areas.

While the lighthearted comedy Wood Job!, which screened last weekend, follows a high school graduate who leaves the city to attend a one-year forestry program in Kamusari, the sprawling drama The Tale of Iya (Jul 20) tells a more common story.

The film depicts a rural community in Iya Valley that is shrinking and seeing a traditional lifestyle threatened by modern society. Haruna, a high school student living with her grandfather in the town, has to choose whether to stay or move to the city after finishing school.

“Tetsuichiro Tsuta’s Tale of Iya is remarkable not only for the dwindling community it is set in – in which scarecrows outnumber people – but also for the means by which the film was produced,” Anderson said.

“The director is a strong proponent of shooting on 35mm, and it shows beautifully in this epic work, with wonderfully composed frames and performers’ movements orchestrated in coordination with the camera. The film’s haunting and hopeful images of a landscape nearly emptied of people is perfect for this story of family life in transformation.”

Equitable treatment of women in the Japanese workforce has been a much discussed talking point in Prime Minister Abe's controversial economic growth plan. So it's serendipitous that JAPAN CUTS 2014 features five films directed or co-directed by women, the largest number of female directors in the history of JAPAN CUTS.

However, the increasing presence of working women is juxtaposed with the still-vulnerable position of women in Japanese society, as shown in the protagonist of 0.5mm (Jul 17), a home helper named Sawa, who loses her job and survives by taking advantage of older men and accessing their wealth.



“Momoko Ando’s 0.5mm expands from this seemingly simple premise to become a massive, by turns profound and hilarious journey across Japan’s embattled sexual landscape,” Anderson said. “But to reduce this work to such synopsizing does not do justice to the experience of watching, as 0.5mm continually shifts in tone, changing and changing until it reaches a profound depth few films touch.”

Japan's aging population and general population woes are much reported, but there is so more to the story than quarterly figures. In Pecoross' Mother and Her Days (July 20), one such story follows middle-aged manga artist/singer-songwriter/salaryman Yuichi, who watches out for his elderly mother, a constant source of comic energy and annoyance. As Yuichi decides whether to install her in a home for the elderly, the film jumps back in time to show her life in the tumult of the latter half of the 20th century--being raised as one of 10 brothers and sisters, surviving the war, and having to push her alcoholic husband along in life.

Pecoross’ is directed by the oldest active film director in Japan, Azuma Morisaki (b. 1927), who creates an emotionally complex work that is only the more profound and life-affirming for its seemingly lighthearted portrayal. As Anderson notes, “Another consummate two-hanky melodrama, Pecoross’ swept 2013’s prestigious film magazine awards, honored with best Japanese film by Kinema Junpo and Eiga Geijutsu.”

While they may not show all sides of the issues, and while they may raise more questions than answers, films such as these engender a conversation about important social issues affecting Japan and the world at large. Check-out the full JAPAN CUTS 2014 lineup for all these films and more.

--Younjoo Sang

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

JAPAN CUTS Genre Genetics: Diversifying the DNA of Japanese Film

Snow White Murder Case © 2014 “Snow White Murder Case” Production Committee


“Film genre in Japan could, and often is, thought of in terms of the nation’s much discussed ‘Galápagos syndrome,’” said Joel Neville Anderson, curator for JAPAN CUTS 2014, which boasts an especially diverse selection of films, ranging from outré thrillers and comedies to dramas and documentaries reflecting social issues.

He's referring to the phenomenon where many Japanese products have been developing differently from the rest of the world due to Japan's geographical and cultural isolation, much like the unique wildlife of the Galápagos Islands.

The majority of Japanese film productions, said Anderson, evolved from pre-existing manga, novels, or plays. And even the original productions have a quality that many perceive to be distinctly Japanese – such as the peculiar, off-the-wall comedy, sophisticated sword fights, and raw, gut-churning thrillers and horror films.

However, there are some signs of change: international films have slowly but surely been influencing the Galapagosized Japanese films.

“While the industry may appear to develop and mature independently, there is and always has been considerable influence from and on foreign cinemas,” Anderson said.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the thriller/action films of JAPAN CUTS 2014, running July 10-20 at Japan Society.

