Attenuation of Ethnicity

Picture from the West L.A. Buddhist Temple Obon Festival 2007

I have been attending the West Los Angeles Buddhist Temple’s Obon Festival for many years now, going back to the 1970s. Now Martine joins me and takes as much pleasure in the festivities as I do.

One thing that both of us noticed was that the festival was less Japanese. It was also not so well attended, and most of the dancers wore ordinary casual clothes. Only a few of the men and women wore kimonos, where in the past most of the participants were more traditionally dressed.

As a Hungarian-American who was born in a rich ethnic tradition in a Hungarian neighborhood in Cleveland, I am constantly aware that our ethnic traditions are being gradually attenuated over time. When I first came to L.A., there were a number of Hungarian restaurants. Now the count is down to zero. The same thing is happening to other ethnicities, such as the Japanese and even the Mexicans.

I suppose it is only natural that over time we are becoming more homogeneous. Even though the Obon Festival was a bit less Japanese, those of us who were present enjoyed it nonetheless. The Men’s Club udon noodle soup was delicious: This year it even had fish cakes with the barbecued pork.

In a way, one of the reasons I am no longer interested in belonging to a Hungarian group is that, in the long run, it will inevitably become a shadow of what it once was. If there are no Hungarian restaurants in town, I have some old Hungarian cookbooks and can make the dishes myself.

 

 

Monsters: American vs. Japanese

Mark Nagata’s Kaiju Eyezon

As I promised, I stopped in again at the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) in downtown L.A. to take a second look at the “Kaiju vs Heroes: Mark Nagata’s Journey Through the World of Japanese Toys” exhibit. (To refresh your memory, the term kaiju refers to Japanese monsters, like Godzilla, Mothra, and Rodan.) Looking at the kaiju in the exhibition, I noticed that the Japanese monsters were picturesque, bordering on the cute. Even Eyezon in the above illustration, dangerous as he appears, would probably arouse as much amazement as terror.

Another of Nagata’s Kaiju, an Iridescent Giant Lizard

I keep thinking back to the Ishiro Honda’s Toho horror films of the 1950s and 1960s. There was an element of wonder, which was emphasized by the presence of child actors. Look, for instance, at the cute figurines in the above photo below the giant lizard.

What came to mind as I saw these kaiju was the role of the wrathful deities in The Tibetan Book of the Dead. By being frightened of the wrathful deities in the bardo state following death, the decedent is reborn. Only by not being afraid can the soul attain Nirvana.

Contrast the kaiju with American monsters, whose goal is to frighten the bejeezus out of you, like Boris Karloff in The Mummy below:

Boris Karloff in The Mummy (1932)

The aim of American and Western European horror films is to scare you to the maximum extent possible. If you don’t grasp the arms of your theater seatmate, the film is reckoned a failure.

Now maybe if Boris Karloff were iridescent, and children were brought into the picture, we would have something resembling the kaiju figurines I saw at the JANM.

 

Tarnmoor in Toyland

Mark Nagata Surrounded by His Collection

On Sunday, Martine and I drove downtown to visit a museum that was closed because of the Memorial Day Holiday. So instead, we headed for the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) in Little Tokyo. There was the standard (permanent) exhibit about the forced relocation of Japanese-Americans to concentration camps in the desert; but there was also something diferent.

I am not a toy collector, but I have always been impressed by the Japanese superheroes and monsters (known as kaiju). However powerful the kaiju were, there was something almost appealing about them. American toy villains are somehow more evil. The Japanese ones are almost cuddly.

At JANM,there was an exhibit entitled “Kaiju vs Heroes: Mark Nagata’s Journey Through the World of Japanese Toys.” It was scheduled to end in March, but was held over through July 7, 2019. I was enthralled.

The Kaiju Eyezon, Created by Mark Nagata

Mark started as a collector, then became an illustrator and a creator of Japanese toys. The exhibit was so interesting that I resolved to visit it again on Thursday so that my thoughts on the nature of his art would somehow jell. I( thought back to my response to Ishiro Honda’s horror films for Toho of the 1960s, such as Godzilla (1954), Rodan (1956), Mothra (1961), and all the other Japanese monster films that were to follow. There was a definite difference in these monsters compared to the ultimate evil that is Dracula or Frankenstein or the Nightmare on Elm Street.

