Directed by Stu Levy, Pray for Japan Film LLC, 2012, 97 minutes
Review by Susan Meehan
The Japan Society organised a special charity screening for the European premiere of Stu Levy’s documentary film, Pray for Japan, at the British Academy for Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) on 14 March 2012.
After the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, Stu Levy volunteered with the Japan Emergency NPO (JEN) in Ishinomaki (a city with a population of over 160,000), Miyagi Prefecture. He shot 40 hours of footage over five weeks, interviewing over 30 people including victims and volunteers. At the time of the earthquake Levy was in Tokyo. The film is an extraordinary snapshot of life in Ishinomaki [石巻市] within days of the earthquake and tsunami.
The film starts by zooming into Ishinomaki, the largest coastal city in north east Japan, as it was prior to the disaster. This footage is beautiful, sharp and exhilarating; we see Ishinomaki’s unspoiled bridge, cherry blossoms and homes by the sea.
Yet more cherry blossoms appear. We are fast-forwarded to the events of March 11 and hear people talking about their hometown. A most poignant comment resonates, “My hometown is everything.”
At the time of the earthquake Kento Ito, a high-school student, was performing with his band in Sendai, and a graduation ceremony at Ogatsu Middle School had not long concluded. Everyone was going about his or her business when the earthquake hit at 2:46pm on 11 March, changing everything.
Levy’s interviewees recall their thoughts at the time. “We thought it was a Tokyo earthquake.” “There was no [phone] reception.” “I thought the whole of Japan was going to sink.” 30 minutes later the destruction of the earthquake was compounded by a devastating tsunami which reached 40 metres in height at places. We see cars and huge containers being washed away, looking like miniature playthings in a child’s bathtub. “We lost it all,” says one of Levy’s interviewees.
The film then breaks into almost psychedelic animation and guitar music, mirroring the viewer’s disbelief and sense of surrealism at the extent of the destruction, the number of people deceased or missing and the thousands of evacuees.
We are exhorted to pray for love, rebirth, dedication, conviction, resilience, leadership, fortitude, the future, hope, the soul, compassion, strength, solidarity, recovery, unity, courage and Japan while beautifully crafted animated pictures are shown on the screen.
The Ishinomaki we now encounter is a ghost of its former self; it has been left wrecked with only piles debris to account for the former homesteads. Homes have been washed away and so has the bridge.
Levy focuses on four themes: shelter, school, family and volunteers, letting the people of Ishinomaki speak for themselves. He keeps returning to each of these items in turn for the remainder of the film. This results in repetition and frustration as no one’s story or viewpoint is ever given enough time or the chance to develop.
About 1,500 people sheltered in a flooded gym and were isolated for three days with no food and only four bottles of water. Priority was given to the dehydrated, the elderly and children while the healthy survived without water for three days. Provisions finally arrived, in the form of 300 rice balls. An impressive Council man reads the “emergency manual” in the gym which says that food must not be distributed until there is enough to share with all evacuees to ensure fairness and that fights don’t break out. These dispossessed individuals wait until they have enough rice balls for everyone to receive “half a portion.” The Council man, extraordinary in his sense of justice and dignified and charming comportment, is an undoubted star of the film and a shining example of humanity to all.
We then shift to Ogatsu Middle School. The graduation ceremony for the Year Six had taken place earlier that afternoon and the kids had been sent home at about 1pm on 11 March. They were all scattered throughout the city when the earthquake and tsunami hit. As the spirited art teacher remarked, had they all been at school at the time of the disaster it is likely that many wouldn’t have survived as school emergency procedures and rigmarole, including roll call, would have delayed evacuation.
The teachers, who feel tremendous responsibility for each of their pupils, went to Ogatsu Shinrin Park and compiled the names of all their pupils from memory. Their next objective was to track down their 77 pupils. By 19 March all pupils had been accounted for, dispersed amongst 17 different evacuation centres.