Thriller/Action:

"This year foreign influence is especially evident in two impressive remakes, " said Anderson, "Hideo Nakata’s supernatural thriller Monsterz adapted from the Korean film Haunters, as well as Sang-il Lee’s Unforgiven, a samurai-Western adapted from Clint Eastwood’s acclaimed original." Another example is Man from Reno, a Japanese and American co-production of a gender-flipped, fresh look into film noir.

Monsterz (Jul 13) is a paranormal thriller involving a mind-bending man, and Shuichi, the only one mysteriously unaffected by this power. Unforgiven (Jul 15) is the remake of Clint Eastwood’s 1992 film, where the American West changes to Meiji-era Japan and a former samurai, after having sworn off his sword, goes on one more mission he can’t refuse. Man from Reno (Jul 19) is a Japanese-American film that reverses the gender roles of a typical thriller movie, with a female crime novelist visiting San Francisco becoming involved in a series of events after a night with a handsome stranger.

Other notable movies, all co-presented with action-thriller purveyors at the New York Asian Film Festival, include The Mole Song: Undercover Agent Reiji (Jul 10), about an undercover cop infiltrating a yakuza gang, The Snow White Murder Case (Jul 11) follows a mysterious murder which blows out of proportion from social media exposure. Miss Zombie (Jul 12) follows a zombie who works for a family and is exploited, and then have the tables turned against them. All-Round Appraiser Q: The Eyes of Mona Lisa (Jul 13) is reminiscent of a Dan Brown novel as it follows an appraiser and a magazine editor who must solve a mystery threat to steal the Mona Lisa.

Melodrama:

“Melodramatic form has recently received new forms of mass-spectatorship through the online streaming of television dramas from Japan, Korea, and greater East Asia; however melodramas were a cornerstone of the golden age of Japanese cinema in the postwar period,” Anderson said.

My Little Sweet Pea (Jul 19) follows an aspiring anime voice actor tracing her long-lost mother’s life as her mother suddenly returns to her life and leaves just as abruptly. Pecoross’ Mother and Her Days (Jul 20) show a heartwarming story of a middle-aged manga artist looking after his senile mother and looking back at her life. The Extreme Sukiyaki (Jul 16) is a slice of life movie with four aimless friends going on a trip to the beach with just a sukiyaki bowl.

“Films such as My Little Sweet Pea and Pecoross address new changes in contemporary society, such as divides in urban and rural life, youth aspirations in anime and the entertainment industry, divorce, as well as aging society and care for elders,” Anderson said.

Comedy:
Hello! Junichi © 2012 NICE RAINBOW/KATSUHITO ISHII



Even in the uniquely absurd brand of Japanese comedy films, the keyword appears to be “variety”. A notable comedic movie is Neko Samurai (sold out), where a lone samurai is assigned to assassinate a white cat, but fails and befriends it, causing him to be roped into a feud between cat lovers and dog lovers. 

“This year we celebrate the incredible versatility of international star Kazuki Kitamura, who goes from playing sinister to heroic to comical roles with seeming ease,” Anderson said, as he stars in the mystery thriller Man from Reno, the comedic Neko Samurai, as well as the festival’s surprise screening of the Indonesian-Japanese horror-thriller Killers.

Hello! Junichi (Jul 20) is a coming-of-age story of a third-grader and his friends who put on a concert with the help of their apprentice teacher. “Hello! Junichi is a fantastic mash-up of genre and influences, as director Katsuhito Ishii takes the humor of his previous films specifically for adult audiences Funky Forest: The First Contact and The Taste of Tea and perfectly adapts to a story that's incredibly fun for cinephiles of all ages.”

