Friday, March 23, 2012

Sakura Blooms Eternal: Japan’s Gift to America Keeps Giving

Cherry Blossoms at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. Image by jaci.sabbathi.

One of the greatest times to be in Japan is springtime when the sakura (cherry blossom) trees are in bloom. It’s an occasion to celebrate known as hanami, as family and friends gather at parks under cherry trees and revel in the blossoming of pink and white while enjoying food and drink.

With the blooming period lasting as little as a week, a forecast announces peak moments to witness the beautiful spectacle before it flutters to the ground. To further highlight the importance of hanami, an ancient Shinto-Buddhist philosophy known as mono no aware is linked to the short-lived cherry blossom and is seen as a wistful, melancholic reminder that even with the best things we come to appreciate in life, nothing is permanent.

The ephemeral seems to be striving for eternal, however in  Washington, D.C. This year, Japan’s 1912 gift of 3,000 cherry trees sees its 100th anniversary, with much bravado from the annual National Cherry Blossom Festival. As a token of friendship between the two nations, Tokyo mayor Yukio Ozaki offered the trees, which were planted along the Tidal Basin for people to enjoy the sprouting of cherry blossoms every spring without having to go to Japan. Since 1935, the D.C. has celebrated the occasion with spectacular festivities involving all sorts of Japanese cultural activities. To commemorate the centennial, the festival expands to five weeks to provide even more art, music, performances, and various other events. With its history of surviving displacement, wartime, and old age, the trees are certainly a testament to the effort to maintain close and friendly ties between the U.S. and Japan.

For those who can’t make it to D.C., Japan Society holds its own suite of events in Sakura – Spring Renews, Beauty Blooms. Master kabuki dancer, Bando Kotoji, leads several sakura-themed performances with live music accompaniment and will offer a workshop on the ancient art. As Cherry Blossoms Fall: Films & Scenes of Sakura, a 10-movie series captures mono no aware through sakura imagery and themes steeped in Edo-period romance and samurai swordplay. The series culminates with the annual all-day j-CATION festival, featuring  numerous workshops, from origami and sweets to language lessons and shodo calligraphy; live bands; karaoke; a screening of Killing in Yoshiwara; a wild Japanese-style game show, with the grand prize of a roundtrip ticket to japan; and the hanami lounge with Japanese food and drinks to buy throughout the day.

If that's not enough to cure the sakura fever, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden holds their annual Sakura Matsuri at the end of April. For a digital fix of the powerful pink phenomenon, peek more than 2000 images in their Hanami Group on Flickr.

--Sean Tomizawa

Monday, March 19, 2012

Resilience In The Lost Decade: Recovery In Tohoku

From Memory: Things We Should Never Forget. Photo courtesy of Nikkei Inc.

When Japan Society education director Rob Fish was putting together events in recognition of the one-year anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, one moment stood out for him. During school visits in the Tohoku region in summer 2011, surveying the devastation after months of recovery efforts, principal Sadayoshi Sugiwara from Shizugawa Junior High School told Fish how happy he was to have received so much support from the U.S. and people around the world, but how concerned he was that after a year’s time people would forget.

It's an alarming prospect. In a recent interview about Japan Society's relief work, president Motoatsu Sakurai told Reuters he believes economic recovery and rebuilding “will continue for more than 10 years”, with ongoing work to repair damage, remove mountains of remaining debris, begin rebuilding, and cope with nuclear contamination.

A decade of recovery after Japan’s “lost decade” isn't an exaggeration at this point. Despite incredible efforts to clean up the large amount of debris left by the tsunami, the hard-hit city of Ishinomaki is home to the biggest dumping grounds, further exacerbated by other cities rescinding their offers to take  some of the waste due to fear of contamination. Japan’s Environment Ministry, recently reported that of the “estimated 22.5 million tons of debris in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures… only 1.42 million tons have been disposed of” to date.

The affected areas have seen a rapid decrease in volunteer workers from the peak of 171,800 individuals two months after the disasters to about 11,000 volunteers as of January 2012. Meanwhile, professors and experts from Cornell University cite “serious political problems” that may prevent a speedy recovery.

The nuclear meltdown in Fukushima has been a constant source of danger for the local population. Despite all attempts to secure the area and remove as much radiation as possible, including collecting every leaf, the Daiichi plant reactors have “readings peaking at 1.500 microsieverts per hour – more than a thousand times what was normal pre-accident” making repairs difficult. The latest estimates have soil radiation levels far below those of Chernobyl during the same time frame, though Fukushima and its surrounding prefectures will be irradiated for years to come.

The situation has become problematic for displaced citizens. In the little time given former residents of Okuma, for example, many people were barely able to recover belongings, let alone clean any family graves that survived the disasters.

Despite all of this, there is visible progress happening all around the affected areas showing signs of renewed life and resilience from the local population. International concern for Japan was reflected by an outpouring of mainstream media coverage that began weeks before the tragedies’ anniversary. Wall Street Journal's RealTimeJapan blog ran an all encompassing "March 11, One Year Later" series. NY1’s Dean Meminger reported from Kamaishi city for a week-long special report focusing on the affected people of Tohoku. MSNBC carried a photo series with a remarkable then-and-now panoramic photo as well as poignant portraits of survivors. Photographer Denis Rouvre’s survivor portraits in The New York Times questioned whether the disaster can be summed up as shikata ga nai, or “it can’t be helped,” as similar situations have been received in Japan.

