Botanical Puzzle

Crape Myrtle (Wang Ruoshui)
This is part two of “Films of 1949” series. (Part 1 is here)
“Crape Myrtle always brings bad luck.”
Until I saw Kurosawa’s “Stray Dog”, I had never heard of Crape Myrtle being the omen of bad luck. This line occurs as a part of the audio montage during the pivotal scene in the film. A woman was brutally murdered in a quiet house in upper-class neighborhood. Her husband, a well-to-do businessman, Nakamura, had been away on a business trip, The Police was working on fingerprints and other clues in the murder scene, ransacked by the murderer. They knew instinctively the weapon used in the crime, though; the Colt automatic stolen from the young detective (Toshiro Mifune). Neighbors curiously peering into the house, exchanging whispers. How chummy the Nakamura’s were, and it is that house with Crape Myrtle. This superstitious whisper made lasting impression on me. 

Crape Myrtle has been and still is one of the popular garden trees in Japan, due to its ease of care and its relatively compact size. By all means, its gorgeous blossom would stand out in all-green neighborhood during humid heatwave in August. Then, how come some consider it as a bad omen?
The meaning and timbre of the word “Saru-suberi”, Japanese for Crape Myrtle, do cause slight uneasiness on our linguistic nerves. Its literal meaning is “Monkeys slip” or “Slippery (even) for monkeys”, referring to its smooth surface of its bark. This “slip” leads to “slip in business or in life” in general, as they say. Another reasoning for superstitious belief is that Its blossom falls by its neck when it’s done and some associate it graphically with beheading. 
However, upon close examination, the scene is a bit of a puzzle. I am not able to place actual “Crape Myrtle” in Nakamura’s house. There are several shots of the house in the sequence. First several introductory shots (piano soundtrack in background) are definitely not Nakamura’s house. It is there to show that the story about to unfold is in an affluent neighborhood. Then, as the tone of soundtrack turns grim and solemn, the sequence of shots captures a group of spectators gathering around the crime scene,as the uniform policemen guard the area. There are small kids, a frightened young mother and a couple of men talking to officers. Then, the shot of the house. It introduces us to Nakamura’s house. Some pine trees and rose bushes are visible, but I cannot spot a single tree of Crape Myrtle. So where is the tree in question? In fact, one tree of Crape Myrtle can be seen, exactly when the whisper referring to it is on audio track. It is a tree behind the group of people peering at Nakamura’s house. Then, if this superstitious man is referring to that Crape Myrtle, he is talking about the wrong house.
Stray Dog
It might well be one of technical “goofs” created in editors’ room. However, it is rather puzzling since the audio track must have been inserted later than construction of visual montage. Kurosawa and Goto (the editor of the film) didn’t get the necessary shots, maybe. I really cannot tell. But I am quite sure that the slight inconsistency in logic was not of concern here for Kurosawa. To him, it was this lasting ringing of the whispering voice that mattered.
Tomato (from “Toyu Nanbo Shin (1731)”, Japanese Library of Congress)
There is another reference to botanical mise-en-scene in this sequence. Tomatoes.
My wife…planted these tomatoes. The day I left town, they were still green.
But now that I’m back, they’ve all ripened and turned red, even though my wife is dead.
The shots of tomatoes, squashed on the ground, are cross-cut with the terrified gaze of Toshiro Mifune. Though it is one of the most popular vegetables today, both in markets and in gardens, I didn’t know if tomato was recognized by general public as a part of everyday food in 1949. 
General history of tomato in Japan tells us that it was first introduced to Japan during Edo era and remained relatively unknown to general public throughout Meiji and Taisho eras. Popularity of the Western cooking in the later years made many foreign vegetables visibly available in market. So I assumed tomato must have been one of those foreign vegetables, making this episode sharper on social comment. Nakamura, apparently well-to-do for 1949, could afford luxury of enjoying little gardening, with some exotic vegetables such as tomatoes.
A bit of research revealed tomato was not as exotic in 1940’s Japan at all. It is one of the most popular home grown vegetables since early Showa era. During the war years, tomato had been promoted as one of the easy-to-grow fruits, and apparently many families planted it in their small gardens to fill in their ever-scarce food supply. Then, the connotation of tomato in this context is far from nouveau riche’s pastime. Visual sensation of squashed tomato is extremely visceral, of course, but another underlying implication, tomato as a popular gardening vegetable among general public, may have different imagery among the viewers at the time. 
