The Wonder of Studio Ghibli

Japan is a lively country, overflowing with life. It is filled with many aspects of interesting popular and traditional culture. I have chosen to focus on the popular culture aspect and write about two different films by one of it’s most famous exports, the animation studio ‘Studio Ghibli.’

Studio Ghibli rose to prominence in the West with Spirited Away [DVD] [2001] in 2002/3 in the US and UK, but has been producing films for many years before that in Japan. Studio Ghibli has many animators and is largely known for the work of its two directors Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata who have produced the bulk of Studio Ghibli output though the tradition of animation sets to continue with the son of Hayao Miyazaki, Gōro Miyazaki directing the Ghibli films Tales From Earthsea [DVD]From Up On Poppy Hill [DVD] and the new TV series Ronja the Robber’s Daughter find the original novel here. In Hayao Miyazaki’s films it was said that he only allowed a maximum of ten per cent of his films to be computer animated and the bulk of it was hand drawn and coloured! This shows an incredible amount of skill, dedication and hard work which shows in the final product. When you compare the quality of the animation on Studio Ghibli films with their contemporary US or UK equivalents, you can really see the difference in the quality of the art work. My Neighbour Totoro compared to The Little Mermaid is a good comparison as they were both created at the same time (1988 and 1989 respectively). When it comes to animation they were streets ahead of the US and UK in Japan at the time, although the increasing use of computer animation makes this harder to compare today.

My Neighbour Totoro

My Neighbour Totoro [DVD] is one of my favourite Studio Ghibli fims. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki and released in Japan in 1988, it still holds today in the quality of the animation. The film is about two sisters, Satsuki and Mei who have an ill mother in hospital. They move to the country with their father in hope that the cleaner air would allow their mother to recover and come home. When out on an adventure in the garden Mei, the younger sister, discovers a tiny Totoro dropping acorns and that is where the story begins… This story is full of magical adventures with the two sisters and the large Totoro (a tree sprit creature) plus a crazy cat bus! It is a tale of love and adventure between two sisters and is really all about change. What is lovely is that there are lots of examples in animated films where moving house is seen as a stressful and anxious time for children (Toy Story is an example of this), but in My Neighbour Totoro despite the mother being ill in hospital and the family having to move to a totally different area, the girls embrace the change positively and have adventures. The film shows that a potentially stressful change such as moving house can be fun and full of adventures. As an example of the incredible detail used in Ghibli films; there is a scene just before Mei finds the small Totoros, where she sees some tadpoles and puts her hand in the water and they swim away, this scene which lasts a few seconds took a whole month to animate!!

When Marnie Was There

The second film I would like to write about was produced much later and is called When Marnie Was There [DVD] [2016] When Marnie Was There is a story adapted from the book of the same name which is originally set in Norfolk but is set here in a rural area of Japan. This is a story about a girl called Anna who has to move to the country for the Summer to stay with an aunt and uncle in hope that her asthma will improve. When she is away, she uses a boat to sail across a lake to a mansion and meets a young girl called Marnie who dresses differently and looks as if she is from another time in the past. She continues to meet her and is concerned for her, as she cannot always find her as sometimes the house is shut up and deserted. She wonders if Marnie is a dream or something created from her imagination. She is very confused but in the end she finds out the truth which surprised me! Unlike most of the Ghibli output, this film is directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi but still looks similar to Miyazaki’s artwork.

These are just some of my favourite films by Studio Ghibli. There are rumours that Hayao Miyazaki has come out of retirement to create a new film called Boro the Caterpillar! Some rough cut animation exists of this work and I hope that this does find the funding to get made as it looks good!

Japan: From Tea Ceremony to Transistor Radio

Japan is an ancient country with many traditions. At the same time it is one of the most technologically advanced countries on the planet. Today, I will look at these two aspects by focusing on firstly the Japanese tea ceremony and then Japanese technological innovation.

