Thursday, November 26, 2009

Selling Sekigahara: The Legacy Of The Taiga Drama

One of the more popular manifestations of pop culture history in Japan is the yearly Taiga Drama produced by national public TV station NHK. Beginning in 1963 and usually based on popular historical novels, they’ve featured virtually every period of Japanese history. They can range from sticking to history closely (2000’s Aoi Tokugawa Sandai) to deviating wildly from it (2003’s Musashi). This year’s drama, Tenchijin, falls in between the two extremes as far as historical accuracy goes. The story of Uesugi vassal Naoe Kanetsugu seems to have proven popular among both Japanese audiences and Western ones alike. With a new hour long episode every week of the year, it provides something for Japanese history buffs to look forward to on a regular basis. Most Taigas have a short ‘historical’ segment at the end, providing background on one of the personalities or places featured during the main body of the episode, helping to spark curiosity and boost tourism. These short segments reinforce the mini-boom of interest in the subject matter that Taigas create, with documentary programs, books, biographies, movies, video games (there have actually been licensed video games based on the official Taigas), board games, and all sorts of novelty merchandise being created to cash in on heightened awareness. Tenchijin is no different, not only making Naoe a ‘star’, but also popularizing his cohort Ishida Mitsunari. Ishida was the ill-fated commander of the so-called ‘Army of the West’ opposing the eventual victor Tokugawa Ieyasu and his ‘Army of the East’ in the Sekigahara campaign. Sekigahara was also the epitome of Naoe’s career, as he and the Uesugi clan played a major part in how the campaign in the northeast played out. This past October was the anniversary of Sekigahara, and late September saw a slew of new books, games, and the like released to tie in with Tenchijin (although not as many as were seen during the battle’s 400th anniversary in 2000 in conjunction with the Aoi Tokugawa Sandai Taiga). This week, we’re going to be taking a look at some of these Japanese language releases.

Most Shogun-ki readers will be familiar with Rekishi Gunzou, Gakken’s lavishly illustrated pop culture ‘mooks’ (a hybrid of a magazine/book). They’ve produced many mooks dealing with Sekigahara over the years (and reprinting a lot of the same stuff with a new title), but this September added a new twist to Sekigahara. They released ‘Sekigahara No Tatakai (関ヶ原の戦い, Battle of Sekigahara)’…in 3-D. Yes, there’s a pair of 3-D glasses bound into the book with a large fold-out map that features a 3-D view of the battlefield complete with troop positions. This is the only part of the 96 page book to get the 3-D treatment-but the combination of maps of the campaign and the battle, gorgeous artwork, photos of artifacts, and engaging text make it an entertaining and fun read. There’s a four page timeline of events from the campaign along with the page numbers in the book where they’re examined. There are over three dozen maps (divided among traditional ‘plain’ maps and bird’s eye views of the battles in progress), and every aspect of the campaign is covered. Whether you want to know about the activities of Kato and Kuroda in Kyushu, Hidetada’s dalliance with the Sanada at Ueda Castle, the battles around the Maeda holdings in Kaga, the many castle sieges, or the fighting between the Uesugi and Date factions in northeast Japan, you’ll find them all multiply mapped out. There are extensive sidebars that examine the key figures and commanders of the campaign as well. For lesser known figures, there’s an additional section full of mini-biographies. Finally, the reverse side of the large 3-D fold out map shows the layout of Sekigahara today along with rail stations and directions to tourist attractions on the battlefield, each of which has an accompanying photograph. This little treasure is cover priced at ¥1300.

Released a bit earlier this year was a similar work, Kessen Sekigahara (決戦関ヶ原, Decisive Battle of Sekigahara), #11 in Futabasha’s series of mooks that recreate Japanese history through the use of computer graphics. In many aspects it’s similar to the aforementioned Rekishi Gunzou volume-heavy on illustrations and light on text. However, the maps and battlefield tableaus are recreated using CG and miniatures, giving things a more realistic look. It focuses more on the actual battle than the Gakken book, but gives you a real feel for how it played out. You’ll be put right behind the barricades in Ishida’s camp and in the middle of the Shimazu’s escape through the ranks of the Eastern Army. The view from the Tokugawa headquarters that takes in the entire battlefield and all the troops scattered about is not only gorgeous, but helpful for understanding Japanese tactical warfare. The castles that took part in the sieges surrounding the campaign such as Osaka and Fushimi are elaborately rendered and ‘reconstructed’ in CG. Many Sekigahara painted screens are broken down and examined in detail. There are illustrations of individual troop types and the gear they would carry. It also contains artwork similar to that used for Osprey books-these feature key points from the battle, such as Ieyasu biting his nails waiting for Kobayakawa to defect, Mitsunari receiving news of the inaction of the Mouri and Kobayakawa, and the escape of the Shimazu troops after the battle had been lost by the Western Army. It also has great ‘regular’ maps in the back showing what area of Japan was controlled by which daimyo at the time of the battle, along with a chart showing their holdings, wealth, troops they could muster, and other information. This book also has a ‘tourism’ section; however, it shows many of the sites associated with the campaign rather than just the battlefield. While smaller than the Gakken book at 52 pages, it’s priced to sell at ¥933.