Poster for the JANM Exhibition

I am still thinking over in my mind what I will ultimately conclude about this exhibit and Nagata’s artistry, other than that I am strongly drawn to it. Stay tuned to this space for further developments.

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Koizumi Yakumo

Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904)

Martine is gone, and the terrible heat of the last ten days is slowly beginning to abate. I find that I am reading more than ever. (How much more can I read than I’m reading now, I do not know. So far eighteen books this month.) The most recent is by an American who became a Japanese. I refer to Lafcadio Hearn, who went under the Japanese name of Koizumi Yakumo. He married a Japanese wife, raised four children with her. It appears that I have many of Hearn’s books about Japan, which were published by Charles E. Tuttle & Company of Rutland, Vermont and Tokyo, Japan in paperback editions during the 1970s.

When I was traveling to and from Dartmouth College, I took a White River Coach from Hanover to White River Junction, and from hence another White River Coach to Rutland. At Rutland, I would wait for the Vermont Transit bus that would take me to Albany, New York, where I would board the New York Central night train to Chicago, which let me off in Cleveland. There, my parents waited for me.

Because of Tuttle’s proximity, while at Dartmouth I grew interested in Japanese culture. I attended an exhibit of Sesshu Toyo’s “Long Scroll” at Hopkins Center, and saw all the Japanese films that came my way. One of the best of them is Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1965), made the year before I graduated.

Scene from Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1965)

It is only now, more than fifty years after I graduated, that I picked up my copy of Hearn’s Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (1904) and began reading it with increasing enjoyment. The Kobayashi film took four stories from Hearn’s works, two of them from the book entitled Kwaidan. I was enthralled by Hearn’s stories, such that I can see myself picking the other Hearns off the shelf (I have almost ten of them) and reading them with intense pleasure. The book is not all ghost stories: At the end are three delightful essays about butterflies, mosquitoes, and ants as seen in Chinese and Japanese cultures.  Here is a brief excerpt from his essay on ants:

The work daily performed by these female [ant] laborers comprises road-making, bridge-building, timber-cutting, architectural construction of numberless kinds, horticulture and agriculture, the feeding and sheltering of a hundred varieties of domestic animals, the manufacture of sundry chemical products, the storage and conservation of countless food-stuffs, and the care of the children of the race. All this labor is done for the commonwealth—no citizen of which is capable even of thinking about “property,” except as a res publica;—and the sole object of the commonwealth is the nurture and training of its young,—nearly all of whom are girls. The period of infancy is long: the children remain for a great while, not only helpless, but shapeless, and withal so delicate that they must be very carefully guarded against the least change of temperature. Fortunately their nurses understand the laws of health: each thoroughly knows all that she ought to know in regard to ventilation, disinfection, drainage, moisture, and the danger of germs,—germs being as visible, perhaps, to her myopic sight as they become to our own eyes under the microscope. Indeed, all matters of hygiene are so well comprehended that no nurse ever makes a mistake about the sanitary conditions of her neighborhood.

In spite of this perpetual labor no worker remains unkempt: each is scrupulously neat, making her toilet many times a day. But as every worker is born with the most beautiful of combs and brushes attached to her wrists, no time is wasted in the toilet-room. Besides keeping themselves strictly clean, the workers must also keep their houses and gardens in faultless order, for the sake of the children. Nothing less than an earthquake, an eruption, an inundation, or a desperate war, is allowed to interrupt the daily routine of dusting, sweeping, scrubbing, and disinfecting.

For many years, much of what the West knew about Japan came from Hearn’s pen. I cannot imagine a more delightful introduction to any culture.

1,000 Yen and Six Haikus

Japanese Author Natsume Sōseki (1867-1916)

One of my major literary discoveries this year was Japanese author Natsume Sōseki, who was best known for his prose and who was honored on the 1,000 yen note between 1984 and 2004. Here, however, are six haiku that he wrote:

Over the wintry
forest, winds howl in rage
with no leaves to blow.