Japanese Tea Ceremony

The tea ceremony is over 1000 years old and was brought into being by a Japanese monk who travelled from China bringing the tea plant with him. The ceremony originated as an important religious ritual in Japanese monasteries. It would develop into a quintessential part of Japanese culture. The tea houses which were created to support this ritual included inside them special items that were specifically for the ceremony: the chawan (tea bowl), the chakin (cloth for the chawan), the natsume (tea caddy), the chashaku (tea scoop) and the chashaku (tea whisk). The traditional ritual involves a level of decorum, with guests going into a waiting room to drop off their bags and coats as well as putting on a pair of Tabi (special type of socks). The ritual then involves a respectful bow between both the host and guests, before and after serving the tea. The ceremony then becomes less formal as the host brings in tabako bon (a smoking set) for the guests at the end of the ceremony. The continuation of this ritual exemplifies the great respect that Japan has for its traditions as well as the great care that they take in upholding them. Another, interesting aspect of this nation is its desire for technological innovation.

Japanese Technology

The emergence of Japan being seen as a great technological nation may have started in the 1950s. One striking example of this is the Sony TR-55 transistor radio (from 1955), whilst it was not the first transistor radio, it was the first one to use all miniaturized components in it. Miniaturization, has for a long time been part of Japanese culture (such as bonsai trees). What is interesting is how Sony used existing Japanese cultural ideas to innovate this technology.  The success of this radio would lead to Japan being seen worldwide as a pioneer and place of technological progress. Technologies such as video cassette recorders, as well as advances in television and videogames would cement Japan as a nation at the forefront of technological innovation.

It is unsurprising then that in the early 1980s many thought that Japan would become the biggest influence on worldwide culture, as can be seen in the near future film Blade Runner (Remastered Directors Cut)

I hope you have enjoyed this article. If you have any interesting cultural insights into Japan please post in the comments below.

Horticultural Gems of Japan

This month we will be looking at a small selection of the wonderful plants that come from Japan.

The Japanese Maple (Acer Palmatum) is probably one of the best known. It has wonderfully delicate leaves, especially the dissectum varieties. It is well known for its wonderfully bright autumnal foliage and makes a nice addition to most gardens.

Japanese Maple showing the Autumnal Foliage

Another Japanese native is the Euonymous Fortunei, this is a staple evergreen shrub of many UK gardens and often seen in one of its variegated forms. With its ovate leaves it looks quite wonderful when the variegation picks out details on the leaves. It is commonly used for short hedges.

Variegated foliage of Euonymus Fortunei

The Rosa Rugosa is yet another Japanese native. Despite its long spindly branches and ferocious spines it has the most wonderful open flowers with the most delightful traditional musk rose scent. It originates on coastal Japan growing among sand dunes and is extremely tolerant of strong winds and salt spray. Commonly found with either white or pink flowers.

The lush green foliage and sharp spines of the Rosa Rugosa

The Japanese Laurel (Aucuba Japonica) is another firm garden staple, again grown primarily for its variegation. It is evergreen and can be slow growing in its first few years but will eventually grow to a large size and is commonly used for hedging. To get the most vivid variegation it is best grown in a sunny position but it is somewhat shade and drought tolerant.

The spotty variegation on the Japanese Laurel looks almost as if someone has splashed yellow paint all over it

The Fatsia Japonica is commonly considered a houseplant in the UK, however as many exotic plant enthusiasts have found they grow very well outdoors and survive the winters, in all but the most severe winter climates, without problems. It is a small evergreen shrub and can form wonderful white flower umbels.

The large leaves of the Fatsia Japonica are quite impressive

This is merely a handful of the numerous and wonderful plants of Japan.

Celebrate Great Japanese Writing!

Our next country in our overarching topic of Countries and Continents is Japan! I have never been to Japan but hope to go someday. I am a little bit of a Japanophile in that I love the literature and pop culture of the island. Haruki Murakami’s writing was what initially interested me in the country and the films of Studio Ghibli and classic Horror films such as Ring (1998) [DVD] [2000] intrigued me further. In this post I will look at some examples of Japanese literature that I have enjoyed and represent a broad range of the translated literature that is available to us in the UK and the US.

When making notes for this post I realised that there are several key themes that seem to be shared within the popular Japanese literature that is currently available to us.

