Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon


Wakamatsu Koji’s “United Red Army”

Posted in Film,Japanese film by bourdaghs on the November 8th, 2013

Recently I’ve been thinking about film director Wakamatsu Kōji (若松孝二). In part, this was because of his role as an early advocate for the music of Hayakawa Yoshio and JACKS; he hired them to provide the soundtrack for his 1968 independent “pink” film, Haragashi Onna 『腹貸し女』.

This all nudged me into finally watching Wakamatsu’s “United Red Army” 『実録・連合赤軍 あさま山荘への道程』. I’d been wanting to see this one since it first came out to great acclaim in 2008–it ended up being ranked #3 on that year’s Kinema Junpō Best Ten list. Finding an opportunity was always difficult, though, in part due to its epic length (three hours plus). But we sat down with the DVD last Saturday and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

I’m especially fascinated by what Wakamatsu intended by the first word of the Japanese title: jitsuroku 「実録」. A more literal translation of the title would be, “True Record: United Red Army–The Road to the Asama Sansō Incident.” As someone tangentially involved in 1960s leftist politics, Wakamatsu in his later years clearly felt an ethical, political, and artistic obligation to leave behind a “true record” of the violent faction that became notorious for a series of terrorist acts in early 1970s Japan and elsewhere.

The film begins with a kind of documentary survey of the history of the radical left in 1960s Japan, intercut with shots introducing us to the main characters we will follow. We find ourselves in the hands of a voice-over narrator who speaks in grizzled, weather-beaten tones. I thought the speaker might be Wakamatsu himself; the film has that sort of very personal feel to it. It was only when the closing credits rolled that I realized the voice actually belonged to the actor Harada Yoshio, certainly an apt choice–but one that also foregrounds the fictional, acted-out elements of this “true record.”

The middle hour uses actors to trace in horrific, numbing detail the self-destructive lynchings that took place as the possibility of actual revolution faded and the increasingly isolated faction sought to enforce impossible standards of ideological purity. Then the last hour of the film recreates the infamous 1972 Asama Sansō standoff, the incident that is conventionally depicted as the last gasp of 1960s radicalism in Japan. For the most part, we view the unfolding crisis from the perspective of the five gunmen and their hostage inside the mountain lodge, but at key moments — especially the final police assault on the villa — we see things from the external perspective of the police.

The soundtrack by Jim O’Rourke provides one set of clues as to how we are meant to take the film. In the first hour or so, it consists mainly of psychedelic guitar jams that convey a sense of liberation and possibility; by the last hour, it is almost entirely elegiac string quartet.

The climax of the film, the police raid, calls to mind nothing so much as the final shot in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; the heroes are tragically misguided and doomed. What is striking is the non-judgmental tone of the presentation. For all the problems inherent in the idea of a partially fictional film as jitsuroku, it is clear that it was the driving concern behind the work. Wakamatsu neither celebrates nor condemns; he wants us to understand how the participants ended up doing what they did. He wants to leave behind a true record of what happened.

The last visual image in the film is a brief clip from news footage of a JAL jet being blown up on an airport tarmac at the end of a hijacking. It’s hard to know how we’re supposed to take this. Should we revel in the visceral excitement of the explosion footage? Or is it a meditation on the ultimate nihilism of violence as political means? Does it signal victory or defeat? Again, the answer seems to be: jitsuroku. It is what it is.

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Upcoming Japan-related Events at the University of Chicago

Apologies for the dearth of posts recently: it’s been a busy couple of months. The coming weeks and months promise to be just as busy, with many exciting Japan-related events on the horizon here at the University of Chicago. If you’re in the area, please consider joining us for some of the following events:

March 11: William Marotti (Associate Professor, History, UCLA) will be giving a public lecture on “Perceiving Politics: Art, Protest, and Everyday Life in Early 1960s Japan” (5:00 p.m., Wieboldt 408). He’ll discuss his new book, Money, Trains, and Guillotines: Art and Revolution in 1960s Japan (Duke University Press, 2013).

March 15-16: Remediations II: A Japan Anthro Workshop. Michael Fisch has organized this exciting event, featuring presentations by a number of up-and-coming Japan scholars. I’ll be a discussant for Panel 2: “Rethinking the War Machine: Remediations of Violence.”

