Pictures From Taisho

I’m very interested in Japanese history, in particular in the time of the Meiji and Taisho Emperors.

The Meiji Era (1868 – 1912) was when the Shogunate was abolished and Japan opened up to the Western world and had to speedily catch up with it. It was an era of extreme modernisation, in particular in the cities, while I would assume that most people in the countryside kept living their lives like they had for the last 250 years.

The Taisho Era (1912 – 1925) that followed saw a similar development, but at the same time, the West’s fascination with the newly discovered Japan lessened and whatever was left was drowned out by WWI.

In any case, below is a video of early film recordings taken in Tokyo in the very early years of Taisho, 1913 – 1915. You can see most of the people, in particular children, wearing traditional Japanese clothing and sporting traditional hairdos (I’m a fan of those!) The streets are crowded (as they are today) and I don’t recognise anything except the big lanterns at Asakusa temple in the very end.

The old film has been colored for this video, and there is an underlying soundtrack. The coloring is pretty good, but I’m not happy with the soundtrack – Japanese people are never so noisy! On the other hand, these are mostly children, and maybe things have changed in the last 100+ years. Anyway, enjoy!

Tokyo Family

Cover of Tokyo FamilyTomiko and Shukichi Hirayama, living on a small island on the Inland Sea, decide to visit their children who all live in Tokyo. Their eldest son Koichi, with whom they stay, is a doctor running a small clinic; their daughter Shigeko is very busy with running both her family and a beauty salon; only their youngest son Shuji, who works as a freelance stage hand, seems to be content with his life. He is most happy to see his mother, and tells her – as the only one in the family – about his girlfriend. Koichi and Shigeko mean well when they treat their parents to a few nights in a fancy hotel, but Tomiko and Shukichi feel isolated and rejected instead, as they expected to spend time with their children. The well-established routine comes to a full stop when Tomiko unexpectedly dies because of an accident and the one person holding the family together suddenly disappears. How will Shukichi fare, once he must return to his home on the island?

Tokyo Family (Tokyo Kazoku), 2013, 146 minutes
Director: Yoji Yamada
Cast: Isa Hashizume (Shukichi Hirayama), Kazuko Yoshiyuki (Tomiko Hirayama), Masahiko NIshimura (Koichi), Tomoko Nakajima (Shigeko), Satoschi Tsumabuki (Shoji)

This film is a remake of Tokyo Story from 1953. It is a very slow film without much of an exciting plot. It depicts life as it is in Japan; the tiny spaces and minimal pockets of private time that need to be carefully carved out from obligations towards others. Probably the best glimpse into busy Japanese city life I have yet seen.

A Japanese version with English subtitles is available from amazon.

Not Getting Out Of Bed!

A friend of mine just sent me a link to the video below, it’s a very cute Japanese song and anime with the title “I’m not getting out of bed” or literally, out of the futon. It tells a story every Japanese can relate to:

When you wake up in the morning and you have to get up, but it’s really, really too cold to step out of bed…
When the room is finally warm enough, but you now have to go to the toilet, but it’s really, really too cold to leave the room…

To all my European friends who suffer from the extreme cold there at the moment: I feel for you! If you can’t enjoy the cold, at least enjoy the cute penguin!


movie poster for kotoAround this time last year, I told you that a friend of mine and I had been engaged as extras for a Japanese movie. Well, I can now officially talk about it since I just found out that it was released last Saturday! The movie is called Koto in Japanese (in English: The Old Capital) and it is a sequel to the novel of the same name by Yasunari Kawabata. Now the two sisters of Kawabata’s novel are grown and have children of their own who have their own struggles with Japanese society. Part of the movie is set in France, while the novel takes place entirely in Kyoto and its northern outskirts.

I have not seen the result yet, but another friend went to the cinema on Saturday, and he said that both my friend and I are featuring very prominently in a scene that is set in an old house in Kyoto. If you take a look at the poster to the right, we were in a scene with the actor in the blue kimono to the far right. Apparently he is very famous in Japan – does that mean I’m now officially famous too? 😉 We should be in at least two more scenes in the movie, somewhere in the background, but I cannot tell for sure until I have seen it – and this will take a while. My Japanese is not good enough to watch movies or TV yet (and fully understand what’s going on), so I will have to wait until there are English subtitles. The movie has already won a prize in the Kyoto Historical Film Festival (I think), and it may be sent to international Film Festivals as well – and that’s usually where the subtitles are made. I will see it eventually though, I’m sure.