In an attempt to create a sense of normality and cohesion, the school is relocated to the nearby, apparently empty Iinogawa High School. The pupils derive great comfort from their new base and this decides their families to stay in the area rather than evacuate Tohoku. This is testament to the extraordinary vitality and speedy action of the teachers.
The school motto is changed for the first time in 30 years, the new version comprises the Japanese for “resilience” (たくましく ).
A third focus is the Ito family. Kento, a 17-year old student from Ishinomaki Nishi Senior High School, was rehearsing for a gig in Sendai with his band members when the earthquake struck. Finally back in Ishinomaki, having been stranded in Sendai for two days, he heads to the razed area where his house had stood and begins a quest for his family by visiting the evacuation centres. He is reunited with his father and one of his brothers, but discovers that his adorable five-year old brother Ritsu has died along with his mother and grandparents. They were all at home when the earthquake struck and decided to flee by car. Tragically, this was not to be as they were stuck in traffic when the tsunami claimed their lives.
Amidst the rubble, Kento finds a colourful carp streamer which reminds him of little Ritsu who loved seeing the koi nobori (carp streamers) flying in the wind on Children’s Day, 5 May. Kento manages to gather hundreds of carp streamers sent from well-wishers all around Japan and hoists them up in honour of little Ritsu in time for Children’s Day. This part of the film is particularly harrowing as we see Kento, friends and band members back in the desolation where the Ito’s house had been. They beat Japanese taiko (drums) with a frenzy and passion reflecting their agonising heartbreak. While honouring and perhaps calling the dead, their valiant resolve to keep living despite the overwhelming grief is apparent. Once the drumming is over, lit lanterns, flickering like fireflies, are sent down the river in memory of the dead.
At one of the volunteer emergency centres, two busloads of volunteers from Sendai are arriving every day and three busloads on the weekends. One volunteer says, “There’s no give and take; it’s give, give, give.” It is clear that the longer the volunteers stay in Ishinomaki, the more reluctant they are to leave as they are aware of how much needs to be done. The volunteers selflessly dedicate themselves to their work with impressive panache: cooking, shovelling mud, clearing up debris and generally elevating the spirits of those in the shelters.
As we begin to see early glimmers of hope and a slow return to normality, there is a farewell party for some of the volunteers who are returning home, having been helping since immediately after the earthquake up until April. Many of the volunteers are set to return to Ishinomaki in the near future in order to help once again. For many, Ishinomaki has become their second home.
Levy finishes by asking his interviewees what they expect the situation will be one year on. The answers vary from, “Still in chaos,” to “Lots of debris still,” to “I don’t know” to “I’ve no clear picture” to “The situation won’t be rosy in a year.” Levy himself could have added his own insights at this point or galvanised people to act and help (rather than pray).
It is a pity that the film doesn’t include current information on the situation in Ishinomaki to bring it up to date. With the immediacy of the news, blogs and social media in general, we have all been made aware of the devastation wreaked in Tohoku which has been reported on a global scale. Levy’s film is another reminder of what happened. It would, perhaps, have been helpful to have a perspective on the situation in other parts of Tohoku, not just Ishinomaki, or to have heard about the role of the government or the nuclear accident or speculations about the future of Ishinomaki and Tohoku.
On 12 March an explosion blew apart the building containing reactor 1 at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, yet no mention of this crisis is made in the film.
Instead of an objective interlocutor, adding useful information not known or available to the interviewees at the time of filming, there is an occasional female voice reading aloud poems in Japanese. This is an unnecessary pretension and somewhat irritating. Along with the animation it was perhaps intended to give the film an artistic dimension, but failed to add anything of positive worth.
The way Levy focused on the shelter, the volunteers, a family and a school was ambitious but the continual tug between the four perspectives resulted in a rather disjointed film. A more in depth look at the volunteers or evacuees or the school alone might have made for an improved film.