Magical Realism as a Form

Contemporary Japanese fiction often take the form of magical realism. Haruki Murakami’s books are the obvious starting point here as seen in 1Q84: Books 1, 2 and 3 and Kafka On The Shore (Vintage Magic) but magical realism can also be seen in other books such as Shuichi Yoshida’s Parade The magical realilst world is one that we initially recognise, but then find that strange otherworldly elements enter in to this world as if from behind an invisible veil! This can be seen in the form of ghosts, or talking cats, or in instances that occur such as a girl moving out of sync with her mirrored reflection (a truly chilling moment in Murakami’s After Dark). It may sound strange to say but these moment of otherworldliness are often interwoven so cleverly that they do not feel jarring or really very strange (which sounds odd but you’ll have to read some of these titles to understand what I mean).

Vengeance

Revenge and the theme of vengeance are definitely key themes that you can pull across from contemporary Japanese literature. Revenge by Yoyko Ogawa is a key title to explore this theme as it contains many dark stories about revenge (including one I seem to remember that has a tiger in it!). Sometimes the revenge is supernatural as seen in the form of  vengeance by a spirit such as in Strangers by Taichi Yamada or in Ring by Koji Sukuzi. Or it may take a human form as in Malice and Salvation of a Saint by Keigo Higashino or Confessions and the upcoming Penance by Kanae Minato. Venegeance seems to be a common theme in these novels perhaps as a metaphor for a microcosmic portrait of a situation very out of balance against the flow of nature and Zen? Six Four is a novel that could also be said to contain elements of revenge but is also a study of the complicated office politics and business structure in Japan. Sprit revenge is interesting in that it introduces an element of the supernatural, the Yokai (ghost). Though yokai can be both benign and malign the belief highlights to the importance of revering and paying respect to the dead as the last thing that you want is a hungry ghost or spirit haunting you!

Symbolism

The yokai brings us into another key theme that is common throughout many of these books. Sometimes the human cost of the pace of rapid technological change that Japan has and still does experience is symbolically examined through fiction, most obviously in the aforementioned Ring which deals with the terrifying prospect of a curse on a videotape (and no the TV screen does not keep you safe when the vengeful spirit can climb out of it!). IQ84 also deals with the theme of organised religion (another of Murakami’s interests as seen in Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche the non-fiction study of the Tokyo Gas Attacks). Within the theme of symbolism we can note a particular symbolic theme that is key to one particular Japanese author:

Underground

Haruki Murakami has a key interest in the symbolism of the underground which can be seen in several of his works. After The Quake deals with symbolism in the short story of the giant underground frog that is responsible for the Kobe earthquake of 1995. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (one of my favourite books which I’m sure I’ve never mentioned before 😉 uses a well as a portal through which the main character can enter another world. Murakami is interested in the underground as it is an atmospheric and mysterious setting for a book (very otherworldly) where his protagonists can meet unusual characters and enter into a kind of unreal existence.

The Journey or Quest

Many examples of contemporary Japanese literature contain the theme of a central protagonist (who is usually an outsider in the culture for some reason). The protagonist may have become disillusioned with the salaryman lifestyle as seen in The Wind up Bird Chronicle, be drifting or searching for answers as in Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage be on a wider philosophical quest as in Kafka’s Shore, or wanting to stop a curse to rescue loved ones as seen in Ring. In Search of a Distant Voice is a novel by Taichi Yamada that is concerned with a policeman who is having an identity crisis coupled with auditory hallucinations that point to a serious mental health condition. Yamada seems to be highlighting the dangers of suppressing emotion and conforming to strict societal standards at the expense of the individual personality.

American and Globalised Influences

Murakami has been open about his love of American culture, he did own a jazz club when he was younger and wrote during the day! The influence of jazz can be seen in Murakami’s South Of The Border, West Of The Sun and commercialism can also be seen in several of Murakami’s novels such as Dance Dance Dance when the hotel he frequents becomes Westernised and highly commercial. What first grabbed my attention when reading The Wind Up Bird Chronicle is that the protagonist begins the novel by cooking pasta and listening to opera! I loved this in that it challenges our preconceptions about a certain culture as why should the characters be eating ramen or sushi just because they are in Japan! Murakami instantly sets up the notion that Japan is a modern globalised country that although has a distinct culture is also highly interconnected with the rest of the world.