April 22: 2013 Najita Distinguished Lecture in Japanese Studies with Ueno Chizuko(5:00 p.m., International House). A public lecture by the respected sociologist and influential feminist critic, one of Japan’s leading public intellectuals.

April 25-26: “The Cold War in East Asia,” a conference organized by our graduate students featuring a number of guest speakers. I’ll participate as a respondent for one of the panels.

May 10-11: “The Russian Kurosawa,” an innovative event organized by Olga Solovieva that brings together specialists in Russian literature, Japanese film, and other disciplines to reconsider Kurosawa Akira’s film adaptations of Russian literary works. The event will include free screenings of several of Kurosawa’s films.

Spring quarter will also see screenings and events surrounding the films produced and distributed by Art Theater Guild, the primary force in independent Japanese cinema during the 1970s and 80s.

October 18-20: The Association for Japanese Literary Studies Annual Meeting: Performance and Japanese Literature. The call for papers and other information are available here.

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This and That: Two Weeks in the Life

Posted in Film,J-Pop,J-Rock,Japanese film,Music,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other,Sumo by bourdaghs on the May 24th, 2012

Apologies for the radio silence around these parts in recent days. It’s been a busy, fun couple of weeks since last I posted here.

I was in Tokyo for six days last week, meeting with other scholars and visiting archives and bookstores. I also had a chance to get together with the good people at Byakuya Shobo, the publishing house that will be bringing out the Japanese translation of Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon: A Geopolitical Prehistory of J-Pop next month. It’s the same team that was responsible for the Japanese edition of Julian Cope’s Japrocksampler a few years back.

Along the way, I also attended Day 10 of the May sumo tournament. I was disappointed that the new Kakuryu bento lunchbox was sold out by noon, but had an enjoyable day at the Kokugikan nonetheless. I also saw a couple of current films while in Japan: Waga haha no ki, adapted from Inoue Yasushi’s semi-autobiographical novel about a novelist’s relations with his aging mother and featuring a very strong cast headed by Yakusho Koji and Kiki Kirin; and Rentaneko, an engaging independent film by Ogigami Naoko (of Kamome Shokudo fame) about a young woman who rents out cats to lonely people. It’s a low key, often humorous, meditation on the pleasures and agonies of repetition in everyday life. Mark Schilling’s review for the Japan Times can be found here.

I flew back to Chicago last Saturday and was immediately plunged into adventure: trying to negotiate my way from O’Hare International Airport to the South Side through a maze of traffic closures in effect because of the NATO Summit.

This past Monday night, we took the whole family downtown to see the reunited Beach Boys in concert at the Chicago Theatre. Once again, the commute was a challenge: the Metra trains didn’t start up at 6:30 as promised, and Lake Shore Drive was still shut down. After some hasty improvising, we managed to get there in time. The show was terrific fun. The first half was heavy on early surf numbers, but things really came alive after intermission. Highlights included a lovely version of “Disney Girls,” a plaintive “In My Room,” and the final encore number of “Fun Fun Fun,” when Brian Wilson came out from behind the grand piano to (at least temporarily) strap on a bass guitar and resume his original position in the band.

My fifteen-year-old daughter, who takes her singing seriously, complained that they were using Autotune to correct pitch on the vocals. I pooh-poohed the idea, but when I got home and did some Googling, I found out that many Beach Boys fans are up in arms about the same issue. Either way, it was a fun and historic show, as Greg Kot noted in his review for the Chicago Tribune.

The group’s celebrations of California surf and car culture framed the opening set, but it was Part 2 where the music cut deepest. It began with the core quintet gathered around Wilson’s piano for a mission statement: “Add Some Music to Your Day.” Then it reclaimed the beauty of the band’s more melancholy and complex late ‘60s and early ‘70s work. “Heroes and Villains” melted into intricate, multi-part harmonies that brought smiles to the faces of the participants as Wilson waved his arms with uncharacteristic vigor. “Good Vibrations,” with its plush harmonies and outer-space sound effects still sounded futuristic. [...] In turn, the Beach Boys made falling in love sound both sacred and tragic – their joy tinged by sadness, their despair lifted by hope. And sometimes, as suggested by Brian Wilson’s performance Monday of “Sail On, Sailor,” it becomes too much to bear.

A couple of other odds and ends:

The Atlantic has a nice story by Patrick St. Michel about the trend toward hits by young children in J-Pop, including a mention of my new book. You can read the article online here, and if you haven’t yet checked out “Make Believe Melodies,” St. Michel’s fine blog on contemporary pop music in Japan, you should do so right now.