Inspiring anecdotes of survivors, young and old, included a man who refuses to leave the no-go zone in order to take care of abandoned animals, and student Yuji Hamada, who turned 15 on the 11th, recalling the loss of his mother and sister on the day of the disasters, and who strives to live life to the fullest.

Working collectively to overcome hardships continues in Minami-sanriku, where oyster farmers feel the “local industry could be back on its feet and thriving as soon as three years from now” and a high school baseball team plays hard towards the national tournament in the name of Ishinomaki.

--Sean Tomizawa

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Till Love Do Us Part

A scene from Minazuki. © 1999 Nikkatsu Corporation

Internal and external forces pull at the lovers in the final films of the Love Will Tear Us Apart series. Rokuro Mochizuki's Minazuki is an "equal parts sad and tooth-crushingly violent story" that follows a down-on-his-luck office worker in search of his wayward wife, and 2002's multi-award winning masterpiece Oasis has been called "one of the most deeply felt love stories of the screen" as Korean society stacks the odds against a young couple.

The series picked up where Valentine’s Day left off, featuring 24 films that according to the Wall Street Journal took "a look back at themes of star-crossed romance, forbidden lust, sublime heartbreak and other tortured misadventures of the heart as imagined by Japanese and Korean filmmakers, primarily over the past decade."

Ranging from the controversial oldie In the Realm of Senses to world premiere of Petrel Hotel Blue, which opens in Japan later this month, the series kicked off with Shinya Tsukamoto’s Kotoko and the short film Romance whose star Hyunri hosted the evening's Make Love after-party--"a red-and-pink mini-gown, hot-pant extravaganza". Film scholar John Berra introduced films including the bizarre and fantastical Air Doll and a dark, voyeuristic romp in A Snake of June, while film historian Go Hirasawa made an appearance for the screening of The Woman Who Wanted to Die.

As the series trailer suggested, it takes two tango. With films from both Korea and Japan, the the two it took were perhaps best exemplified by directors Kim Ki-duk and Koji Wakamatsu. Both men have extensive filmographies with their fair share of critical acclaim as well as controversy.

Kim Ki-duk, well-renowned art-house filmmaker from South Korea, began his journey into movies by starting as a screenwriter after studying fine arts in Paris for some years. Since Crocodile, the first film he directed in 1996, Ki-duk has gone on to create over 15 more, which have caught on in both South Korea, thanks to a strong local movie industry, and internationally more so for their often visceral imagery and, on the controversy side of things, occasional animal cruelty.

Japan Society's series featured three of his films back-to-back. Time brings up the everlasting question of whether the love between two people can really last forever. The female main character, out of jealousy, suddenly leaves her boyfriend one day only to return with a completely new face from plastic surgery. The boyfriend finds himself falling in love again, unwittingly with the same woman he’s always been with. In the much darker Bad Guy, a young college student finds herself accosted by a pimp and turns the table on him through public humiliation. However the next day, she finds herself set up by and at the mercy of the pimp from the other day who forces her into prostitution. The film continues with unexpected twists within the interactions between girl, the pimp, and the criminal underworld they are caught up in. Finally, Ki-duk’s most recent film, Dream, features Japanese star Joe Odagiri and Lee Na-young in which two strangers find themselves inexplicably linked through a dream involving a car crash. Whatever Odagiri’s character dreams of, Na-young’s character seems to act it out.

Koji Wakamatsu had his beginnings in Japan’s pinku eiga (pink films--softcore Japanese movies popular in the 60s through 80s) industry, where he gained notoriety for many exploitation films. When reactions to his submission to the 15th Berlin International Film review in 1965 were not so enthusiastic, Wakamatsu left the industry to pursue his own vision. The result of such decision led to the creation of haunting, super sexual, and experimental works that all have a sense of longing between their characters.

Petrel Hotel Blue marks Wakamatsu triumphant return. The story involves plans of revenge by an ex-con being foiled with the introduction of a young lady played by actress Hitomi Katayama (who introduced the film at Japan Society's March 10 world premiere). Everything seems to go wrong for a policeman, his wife, and his brother hiding out from the Tokyo street riots in Running in Madness, Dying in Love. When a fight breaks out between the two brothers, the policeman’s wife ends up killing her husband with his own gun. The surviving brother and the wife flee north from the city and end up romantically involved with each other despite the guilt of the murdered husband on their minds. Wakamatsu’s last piece in the film series is The Woman Who Wanted to Die, the tale of an unexpected meeting between two couples who may be familiar with each from another time.

Love Will Tear Us Apart is one of three film series at Japan Society in March. In addition to the sold out documentaries that were part of the March 11 day of reflection in One Year Later programming series commemorating the one-year anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, As Cherry Blossoms Fall: Films and Scenes of Sakura showcases 10 films that capture Japanese cinema's unique beauty of transience, commonly known as mono no aware, from March 23 to April 14. Featuring films such as Dolls, Taboo, and Sakuran, the films are part of the Sakura — Spring Renews, Beauty Blooms series held in conjunction with the National Cherry Blossom Festvial, this year marking the 100th Anniversary of the Japan's famous gift of cherry trees to the U.S.

--Sean Tomizawa