As for comedic films with an unusually dark or erotic twist, check out Maruyama, the Middle Schooler (Jul 11) following Maruyama, a sex-crazed boy who injures himself after attempting “self-fellatio”, and with a new neighbor in town and mysterious incidents, he reimagines his surroundings as a manga-like fantasy world. Greatful Dead (Jul 18), follows Nami, a woman who takes selfies next to dead, lonely elders, sent to a murderous rage after a lonely old man she was prizing finds a new life with Christian volunteers. The Passion (Jul 18) is about Frances-ko, a woman raised in a convent longing to know about love and sex, but after calling out a sign from above, finds a human-faced growth between her legs that constantly insulting her, and she tries to adapt to her new situation.

Check-out the full JAPAN CUTS 2014 lineup for more on these films, and even more genre favorites.

--Younjoo Sang

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Friday, December 27, 2013

Learning Japanese at Japan Society: Laughter, Culture & Connection


In late August, Japan Society appointed Tomoyo Kamimura as the second-ever director of its Language Center, which opened in 1972 with a single class, and has grown into one of the nation's most respected Japanese language learning facilities. Formerly coordinator of The New School's Japanese program, Ms. Kamimura sat down to talk about her experience teaching Japanese and plans for the future of the Center. This is part one of a two-part interview.

Congratulations on your appointment!

Thank you.

Could you walk us through your journey of becoming a Japanese teacher?

My interest in teaching Japanese was sparked while I was an exchange student at Michigan's Kalamazoo College from Waseda University in Tokyo. During that time, I taught various levels of Japanese as a student teacher. When I later became a graduate student in Linguistics at the University of Oregon, I was a teaching assistant to Yoko Matsuoka McClain, who is the granddaughter of famed novelist Natsume Soseki. That experience really had a big impact on me. I discovered the deep pleasure of learning and teaching--just the sheer joy of sharing knowledge and connecting with students. I learned that through her and through teaching at the University. Do you know the literal meaning of “sensei,” which is how you address a teacher in Japanese?

It’s “before, birth,” right?

Right. “Sen” means previous or before, “sei” means to be born. I was born before you, so I have that much more experience and knowledge that I can convey to you. Even though I was not much older than the students I was teaching--I was maybe 23 or 24 and they were in their early 20s--I still felt that sense of responsibility and leadership. I really learned the meaning of sensei from that initial experience.

You took a slight detour from teaching. What happened?

After receiving my MA in Linguistics, I returned to Japan where I continued down the teaching path by becoming an English lecturer at Tokyo University of Science. After three years of teaching English grammar and composition to Japanese undergraduates, I decided to try my hand in the completely different field of finance. I obtained an MBA from Columbia University and, upon graduation, worked at an investment firm. After several years, I realized finance was not my calling, I decided to take a break. In retrospect, I believe working in finance was really just a break from my true calling—teaching. I learned a great deal about finance and business, which benefits me tremendously in running a language program.

Did that have any affect your teaching philosophy?
Although aspects of my teaching have evolved over the years, my core philosophy has remained unchanged. It starts with establishing a personal connection with students based on mutual trust. Once we share that, students are more receptive to learning and I am able to focus on conveying my knowledge to each student.

One effective "hook" to establish this rapport is humour. I find humour tends to put students at ease and lessens feelings of intimidation brought on by the seriousness and rigor of a “difficult” language like Japanese, with its sometimes daunting body of knowledge (for example, Japanese has few western-style cognates or sentence patterns, and two sets of alphabets totaling 92 characters, which must be mastered early on).

You've said that Japanese culture is vital to teaching and learning the Japanese language. How so?

The more I teach Japanese, the more I realize the importance of introducing the culture and customs of Japan into the curriculum. In each lecture I make a conscious effort to weave in various snippets of Japanese daily life and customs. I also find that an offbeat approach is an extremely effective teaching method. Some of the "odd but true" cultural phenomena I cover in classes include slurping noodles, the no “ladies first” custom, the “can’t say no” custom, nose blowing, yakuza tattoos, self-deprecating modesty, “holey” socks, giggling, chopstick and bowing etiquette, and body language, among others.

We've discussed on this blog before that a lot of young people become interested in Japanese through manga or anime. What would you say is the motivation for some of your older students?