Sekigahara has been a favorite subject of gamers in both Japan and the West. With two upcoming games by GMT and Hexasim, the battle has produced 20 (at least) full blown highly detailed tabletop simulations/games. September saw the release of three-and two of them were to be found in the pages of Game Journal #32 (put out by Simulation Journal in Japan). Sekigahara Taisakusen: Sekigahara He No Michi (関ヶ原大作戦:関ヶ原への道, Sekigahara Grand Strategy: Road to Sekigahara) recreates the broader campaign, stretching from Osaka castle and the satellite castle battles in the west to the campaign pitting the Uesugi against the Date in the northeast. It’s a hex based simulation with 90 step-based counters (color coded into the Tokugawa, Eastern Army Allies, Ishida’s Army Of The West, and potential Western Army Defectors, each with clan mon) and 16 cards used to introduce random events into the game. Nyuusatsukyuu Sekigahara (入札級関ヶ原) covers the actual battle of Sekigahara itself, and its title is a clever play on words-it can mean ‘Bid For Rank Sekigahara’ but can also be read as ‘Bid For Decapitated Heads Sekigahara’ (referring to the severed heads of slain enemies presented by samurai to their lords). The game’s best feature is a well done two piece map of the Sekigahara battlefield that includes the areas off to the east that saw only a small amount of fighting (which are often left out by other games). This better simulates the precarious position Ieyasu put his forces into during the battle, and the potential disaster that awaited him if the Mouri stationed at this rear had been better motivated. No cards in this game, but a few more step-based counters (99) in a huge variety of colors with clan mon on each. This too is a traditional hex based game, eschewing the trend towards going to area or point-to-point movement systems. The order of battle is detailed and well done, with a good amount of differentiation. It’ll prove useful for armchair generals who want to compare the varying strengths of each contingent. The ever-shifting alliances in the power struggle are also a key feature of the game. There are really nine factions at work here-the Eastern Army frontline forces (largely composed of former Toyotomi retainers), Ieyasu’s contingent, the Eastern army ‘road’ troops at the army’s rear, the main Western army, the Kobayakawa, the Shimazu, the Kikkawa, the ‘Mouri Group’ east of the main battlefield, and the Western army turncoats that historically defected when Kobayakawa did. Gameplay tends to run along historical lines, so the Western Army faces more of a challenge.

Both games are of low-to-moderate complexity and consequently play smoothly, with Nyuusatsukyuu Sekigahara being an exciting nail-biter (just like Ieyasu was said to do during the battle!). The magazine also includes a number of historical articles on Sekigahara and the forces and personalities involved along with a multi-page Manga that offers up gameplay tips-you get a chance to read about the actual history and then replay it. The designers weigh in with their thoughts on the two games. There’s a look back at other Sekigahara wargames produced over the years and an article on the classic game ‘Sengoku Daimyo’. Reviews and features of other wargames and simulations round out the 84 page issue-at ¥3600, it’s a particularly good value for Sengoku simulation aficionados.

