Archive for the ‘American vs Japanese Culture’ Category

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December 01, 2015: “Rice Noodle Fish”

December 1, 2015

RNF_Cover_smOne of the joys I have these days is the occasional contact from some of my students from my old job that choose to stay in touch with me. Not only is it a pleasure to see these fine people as they progress through life, but it makes me think that I just may have done a few things right in my old position.

Sometimes it’s fielding Facebook posts from Sarah on her career as one of the finest wedding photographers in New England. Once and a while I’ll get a very entertaining Twitter from Regan’s son, Mason…or perhaps a spirited comment here from her mom. Sweet Emma will chime in on FB, from time-to-time, with news of weird weather patterns, and even weirder wildlife from “the land down-under.” True to form, Isaac may suddenly show up out of nowhere to “kidnap” me to go see a movie, or like his last contact: a phone call to announce the birth of his son!

A couple of weeks ago, Regan sent me a link to an article on okonomiyaki (the comfort food that Yoshio has published a book about, and where this blog gets its name) that she thought I would like…and she hit the proverbial nail on the head! The story was about everything I try to write about in the blog: making good Japanese food in the most authentic way possible, while trying to explore Japanese culture as best a Westerner may. RNF_insert_sm

The story was about a Guatemalan chef who emigrates to Hiroshima to make okonomiyaki…something almost unheard of, as the Japanese can be wary of gaijin (foreigners) and almost never would accept a gaijin cooking what is considered to be Japans’ most hallowed comfort food! The first thing I noticed was the article was very well written: a story/tapestry of  history, Japanese food, travel, cooking techniques, the pursuit of excellence, all wound around a personal story of daring and success! Needless to say, I loved the article, but towards the end of it, I had one of those, “Hey! Wait a minute!” feelings.

Back up to a week and a half before. I’m at my local library, checking out films and asking for help with research on a piece I’m working on. I’m striding to the checkout desk with my usual brisk pace, when a book practically leaps out from the shelf at me!

This has happened a few times in my life, and it always has served me well to follow the instinct: one time, it was a rare book from a former teacher of mine that did the “leaping” and I still cherish that book to this day. So, whenever this happens, I just roll with it.

The leaping book was “Rice Noodle Fish” (Deep Travels Through Japan’s Food Culture) by Matt Goulding. “RNF” is published through Roads and Kingdoms (an independent journal of food, politics, travel, and culture.) The book seems to be strongly attached to Anthony Bourdain, who I gather is some sort of celebrity chef of some sort. I could not be less impressed by this part of it, but if this attachment got the book published… fine, but the writing (and some of the photography) is Matt’s.

My “Waitaminute!” moment was one of perfect synchronicity: Regan’s article to me was from a part of “Rice Noodle Fish” that I hadn’t gotten to read just yet. RNF Food Groups_smWhenever I pick up a new book, I look to the dedication. To my mind this sets the tone of the book, and Matt Goulding has nailed the right tone (and my interest and trust) with his:

“To the shokunin (artisans) of Japan, pursuers of perfection, for showing us the true meaning of devotion.”

With this measure of respect, one can continue, and the rest of the book is just pure fun: it is part travelogue (Matt divides the book into the separate regions of Japan); part etiquette book; and part history book. But the main focus is on the variety of the people and food of Japan. Best of all (for us) Matt’s perspective is from a Westerner, but one who is thoroughly open to Japan’s people and food. Like most of us, Matt freely admits he will never completely understand the myriad of subtleties of Japanese culture, but offers a handful of guidelines, tips, directions, and even some language, to smooth the road for the open adventurer who is looking for a taste of the unfamiliar.

Roads and Kingdoms have made portions of the book available online. It also offers some tips for those traveling to Japan: roadsandkingdoms.com/japan

[Much thanks to the Randall Library of Stow, Ma. for having stocked such wonderful leaping books and for my extension on my loan to complete my article.]

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June 07, 2015: Japanese Dinner for the Family

June 7, 2015

Family @ Sushi BarStory is king.

As an part-time chef and storyteller, it is not unusual for me to use food as yet another medium (to try, at least) to connect to my fellow-man, to make a bridge between thought and reality.