If you see men taking Japanese, it's often the case their wives or girlfriends are Japanese. Or they went to Japan as a tourist, loved it there and want to go back. Now they really want to communicate a little bit with people. So that’s their motivation. You don’t see as many American women married to Japanese men, but there are some. And it’s the same reason for them: “I want to communicate with my husband’s family.”

Some of the older students have intellectual curiosity as well, or the kind of thing where they have been very interested in the culture since they were very young.

Japan Society has many cultural offerings in addition to language classes. Do you think that is why the Language Center has the reputation as one of the top in the U.S.?

Definitely. It’s because we have so many varied attractions: cultural lectures and demonstrations, a gallery, a film program, performing arts, business panels--we are constantly doing something tremendously interesting. Even our building is an attraction with its unique Japanese architectural elements. All these things combined really help to differentiate this school from others.

Also Japan Society is located in the middle of New York City, so we have people from all walks of life here. And there are Japanese cultural events all over town, not only at Japan Society. We could not have been number one in a little tiny isolated village in some unpopulated state, with not much going on. Location and activity really have a lot to do with it.

You said the city has people from all walks of life. Do you see that reflected in the classroom in terms of age groups, race, etc.?

Yes, we have students of all different ages. Probably the youngest is around 15, a high school student, to 65 or so. We have New York Times reporters, retired doctors, housewives, businessmen and all that. Last year I had a very interesting mix of people. One high school girl, who was good at Japanese because she taught herself, started partnering with an Indian-American who had his PhD from Cambridge on Einstein’s theory or something. I saw his thesis online. He was the real deal.

At first I wanted to kind of separate them. I thought, “Okay, there’s another high school student, so why doesn't she sit with him?” But the two wanted to be partners and stayed together for the whole semester. And they did very well together. They developed their pair conversation into something different, and she would always give him Hello Kitty candy. Something like that makes me really happy, you know, different people sharing this one purpose, to learn Japanese, but with very different life goals. And yet they achieve something together.

You are planning to try out a suite of unconventional thematic classes during the spring 2014 session, which starts in February. Can you tell us a little bit about these?

The themes are actually hooks to captivate students, but the core class is essentially teaching the fundamentals. Long-time instructor Mami Miyashita-sensei has been preparing a karaoke-based class for several years. When she presented the idea to me, I said, “That’s really catchy, let’s give it a try.” Each student will bring a song they want to sing, and they will explore the song in class--its vocabulary, grammar, structure, even idiomatic meanings. At the end of class they will try to sing the song. Hopefully with a better understanding of its meaning.

Do you think making material fun increases retention?
If you are interested in certain things, you pay more attention. When you are over 20 and try to learn new languages, you have to attach emotion to the learning process. Otherwise it’s very difficult to memorize. If you think about it, much older people, people in their 50s who want to learn Japanese, cannot always remember everything. But if I tell them a funny story about a grammar concept, they are more likely to remember. Emotion has to be involved. Like with songs. The words people learn in songs will stay in their heads if it means something to them.

The other new courses are conversation courses for the higher levels, and an advanced course that will read a complete novel--a kind of intense book club that will try to get through one novel each semester. The Center has traditionally been known to offer 12 levels of Japanese, but with these new courses there are now 13.

As Director, do you intend to do more to bring regular Japan Society programming into your lessons?

Oh yes. We already tried it out with the Japan Society Gallery this most recent session. We took students to see the Mariko Mori exhibition. It was pretty successful. I think students really enjoyed it. It has to be a win-win situation. Our Gallery will gain audience and our language students gain a cultural experience unavailable elsewhere. We took teachers to meet the head of the Gallery, Miwako Tezuka, and she trained them to explain aspects of the art on display. So depending on the level, if you’re taking Level 5 students, Level 10 students, the explanation is going to be a little bit different. We have to do it a few more times to see if it’s really working towards our goals.

Do you see yourself incorporating something like performing arts or even lectures in Japanese?
I would like to. There is so much that goes on here every month. Also one day I would like to offer something like a Cinema Class that coincides with Japanese film events taking place at Japan Society, so that students see the movies and talk about them in class. We have to utilize what we have upstairs in the auditorium and Gallery. We have this tremendous, precious resource, so why not use it to the advantage of our students?