Japanese History War Game Quarterly #3: Sekigahara Seneki (関ヶ原戦役, Sekigahara Campaign) was also released in September, and features a simple recreation of the campaign in a point-to-point movement format. It’s an ideal game for those new to the Japanese language-the rules are written with the intention of being short and easy to understand. Games play out quickly and tend to have a high fun factor, not getting too bogged down in number-crunching and looking up rules. While the map is somewhat unattractive (being largely a series of holding boxes), the 80 game counters are excellent. They’re organized by clans and contain leader units-they can also be flipped over to switch sides. They’re color coded into different factions-Ieyasu’s main force (although many can and will defect), the Date, the Maeda, the Satake, and Mitsunari’s main force (also with many potential defectors). 30 cards are used to liven up the game. The production quality of the magazine is outstanding-it’s squarebound in stiff covers, has a plastic bubble and baggies for easy storage, and the magazine and rules are bound into the side of the book across from the bubble. Unique to this publication, there’s a full color Manga strip that runs in the margins of the rulebook explaining some of the game’s subtleties and strategies (and where the goofy female main character always ends up screwing over the serious male lead character). The entire 32 page magazine is given over to articles dealing with Sekigahara, and also includes a section spotlighting many Japanese movies and TV shows about the battle. It also uses illustrations of the game map and counters to show how the historical campaign unfolded. JHWGQ’s goal of producing low-complexity, quick and easy to play games has proven so popular that it’s already spawned a companion magazine that features warfare the world over. It weighs in at ¥2800. It looks like the upcoming JHWGQ #4 is going to be a simulation of the 47 Ronin’s assault on Lord Kira’s mansion on a single man scale (timed to be out around the anniversary of the conflict). I can only speculate that it’ll be a simulation of the fictional accounts of the raid, since historically it was a huge 47 to 4/5 mismatch.

We’ve only covered a fraction of the books and items released in Japan in celebration of Tenchijin and Sekigahara, but enough to show the influence and attraction the Taiga drama has on Japanese audiences. Next year’s Taiga focuses on the wildly popular Bakumatsu figure Sakamoto Ryoma, and the media frenzy for it is already getting warmed up as detailed on the Samurai Archives. Japanese History War Game Quarterly has already run a game on the Shinsengumi-maybe this year they’ll have one that features their foe Ryoma shooting his way out of the Teradaya. Hopefully it won’t have optional ‘Romulus Rulz’ for fist-pounding and snickering…

Monday, November 09, 2009

Brushed by the Hand of Death-Black Rain

Black Rain is Director Imamura Shohei’s award winning 1989 film of the August 5th, 1945 atom bombing of Hiroshima and the survivors of the blast. Based on a story by Ibuse Masuji, it stars Tanaka Yoshiko as Yasuko, Kitamura Kazuo as Shizuma Shigematsu, and Ichihara Etsuko as Shizuma Shigeko. Imamura was known for his over the top films, but Black Rain is a subdued masterpiece. Shot in black and white, it resembles both in tone and style many films released during the 1950’s, giving it a real period feel. While Black Rain’s many awards are too many to list here, they range from the Japan Academy Prize to the Cannes Festival and include multiple wins for Best Film, Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay. It’s an excellent new addition to Animeigo’s growing DVD lineup of non-samurai Japanese films.

The film begins with young Yasuko being sent to the county near Hiroshima to live with her aunt and uncle, Shizuma Shigeko and Shigematsu, to avoid forced conscription into factory labor. Mr. Shizuma boards a train and heads off to work, although the city has been blanketed by leaflets from American planes heralding upcoming destruction for the city. When the American bomber Enola Gay drops the first atomic bomb at 8:15, Shigematsu is on the fringes of the blast and fireball. He survives with some minor burns and returns home to his wife. Being further away from ground zero, their house is damaged but not completely destroyed. They decide to wait and see if Yasuko will attempt to join them, and make plans to escape the battered remnants of the city.

When Yasuko’s face is streaked black (the black rain of the title, being contaminated by the radioactive ash thrown up by the blast) in a rainstorm as she is attempting to join her aunt and uncle by boat, it gives one the eerie feeling that the hand of Death has just brushed her face. The scenes of the devastation in Hiroshima and the attendant chaos as burned survivors try to pick their way through the rubble of the city are appropriately nightmarish. They’re made all the more sobering and chilling by the fact that, unlike most post-apocalyptic films, these events really happened-and the historical reality was much, much worse. The mushroom cloud that puzzles onlookers, the almost surreal devastation of the city, the deadly live wires that seem to hem the characters in at every path, poisoned water, and the blackened corpses of burned victims everywhere rival anything from the worst horror movie. The scenes of devastation, the hospitals full of burn and radiation victims, and the air of stunned hopelessness also bring to mind similar ones seen in the original 1954 Godzilla (particularly the original Japanese ‘Gojira’ without Raymond Burr). Flashbacks of the post-bombing Hiroshima (focusing on the Shizuma’s escape, rescue efforts, and Shigematsu’s hasty recruitment as a makeshift Buddhist priest to hold services for the dead) continue to appear throughout the movie, much like a recurring nightmare-shadowing the omnipresent threat of radiation sickness the survivors face.