What experience should have taught me is that be it photography, literature, film, or food, you gotta play to the right crowd.

JoanneI have been known (sadly) to talk endlessly about how Joyce is sentence-by-sentence, the best writer of the last century…how Thoreau the most important and original. I can go on forever about my reasons for photographing the dolmens and burial tombs of Ireland…of how the interplay of light in nature may move me to almost ectasy…and how Japanese food is challenging, time-consuming and complex…and yet, at it’s very essence…simplicity and subtlety personified. I have to remind myself, that ‘tho I’m very passionate about all of these, it often means very little to your average person.

Jonathon

A couple of weeks ago, I got a birthday party invitation from my niece, Bryna’s 40th birthday. I haven’t cooked a big meal in a while so I offered to make a Japanese meal for the family as a gift. I knew this to be a substantial challenge as, my family would have little (if any) connection to Japanese food. However, I have been making dishes for the blog for a few years now, so I felt pretty sure of my limitations, as well as my strengths. I also had my ace-in-the-hole: Yoshio, and no one is better than bridging the East-meets-West cultures than him.

So, I dug in and created a menu that I thought would show Japanese food at its best, while catering (as best I could) to the Central New York palette.

Japanese Meal for the Family

Yoshio’s Salmon Ribbon:  a piece of salmon, wrapped around a shiso leaf (sesame leaf) a little lemon zest, fresh dill, salt and white pepper. This is all wrapped in a won-ton noodle,which is then fried and covered in a raspberry jam/lemon juice/Grand Marnier sauce and topped with fresh raspberries.

Sliced Cucumbers: Small English cucumbers sliced thin with a dressing of mirin, rice vinegar, and sesame oil.

Broccoli and Lime-Mayo: Blanched and chilled broccoli crowns in a mayo, yoghurt, mirin, and lime sauce with fresh dill weed.

Tamago Roll: an egg omelette sweetened with mirin, fried, rolled and topped with chopped scallion.

Age Dashi Dofu: Tofu, dusted in corn starch and fried, in a broth of wakame and shiitake mushroom, topped with shredded scallion, daikon, and carrot.

Kushi Katu: small pieces of salmon, shrimp, chicken, beef, sweet potato, crimini mushrooms, onion and asparagus, on a stick, covered in a batter of panko and fried.

Temaki Roll: a cone of nori wrapped around sushi rice, with matchsticked carrot, scallion, daikon, crab meat, and cucumber.

Temari Zushi: a ball of sushi rice, covered with strips of avocado. Topped with grated carrot, daikon and toasted sesame seeds.

Macha Ice Cream: vanilla ice cream, slightly melted and mixed with powdered macha green tea and re-frozen.

Yoshio's Mikan Cocktail: Plum Wine, Champagne and Cherry+Mandarian Orange

Yoshio’s Mikan Cocktail: Plum Wine, Champagne and Cherry+Mandarian Orange

The salmon ribbon was the appetizer, served with Yoshio’s “Mikan Cocktail” (champagne with a little plum-wine, garnished with a cherry and a slice of mikan [Mandarin orange.] ) We also had sake and green tea as well as a Japanese beer, rice crackers, and edamamae.

I had brought authentic Japanese music and my brother-in-law, Steve was kind enough to set it up on his music system. Both Steve and my sister, Mary Lou went halfsies with me on the meal, as a gift to Bryna and both did considerable prep-work for all the dishes.

A week before the meal, I met with Yoshio to concur with him on the menu. He approved and fine-tuned the dishes with good advice and a demonstration or two, to improve my technique. During my stay, he made a few dishes for me, one of which was a cold, silken tofu, garnished in shaved ginger on a bed of sauce that he made up on the spot. This dish was everything I wanted my family to experience: fresh, simple, unique and delicious.

Yet, I knew there going to be problems reconciling the Japanese diet with that of your average CNYorkers: for instance, the delicious silken tofu dish Yoshio made, would never fly with my folks. In fact, tofu was completely off the menu, until my niece told me that she loves tofu, so I included the age dashi dish (which only Bryna and I enjoyed, as the rest of the folks finding the idea of tofu repellent.)