While undeniably a powerful film, we could have done with having seen it in May of last year or in the run-up to the first year commemoration of the disaster rather than a year on. For Levy it is important to point out that 900,000 people are still living in shelters and that 650,000 have lost their livelihoods and that entire villages have been destroyed. However, the needs of the evacuees have moved on and we have become aware of different and changing issues through daily updated blogs. Moving into the present doesn’t diminish the horror of what happened a year ago; it, acts in fact, as a means of ensuring that awareness of the situation in Tohoku is ever present.
Levy has produced a good film for an excellent cause. Though I’d exhort everyone to do what they can for the recovery of Tohoku and not to forget this important cause, the film won’t add to what we already know.
Directed by Yuya Ishii [石井裕也], 2011, 109 mins
Review by Susan Meehan
Mitsuko Delivers: the title made me think of the very funny film by the same director with a similar title, Sawako Decides [川の底から こんにちは]and it did dispense the same style good humour and feel good factor.
The screening at the ICA (11 March 2012), a year to the day of the Great East Japan Earthquake, and a charity showing organised by Adam Torel, Director of Third Window Films, was a complete sell-out. Adam introduced the film and said that the money raised would be donated to the Fukushima International Festival for Children’s Future. He also had DVDs on sale at a reduced price to raise money for the same cause. His initiative was rightfully acknowledged with thunderous applause. He chose to show Mitsuko Delivers due to its upbeat positive message and because the film wraps up in Fukushima.
Mitsuko is pregnant and alone. We see photos of burly American soldiers on one of her walls at home and assume that one of them has knocked her up and dumped her. She remains surprisingly undaunted and spirited.
She calls her parents and they have a cursory chat. They are much happier to hear Mitsuko than she is to talk to them. After confirming that all is well in California, she hangs up. California?! Popping out of her flat, the familiar Japanese landscape immediately becomes apparent. She lives in a flat in Tokyo and pays a visit to her Japanese doctor who pronounces that her delivery will most probably be tough as the pregnancy hasn’t ever really settled. The ever-optimistic Mitsuko pronounces she’ll be fine and returns home.
Mitsuko clears out her flat and with less than ¥300, walks out following in the direction of the wind. Handing over her money to an unemployed man she is completely broke and cannot even afford the taxi which takes her to the modest working class alley where she lived as a kid over 15 years ago. She barges in on the now rather elderly and bedridden landlady, Kayo, who takes her in. Settling back in, Mitsuko then goes to “Yoichi’s restaurant” for a generous helping of food.
For plucky Mitsuko everything is, quite simply, either cool (iki) or uncool. Friendship is cool, a sour face is not cool; being dumped by her American lover is definitely uncool. Though the landlady chastises her for her use of ‘iki,’15 years back, in the years soon after the economic bubble had burst, it was she who exhorted everyone to live a ‘cool’ life and to help each other. Her mantras were humanity and cool. Fifteen years on, all Kayo’s tenants in the alley have left to buy their own flats, leaving her in the lurch.
Mitsuko and her parents had sojourned in the working class alley only temporarily while waiting to be able to reopen their pachinko parlour. As they leave, little Yoichi tells Mitsuko that they’ll marry when they’re older because he loves her.
Back to the present, Yoichi is on ‘granny’ duty and visits Kayo. “That’s cool,” observes Mitsuko, noticing that ‘humanity’ has not totally disappeared. As Yoichi leaves he announces that he will look after Mitsuko’s baby; she’s ‘cool’ with that.
Mitsuko starts helping out at the restaurant by cleaning tables and going out onto the street to pull in clients. She turns around the ailing restaurant and proceeds to find other people to help.