Waku Waku Japanese, the series of short videos that introduce fun Japanese words and phrases, has become very popular with visitors to the Japan Society YouTube page. Do you have plans to continue the videos moving forward?

We are actually creating another version, kind of in between the fun of Waku Waku and Miyashita-sensei’s more grammar-based Japanese language videos. I think it’s going to start in early 2014. I have already chosen the instructor. What I am thinking of is to use it as an introduction to Japan Society as well as a fun way to learn some of the basics of the Japanese language. For that purpose, we may actually shoot the videos in front of the waterfall or in the library, to show this beautiful building to people who want to visit. We won’t of course show everything, because otherwise they won’t come to Japan Society (laughs).

To be Continued!

--Andres Oliver

Start at the very beginning! 

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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Merlin, Madagascar, and Mori: The Mystic Road to Stonehenge

Mystic origins of the cosmically synced Transcircle 1.1

Jacquetta Hawkes, the British archaeologist and writer, once stated, “Every age has the Stonehenge it deserves—or desires.”

I don’t know which Stonehenge Mariko Mori deserves, but looking at Transcircle 1.1, the Stonehenge-inspired, LED-powered circle of monoliths at the center of her current Rebirth exhibition, it’s clear which one she desires: one that serves as a channel for our ancestors.

With Transcircle’s combination of ancient British and Japanese spirituality, specifically Druidic and Shinto traditions of ancestor worship, Mori joins a long line of people to associate the monoliths with themes of death and rebirth.

Archaeologists and researchers continue to debate the purpose of the standing stones, with theories ranging from the conventional (Stonehenge is some sort of giant celestial observatory) to the curious (the stones were chosen for their acoustic qualities). Though our temporal separation from the founding of the wonder, dated some 5000 years ago, complicates explanation, that hasn’t stopped many, including Mori herself, from positing their own interpretations.

One of the earliest and most enduring stories surrounding Stonehenge stems from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (1136), perhaps best known as the source of much of the King Arthur mythos. Strangely enough, one of the main actors in the Arthur drama also plays an important part in Monmouth’s account of the construction of Stonehenge.

Wishing to erect a monument to several hundred British nobles slaughtered at the hands of the treacherous Hengist, Aurelius Ambrosius, King of the Britons, consults Merlin for advice. “Send for the Giants’ Dance that is on Killare,” the wizard says, prompting an expedition of gallant knights to bring back the stones, or Giants’ Dance, in question. After wresting the stones from the Irish king, Ambrosius’s forces convey them back to Britain, where Merlin uses his magic to set them in their current state. No pullies and cranes. No armies of workers. No rafts. Just magic.

Most relevant to Mori’s work is the fact that Monmouth interprets Stonehenge as a place of burial and commemoration, rather than as the astronomical instrument that others later took it to be. While Mori’s Transcircle 1.1 focuses much more on rebirth than on the finality of earthly burial, both this piece and Monmouth’s Stonehenge tie the monoliths to some aspect of death, exemplifying the “creative stream [reaching] right down to the present” that Mori uses to describe her affinity to that other ancient legacy of Japan’s Jōmon period.

Talking about “creative streams” Mori takes her greatest artistic liberties in interpreting the monoliths through the lens of early Druidism, an idea both widely repudiated and enduringly popular. Though the Druids probably did not appear until around 400 BC, several thousand years after the beginning of the construction of Stonehenge, and also conducted the majority of their rites in groves rather than in temples, this knowledge has not deterred Mori and others from echoing the undoubtedly romantic idea of Druidic mysteries.

“Stonehenge as Druidic temple” owes much to the work of John Aubrey, a 17th-century English antiquarian who both excavated the ring of holes now named after him and wrongly attributed the monoliths to the work of Celtic Druids. However erroneous, this connection, strengthened by a generation of Romantics in later centuries, proved enduring enough to influence both Mori and current neo-pagan groups. While Mori celebrates this tradition through her art, neo-pagans do so by descending upon Stonehenge to mark the solstice—prominent among them, a bearded former soldier who goes by the title of Rev King Arthur Uther Pendragon, Battle Chieftain of the Council of British Druid Orders. [Note: Mori's recent "Sun Pillar" installed on an island in Okinawa prefecture also utilizes the light of the solstice sun (video).]