Age Dashi DofuI also knew that I had not the training for, nor would the folks find appetizing, raw fish for the sushi. I actually brought a tube of wasabi, but as soon as I started serving food, I knew that wasabi would only detract from the experience.

I had a few surprises of tastes that I now take for granted that I should have considered to be rather foreign to my family: green tea, for instance. No takers on that one (except, once again, my niece.) Sake, also was rather strange to them. A few people tried the warm rice wine and expressed surprise that it only had only the alcoholic content of wine (they all thought it was a liquor.) Any form of seaweed was right out: my sister tasted a seaweed rice cracker and pretty much retched at the taste. Anything wrapped in nori was not eaten.

Tamaki IngredientsA big surprise was the disappointing response I got to my macha ice cream. I have made this a few times before and have gotten a favorable reactions from those that had never had it before: it’s only slightly sweet, but balanced by the slight bitter of he pulverized green tea mixed in. I caught my sister making a face after one spoonful, then she proceeded to lather the raspberry sauce from the salmon ribbon over the ice cream. In her defense, she is used to her very rich and sweet desserts she makes every Christmas, to great effect with her guests…so it stands to reason the subtleties of a Japanese dessert (which are invariably not as sweet) are lost on her.

Nicky & TysonMy own mistakes did not help at all: I have forgotten that even ‘tho I’ve made all these dishes to perfection before, these Japanese dishes take practice! Although the taste was perfect, the shape and presentation of some of the sushi rolls could have been much better. I also could have done a better job with mastering my sister’s stove top (a technology I am not used to) better. The oil temperature was way too high.

Still…bless their hearts, my family showed up and took a leap and could very much appreciate the work involved in such a meal. Perhaps I should be most surprised that some of my dishes were tasted and appreciated! Sadly, those that were appreciated were mostly the creations of others (all of Yoshio’s recipes were liked, as well as Baba’s Temari Roll.)

Temari ZushiThe world is an ocean of wonderful tastes, some from strange and foreign lands, just waiting for the stout sailor to brave the new horizons of culinary experience.

Thanks to my family for attempting this brief journey with me for an afternoon’s mini-adventure! I’ll be back with more delicious food (albeit more traditional fare) the next visit!

[One of the best things about a big meal like this is that I always end up relying on the contributions and input from others. Thanks to Steve and Mary Lou Swasey for being perfect hosts: their time, effort, remarkable prep-work skills…down to their ornamental china, which was perfect. Thanks to Steve for the photos of the day. Thanks also to Chris & Sara for their gift of the *best* sesame oil from the Saratoga Olive oil Co. and to Regan for the gift of dried shiitake mushrooms, and especially to Yoshio, for his recipes, good ideas, guidance, and for providing the rare supplies for the meal.]

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March 04, 2013: The Rules of Incense

March 4, 2013

Incense_ShadowLacadio Hearn2I have found an excellent guide to interpreting Japanese culture in Lafcadio Hearn. Who better than a half Irish-half Greek American writer, who loved Japan so much that he not only moved there, but married a Japanese woman, and even changed his name to a Japanese one, to interpret Japanese culture to me? Hearn’s “outsider looking in” voice I find to be very insightful to my Western sensibilities. It also helps that Hearn was writing to the West in the early 20thC. (a time period that I love in any culture) when Japan was quite unknown. His opinions were very fresh at the time and he was able to capture with his writings, a Japan that sadly exists no more in many respects. Writing to Westerners, Hearn used a very honest and most direct voice. You never question what Hearn thought about a Japanese custom, event, or story. If he thought it was stupid, he said so in his writings. I cringe to think how that directness might have gone over with the Japanese, but we can assume that he was a much better diplomat at the time and the place and left his unbridled opinions for the people of the West.

In Hearn’s’ book: “In Ghostly Japan” he writes about an activity that was popular at the time he lived in Japan that I had never heard about, that of Ko-kwai or “incense-game.” As Hearn writes, in the pre-Meiji era (1898-1912) young women of higher class were required to learn music, embroidery, poetry, and the three accomplishments of flower-arranging (ikébana) the tea ceremony (cha-no-yu) and the “way of incense” (kodo.) At the time Hearn was writing, the art of incense had been adapted to a more casual, social event of ko-kwai or “incense-parties.”