JERO, the African-American Enka singer who was raised in Pittsburgh singing Misora Hibari numbers with his Japanese grandmother, will be making his New York debut in a concert/talk appearance at the Japan Society next month. Details here. It’s been a while, so to refresh your and my memories, here’s his wonderful 2008 debut single, “Umiyuki” (Ocean snow):

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Korean Punk Rock

Posted in Film,Music by bourdaghs on the March 7th, 2012

The documentary “Our Nation: A Korean Punk Rock Community” (39 min., 2002) is now available on DVD for private home viewing–and it’s just twenty bucks. You can also stream it for just $1.99. (Institutions and libraries can also purchase the film here.)

Through the eyes of two young college age fans, we journey through the underground punk rock scene. The small club “Drug” features bands with names like Crying Nut, No Brain and Weeper, and the all-female band Supermarket. To Americans the flashing lights, stomping bodies, blaring sounds and angry incantations are nothing new. But seeing it in an Asian culture known for restraint raises many questions. Sociology professor Cho Hae Joang provides a socio-historical overview of the youth subcultures in Korea, and the emergence of consumer capitalism with the concomitant economic crisis of the late 90’s.

Crying Nut subsequently went on to fame and fortune, but the film captures them and their fans at the beginning, playing in a small basement club in Seoul. I had the pleasure of introducing the film at one of its first-ever screenings at UCLA back when it was initially released, and I vividly remember the brilliant way it captured the feel of a burgeoning local music scene. Recommended.

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March 11: One Year Later

Posted in Current Events,Film,Japanese film,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the February 29th, 2012

Next week marks the first anniversary of the March 11 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster in Japan. In recent days, we’ve been learning that the situation was in fact far more dire than the government or Tokyo Electric were willing to admit at the time. It’s come out recently that the Japanese government was even considering an unthinkable scenario: evacuation of Tokyo. The New York Times:

in the darkest moments of the nuclear disaster, Japanese leaders did not know the actual extent of damage at the [Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power] plant and secretly considered the possibility of evacuating Tokyo, even as they tried to play down the risks in public.

Just today, a newly issued scientific report concludes that the total amount of radiation released into the ocean near Fukushima was likely much greater than previously estimated. The Asahi Shinbun:

A mind-boggling 40,000 trillion becquerels of radioactive cesium, or twice the amount previously thought, may have spewed from the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant after the March 11 disaster, scientists say. [...] The figure, which represents about 20 percent of the discharge during the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, is twice as large as previous estimates by research institutions both in Japan and overseas.

The disaster touched our own family in many ways. My wife was born and raised in Sendai, a city in the center of the affected region. I have lived there on three different occasions. In the early morning hours of March 11 last year, we watched in horror live pictures of the tsunami sweeping over neighborhoods that we know well. Fortunately, none of my in-laws were injured or killed. We did lose some very dear friends, though. And in the year since, we have watched old classmates, colleagues, and friends cope with the loss of children, spouses, parents. Their resilience has been nothing short of astonishing.

We are marking the anniversary with a number of events here at the University of Chicago. Earlier in the year, we hosted an exhibit of photographs from the region, highlighting the scale of the disaster and the enormous energy that has gone into the rescue and recovery efforts. (The same exhibit will be on display at UCLA’s Fowler Museum, March 4 through April 15: details here.)

On March 9 (7:30 p.m., Coulter Lounge in International House), we’ll host a free public screening of an acclaimed new documentary, “Fukushima: Memories of a Lost Landscape” (『「相馬看花」-奪われた土地の記憶』) with director Matsubayashi Yojyu in attendance. Details are available here.

Then, on March 10-11 we’ll host a major conference in honor of my colleague, Norma Field, who will be retiring from the university this summer. “What March 11 Means to Me: A Symposium in Honor of Norma Field” will feature five prominent public intellectuals and activists from Japan, each speaking on the personal and pubic dimensions of the disaster and its ongoing impact. The line-up of speakers is simply amazing:

  • Amamiya Karin: a prominent activist in the “precariat” and anti-nuclear movements

    Komori Yoichi: scholar of Japanese literature and leader of the movement to preserve Article 9

    Ryusawa Takeshi: former editor-in-chief of Heibonsha, one of Japan’s most important publishing houses

    Takahashi Tetsuya: a native of Fukushima and one of Japan’s leading scholars of ethics and philosophy

    Yokoyu Sonoko: a well-known clinical psychologist and advocate for children’s rights

  • A schedule for the event and profiles of the participants can be found here.