Lectures on Wartime Kitchen Gardening (1944)
Tomato frequently pops up in novels, prose and poetry of pre-war to post-war generation. The most notable example in the early Showa era can be found in Kenji Miyazawa’s “The Night on the Galactic Railroad (1934)”, a splendidly atmospheric fantasy. Early in the novel, Giovanni has a dish of tomatoes for his lunch. His sister prepared it for him and left it on the window sill. There is a mention of Kale and Asparagus grown in the box as well. Miyazawa was an ardent student of agriculture and believed that community of rich (and scientific) agriculture is the paradise. He injects variety of vegetables, crops, and other plants into his novels, in hopes to make them known to public. During the same period, Santouka Taneda, known for a variety of free-style Haiku, compose one with eggplants and tomatoes, rejoicing the rich harvest in summer time. Stark contrast of red, green and dark blue under intense rays of sunshine creates joyous melody of life.
The war years turned this cheerful memory of the vegetable to sour. sometimes tragic ones. In Osamu Dazai’s short story, his wife’s garden is mess, and tomato is one the victims. It seems it is not about an actual garden, but rather about the state of his mind at the time. Osamu Dazai is still one of the most influential postwar Japanese novelist (though his works extends back to prewar years), and his works represent the languished identities of Japanese people by the war and its aftermath.
Hiroshima pops up a couple of times when looking for the presence of tomato in war years. My wife told me the story she had read, about a group of young doctors who were sent to devastated Hiroshima. Words about “toxic” water were spread throughout the city and young doctors were warned of possible contamination from “The New Bomb”. To avoid dehydration under intense heat, they turned to tomatoes still standing in the barren land. It turned out, these vegetables were also contaminated. They would suffer long-term ailment due to internal radiation poisoning. There are several accounts of tomato and dying children in Hiroshima aftermath. “Machinto” is childrens’ book about a three-year old girl craving for tomato while suffering from massive radiation. Her mother desperately searches for tomatoes in the city, finally finds one in a local shop, but too late. The child is gone. Another private account of the apocalyptic Hiroshima relates the story of a teenage girl dying. She suffered serious burns and bleeding. She was also craving for water and her father told her kid brother to pick a couple of tomatoes from their back yard, squeeze them to make juice. The kid brother soaked swabs into fresh liquid and gently dripped juice on her lips. Tomato was her favorite food, and kid brother realized his father knew she wouldn’t make it.
As for Crape Myrtle and Hiroshima, Tamiki Hara mentions it in his Haiku anthology “The Atomic Bomb”.
Heat of Sun, Full of smell of Death, Crape Myrtle
Crape Myrtle and Tomato are both full of life in summer. In full bloom of gorgeous pink or ripen to pure red. Such burst of energy of life is nature’s irony to numerous deaths and unimaginable agony not only in Hiroshima but throughout Asia in summer of 1945. The memory of August 1945 was etched in people’s mind, suffering with no end, burnt soil, more death and a lot more. Survivors in 1949 might find traces of that August in Crape Myrtle and tomato.
Then, that whisper, “Crape Myrtle always brings bad luck” echoed more grimly in theaters in 1949 than today.
Stray Dog
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Echoes

This is the first part of “Films of 1949” series.

My father was only seven or eight years old when this incident took place. It was the year 1946, several months after the surrender of Japan. The nation was in shambles, people were scared of “invaders”, brutal enemies they had learned to hate. They didn’t know what to expect, or rather what to fear, but, little by little, they started to see the reality of unconditional surrender. Almost everyday, military planes flew over the town to somewhere north. They were not B-29s anymore. They were cargo planes. Over the strangely quiet landscape, leaving deafening noise behind, they flew low as if to survey the population of the losers. There was a railway station near the river, and long trains carrying American soldiers passed through the town once or twice a day. The railroad was along the river bank, until it hit the bend where it crossed the river. Soldiers were only visible from afar, because the trains never stopped at the station or anywhere near the town, just passing through. People were afraid of looking at Americans anyway.