The lamp once out
Cool stars enter
The window frame.

The crow has flown away;
swaying in the evening sun,
a leafless tree.

Watch birth and death:
The lotus has already
Opened its flower.

Plum flower temple:
Voices rise
From the foothills.

On New Year’s Day
I long to meet my parents
as they were before my birth.

My favorite haiku is the second one, but the most poignant is the last one. Natsume Sōseki was born to such aged parents that they, being embarrassed, gave him up for adoption, until they re-introduced themselves as his grandparents. Eventually, Sōseki found out about this subterfuge.

 

Living with Azuma Hikari

Azumi Hikari Is Gatebox’s Initial Release of a Personal Miniature Robot

It was my friend Bill Korn who told me about Gatebox. In today’s Japan, there are fewer marriages, fewer births, and a larger population of the aged as time goes on. You can read about it in an Economist article entitled “I Don’t: Most Japanese Want to Be Married but Are Fining It Hard.” To help young Japanese salarymen hold themselves together while waiting for what may or may not occur, Gatebox has released a personal robot for $3,000 about as big as a coffeemaker.

You can see the introductory character, Azumi Hikari, at work in this two-minute video:

What disturbs me is that Miss Azumi is a manga character with a child’s body, such that it reminds me of pedophilia more than anything else. When its owner walks in the door, she does a little dance of joy like a child. She even calls him on his cell phone and tries to wheedle him into coming home from work early. I don’t know whether I want to be the master of a child slave who is a projected figure several inches high in a glass tube.

Of course, sex is completely out of the question, unless you want to turn yourself into some sort of manga projection. I’m sure Gatebox will have to field a few thousand queries about that.

You can read a review of the product in this PC Magazine review entitled “Gatebox Virtual Home Robot Wants You to Be Her Master.

 

 

Samurai Swords

Toshiro Mifune as Musashi Miyamoto

The above scene is an evocative moment in Musashi Miyamoto (1954), the first film in Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai trilogy. Musashi, heretofore called Takezo, has been imprisoned in Himeji Castle by the wily (and wise) Buddhist priest Takuan for three years. He has just stepped out of the castle for the first time and takes a look back at the walls that held him while he learned to tame his wild impulses.

I first saw Inagaki’s trilogy at a seminal point in my life. I had just moved to Los Angeles to start studying film history and criticism at UCLA. Before my classes  began in January 1967, the Toho La Brea theater began screening Musashi Miyamoto. In the following months, Duel at Ichijoji Temple (1955) and Duel on Ganryu Island (1956)—the remaining films of the trilogy—were to be shown. Although I had seen many films at Dartmouth College, I was just starting to get into the whole jidai-geki genre.

Also, I fell in love with Kaoru Yachigusa, the perennially frustrated love interest in the trilogy.

In fact, I got so much into it that, in June, I moved to an apartment on Mississippi Avenue, right in the heart of the Sawtelle Japanese-American neighborhood. At that time, there were two Japanese restaurants around the corner, the O-Sho and the Futaba Grill, where I frequently dined, learning how to tame those unruly chopsticks. My ignorance was still pretty much in evidence: I took the squares of tofu in my miso shiru soup to be shark’s fin.

Kaoru Yachigusa as Otsu, the Love Interest in the Trilogy

Before long, I was going with my film friends to all five Japanese movie theaters in Los Angeles: Not only he Toho LaBrea, but the Kabuki (Shochiku Studio) and Kokusai (Daiei Studio) near Adams and Crenshaw, and the Sho Tokyo (Daiei Studio) and Linda Lea (Tohei Studio). Now all five theaters are gone, but back then, I collaborated with two of my friends (Alain Silver and Jim Ursini) in a column for The UCLA Daily Bruin entitled “The Exotic Filmgoer,” which commemorated not only the Japanese theaters, but some of he others. We wrote under the collective pseudonym of Tarnmoor.

The Criterion Collection has released DVD and Blue-Ray editions of the Samurai trilogy, which are well worth your while.