Japan Kodo CeremonySometimes, I find writers to be like old friends: you disagree with them, but love them anyway…sometimes because of these disagreements! Reading over Hearn’s description of the incense game, I had to suppress a giggle because for what seems so very important to him, seems like trivia to me and vice-versa. I suspected this difference when he describes the cha-no-yu ceremony as “dainty, but somewhat tedious” where I find it a magnificent display of simplicity in form and beauty. Hearn does spend a great deal of energy on the mechanics of the game (to the tune of nine pages of descriptions) which I blieve I can sum up pretty tidily:

1. As host, pick three kinds of incense. Have guests bring another.
2. In a closed, still room, burn each incense while stating its name, and let each player sample.
3. Burn each incense again and have everyone guess which it is. Score each player. Most right guesses=the winner. The winner gets a gift. Open a window.   Sake and rice all around.

This particular game is called Jitchu-ko. Like a card-party, there are a number of different incense-games. Kumi-ko, for instance, involves just one kind of incense and invites discussion on its attributes. Genji-ko, for another, involves five different censers of incense, some of which may be the same. Scores in this game are recorded to refer to certain sections of “The Tales of Genji” by the Lady Murasaka Shikibu, which are then read for entertainment.

Courtesan Chozan of Choji-ya burning incense on a hibachi; Library of Congress Prints

Courtesan Chozan of Choji-ya burning incense on a hibachi; Library of Congress Prints

What I found absolutely fascinating (and which Hearn dismisses with, “…this subject could interest few readers…”) about the whole event of the Ko-kwai were the rules surrounding the conditions of the game. What can I say? I guess Hearn was a bit country and I’m a bit rock and roll!

Incense parties were celebrated about the turn of the 20thC. in American cites that had some Japanese populations. In a June, 1902 New York Evening Post article, the rules of an incense party was laid out for attending New Yorkers:

“For the 24 hours preceding the party each guest must avoid the use of anything which can produce an odor whatsoever. Scented soaps, perfumes, odorous foods and even spices must be avoided. These prevent the user from smelling accurately and also interfere with other members of the party. When you dress be careful to put on no garment that has been kept in the neighborhood of camphor wood, tobacco, bouquets, blossoms or scented face powder. When you reach the house of your host enter as softly as you can and as slowly as possible. This is to prevent making a draught by the movement of your own body. Be equally  leisurely in opening and closing of doors, as a quick movement induces a rush of air”

Here is the online diary of Yoshiko Nakata, Kodo teacher, presenting the fundamentals of incense to Americans in Portland, Or. during Japan Week in 1992. Her observations of Americans (starting May 22nd) I found to be very interesting and sweet for an “insider looking out” perspective.

[A note about research here: I always try to consult at least three different sources for each article I write, particularly when the subject is something like an obscure and dated game like Ko-kwai from another culture. Thanks once more, to the Hudson Public Library for tracking down and obtaining the first (of I hope many) of Lafcadio Hearn’s books. After reading Hearn’s chapter on incense, I wanted to do further research on the Ko-kwai game online. I could find very little, although there was one article online that was very familiar, and was in fact the very Lafcadio Hearn article I had read from “In Ghostly Japan.”

Woman and Incense2So, Hearn’s work can be found online, but here is the “chicken and egg” question: If the HPL hadn’t graciously obtained the book in the first case, how would I ever have known about, let alone to think to look for, this obscure part of Japanese culture online? It is silly to discount any efficient tool at one’s disposal. Libraries are very much a value as a service for information as they ever were, and the knowledge of professionals who very business is to track down information should never be devalued.]