Yoichi wants to marry Mitsuko but can’t. He was abandoned as a kid and taken in by his kindly ‘uncle’ Jiro who has cared for him ever since and, consequently, never married. Mitsuko dreams up a plan and takes matters into her own hands in order to encourage uncle Jiro to marry his sweetheart, a coffee shop owner. She is in the midst of sorting out the lives of Jiro, his sweetheart, her son, Kayo and Yoichi when she notices her parents are in the tenement. They’ve returned as their pachinko parlour has failed again. They are stunned at seeing a heavily pregnant Mistuko.
A bun fight ensues with the parents wanting an explanation, Yoichi standing up for Mitsuko, Kayo not wanting to go to Fukushima, Jiro declining to marry the coffee shop owner, Yoichi proclaiming that he will marry her instead and on and on.
Taking control and making everyone shut up, Mitsuko drives them all to Fukushima, where the coffee shop owner’s ill mother lives. A revived Kayo tells her that her condition is all in her mind, Jiro finally asks for the coffee shop owner’s hand. Mitsuko formidable as always will continue to look out for Yoichi and, in the middle of bucolic Fukushima fields, having sorted everyone’s lives out, she is about to deliver!
Good and hilarious in parts and despite having a ballsy and gorgeous heroine, Mitsuko Delivers has, on the whole, a weak plot and no character development. It is also predictable and too long to hold one’s attention throughout.
Exhibition at Somerset House, London, 21 March – 1 July 2012
Review by Michael Sullivan
On the first day of spring 2012 a new exhibition opened up at Somerset House, although it is easy to get side tracked by Somerset House’s terrace which is always popular on warm spring days and by the spectacular sight of 10,000 ceramic daffodils that were placed in The Edmond J. Safra Fountain Court, if you venture into the South Wing you would have seen something very special. It has been named Kokoro, meaning heart, mind and spirit in Japanese, and as soon one entered the South Wing you were greeted by the sight of dragons appearing out of the mist, demons, gods and eerie ghosts. Horiyoshi III is a famous artist, who is a complete master of Japan’s ancient art of tattooing, and his photo shown at the exhibition perfectly epitomises his strong connection with the kokoro of Japan as, bare chested but covered in tattoos, he poses with a katana. However, his amazing ability is not limited to skin as you can also see his work on silk.
There was a striking predominance of dragons appearing behind fire, water, mountain and the sky, but in stark contrast there were also scenes of bamboo that demonstrate a light and gentle touch, including one silk picture of a cat and butterfly. A more chilling sight was that of ghosts, their heads hanging to the side at an unnatural angle with long hair flowing to the ground. One rather shocking picture, called Namakubi, which has several meanings one of which being an acceptance of fate, that can’t be described as it is best seen. The picture above is called Kokoro Daruma with blade, this highlights another side to Hiroyoshi III’s work as he embeds hidden messages in his work, in this case the katana stands for the kanji 刀 「かたな」which when put together with the kanji 心「こころ・しん」below it forms a new word 忍「にん」which means perseverance. In the centre of the second room of the exhibit there were also the tools of the tattooist’s trade on show, though currently the artist uses a mixture of more modern electric needles as well as traditional methods.
They are amazing pictures and reveal an artistry that goes beyond mere images but also the culture of an entire civilisation as well as the mind of an extraordinary man who has practised his art for over 30 years.
Friday 9 November 2012 3.00 – 5.00pm
71 High Holborn
London WC1V 6AL
Free to Japan Society, JETRO and JCCI members and their guests
Booking deadline – Monday 5 November
The financial crisis has seen calls for a strengthening of corporate governance in this and other sectors. Japan Society members are invited to attend this very relevant seminar organized by JETRO and JCCI, which will consider the likely demands on business and future policy direction.
Speakers include Christian Hunt, Head of Department for Investment Banks and Overseas Banks, Financial Services Authority; Chris Pierce, Author and leading expert in the field of corporate governance and Professor Chizu Nakajima – Co-Chair, British Japanese Law Association.