The Woodsman and the Rain

poster woodsman and the rainKishi Katsuhiko is a 60 year old woodcutter in a quiet rural village. One day his work is interrupted by a member of a filmcrew, asking him to be quiet while they are shooting. Some days later they meet again, and Kishi helps them find a suitable location for the next scene, in which he ends up playing a minor role. Koichi Tanabe, the insecure young man Kishi finds so annoying at first, turns out to be the director, and slowly a friendship between the two starts, beneficial for the both of them – and the movie. With Kishi’s knowledge of the best places for shooting and his connections to the other villagers, Koichi’s first movie becomes successful beyond his wildest dreams. In the end, Koichi has become more secure in his demands as a director, and Kishi has more respect for the plights of his own son.

The Woodsman and the Rain (Kitsutsuki to Ame), 2011, 129 minutes
Director: Shuichi Okita
Cast: Koji Yakusho (Kishi Katsuhiko), Shun Ogura (Koichi Tanabe)
Winner of the 2011 Tokyo International Film Festival’s Special Jury Prize

I went to see the film with very little expectations, but I ended up greatly enjoying it. I think it depicts the dynamics of a friendship between old and young quite well, and how important outside input can be when it comes to our own family relationships. But this is not a big drama – some of the scenes are outright funny, and the awkward and shy Koichi and the down to earth Katsuhiko who acts like a supportive father figure make a good team. It’s not high art – especially given that the movie in the movie is about zombies – but nevertheless time pleasantly spent.

There is an English version of this film available at amazon.

The Castle of Crossed Destinies

poster for castle of crossed destiniesImagine the following: It’s Japan, at the end of the 17th century. You are the shogun, the most powerful person in the country. Everything runs well, you have a lovely spouse, an attractive concubine, and a countless number of admiring – and admirable – courtiers. But then, your one and only heir dies unexpectedly from a disease – and suddenly securing succession for your family by producing another heir becomes paramount. The usual courtly intrigues are reaching a new peak when the only solution is to ramp up your sex life, but…

…what if you’re a woman?

This film, based on a manga, turns history upside down by assuming matriarchy throughout 17th century Japan. The 5th shogun, Tsunayoshi, is a woman who desperately endeavours to conceive a daughter to secure her family’s succession on the throne. Interwoven with her story is that of Emonnosuke, a court noble from Kyoto who enters Tsunayoshi’s services as potential mate and remains at her side throughout her difficult task.

The Castle of Crossed Destinies (Ooku Eien Emonnosuke), 2012, 124 min
Director: Fuminori Kaneko
Cast: Miho Kanno (Tokugawa Tsunayoshi), Masato Sakai (Emonnosuke), Toshiyuki Nishida (Keishoin)

The old problem of succession seen from a completely new point of view. Even in matriarchy, taking a different man to bed each night is frowned upon, and it does pose quite some difficulties for Tsunayoshi. Some true historical facts are hinted at, like the ban on killing dogs, but the film lives mainly from the reversal of the sexes and the elaborate costumes and stage designs. There is a lovely happy ending, though…

This film is available in Japanese from amazon, but I have not found a version with subtitles.

Abacus and Sword

Japanese movie posterThe Inoyama are samurai who for generations have been in the service of the Kaga clan. Their weapon of choice, however, is not the sword but the soroban – they are expert accountants. The current head of the Inoyama family at the beginning of the Meiji restoration is Naoyuki who is called, both derogatorily and admiringly, “Mad Abacus”, for his extraordinary gift with numbers, cultivated since childhood. His pedantic nature allows him to uncover a conspiracy over disappearing rice, but, as is the fate of so many whistle blowers, he falls from grace…

From then on, the Inoyama family learns what it means to be poor, and as Naoyuki refuses to borrow money, their descent into rags is inevitable. Their struggle is not without funny moments, and in the background there is always the clicking sound of the soroban.

Abacus and Sword (Bushi no kakeibo), 2010,129 min.
Director: Morita Yoshimitsu
Cast: Sakai Masato, Nakama Yukie, Matsuzaka Keiko

This movie ties in perfectly with last Saturday’s post. 😉 Also, how Naoyuki and his family make ends meet is timeless and some of their methods to save money, although very harsh, seem applicable even today. It’s not all about economizing though. The Inoyama never lose their humour to make the best out of everything, and not for a single moment do they betray their heritage as samurai. The film is based on the book by Isoda Michifumi.

Unfortunately I could only find Japanese versions of both the book and the movie – they are available from amazon, if anyone is interested.