Arthurian legends and Druidic tie-ins have largely fallen out of favor in today’s Stonehenge research. That being said, an endeavor known as the Stonehenge Riverside Project, responsible for some major excavations of the site in recent years, reflects elements of both traditions, as well as of Mori’s own work.

In his writings on Stonehenge, Geoffrey of Monmouth makes the claim that the stones were transported by giants “from the farthest ends of Africa.” The thought of transporting these monoliths over a distance of a few miles, much less several thousand, seems almost impossibly daunting, placing Geoffrey’s story firmly in the realm of fiction. However, Mike Parker Pearson, the English archaeologist behind the Riverside Project, wouldn’t write Africa out of the story entirely.

Back in 1998, Pearson and Ramilisonina, a Malagasy archaeologist, published a groundbreaking paper in which they drew parallels between Stonehenge and Madagascar’s tradition of ancestor worship, putting forth the idea of a “Stonehenge for the ancestors.” The two drew a comparison between Stonehenge as a home for the dead and Woodhenge, a nearby collection of timber circles they believe to be the remains of a human settlement, as a home for the living. Pearson and Ramilisonina saw the same dynamic at work in Madagascar. Speaking with National Geographic in June of this year, Pearson says,
In Madagascar, they build in stone for the ancestors because it is a permanent medium—permanent like the ancestors—whereas they live in wooden houses because those will perish just like human life will end. I laughed initially and said, "Well, I don't think that's necessarily really going to have anything to do with Britain 5,000 years ago." 
But I realized that actually we did have timber circles very close to the stone circle of Stonehenge. That was quite a bombshell for me.
In light of this research, Mori’s reimagining of Stonehenge in Transcircle 1.1 as a kind of antenna for cosmic and primal energies begins to look far less speculative. Indeed, the immense age and incompleteness of Stonehenge make it open to a variety of interpretations, like all high art and low art.

You can almost imagine the same thing happening in reverse with Transcircle 1.1. Now a centerpiece of an artist’s rebirth, centuries later it falls into disrepair, turning up in some mundane location. What was it for? Who made it? With what purpose? A sun marker. Cemetery. A temple. All of the above. Or none. We can dream, and wonder.

--Andres Oliver



Image: Transcircle 1.1, 2004. Stone, Corian, LED, real-time control system; 132 3/8 inches diam., each stone 43 3/8 × 22 1/4 × 13 1/2 inches. Courtesy of The Mori Art Museum, Tokyo. Installation photograph by Richard Goodbody.

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Saturday, December 14, 2013

Sword Unconcealed: The Martial Legacy Of The Samurai

Kendo. Via.

It was 1877, and the samurai were in trouble. According to Stephen Burnbull's The Samurai Swordsman: Master of War, Saigo Takamori, the leader of the last great samurai rebellion against the Meiji government and the engines of change, was moving down the slope of Kumamoto Castle under heavy fire. His progress was soon impeded as he took a bullet to the groin, forcing one of his followers to carry him down the mountain. Finally, they reached a secluded gate. Turning in the direction of the imperial palace, Takamori took a knife, plunged it into his belly, and committed seppuku, honorable ritual suicide. The Satsuma Rebellion was over. So was the age of the samurai.

Fast forward to the present, where a visit to any Japanese high school reveals groups of boys and girls clad in black hakama robes, their faces masked so that they look like angry wasps. With a scream and a lunge, they drive their wooden swords against a shoulder. A neck. Searching everywhere for an opening.

This is kendo, the “way of the sword.” As David A. Hall tells us in his Encyclopedia of Japanese Martial Arts, an exhaustive work drawing on decades of study and practice, the kendo tradition almost disappeared after the death of Takamori and disenfranchisement of his samurai brethren. With the Meiji emperor passing a set of laws known as the Haitorei edicts in an effort to outlaw the use of swords, long considered an emblem of samurai status, the romantic way of the sword survived only through the modern art of kendo and the other schools that Hall outlines in his book.