One afternoon, the gunshot echoed in this sleepy town, and the train stopped near the station for the first time. Townspeople, fearing something amiss, slowly approached the train, but keeping the distance of at least 200 meters or so. The train stopped at the point where it could look down the riverbank. There was a old farmer standing near the track, crying, and some town officials and police constables were also present. They seemed all bewildered. American officers, with a translator, got off the train hurriedly, approached them, and tried to communicate for the first time. It turned out, one of the soldiers shot a cow on the riverbank from the deck of the running train. The cow belonged to the crying farmer, who had only two or three cows for his farming work. He let cows loose on the riverbank from time to time to let them munch on grass and have some rest. The soldier on the train saw it, thought it fun to do some hunting, took out his rifle and shot it.
Of course a gunshot echo alerted the officers on board, who ordered the train to stop. It took some time for all, including Japanese, to understand what had happened. The farmer was simply in despair, kneeling near the dead cow. This soldier must have been a good marksman, because it was a clean single shot through its head that killed it. Japanese was at loss, because they might ‘get hurt’, if they protest or complain. Victors could do anything they want, after all. But, then, something totally unexpected happened. American officers apologized. They were sincerely sorry for what happened and even tried to console the farmer. Townspeople were flabbergasted. Americans apologized for shooting a cow.
The train took off slowly after a while, leaving puzzled people and a dead cow behind.
Seeing off the leaving train, one of old men of the town, probably in his sixties, murmured to my father; “If this were a train of Japanese soldiers in China, the farmer would be dead by now.”
 Tokyo Station Ticket Office for Allied Military Personnel (Wikipedia)
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I always thought this story illustrates the state of mind of Japanese at the time of Occupation. I don’t know, but I really cannot tell if the murmur really meant to be admission of guilt or accusation against his fellow country men. Or, considering the fact that some Japanese did not consider abuse of power as an issue, was it meant to be some twisted display of slight chauvinism? How come did he even mention it anyway? All townspeople were so afraid. Is it because they knew exactly what happened to Chinese, Koreans and other Asians if they protest against Japanese soldiers?
It took considerable months and years for Japan to recompose itself after the surrender. As for cinema, havoc in censorship caused the industry to readjust, but sometime around 1949, it started to regain the momentum it once had in thirties.
At the same time, it could not be the same as it used to. There were layers of silent whirl of mixed states of minds. Guilty conscience, displaced anger, uncomfortable self denial, ambivalent relief and indignant regret.  

In coming weeks, I will examine a group of Japanese films released in 1949.
The films to be examined are:
Here’s to the Girls/Ojosan Kanpai, (March 9, 1949, お嬢さん乾杯, Dir. Keisuke Kinoshita)
The Quiet Duel (March 13, 1948, 静かなる決闘, Dir. Akira Kurosawa)
Beni Imada Kiezu (April 20, 1949, 朱唇いまだ消えず, Dir. Minoru Shibuya) 
Ningen Moyo (June 14, 1949, 人間模様, Dir. Kon Ichikawa)
The Green Mountains (July 19 1949, 青い山脈, Dir. Tadashi Imai)
Ginza Kankan Girl (August 16 1949, 銀座カンカン娘, Dir. Kouji Shima)
Late Spring (September 13 1949, 晩春 DIr. Yasujiro Ozu)
Stray Dog (October 17 1949, 野良犬, Dir. Akira Kurosawa)
A Broken Drum (December 1, 1949, 破れ太鼓, Dir. Keisuke Kinoshita)
Good Bye (June 29, 1949, グッドバイ, Dir. Koji Shima)

100 Million Idiots

Mondrian-like composition in “Ohayo (1959)”

Over the cups of sake, Chishu Ryu and others in the Izakaya murmur “TV creates 100 million idiots”. Yes, TV will blow their intellect out of all Japanese brains. Somebody said that.