Recent Decay

A fairly unique theme that can be seen across recent Japanese fiction is the theme of recent decay (by this I mean apartment blocks or buildings that are seen as sinister because they are seen as being old and neglected). When I say old, this is not of an age which we may consider a building to be old here in England. These are buildings that may be twenty or thirty years old but are seen as past it in Japan. This highlights the speed of change that the country experienced up until the economic crises of the mid 1990s. Atmospherically unloved buildings can be seen in Dark Water by Koji Suzuki, the decaying mountain resort in Ring again by Suzuki and the unloved hotel in Hotel Iris  by Yoko Ogawa.


When creating this post, one thing that I did notice was that in stark contrast to my precious post on China where all the authors were female, the majority of authors of contemporary Japanese literature that we seem to get translated are male. There are of course notable exceptions such as Banana Yoshimoto, Kanae Minato and Yoko Ogawa. I am not sure why this is so, but hope that the balance will be readdressed soon.

In common with all of the titles above, the overall arching theme which links all of the books is one of escapism. This may be due to the nature of Japan being a highly conformist society something that conversely, brings about a huge richness of creativity in Japanese popular culture which can be seen across music, animation, film literature and individual street fashion. This culture can be seen as providing a relief from living in a society that has rigidly proscribed social mores and values; and the consequence of a potential high sense of shame should someone break through these barriers. Whatever the reason, we can enjoy the richness of an extremely imaginative creative culture that has brought us so many interesting stories from which we can become absorbed in and enjoy and will continue to do so for years to come.

Chinese Cultural Favourites

China is an extremely large country full of over one billion people. Within this large country there are so many interesting aspects of culture we could examine.

The Bamboo Plant

Firstly I would like to talk about my favourite plant associated with China. This is the Bamboo plant see Bamboo (Botanical) The bamboo is often thought as being a very special plant in China (where more than a thousand species of bamboo are found). Bamboo may be thought of as a lucky plant as it provides so much enjoyment for people as the wind rustles through it and it is also edible is a common ingredient for Chinese stir fries (and of course it feeds Pandas!) In other parts of the world such as regions of Nepal, India and Bengal however, Bamboo is avoided because it has associations with ghosts, evil spirits and death! I like to think of Bamboo though as a friendly helpful plant that tastes good too!

Mulan

Mulan [DVD] is a Disney film released in 1998. The film is based on an ancient Chinese legend called the ‘Legend of Hua Mulan’ that was sometimes sung. Mulan is a brave girl in Ancient China. There is a war and her elderly frail Father is expected to fight but she vows instead to go in his place disguised as a man. There are many battles and challenges that she faces along the way. She has the help of a friendly but misguided dragon called Mushu. (The dragon is a legendary sacred symbol and creature in Chinese culture as it represents one of the twelve signs of the Chinese zodiac). Mulan is ultimately a story about growing up as she has to face many challenges along the way and learn to be brave and strong. Whilst she is on her journey she meets her ancestors spirits and discovers her true self. I would recommend Mulan as a great film to watch!

The Chinese Zodiac

I like to read and learn about astrology and star signs. In common with the Western zodiac, the Chinese Zodiac also has twelve signs that each correspond to different personality traits but that is where the similarity ends. Instead of having one of the signs every month per year the Chinese Zodiac had one sign per year so you have to wait twelve years for your sign to come around again. All of the signs are animals too, most of them are real animals apart from the Dragon. Myself and Jo are both Roosters which is fortunate because 2017 is the year of the Rooster: Magical Rooster: Stories of the Chinese Zodiac, A Tale in English and Chinese Within each sign there are five elements (Water, Fire, Metal, Earth and Wood) which rotate every two years. Amongst the other contributors here, Ross is a dragon and Kyle is a Goat! Chinese New Year is a great celebration which has happened recently. It celebrates the new Lunar Year, according to the start of the new Zodiac sign. Many fireworks are lit to celebrate this special time. The Lunar New Year begins roughly at the end of January or beginning of February each year.

These are my favourite aspects of Chinese Culture but there were so many others that I could have chosen.