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January 29, 2013: Betwixt Two Worlds

January 29, 2013

Arrietty_and_Sean_in-fieldSoooooo….take a popular 1952 British story based on updated Celtic faerie imagery, further update it to a modern Japan anime. Then, translate the Japanese into English (with well-known and talented British actors in the speaking parts.) Transport the film to America, where Disney (who now controls the film’s distribution rights) feels somehow compelled to translate the British-English into American-English! Confused yet? With all these transformations, it takes a truly substantial and entertaining story to roll with all the changes. Somehow though, “The Secret World of Arrietty” does just that!

arrietty_under_leaf.jpgStudio Ghibli’s “The Secret World of Arrietty” is based on “The Brorrowers” by Mary Norton. “The Borrowers” were actually a series (a total of five) of books about small (about 5″) human-like creatures that live within, yet out of sight of, human households. Their name comes from their symbiotic habit of “borrowing”  materials that they need to live, from the “human beans” they live among, at the same time trying desperately not to be seen by those “beans.” The heroine of the story, Arrietty Clock (14 years old), lives with her father Pod, and mother Homily underneath the kitchen floorboards of a cottage in the English countryside. The Clock family have stories of other “Borrowers” but the reader/viewer sees no evidence of them for some time. Unlike the Celtic faerie creatures, “The Borrowers” do not have any magical ability, and seem to be just very small versions of the “beans” they live with. Their world is fraught with danger, not only from animals like cats and birds, but that a discovery of them by the “beans” would mean their expulsion into the wild, with all the dangers that represents.

Arrietty_and Sean“The Secret World of Arrietty” begins with the arrival of a young (human) boy (also about 14 years old) Shawn, at the cottage. Shawn is ill with a heart condition, from which he believes will soon die. Upon arriving, he notices Arrietty in the field outside of the house. On her first “borrowing” (an implied right of passage) Arrietty is seen, and mildly confronted, by Shawn. Once having met, they begin to learn more about, and ultimately trust one another, while both try to keep the secret of “The Borrowers” away from the other “beans” of the cottage.

“The Secret World of Arrietty” is only the latest film version of Mary Norton’s popular book. There was a 2011 TV movie; a 1997 film; a 1992 TV movie all called “The Borrowers.” I managed to find and watch the 1973 TV movie starring Eddie Albert as Pod, and this one comes closest to the book. This version also has, (while dated by 2013 standards) some pretty decent FX for its time.

While a few things managed to  twist the experience, I loved a lot of “The Secret World of Arrietty.” First, Studio  Ghibli’s films just get more and more visually detailed and beautiful! Second, the background sound is well done, often emphasized as it would be heard, made by large objects to tiny ears. I loved the instrumental music pieces and they were largely harp, very well suited to the faerie-like imagery. Most of the songs were very well suited, as well.

ForestI intend to write another article on Japanese-English translations as the problems of these are manifold. But really, what was the justification of the American-English version? Disney…c’mon you had fantastic voice talent with Mark Strong playing Pod and Saorise Ronan as Arrietty in the British-English version. That’s the version that I wanted to hear! Despite popular and talented voice talent of the likes of Amy Poehler and Carol Burnett, the American-English version was voiced alternately too flat or too shrill. A pop-song tacked onto the end-credits sounded totally inappropriate. Curious, I researched it and I found out it was sung by the young woman voicing Arrietty in the Disney version. This then, was just  shameless Disney promotion of their talent, and was totally unnecessary and discordant. The filmmakers left a large part of the original story intact, but their changes were just…confusing. They chose to introduce the character of “Spiller” in this story, when he doesn’t appear until the second “Borrowers” story. I haven’t read this one yet but I highly doubt he looks Ainu, like the “Spiller” from this film does. Either way, this choice seems odd, discriminatory, and just plain wrong.

Sean_in_fieldThe other change…the biggest and worst…was to make Arrietty and the boy Shawn the same age. In the book, the “bean” boy is 1o years old to Arrietty’s 14 years old. This is a huge psychological/emotional gulf. I know that in “…Ariettey” they were trying to set up a Tweeny-Twilight knd of romance there, but it just comes out distracting. Witness the scores of IMDB-ers who question the possibility of a “romance” when they consider the two characters’ large size difference. If a plot point takes you out of the film, it’s just not worth doing it. It is especially harmful, as the “romance” takes  a lot of the strength from the main character of Arrietty. In the book, she is clearly more mature, self-possessed.  and emotionally sound than the younger boy, and she often corrects his rather petulant behavior. Norton seems to be saying that a smaller physical size and being female does not mean you are not in control of your life. Losing Arrietty’s strength for “romance” is not a good, nor wise, trade for the character.