For full information and to book please download this form. The last page will need to be returned by fax to JETRO LONDON on: 020-7421-0009
Talk by Professor Jun Morikawa (Rakuno Gakuen University), Japan Discussion Group, Chatham House, 27 March 2012
Review by Jason James
Professor Jun Morikawa, author of Japan and Africa: Big Business and Diplomacy (1997), spoke to the Japan Discussion Group at Chatham House on Japan-Africa relations. His basic thesis appeared to be that Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) is disingenuous in presenting Japan’s policy towards Africa as altruistic, and is air-brushing the mixed history of Japan-Africa relations, partly by claiming that it doesn’t go back very far.
History of Japan-Africa relationship before the 1960s
Africa has traditionally not been all that important to Japan, with the exception of South Africa. The rest of the continent has typically only accounted for 1-2% of Japan’s trade.
Japan has traditionally seen Africa as part of the European sphere of influence, and has tended not to want to rock the boat, but merely to focus on trade within the existing colonial system. Japan was granted ‘honorary white’ status in South Africa in the 1930s, so had no problems with the existing system.
Japan’s trade relations with Africa started developing significantly during World War I, with Cairo and Cape Town being the main trading partners.
In the interwar period, there was substantial trade between Japan (particularly the Osaka area) and Uganda and Egypt, both of which supplied cotton for the booming Japanese textile industry, while Japan supplied light manufactured goods.
Africa became a fast-growing market for Japan in the 1930s, causing some friction with traditional trading partners whose exports were being displaced, such as the UK and Australia. (Japan switched its wool supply from Australia to South Africa in 1937.)
Following WWII, South African forces fought on the US side in the Korean War (using Japan as a forward base), and with Japan becoming an ally of the US as well after its independence in 1952, Japan and South Africa therefore indirectly became allies.
Colonialist and ‘scientific racist’ ideas, which were common among white people during the colonial era, transferred to Japan’s ruling elite and became an undercurrent in Japan’s view of Africa. Indeed, these racist perceptions still affect policy and are quite widely held among the Japanese public.
The relationship becomes ‘official’ in the 1960s
Industrialisation in the 1960s-70s required increasing quantities of minerals and other resources, and both MoFA and MITI [Ministry of International Trade and Industry] were interested in Africa for this reason. Once Japan started focussing on high tech industries from the 1970s onwards, rare metals from South Africa also became an important import, along with cobalt from the former Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo).
MoFA launched the Africa Society in 1958, and the Diet Library started collecting books on Africa at around the same time. MoFA’s Africa Section was established in 1961, and the Ministry tends to present Japan’s engagement with Africa as having started in this period. As well as ignoring the relations between Japan and Africa prior to that date, MoFA tends to whitewash the history of the relationship after 1961 as well.
Japan’s resources have been limited, so it has focussed on South Africa, Egypt and parts of Uganda. It has found the going difficult in Francophone parts of Africa, except for the former Belgian Congo [present day Democratic Republic of the Congo], and remains highly selective in its engagement with Africa to this day.
Following the oil shock in the early 1970s, Japan became concerned that mineral resources might be the next shock. Keidanren sent a large mission to Africa in about 1970 and tried to develop a big copper project there in the 1970s. Japan tried to limit western domination of Africa [presumably in the fear that this might put it a disadvantage in terms of mineral supplies].
The African independence movement started in North Africa, and then spread southward, being slow to reach the southern end of Africa. Japan set up diplomatic relations with the newly established independent African nations, but was conflicted between its desire to appear a friend of these new nations, and its continued need to trade with South Africa. South Africa was also a reliable anti-communist bulwark during the Cold War, and this was another reason why Japan tended to support the regime there.
MoFA was initially cool towards African anti-colonialist movements, and described the African National Congress as a ‘terrorist organisation’ in 1982.
The end of the regime in South Africa, along with the end of the Cold War, therefore left Japan’s Africa policy in some disarray.
The Asia-Pacific region overtook the Atlantic region in 1985 in economic terms, and since then Japan’s focus has shifted increasingly towards Asia.
