Dreaming of this elsewhere through its vibrant culture
Part of the ongoing series on Truth and Place.
Before my Christmas and New Year’s break, I wrote about Tokyo and want to pick up with a few texts from Japan because I’m totally in love with the writing and art from this country (oh, and the food, too!!). This is part of the reason I’ve been doing some collaboration with Gianni Simone recently, who is an Italian living in Japan with an eye on all kinds of cultural experiences. Sometimes the outsider-insider perspective contains a unique richness of dissonant experiences and his writing certainly does.
New Year’s Day is a huge holiday in Japan where the majority of the population practice Buddhism and Shintoism (often in conjunction). However, recent shifts in the next generations from practicing religion have caused the closures of many temples, much like many religions around the world. However, I don’t want to talk about the ins and outs of religion. Instead, I’m interested in the effect of Zen Buddhism (a branch of Buddhism) in the arts and how as a philosophy, it can add to our own practices as artists/writers. Down at the bottom of this post, I’ll explain some experiential possibilities I’ll be investigating with you this month.
For now, though, let me simply take you to a few magnificent Japanese literary worlds and filmic places I’ve discovered through travel, teaching, and research. As always, I would love to hear other suggestions in the comments.
It’s not just the culture; it’s the natural landscape of Japan that also captures my soul. As it is January and the start of ski season, it seems fitting to begin with the mountains of Japan. I’ve had the joy of two wintertime experiences in Japan, one with a quick ski experience up north that honestly could have been anywhere because I was staying with friends on an American base and it was a total white-out day, void of those mountain views I crave. Still good skiing! And there were other ‘Japanese experiences’ during the trip, like food and onsen.
But it was nothing like the week I spent at Nozawa Onsen where part of the 1998 Winter Olympics were held. The winding road to arrival had snow embankments higher than the bus. It led us to a bustling and seasonally festive town that still felt calm and peaceful.
The views were exquisite. The snow perfection. The food divine.
A favorite memory: riding up a chairlift with three very friendly men living in Tokyo. All of them were originally from Nagano and came back to ski together every year for a week since they left school. I asked how old they were. ‘86!’ they said in sync, beaming and laughing. Incredibly, at the chair’s end, all three immediately bounced through an off-piste pine grove without hesitation.
The mountains feature in much of Japanese art and literature. Perhaps most famous are the 36 views of Mount Fuji from Katsushika Hokusai. I wrote about his famous woodblock print of ‘The Wave’ back in August 2022 in my first post for this newsletter. For that reason, I won’t say so much about him here, but you can check out the video below or a full image list of the series here.
To what extent does place and iconic imagery impact culture? Probably a lot. The Matterhorn certainly impacts Swiss culture. Geography changes what we see, how we experience the world around us. We might simply view it or perhaps interact with it. As we reinterpret its place within us, it becomes culture itself.
Contemporary artist Takashi Murakami discusses the connection between Japan’s geography and its culture in a series of posts on Instagram (this quote April 2, 2020), including the one below:
These images show my large sculptures Oval Buddha and Mr. Pointy. Let me explain the context starting with my previous posts.
Around 752 CE, when the Great Buddha of Nara was completed, the island country of Japan was voraciously importing continental Chinese culture, Buddhism. Along with it the country inadvertently imported the powerful plague, smallpox, against which the only remedy available was to pray to the divine; the enormous Buddhist icon was thus constructed. It was a tremendous undertaking with the production cost of US$4.34 billion in today’s currency, spanning over two political regimes.
Ever since I watched the effects of the tsunami during the 2011 Great Tohoku Earthquake live, I have had a number of realizations as to the whole concept of religious art.
The tsunami killed 15,000 instantaneously. I was made aware anew of the history of our earthquake-ridden country that rests over four tectonic plates, where a huge number of lives have been lost at a time at the mercy of powerful force of nature. In this island country, a massive number of people die due to the nature’s activity rather than due to wars or terrorism. I came to understand that living under tremendous fear of nature, the Japanese have nurtured our peculiar religious views over time, coming to believe in myriad gods.
We will come back to his work with the Ensō in a few weeks. Here, though, it is interesting to note the way he understands not only culture but also the need for religion or at least faith in times of natural disaster and the unequivocal forces of nature. There is a kind of release to its forces and, paradoxically, a need for making sense of the experiences, that include destruction and death.
Mt. Fuji and other mountains make a subject or setting in many historical Japanese paintings and poetry, many of which Murakami and others draw on for inspiration. I’ll discuss hanging scrolls with mountain landscapes more this Saturday. Relatedly, we’ll look at haiku more in a couple weeks. Other parts of Japanese topography - streams, lakes, rivers, vegetation, coastline - these all makek their way into the paintings and poetry.
Gako (1737-1805) was a Zen monk from Nagano who brought the poetry of Kanzan (Hanshan for the Chinese) to life in his scrolls. See an example here, though better reproductions in the Stephen Addis book quotes here. One such poem discusses the “reclusive life he chose for himself” (The Art of Zen, Stephen Addis, 1989, pp. 144-7):
I settled at Cold Mountain long ago, Already it seems like years and years. Freely drifting, I prowl the woods and streams And linger watching things themselves. Men don't get this far into the mountains, White clouds gather and billow. Thin grass does for a mattress, Blue sky makes a good quilt. Happy with a stone underhead, Let heaven and earth go about their changes.