Ozu’s “Ohayo” was released in 1959. TV culture was still at its early stage and everything was experimental and new. Its technology was cutting edge of the time, and this box was the object of industrial accomplishment. However, the virtual world it offered was prime example of dysfunctional contemporary world. “TV creates 100 million idiots” was a buzzword in late 50’s. Souichi Otake, a journalist, first introduced this expression in a magazine article in 1956, criticizing the vulgarity of TV programs at the time. It was a popular game show, in which viewers competed to come up with the absurdest acts to get laughs. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

That was the time cinema industries were fighting against TV invasion as well. Hollywood was making the screen wider and wider. Cinemascope would be totally different experience from looking at a small window in a small living room. Studios in Japan also tried their own version of Cinemascope. But deterioration/transformation of visual arts was inevitable. Ozu and Noda must have grudgingly put this buzzword into their script, as a way of expressing their own cynical view.

But this expression has its own twist.
During the final months of WWII, the Japanese government wanted all Japanese to die for the Emperor, and created a slogan “100 Million Suicide Mission”. It means all Japanese should die honorable death rather than surrender. This insane slogan was motivated by the battle of Guam, Iwo-Jima and others, in which (almost) all Japanese soldiers had been killed. Though “100 Million Suicide” did not happen literally, people in Okinawa suffered a great deal because of this “mission”.
“Advance All Japanese people are 100 million of balls of fire”
A few weeks after the surrender, the Prime Minister Higashikuninomiya expressed the idea of “100 Million Repentance”. He considered every Japanese had been responsible for the War. Maybe he and the others in the government was playing the political game, in an attempt to diffuse the issue of war crime into wider population. Being the “Newspeak” of our country, the language of this kind demanded annihilation of individuality. It is amazing that surrender did not change the logic of perpetrators, who had been so accustomed to manipulate the mass. And the mass was accustomed to be manipulated.

Prime Minister Higashikuninomiya
However, SCAP was not particularly pleased with the idea and literally expelled Higashikuninomiya and other officials immediately. They were after those who had been responsible for creating the Imperial War machine and patiently paved the way to the Tokyo Tribunal.
Since then, the word “100 million” was used to suggest nature of collective obedience among Japanese people. “100 Million Idiots” sardonically referred to this nature, for they were easily manipulated by base materialism and repulsive escapism. How did those middle-aged men in “Ohayo” feel about this buzzword, “100 million idiots”? Consider their age and history. They must have been exposed to acidic propaganda during war years as young soldiers themselves. Then, after the war, they were supposed to feel guilty about being brainwashed since early childhood. Now, when they were finally able to rebuild lives of their own with their families, they were called idiots. How cruel. As you can see, Ryu Chishu and others are not monsters nor idiots. They are just normal, if not ambitious, fathers of the society. It is just self-righteous critics making another rounds of self-righteous remarks to get attention. But this one must have hit the right button for it reminds them of brainwashed days of their youth.
One of the most striking scenes in “Ohayo” comes when Chishu Ryu was reminded of his retirement by his wife. He just went silent as if he were not ready to admit his days were already ‘numbered’. He had been struggling for all his life to make a decent living for him and his family. And just when life got better and he didn’t have to worry about bringing something to eat on the table (1), he had to worry about the life after retirement. The colorful chest of drawers in the background accentuate this inevitable truth of aging.

Today, we have hundreds of TV stations airing for more than 24 hours a day via air, cable or internet. We have been exposed to TV for all of our lives knowing that most of programs are just waste of time. Have we become a nation of idiots? One thing I can say for certain: I got rid of a TV set for more than a year. Before that I had been a TV addict and could sit in front of TV for hours after hours., Now, I am not so sure what I had found so interesting about TV.

Yes, you can live without it.

(1) According to Takeshi Okazaki’s “Scent of Showa 30’s”, TV set cost around 60,000 yen in 1958, equivalent of 700,000 or 800,000 yen (roughly $10,000) today. Most families could not afford such an extravagance without setting up monthly payments. In those days, purchase on credit was considered something unrespectable, but popularity of TV changed the standard of personal finance. In another words, people was more confident on their future and less worried about something to eat everyday as they had done ten years earlier.

Copyrighted materials, if any, on this web page are included as “fair use”. These are used for the purpose of research, review or critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).