However, there is still much to like about “The Secret World of Arrietty” not the least is an interesting retelling of a perennial favorite. As the only Studio Gihbli film to sport a “G” rating, this makes it a good one for the kids.I leave it to the parents to de-program the Disney-fied parts. Oh…and to read the originals to the kids at bedtime.

[My thanks to the Hudson Public Library for supplying not only the film, but the Mary Norton original book.]

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January 18, 2013: Revisiting “Spirited Away”

January 18, 2013
Some really fantastic fanart of "Spirited Away" by Silver Melody

Some really fantastic fanart of “Spirited Away” by Silver Melody

I had the pleasure of seeing “Spirited Away” in theaters back when it first came to the states in 2001. Thanks to the Hudson Public Library I was too able to revisit it (as well as eleven other Studio Ghibli animations) in a great boxed set I discovered on their shelves.

“Spirited Away” is one of the most popular animations of all film history, not only in Japan (where it has won many awards and was the first film to surpass “Titanic” in sales there) but also pretty much the rest of the world as well. Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, much in the vein of classic “coming of age” tales such as “Alice in Wonderland” “Peter Pan” and “The Wizard of Oz,” “Spirited Away” follows the adventures of ten-year-old girl, Chihiro, as she is mystically transported to an “otherworld” to suffer the bewilderment and loneliness of a stranger in a strange land. Foreign to the “rules” of this world, she is forced to find aid from the otherworldy people and creatures she finds there to overcome adversity, learn what is important, gain strength, find acceptance, and eventually…love, only then to find a way back home again.

Chihiro on Street_smAt the beginning of “Spirited Away” Chihiro, her mom and dad are traveling to a new town where they are moving. Close to their new house, the dad takes a wrong turn and comes to a dead-end of a standing stone in front of a tunnel. Curious, they enter the tunnel which comes out in a kind of abandoned amusement park. The parents notice that all the shops are restaurants, and eventually settle on one to begin eating. Chihiro, who is bit freaked out by the eerie surroundings to eat with them, walks on and finds a boy, Haku, who is surprised to find her there and anxiously orders her to return or else she will be trapped there if she doesn’t return before nightfall. As night descends, the park lights illuminate a town filled with specters. Chihiro runs back to the restaurant where she left her parents to find them transformed into pigs!

spirited-away-smChihiro is forced to return to the bath-house, which is the center of the town, where she starts to disappear, but before she can dissolve completely, she is rescued by Haku who feeds her a berry that restores her. Haku tells her that to prevent being turned into an animal herself, Chihiro’s only recourse is to find work from the witch, Yubaba, who runs the onsen (bath-house.) Chihiro strikes a bargain with Yubaba, who’s contract includes stealing Chihiro’s name. The work turns out to be a bit harder and bizarre than Chihiro expects as the onsen’s clientele are “gods” (but to Western eyes, they appear more like monsters.) One creature that Chihiro keeps running into is Nil-Face: a dark and insubstantial spirit with a blank expression and a rather innocent and benign temperament. Nil-Face helps Chihiro gain favor, aiding her to clean a “Stink-god” who then transforms into a river-god after the bath, leaving behind gold amidst the muck. Nil-Face notices the appeal the gold has on the staff and uses it to gain service for an outrageous amount of food. As Nil-Face consumes, he grows…and changes. He becomes more aggressive and eventually violent. He tries to tempt Chihiro with gold, but she resists and feeds him a charm that makes him disgorge the food, transforming him back into his benign form.

The story continues with more adventures for Chihiro, including a considerable amount of magic; a rivalry between Yubaba and her “good” twin sister Zeniba; the true nature of Haku, his prior history with Chihiro, and an assortment of odd “otherworld” characters…not the least of which is Yubaba’s 500Lb. “baby.”