Mountains often help us with perspective — at once away from the world an able to view it. They allow us to become small and ephemeral amidst their beauty.
Haruki Murakami (no relation to Takashi) also uses a mountain setting for his recent novel Killing Commendatore, which I discussed at length in the Portraits post. His protagonist painter relocates to a house “on top of [a] mountain”: “When the wind blew, these cloud fragments, like some wandering spirits from the past, drifted uncertainly along the surface of the mountains, as if in search of lost memories” (p. 6). From this vantage point, he also views other mountain tops and the changing seasons, of which he “never grew tired” (p. 7).
Japanese violence & masculinity
The artist in the Murakami novel mentioned above finds a painting of the same title: Killing Commendatore, that depicts a scene “full of blood” (pp 72-3). We then get a literary visual of the scene with “blood spewing from [an old man’s] chest” and a “pierced aorta [that] soaked his white clothes, and his mouth was twisted in agony.”
At other times, Murakami also imagines scenes of grotesque violence, such as in Kafka on the Shore, with references to World War II and the atomic bombs as well as imagined violence between characters. Other times the blood is only metaphorical, but feels just as strong:
And you really will have to make it through that violent, metaphysical, symbolic storm. No matter how metaphysical or symbolic it might be, make no mistake about it: it will cut through flesh like a thousand razor blades. People will bleed there, and you will bleed too. Hot, red blood. You'll catch that blood in your hands, your own blood and the blood of others.
But in his oeuvre, it feels like trauma and emotion rather than actual violence that Murakami is trying to portray. Or, perhaps it is a reaction to the violence, seeking a way to put these feelings into language rather than society. It’s something he also explores in Underground, about the Tokyo metro attacks.
Of course, Japan is not alone with a violent history. Interestingly, it is currently one of the safest countries in the world, but also has a “history of mass violence.” Some have also looked at the “hidden” nature of Japan’s violent crimes. And much has been made of Japan’s “history of political violence” since the recent murder of Shinzo Abe. A book from Cambridge may offer a more comprehensive understanding of what historical violence means for Japanese art and writing today; chapters include Samurai, Masculinity and Violence in Japan and Violence and the Japanese Empire.
A critique of Murakami’s use of violence (especially against women) can be read here. However, I find his writing to be much more reflective and subversive than the article allows. This article, instead, reads his use of violence as “escape.” This interview with Murakami following this latest novel also reflects on the violence in literature.
No doubt, World War II created a kind of violent trauma for the Japanese nation (as well as others, of course, sometimes at the hands of the Japanese). But even earlier than this, we can look at the myth of the Seven Samurai and the way it has been actualized through cinema.
The great Japanese filmmaker Akiro Kurosawa made The Seven Samurai in 1954 about a group of rōnin (masterless Samurai) hired to capture bandits. The story takes place in 1586 during the Sengoku period, which is known as a time of lawlessness and a power vacuum after the fall of the feudal system.
The Guardian review attempts to understand the appeal to foreign audiences:
It is impossible to watch Seven Samurai without thinking of the western, but there is an important difference. The bandits are the ones with the firearms: what the samurai and villagers have is swords, bamboo spears and bows and arrows. Their village may be a Japanese Alamo, but they are the Native Americans in this scenario. The glorious vigour and strength of this film is presented with such theatrical relish and flair: its energy flashes out of the screen like a sword.
Unfortunately for Kurosawa, it was in part due to his popularity in the West that Japanese viewers often dismissed his work, perhaps thinking he was not Japanese enough. But it was his mythlike telling of a tale with allegorical subtexts that gave the film “universal appeal” according to the BBC and perhaps a more clever film overall.
Yukio Mishima’s novel The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea (1965) shares both an attempt at investigating masculinity and an allegorical text with connections to Western literature. (The film was later adapted in 1976 to an American - white - film.)
Mishima was also poorly received by many Japanese, but this is because he started a militia and attempted a coup. The book he wrote was about a boy who feels rejected by his mother’s lover; not rejected by departure but rejected in his turn from a life as a sailor that the boy emulated into a life as a married man. A group of his friends decide to use violence against him in a kind of crazed rage. This difficult plot line also lends itself to an exploration of emotions like regret and melancholia as well as investigating the concepts of glory and fatherhood (with interesting intertextual connections to Hamlet and Oedipus).
Mishima was known as the “Japanese Hemingway,” but he also turned to extremist views to bring more military power back to Japan before his death — a suicide though not resembling Hemingway’s solitary demise. Kirsten Cather writes for The Conversation:
On Nov. 25, 1970, after months of meticulous planning, Mishima and four members of his self-styled militia, the Shield Society, attempted a coup by taking a hostage at Japan’s military headquarters. Mishima delivered a rousing speech to the young cadets but was unable to gain their respect or support. Seemingly anticipating the plot’s ultimate failure, he then committed seppuku. His alleged male lover, Shield Society member Masakatsu Morita, followed suit.