Americans might be familiar with the Haitorei edicts from Japanese media, even if they have never heard the term itself. For example, many will remember the scene in The Last Samurai (not exactly a paragon of historical authenticity, but it does provide some context) where the young samurai Nobutada, played by Shin Koyamada, is stopped in the street by some police officers, who promptly relieve him of sword and topknot to his cry of “Yamero!” “Stop!” As a member of the samurai class, which for centuries enjoyed the right of sword ownership as a status symbol, being deprived of his katana and wakizashi, a smaller sword, would have been especially humiliating for Nobutada. After all, in the words of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the famous Japanese shogun of old, “the sword is the soul of the warrior.”

For all its symbolic importance, the katana was not often the weapon of choice for a samurai on the field of battle. As David Hall tells us in his encyclopedia entry on kyuba no michi, or “way of the bow and horse,” the people of the Heian (794-1185) and Kamakura (1185-1333) periods identified warriorship with one’s skill as an archer, especially while on horseback. Later centuries saw the rise of firearms and squads of foot soldiers armed with yari, or long spears. Just as books and movies like The Three Musketeers and The Princess Bride have given rise to the romantic ideal of soldiers meeting each other one on one, exchanging witticisms as much as blows while they dance the dance of swords, modern takes on samurai history give the impression that battles rested on manful thrusts and parries of the katana. In reality, swords did not enjoy widespread use as a primary weapon until Japan’s invasion by the Mongols in the thirteenth century, and even afterward, the sword generally played its greatest part off the field of battle in duels or assassinations.

Others might know Haitorei through popular anime series Rurouni Kenshin, which depicts the adventures of the titular Kenshin after he renounces the life of an assassin. Events unfold during the dawn of the Meiji era, with everything from the first steam engine to Western dress exemplifying Japan’s transition to a new age. This being the case, Kenshin’s practice of carrying his sword openly at his side, even if it is a reverse-blade sword made for disabling rather than killing, often brings him trouble while out in public. We also learn another bit of history through the character of Saito Hajime, the Dirty Harry of the Japanese police force. Not that any of the heroes and villains of the series seem to pay much regard for the sword carrying law, but as a member of the police, Saito is one of the few who does so within the boundaries of the law.

This detail accords with the historical record. Even after the passing of the last Haitorei decree, one outlawing carrying of swords for the general public, Tokyo police were allowed to carry swords in the course of their duties. In fact, Kawaji Toshiyoshi, protégé of the illustrious Saigo Takamori and founder of the first modern police force in Tokyo, advocated for including the sword as part of police training in a book called Kendo Saikoron (On the Revitalization of Kendo). David Hall expands on this history in his encyclopedia, where he tells of the 1886 creation of a standardized training curriculum for police that included elements of kendo.

It is important to note that the term kendo did not come into use until the seventeenth century, when a period of peace prompted some practitioners of martial arts to include a spiritual element in their training. In this sense, while modern kendo reflects little of the kinds of stylized katana fights seen in films like Kill Bill, and perhaps only a shadow of the martial legacy of the samurai, it certainly stays true to the spirit those same samurai were expected to represent: one of courage and discipline, and the kind of sacrifice seen on the slopes of Kumamoto.

Note: David Hall appears at Japan Society today for a Japanese martial arts demonstration, featuring several local practicing groups. 

--Andres Oliver

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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Destination JS: A Suite Of Japanese Sweets From Katagiri

Via.

Destination JS explores the sites, shops, and eateries surrounding Japan Society or specializing in Japanese goods.

Pocky and green tea ice cream are all very well. I’ll even grant you Hi-Chews. But if you’re looking for more traditional Japanese sweets, turn your eyes to the world of gooey rice and red bean paste.

This week at Japan Society, Luane Kohnke, author of Gluten Free Cookies, and Nicole Bermsensolo, founder of Japanese confectionery Kyotofu introduce visitors to the little-known tradition of Japanese sweets (making heavy use of rice, sweetened beans, and fruit ingredients like yuzu, many Japanese desserts are naturally gluten free).