“Spirited Away” is wonderful on many levels: first, the animation is just gorgeous. Not only the character animation, but even the backgrounds are stunning! The music is very well done, throughout, culminating with an especially pretty vocal piece for the credit sequence. Rich in details, I pick up something new from “Spirited Away” with each viewing. As always, story must be king and “Spirited Away” has a depth of story that draws on a plethora of mythological images, themes, and ideas from not only Japan, but from European sources as well. It’s one of those great films that prompt a good after-film-coffee discussion. There are better and more learned sources for the Japanese mythology, but either as part of the collective unconscious, or borrowed directly from the European sources I was familiar with, there were a couple of things that jumped out at me that really made the story work.

Chi+Nil-Face_on_trainFirst, the structure of “transport” into the spirit or faerie realm as the tunnel guarded by a standing stone could be straight from the many of Celtic legends of “faerie hills” that have just such a construction. Once within the faerie world there are rules: humans must never eat faerie food. To do so will bind you to that world and erase your memory of the mortal world. [Persephone, daughter the harvest-goddess Demeter, was condemned to six months in Hell for eating six pomegranate seeds given by Hades, which is why we have Winter.] It is careful that you never reveal your true name, as this will allow power over you by the faerie. [The clever Odysseus goes by the moniker “Noman” so that his actions against the gods can be said to be done by “no-man.”] Also borrowed from the Odyssey is the witch, Circe, transforming Odysseus’s men into pigs. There is usually a faerie guide in these stories to aid the human caught in their world. This guide normally does not return to the mortal realm with the hero(ine.)

Miyazaki weaves his own personal beliefs and experiences among the classical themes, to good effect. His protest over human disregard for the environment is shown in the transformation of the “Stink-god” into a “River-god” through the ritual bath. He seems to say that it is up to the compassion of youth today to act in order cleanse away the ills of our pollution of nature. With the transformation of the benign Nil-Face into a monster/destroyer, Miyazaki seems to suggest that avarice/desire is the antithesis of spirit and will destroy harmony of the self. Miyazaki has been quoted saying “Everyone has a Nil-Face within themselves.”

Of course, whether it is Alice, Wendy, Dorothy, and now, Chihiro, the most important theme of these stories is that in order to overcome adversity (not to mention just plain weirdness) pass from childhood into adulthood, and to finally return safely home, you must be first find…and then be true, to yourself.

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November 12, 2012: Outside Views

November 12, 2012

Last week, as the whole of United States was in the throes of dramatic myopia over its presidential elections, my friend, Miguel, who teaches English in Tokyo polled his Japanese students and other non-American friends on his Facebook page concerning their thoughts over the election. Here are some of their reactions:

Miguel Arboleda

“romney… obama… so?””どっちでもえぇねん?”
(Either one would have been okay, no?”)”Who’s Romney?”

“It’s just a big Las Vegas show.”

“I like Obama because he makes pretty speeches.”

“What difference does it make? Either one will attack someone anyway.”

“Which one was Romney? Westerners all look the same to me.”

“I watched for a while, but it’s always this overblown exaggeration, so I went back to playing Monster Hunter. More realistic.”

“Who did you vote for, Miguel?”
“I didn’t.”
“Whoa! Really? Don’t Americans shoot you for that?” (laughter)

“Michelle Obama’s dress was SO cute!”

“I wish Japanese politicians could make speeches like Obama. So exciting! He can make you believe >anything<!”

“I don’t understand why health care was such a big issue. Doesn’t everyone have national health care?… No? Americans must be really rich!”

“Can you imagine politics like that everyday? All we’d need is a theme song!”

“Excuse me, Miguel, I’m eating breakfast.”

“Can I have my real American friends back now?”

“We stayed up all night watching. And got really drunk. I’ve got an awful headache now.”

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September 11, 2012: Sleeping with Hedgehogs

September 11, 2012

I’ve been noticing new DVDs coming in at my local library (Hudson Public Library) and I thought I had a triple score when I found that they had a new-ish Independent Japanese film slated to be comedy! The trouble was that after watching, I realized I didn’t like it! I find that those films that trouble your spirit may be the ones that can make you grow the most, and I was glad that I sat on it a while and gave it a re-watch to figure it out a little more. It was in one of those weird moments of synchronicity that life sometimes throws at us that it came together even more for me. That moment took the form of an Aesop’s Fable I was reading while mulling the movie over.