Because of the allegorical nature, rich historical tones, investigation of culture, strange biography, and beautiful use of language, this novel makes for an excellent teaching text in upper secondary school or undergraduate courses. Here are some teaching notes on developing themes and dichotomies we used to focus on in my classes:
dependence/independence the feminine versus the masculine futility versus idealising father versus mother figures fantasy versus reality pride versus humiliation narrative focus and what diction characterises it mythologising and disillusion the presentation, connections and meanings of different spaces and locations secrets/dual perspectives of the world/voyeurism Group mentality vs. individual thought (and society vs. alienation) Innate vs. learned evil / savagery / violence (Noboru as agent of the devil?) Society and escape (the sea as escape but also with its own expectations) Heroism / tragic hero & Bushido Code / Glory Western vs. Eastern culture (esp Japanese/American and cnx to history, authorship) Purpose of life / purpose of death … Disgust by the body (sex, violence, death)
There are many good resources about the novel and author online, including several New Yorker articles (this on Mishima’s ritual suicide), this review from the Japan Times, and the following Youtube.com analysis:
The world Mishima creates is a frightening one because we can see elements of all these characters in ourselves and the evil act the boys commit is one that comes from innocence and shame; how can a society create these feelings within youth? The violent climax mixed with Mishima’s real life attempt at a coup through a militia and his related ritual suicide make this much more than a children’s tale and warning of group male violence à la Lord of the Flies (also much more…).
But Japan, like many other places, is reinventing its relationship with gender and specifically the idea of toxic masculinity. You can read about this evolution in articles like:
Cool Japanese Men: studying new masculinities at Cambridge
Let’s go lastly in a totally different direction; the opposite really. It’s not only violence that captivates in Japan, of course. There are many beauties to traditions, landscape, and artistry that have enticed people from all over the world.
I’m not the only one enamored of this empire and its arts. According to London’s Tate Modern, Japonisme is essentially the pastiching of Japanese artistic expression by the West:
The term is generally said to have been coined by the French critic Philippe Burty in the early 1870s. It described the craze for Japanese art and design that swept France and elsewhere after trade with Japan resumed in the 1850s, the country having been closed to the West since about 1600.
The rediscovery of Japanese art and design had an almost incalculable effect on Western art. The development of modern painting from impressionism on was profoundly affected by the flatness, brilliant colour, and high degree of stylisation, combined with realist subject matter, of Japanese woodcut prints.
Of course, this was also the time of Impressionism in Japan and many will be familiar with several famous examples, such as Claude Monet’s ‘Camille Monet in Japanese Costume’ and Édouard Manet’s ‘Portrait of Émile Zola.’ Whistler, Degas, Van Gogh, and Courbet all emulated Japanese styles at times.
Recently, I discovered Gustav Klimt’s use of Japonisme in his style in a trip back to Vienna where I had lived for four years. I did not realize he had owned many Japanese prints and utilized the style of lines and colors in many of his landscape paintings especially but also in the flat planar qualities of his portraits. Klimt seems to really study his Japanese subjects and completely engrain some of the stylistic elements in order to synthesize them with other styles he had been taught or created. The Japanese, too, are interested in his work and held a large exhibition in Tokyo just a few years ago.
Is all of this Japonisme cultural appropriation or homage? Are there subtle differences among the works that allow some to have better intentions or receptions? All art is formed of intertextual dialogues among the arts, and surely these connections were done out of honor and to connect cultures rather than separate them. Is something here being taken from Japanese culture or made out to be better? Does the fact that the Japanese were simultaneously emulating impressionist style change the power dynamic?
However, there is an interesting argument about Monet’s famous work, and especially with reference to a Boston MFA show where visitors were trying on a kimono at the showing. Perhaps the problem then is simply contextualization and inclusion of authentic voices in curation and creation of audience participation (or school tours and educational experiences). The curation mishap could have been an attempt at including authentic Japanese culture in the experience; instead one could curate through both Japanese original works alongside their Western responses. Surely a dialogue and discussion is better than silence.
Art of Zen and the Saturday Brunch
This month, I’ll do something a little different for the Saturday Brunch. I’m going to investigate Art of Zen, a course I took at Bowdoin but also a way of understanding not only much of Japanese art (of many mediums) but also other arts related to Zen Buddhism. I’ll include some creative activities you can try whether you are a practicing writer or artist of some kind or not.
It’s the start of some experimenting with the direction of this newsletter / publication / community. Part of this means that I’ll be delivering the Tuesday Topics less frequently - likely once per month - in order to work more on my novel and this new direction. But the Saturday Brunch potpourri will keep coming weekly. Feel free to give feedback at any time! And, as always, if the direction speaks to some kind of collaboration, I would love to hear from you.
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I enjoyed reading this, Kathleen. I love the quality of light in the photos. I also love Zen Buddhism. I have several books of Zen stories and aphorisms that I like to dip into and cogitate on. There's so much wisdom there.