Japan positions itself as an altruist
In 1993 Japan launched the Tokyo International Conference for African Development (TICAD), trying to position itself as an altruistic donor of aid to Africa. But the reality is more complicated. This conference was launched in response to the need for Japan to improve its image in Africa, since it had been closely associated with colonialist and racist regimes in the past.
The 1993 TICAD was perhaps the height of Japan’s diplomatic efforts towards Africa. But by the second TICAD in 1998, Africa was already starting to be disappointed that Japan was not matching its words with actions.
Japan’s ODA peaked in 1997, and the total amount has halved since then. So although the share going to Africa has risen (from around 10-15% in the late 1990s), the absolute amount going to Africa has still declined. And Japanese foreign aid still tends to have strings attached so that the money is spent with Japanese companies or other Japanese organisations.
Another factor affecting Japan’s diplomacy towards Africa has been that China has become increasingly involved with Africa as China, like Japan before it, has become increasingly dependent on Africa’s natural resources. China became a net oil importer in 1993, and founded the Forum for China-Africa Cooperation in 2003, holding a major summit on Africa in 2006. China’s trade with Africa is now six times as large as Japan’s, and the gap is likely to widen further.
So Japan is trying to avoid competing directly with China in African diplomacy, but is instead pitching itself as having a different angle – Japan’s main interests being ODA, human rights, anti-corruption initiatives etc. The intention is to appeal less to governments (as China is doing) and more to civil society.
The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) was also reorganised in 2006 in an effort to counter increasing Chinese influence in the Third World, setting up a Bureau of International Cooperation to engage in large-scale yen loans, technical cooperation etc. Professor Morikawa noted that JICA’s priorities are set by MoFA, and that both JICA and MoFA are heavily influenced by their exchange of ideas with Washington (and to some extent London).
Professor Morikawa saw China and Japan as ‘elephants’ competing for influence in Africa, and feared that the losers in this game would be African populations.
Another factor behind Japan’s courting of Africa in the last couple of decades has been that Africa’s UN votes were important in Japan’s effort to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. But the impetus has faded in recent years as the 60th anniversary of the UN in 2005 was seen as the most promising date for a change in the UN’s structure, and Japan did not achieve its objective.
In the Q&A session, Professor Ruth Taplin noted that Professor Morikawa has published a book on Japan’s whaling activities (Whaling in Japan: Power, Politics and Diplomacy, 2009), and commented that as well as wanting African votes to support its UN bid, Japan also seems to have persuaded land-locked countries like Mali to join the International Whaling Commission and vote alongside it on whaling issues. Sean Curtin noted that equally land-locked Laos and Mongolia appear to have joined the IWC for similar reasons.
One of the fruits of Japanese diplomacy is that the Japanese Self-Defense Forces now have their first African base, in Djibouti.
It was noted in the Q&A session that Japanese companies have become more risk-averse and less willing to invest in Africa since the Great East Japan Earthquake on 11 March 2011. This may further undermine Japan’s position in the region.
General criticisms of MoFA
Professor Morikawa was clearly no great fan of MoFA. He criticised Japan’s foreign policy for lacking democratic control [presumably he was referring to a lack of transparency in policy-making]. He also noted that Japan never produces objective reviews of past policy, so it never seems to learn from its mistakes. He felt that the gap between Japanese words and actions in Africa is again undermining Japan’s credibility in the region.
Although Japan presents its policy as altruistic and humanitarian, it is still driven very much by realpolitik, in Professor Morikawa’s view.
Sunday 18 November 2012 4.00pm
The Concert Room
Schott Music 48 Great Marlborough Street
(Near to Oxford Circus tube station)
Takemitsu Society members £7 (non-members £8 / free for children)
To book please call 020 7483 2396.