    Finally, on May 5 we will be hosting “Atomic Age II: Fukushima,” with two very special guests from Japan: Koide Hiroaki of the Kyoto University Reactor Research Institute, a scientist who became something of a public hero for his willingness to speak frankly about the risks of nuclear power, and Muto Ruiko, an activist in anti-nuclear citizen movements from Fukushima. Details are available here.

    Remarkable progress has been made in recovery over the past year. People from the region I’ve talked to express deep gratitude for the support they’ve received from around the world. But the disaster continues: rebuilding efforts in the tsunami-affected region have barely begun, and the Fukushima nuclear disaster is still unfolding, despite glossy governmental declarations that the situation is under control. Shutting down the reactors and decontaminating the area will take decades. It will take many years to assess the real human cost, too: I dread thinking about what rates of cancer incidence in the region will look like six or seven years from now.

    I hope you can join us for some of these events. Please keep the people of Tohoku in your thoughts. One way we can help is to make sure that we all learn the lessons that the disaster is trying to teach us.

    Detroit Metal City

    Posted in Film,J-Pop,J-Rock,Japanese film,Music by bourdaghs on the February 26th, 2012


    This 2008 film came up in a discussion yesterday following a workshop I led at DePaul University for K-12 teachers on using Japanese popular music in the classroom. I did a little web surfing after getting home and learned that it is now available on DVD in North America.

    It’s a funny, cartoonish (not surprising, since it’s based on a successful manga) movie about a sensitive singer-songwriter (Matsuyama Ken’ichi) who wants only to record sunny Shibuya-kei style ballads about love and trendy Tokyo lifestyles, but who ends up trapped as lead singer for a death metal band. His fans worship him as the spawn of Satan, but all he cares about is trying to win over the squeaky clean girl (Kato Rosa) he’s had a crush on since college. Gene Simmons turns in a nice cameo appearance as the legendary American death metal icon who challenges our hero to a final showdown for supremacy.

    Everything is played in a silly, over-the-top manner, dulling the emotional impact when it tries to go sentimental at the end. But the pop and metal songs are fun, affectionate parodies of the two genres. Around the time the movie came out in Japan, they actually released CDs purporting to be music by the fictional bands from the film.

    Mark Schilling’s review for the Japan Times is available online here. Here’s a trailer for the film:

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    The Current Reading List

    Posted in Books,Fiction,Film,Japanese film,Japanese literature by bourdaghs on the December 28th, 2011

    A few things I’ve been reading as of late:


    Jim Harrison, True North (Grove Press, 2004). I’m a belated convert to Harrison’s fiction: I’ve known about him since a girlfriend in high school recommended him, but only started reading his work in the last few years. I inadvertently read Returning to Earth, the 2007 sequel to this, first and found myself mesmerized. So it was with high expectations that I picked this up–but I ended up mildly disappointed. It’s quite good, yes, but not at the level of Harrison’s best. Why? I guess I felt emotionally distant from the characters and from the whole notion of taking historical responsibility for one’s familial past. It’s a fine novel, but Harrison has produced more compelling work elsewhere.

    Kirino Natsuo 桐野夏生, OUT (Kodansha, 2002; two volumes). My first foray into the land of Kirino, though I did see the fine film adaptation of this novel a few years back. The suspenseful plot (will our heroines be arrested for their heinous crimes of murder and corpse dismemberment?) works well, but most of all I like the gritty details of contemporary life that Kirino captures better than her more “Literary” peers: what it feels like day after day to endure a shitty night-shift job and a dead-end family life. Despite the, uhm, moral shortcomings of all the major characters, this reader ended up kinda liking them as people.

    Steven Ridgely, Japanese Counterculture: The Antiestablishment Art of Terayama Shuji (University of Minnesota Press, 2010). An excellent study of one of the most fascinating figures from Japan’s 1960s, covering his work in poetry, sports writing, guerrilla theater performance and experimental film. Ridgely presents a sophisticated and highly readable study of the multiple ways in which Terayama creatively redrew the boundary between fiction and reality.

    How ’bout you? Read any good books lately?