To mark the event, which promises tastes of miso brownies, green tea cupcakes, and yuzu muffins, I stopped by Katagiri on the Upper East Side to pick up some treats. The store claims the distinction of being the oldest Japanese grocery in the U.S., and in the vein of nearby Dainobu, offers everything from fresh fish to bento.

As I stepped gratefully into the warmth of the store, I made straight for a glass cabinet to the side. Inside sat an assortment of the kind of packaged Japanese sweets you find in all the train stations in Japan. Seeing as I didn’t want to buy an entire box, I purchased three individual sweets from store.

Delectable dorayaki. Via

Having enjoyed 7-Eleven dorayaki many times while studying abroad in Japan, I decided to go with this one first. The concept is fairly straightforward: take a round, pancake-like exterior and fill it with anko, or red bean paste. The spongy dough is reminiscent more of castella than of a pancake, resulting in a fairly light snack (though blogger YummyIndulgences attests to the existence of custard dorayaki). I was also pleased to find myself biting into chunks of chestnut, which I imagine are a regional or seasonal variation.

There is some debate regarding the origin of the name of the snack, with Taniguchi Takuya, owner of Usagi-ya, a popular Tokyo sweets maker, proposing two theories. In one, dorayaki takes its name from the shape of bronze Chinese dora gongs. In the other, the name derives from the ancient practice of grilling the confection on top of the gong itself.

Regardless of its linguistic origin, dorayaki is commonly associated with two colorful Japanese characters, Doraemon and Benkei. Much like Garfield has his lasagna, the anko/pancake combination is apparently the favorite snack of beloved Japanese manga and anime character, Doraemon. The other connection ties the snack to Benkei, the warrior monk of legend. According to one story, Benkei was once served dorayaki while being tended to by an elderly couple, who used a gong to grill the snack.

To die for daifuku. Via.

The dorayaki washed down with a fitting glass of green tea, I moved on to the next treat: daifuku. This one will perhaps be more familiar to anyone who has visited a Japanese grocery, as there are usually enough varieties—sesame, strawberry, matcha—to merit an entire shelf. I ended up going with the strawberry flavor.

I’ve heard some people have a phobia of having things stick to the roof of their mouth. Those individuals might want to stay away from daifuku, which requires a good deal of chewing to break down the glutinous (but gluten-free!) exterior. As with dorayaki, love of anko is also a requirement.

Unlike the strawberry daifuku I had purchased before at Dainobu, the selection from Katagiri contained a layer of cream in the center, creating a nice textural balance between the mushy rice dough, the thick red bean paste, and the smooth cream. In fact, it put me in mind of mochi ice cream, which is now available at many supermarkets throughout the country. Apparently, this creation arose through the efforts of Japanese Lotte Co., which released its Yukimi Daifuku mocha ice cream in 1981 to great success. With the company producing familiar varieties like cookies and cream, newcomers to the world of red bean paste and daifuku might want to start their journey here.

Nom-nom-nom monakaVia

At this point in the meal I was holding out for a change from red bean paste. I had picked the last treat at random from the glass display in the hope that the Japanese script-adorned wrapping would fall away to reveal a new flavor. Instead I found… more red bean paste.

The dessert that I later learned is monaka contains anko paste between two mochi wafers. The outside is almost indistinguishable from an ice cream wafer, and, in fact, it seems that some Japanese variations substitute ice cream for the anko. One restaurant has gone against tradition even further by stuffing the wafers with foie gras.

While tasty, the monaka was the least exciting of my three selections, providing neither the soft, pancake-y goodness of dorayaki nor the chewey challenge of daifuku.

With places like Dainobu, Katagiri, and Bermensolo’s own Kyotofu (available at Whole Foods, Dean & Deluca, and elsewhere) bringing an entire tradition of Japanese desserts to New York, geographical distance is no longer an obstacle to the average consumer. Just do yourself a favor when tasting and add some of Japan's non-red bean paste delicacies to the mix.

--Andres Oliver

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