To celebrate the Society’s first 15 years – a talk about the music of Toru Takemitsu by Peter Burt with a performance of his piano pieces and songs:
Piano distance – Les yeux clos
Piano pieces for Children
Rain Tree Sketch l & ll
plus, for flute
‘Hamabe no uta‘ – and more!
Andrew Melvin : piano & melodica
Junko Kobayashi : piano
Emi Watanabe : Japanese flute
Rowland Sutherland : flute
Thursday 15 November 2012 7.30pm
Guildhall School Music Hall
London EC2Y 8DT
£15 (£10 concessions)
To book please contact the Barbican Box Office on 020 7638 8891 or visit (www.barbican.org.uk).
Noriko Ogawa, Professor of Piano at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, gives a recital of Debussy’s Douze Etudes as part of a series to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Debussy’s birth. Her colleague Paul Roberts will also give a lecture as part of the event.
‘The chief attraction of Ogawa’s Debussy playing, apart from her pristine delivery and her ability to produce a consistently beautiful sound, is her skill in reminding the listener that not all of Debussy’s music is misty and impressionistic.’ Frances Wilson
Please visit the Guildhall School of Music & Drama website for more details.
Saturday 17 November 2012 1.00 – 6.00pm
Wellcome Trust Lecture Hall
6-9 Carlton House Terrace
London SW1Y 5AG
The growing number of English-language degree programmes at Japan’s universities offers you the chance to advance your knowledge in this fascinating country, whatever your level of study. A number of leading Japanese universities will be attending the event to provide information on these programmes, as well as on the summer courses and other options open to international students.
There will also be a chance to find out about the variety of scholarships and research funding available to enable you to take advantage of these learning opportunities.
The event will introduce other programmes that allow you to experience Japan, such as the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme. Now in its 26th year, the JET Programme is one of the largest language-exchange programmes in the world. There are currently over 4,000 young people from different countries employed on the programme, working mainly as assistant language teachers throughout Japan.
The seminar line-up offers participants the chance to hear directly from people with experience of studying and working in Japan. There will also be a session delivered by Professor Yoshihito Watanabe, Vice-President of Nagoya University and one of Japan’s leading academics. A detailed programme will be posted on this website as soon as it is available.
So come along and find your way to Japan – it could be the experience of a lifetime.
For more details please visit the Experience Japan website
Online registration is recommended but not required. Pre-register through the event website to receive a special gift on the day of the exhibition.
Host: Keio University
Co-Host: British Council
Supported by: Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation, Embassy of Japan in the UK, Japan Foundation
Monday 11 February 2013 7.00pm
London W1J 9LE
Free for Japan Society Members
This dreamlike novel follows a protagonist who walks the streets of Tokyo clad in a cardboard box. Viewing the outside world through a peephole, the box man describes what he sees and what he imagines, the two often becoming interchangeable. Sinister characters stalk the periphery of his vision, from armed stalkers to imitators, the box man becomes increasingly haunted by his glimpses of fiction and reality.
Less a plot-driven narrative than a meditation on the nature of identity, The Box Man delves into our fears and insecurities employing a startlingly original perspective.
Kōbō Abe was a writer in multiple guises, both novelist and playwright, and also an avid photographer. His novels often have surrealist qualities, evoking nightmarish dystopias and focusing on the dislocation of an individual from society. A number of these novels have been adapted into films, most notably in collaboration with renowned director, Hiroshi Teshigahara.
Following a childhood in Manchuria, Abe looked destined for his father’s medical profession, enrolling in a medical college on returning to Japan. However, by the end of his studies he was already a published author and had abandoned any efforts to obtain a credible qualification as a physician. Over the following decades Abe collected all of Japan’s major literary awards, including the Akutagawa, Yomiuri and Tanizaki Prizes. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature several times but never won. Fellow Japanese author and 1994 Nobel Prize winner, Kenzaburō Ōe, stated that Abe deserved the award more than himself.