The Hedgehog and the Snakes
A hedgehog had selected a comfortable cave as his home only to find the cave already occupied by a family of snakes. “Would it be OK if I used one corner of your cave to spend the Winter?” the hedgehog asked. The snakes generously offered to share their home. The hedgehog moved into the corner, curled up in a ball, stuck out his prickly quills and settled in for his Winter’s nap. Before long, the snakes realized that they could not move one bit without being pricked by the hedgehog’s quills. After bearing this discomfort for a while the snakes finally complained to the hedgehog. “That’s just too bad,” said their guest. “I am most comfortable here, but if you snakes are not satisfied, why don’t you move out?” He then curled up to resume his nap.

Moral: It is safer to know one’s guest before offering him hospitality.

Hospitalité (2010) by Foji Fukada story centers around a small family who own and run a small “mom & pop” printing shop with living quarters above. The father, Mikio leads a busy but understated life managing the shop with the help from his young and lovely wife, Natsuki. They have a young daughter, Eriko that Mikio has had with his former wife. One can tell the current situation is fairly new as Eriko treats Natsuki with some emotional distance, calling her “teacher” as their main connection is from Natsuki trying to teach Eriko English. The family has another new situation as Mikio’s sister, Seiko is in the home/shop, herself recently divorced. The local neighborhood has a watch group out for the activities of the gaijin (foreigners) in the area, whom they detest. This watch group seems to have a mission to rope as many members of the family into its fold as they can. The family has recently lost their pet parakeet and are busy posting fliers around for anyone who may have seen the bird.

Enter Kagawa, someone who lives nearby, who finds the flyer and visits the printing shop with “information” about the bird’s location, saying that he has seen it in the park. By hook or by crook, Kagawa slowly injects himself into the work and family at the shop/home. First, he sells himself as a replacement for an ill worker. Then, he moves into the house, saying he has been evicted. Then, suddenly a gaijin woman shows up in the house when the family returns one day. She is Annabelle, Kagawa’s wife of convenience. Annabelle also slowly invades the family’s life, first by taking over English lessons for Eriko, as her English is better, as is Kagawa’s it turns out. Annabelle says that she is Brazilian to the family but in a later scene introduces herself as Serbian to a visitor. The odd couple slowly takes over just about every aspect of the family’s life and business, until it is clear that the family are the guests in their own home!

So a fine independent film, with rich characters, shot well with a good story, and well executed Hospitalité still left me unsettled for a number of reasons: first, my own issues aside, I find it hard to believe anyone would qualify this film as a comedy. At best, some scenes were amusing. There was nothing approaching even a chuckle. Good drama, but misrepresented as a comedy.

Second, I lack the cultural knowledge to weigh what seems to be an important aspect of the script: how foreigners are perceived by Japanese. The foreigners were portrayed in exactly the way that the watch group fears: loud, obnoxious, intrusive to Japanese life, yet at the end, Mikio chastises the watch group, telling them to lay off his “friends” who all at that point have been the opposite of “friendly” (or even considerate) to him. At the same time, it’s clear that the family has grown from the contact of the foreigners, but at a great cost. Someday, I will see this with Teja, my good friend who lived labeled as a “gaijin” in Japan up until he came to the States for college and he can best explain the significance of all of this (and I promise an update, then.)

The main unsettling component to Hospitalité was the character of Kagawa. Having had my share of treacherous and dishonorable Machiavellian personalities in my real life, I can no longer appreciate them in my entertainment. Kagawa is Iago, he is Don John, he is every rotten, cowardly schemer of literature and film. I suppose my extreme reaction ultimately is testimony to how well the story works. Also, having lost so much in my life, the idea that someone could lose their privacy and personal space, frankly…terrifies me.

So, with almost no laughs, but still a good execution, plot, and acting Hospitalité is a decent indie. Even with my criticisms, I still plan on seeing it at least once more to understand it better. But I have no misgivings: at parts I will be gritting my teeth and enduring. Kinda like sleeping with hedgehogs.

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