Five years later, Mr. and Mrs. Shizuma and Yasuko all appear to be fine, although Mr. Shizuma (as being primary victims of the blast) has been told to not engage in any strenuous activity. Mr. Shizuma spends his days fishing for carp with other hibakusha (‘explosion affected people’) who have received the same instructions, and a favorite topic of conversation is the rarely-seen giant carp that has lived in the lake for years (interestingly enough, drinking the blood of a carp is presented as a homeopathic cure in the film). Besides the flash (the name given by Japanese to the blast) survivors, there are other victims of the war in town. Yuichi, a member of the Nikaku (Japanese soldiers strapped full of explosives who would sacrifice themselves to destroy American tanks), relives a harrowing episode when an Allied tank passed right over the top of him in battle whenever he hears the sound of an engine. This causes trouble for the townspeople in addition to putting Yuichi’s life at risk when he throws himself in front of all manner of vehicles. His neighbors display a high level of compassion when dealing with him, as he’s a harmless sculptor of Jizo statues the majority of the time. The Shizuma’s lot is made more difficult by the increasing senility of their elderly mother, who believes Yasuko is her daughter. They fear for her health, not knowing that soon she’ll be the healthiest member of the household.

The primary focus of the Shizuma is to find Yasuko a husband before their radiation sickness claims them. The status of the family as flash survivors causes them to be social pariahs on one level, Yasuko in particular being treated as damaged goods. The family even takes her to a doctor and has her health certified as perfect in an effort to remove the doubts from potential bridegrooms and their families. While most of Yauko’s omiai (meet and greets, part of the old fashioned style of arranged Japanese marriages) suitors fall by the wayside as soon as they find out she’s a survivor of the flash, she eventually does find a man who’s willing to accept her as she is-but while Yasuko is more than happy with him and the prospect of marriage, he isn’t quite what the Shizuma had in mind for her (class distinctions were still an issue in Japan at this time). However, they are won over both by Yasuko’s feelings for him and the devotion he shows to her.

The secondary victims (soldiers who had entered the city in a rescue effort) in the town die, leaving Mr. Shizuma to wonder why he and his wife are still alive, having been primary victims. Meanwhile, Yasuko has fallen victim as well-she secretly attempts to treat an ulcer on her body so as not to worry her aunt and uncle. Her radiation sickness begins to become more and more obvious, with swatches of her beautiful black hair falling out. More villagers die from sickness. Yasuko struggles out to the lake with her Uncle and witnesses the fabled giant carp leaping out of the water-sending her into a delirious state of excitement and bringing her sickness to a peak. Some will find the eventual resolution of her situation and the resultant ending a bit frustrating, but it encapsulates the film’s message well-that of an uncertain future where humanity has some difficult choices to make. Perhaps this is illustrated best in the scene where Mr. Shizuma is listening to a radio broadcast giving the hourly news as Yasuko is treated for radiation poisoning. It announces that US President Harry Truman isn’t counting out using the atom bomb against the Chinese in the Korean War and that he’s leaving the decision over its deployment to the general in command. Shizuma resignedly turns off the radio and mumbles that ‘Humans are obstinate creatures’.

Any “horrors of war” movie carries with it the risk of lapsing into over the top melodrama, but that’s not the case with Black Rain. The performances are for the most part wonderfully under control and understated, lending them an air of authenticity and realism. Simple actions such as the Shizuma’s daily ritual of setting their clock to the nightly news symbolize the efforts of the survivors to bring a measure of normalcy and control back to their lives. But even then, there are constant reminders as the news is filled with stories of warfare in nearby Korea and the anti-nuclear Stockholm Proclamation of 1950. A subplot concerning a ‘party girl’ returning to the village to escape her yakuza boyfriend illustrates a growing disconnect between the war survivors and a new generation of more self centered and privileged Japanese youth who have never known suffering. The score by Takemitsu Toru fits the mood of the film perfectly, the composer having written it to specifically match each scene. It makes great use of silence and doesn’t feel the need to fill every moment with music. The focus is on the plight of the radiation victims (many of whom were only exposed when entering Hiroshima after the blast in rescue efforts, becoming ‘entry victims’) and how they deal with the fate that they suspect is coming their way. They have the unenviable fate of having to live with its effects every day of their lives-in effect, being biological time bombs who don’t know when or if the radiation will take its toll on their bodies. To its credit, Black Rain doesn’t attempt to take the easy way out and paint the Americans as evil or the Japanese as innocent victims-the closest it comes to this is when one character asks another why the Americans felt the need to use the bomb. It isn’t so much ‘Why did they do this to us?’ as it is ‘Didn’t they realize we were already defeated?’. As Mr. Shizuma aptly sums it up, ‘An unjust peace is better than a just war’.