The book club is held on the second Monday of the month. There is no restriction on the nationality of the authors read, but books should be available in translation in both Japanese and English. The discussion is conducted mainly in English, but you can choose the language in which you read the book. The intention is simple: to explore the themes of the book, express personal opinions on the style and content, discuss how the book has changed (or not) in translation and to have a relaxed discussion with others who have similar interests.
Review by Michael Sullivan
Keigo Higashino [東野 圭吾] was born in Osaka in 1958. In 2006 he won the 134th Naoki Prize and the 6th Honkaku Mystery Grand Prize for his novel, The Devotion of Suspect X, which had been published the previous year. He has been writing since 1985 and has had numerous books, essays and children’s stories published, many of which have been adapted for TV dramas and movies. In 2008 the movie of The Devotion of Suspect X was released, it was directed by Hiroshi Nishitani [西谷弘] and starred Shinichi Tsutsumi [堤真一] and Yasuko Matsuyuki [松雪 泰子]. This was the third highest grossing film of 2008 and featured the continuation of the same characters (and actors) from the 2007 TV drama Galileo [ガリレオ], which was also based on another book by Keigo Higashino.
Tetsuya Ishigami is a teacher, regarded as a mathematical genius in his school years he now teaches unmotivated school kids while living a very simple life. He has an unrequited infatuation with his neighbour, but as no one seems to notice, and he isn’t willing to pursue it, it remains relatively innocent. His neighbour Yasuko Hanaoka is a single mother living with her teenage daughter Misato, after having moved several times to escape from an abusive ex-husband. Having previously worked as a hostess, she now works at a local bento shop. However, her ex husband, Shinji Togashi, isn’t finished with her and he manages to track her down, demanding money he forces his way into her flat and, fearing for her daughter, Yasuko does the unthinkable. In the aftermath she and her daughter are left staring down at the dead body of Shinji when suddenly someone knocks on the door. Her neighbour, Tetsuya, has guessed what has happened and ignoring Yasuko’s denials he proposes an audacious plan to cover up the murder. Little does she know that in his head he can calculate the most likely odds of how the detectives will investigate and the probable outcome.
Shunpei Kusanagi is assigned to a new case, a mutilated dead body has been found by the river, the man’s clothes have been partially burnt and a bicycle abandoned nearby. Enough clues are found to allow them to find the man’s hotel room and figure out that they have discovered the body of Shinji Togashi. They soon learn that Shinji was looking for his wife and consequently check into her alibi, it turns out that on the evening when Shinji died Yasuko and Misato had been to the cinema and to karaoke, furthermore they state that they haven’t seen Shinji for a long time. The alibis seem rock solid, they are even backed up by solid evidence at the cinema and karaoke shop, but something bothers Shunpei and he soon winds up speaking to his friend Manabu Yukawa, a physics professor, about this latest case. The story is given a further twist when it turns out that Manabu and Tetsuya were at university together, driven by his own curiosity and a wish for a reunion they meet for the first time in years. However, Manabu is prompted by his own suspicions to investigate further the connection between Tetsuya and Yasuko.
Meanwhile, Yasuko meets up with an old friend who is now a widower, and with whom a romantic spark flares up. Ever watchful Tetsuya notices this and his actions become decidedly sinister. At this point the tempo of the story quickens as Shunpei’s and Manabu’s separate investigations exert pressure on Yasuko and Tetsuya. However, it starts to become unclear whether they are following the clues that they find or that they are purposely being fed them. The second half of the story is very thought provoking and the reader is forced to become engrossed in the story. The author has a persuasive voice making the audience feel they know what has happened and who is lying while through the actions of Shunpei and Manabu making the reader slowly doubt they know how the crime was covered up, and more importantly know which crime was actually committed. Although the author could have focused a little more on the dilemma faced by women with abusive ex-partners, he still portrays Yasuko and her daughter compassionately while a clever twist in the story reveals that they aren’t lying about their alibi.