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    Kon Satoshi

    Posted in Film,Japanese film by bourdaghs on the August 26th, 2010

    I am stunned to learn of the death of anime director Kon Satoshi. He was only 46; the cause of death was pancreatic cancer.

    Kon was for my money easily the best director in Japanese anime. Each of his remarkable films expanded the boundaries of what the medium was capable of. The first one I saw was Millennium Actress (2001), his second feature, and it knocked me out: it’s a stunning homage to the history of Japanese cinema. I immediately tracked down Perfect Blue, his debut film, and from that time on made a point of seeing everything he released. His art reached a peak with Paprika (2006), a truly mind-blowing film. Here is what I wrote about Paprika when I first saw it:

    I’m convinced that Kon is the most important director of anime in the world, and I’ve been wanting to see this one since the day it was released. I wasn’t disappointed: it may well be his best film yet, and that is saying something. This is after all the man who has already given us Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress, and Tokyo Godfathers. Stunning visually: the first five minutes had my jaw dropping. The plot is tangled, but that is appropriate since the film is about the logic of dreams: an experimental device that allows psychotherapists to enter the dreams of their patients falls into the wrong hands, becoming a deadly tool for manipulation. Dreams are the stuff that we are made of, and Kon’s story unfolds an allegory about life under conditions of mass media, consumerism, and technology. It all ends with one of the main characters buying a ticket to see a film directed by Kon Satoshi. I can’t wait for the director’s next film!

    Kon was apparently close to finishing that next film when he passed away. I still can’t wait to see it, but will have a hard time accepting that it will be this master’s final work.

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    Engaging Commodities: The Media Blitz

    Posted in Film,J-Rock,Japanese film,Music,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the June 18th, 2010

    The Chicago Shimpo, a local bilingual weekly aimed at the Japanese-American community, has given nice front-page coverage to our recent conference, “Engaging Commodities: Crossing Mass Culture and the Avant Garde in 1960s Japanese Film, Music and Art.” The newspaper focuses on the guest musicians who participated, The Golden Cups and Alan Merrill, including interviews with the Cups, their manager, and with three long-time fans who traveled from Japan to attend the event. The article includes many photographs, as well.

    A .pdf file of the English language version of the article is here, and the Japanese language version is here.

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    Engaging Commodities, Day 2

    Posted in Art,Film,J-Pop,Japanese film,Music by bourdaghs on the May 23rd, 2010

    Yesterday was the second and final day of the conference, “Engaging Commodities: Crossing Mass Culture and the Avant Garde in 1960s Japanese Film, Music and Art.” We began in the morning with a panel on “Engaging Cinematic Commodities,” with papers from Junji Yoshida (University of Chicago postdoctoral fellow) on the ways wartime memories were commemorated via jokes in 1960s popular films, Stephanie DeBoer (Indiana University) on the flows of people, technologies and forms between Tokyo and Hong Kong in the musical film genre, and Richard Davis (University of Chicago graduate student) on the depiction of advertising, both visual and aural, in 1960s film.

    After lunch, we had a panel on “Radical Visual Culture in 1960s Japan” with Jonathan Hall (Pomona College) situating Okabe Michio’s remarkable 1968 film Crazy Love in dialogue with Susan Sontag’s writings on camp, William Marotti (UCLA) on the significance of early 1960s avant garde musical performances by the Group Ongaku, and Miryam Sas (University of California-Berkeley) on a variety of experimental animated films from the period.

    Our last panel covered “Music in Film,” with Daniel Johnson (University of Chicago graduate student) looking at changing modes for representing romance/sex and sentiment/irony in Nikkatsu action films, Michael Raine (University of Chicago) discussing how we might rethink the practices of reading that 1960s popular films seem to suggest as their proper modes of use, and Junko Yamazaki (University of Chicago graduate student) on the use of avant garde musical forms in the film soundtracks composed by Mayuzumi Toshiro.

    The conference ended with a screening of the remarkable 1964 Toho musical, Kimi mo shusse ga dekiru (You too can get ahead!, dir. Sugawa Eizo), a marvelous film that brings together many of the themes we had been talking about over the course of the conference. It was a stimulating, sometimes exhilarating, sometimes exhausting two days, and I’m grateful to all of the participants and to all of my colleagues for making it possible.

    Here’s a trailer for Kimi mo shusse ga dekiru:

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