Adding to the package is the incredible collection of extras Animeigo has put together. There are of course the detailed historical notes that one has come to expect from their discs, along with the requisite still gallery, cast and crew bios, and trailer. The historical notes give an in-depth perspective of the bombing of Hiroshima, the rescue efforts afterwards, strange side effects of the atom bomb (such as the ‘shadow pictures’ left upon objects by the flash), and the efforts by the US military to keep the effects of the bombing under wraps. There’s also a Multimedia Vault that collects several films and newsreels produced during the war and immediately afterward, both for public consumption in the US and for the Armed Forces. If Black Rain didn’t bring the bombing home, these clips surely will. Interestingly enough, while the media produced for public consumption involves large doses of gloating over the defeat of the Japanese and the destruction brought down upon them, the films done for the military are sober, serious, and respectful. In particular, ‘My Japan’ (a War Bond drive film made by the US Treasury, ostensibly narrated by a stereotypical evil Japanese) is brutal to modern eyes. ‘Our Enemies the Japanese’ and the Universal Newsreel ‘Atom Blast at Hiroshima’ are not far behind (however, it should be pointed out Japanese propaganda films were just as racist and jingoistic-as well as every other nation’s during WWII). Rounding the vault out are some photos of the destruction, US President Harry Truman’s radio speech concerning the atom bomb on August 6th, and the US Army-produced ‘A Tale Of Two Cities’. Finally, there are interviews with Assistant Director Miike Takashi and actress Tanaka Yoshiko. An interesting point brought up in Yoshiko’s interview is that director Imamura kept them all sequestered in the small town where filming took place in an effort to keep them from eating well in the city. This maintained Yasuko’s starved and radiation wasted appearance.

Perhaps the most interesting extra is the alternate ending. Most alternate endings on DVD’s are pretty short and basic, but this one runs almost 20 minutes. It’s shot in color to give it a more ‘contemporary’ feel since it takes place 15 years after the main body of the film. Yasuko has survived her bout with radiation poisoning but health problems have continued to dog her, and she seems to have a massive dose of survivor’s guilt as well. She decides to leave the man she loves and embark upon a pilgrimage to honor the souls of the victims of the flash-a pilgrimage that she seemingly does not expect to return from. Accompanied by another presumed survivor of the flash, they set out upon the famous ’88 temple’ circuit on the island of Shikoku. Watching the two’s progress is truly heart-wrenching. On the way they are harassed and ridiculed by their own people and their health deteriorates at a steady pace. Dirty, disheveled, and with bleeding feet they struggle to make it from one stop on the circuit to the next. The last stop on the journey is pulled off in a touching and almost surrealistic way that seems to bring peace to everyone-but the final scene shows that perhaps even the people of Japan have begun to forget and trivialize the bombing. While the alternate ending certainly delivers an impact, we believe the correct choice was made in keeping the one the film uses. Some things are best left unresolved and left for the viewer to work out for themselves.

Black Rain is an important film that everyone should see-just as a reminder of the very real cost to humanity that warfare entails. It puts a face on what all too often are glossed over and depersonalized as cold statistics on a report. 70-80,000 were killed instantly (30% of the city), with that number rising to 90-140,000 by the end of 1945. Perhaps 200,000 had fallen victim by 1950. But the story of these three people somehow brings things into focus more clearly. There are still many hibakusha alive in Japan today, and still suffering. In a day and age where original documentation by American combat photographers of the destruction of Hiroshima was found in a trash heap, Black Rain is a powerful film that will stay with you long after the ending and give the viewer much to reflect upon. Give it a try when you’re in the mood for a serious, thought provoking movie. You can get Black Rain directly from Animeigo or through Amazon.