Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Heroes To Some, Villains To Others-Animeigo's Shinsengumi Chronicles

Few groups tend to raise such disparate images as the Shinsengumi, the Kyoto based group of swordsmen sponsored by the Shogunate that fought Imperialist agents (as well as other disruptive forces and crime in general) in Bakumatsu Japan. Heroes to some, villains to others, and a wildly popular subject for anime and manga, the Shinsengumi rarely fail to create strong opinions among those with an interest in Japanese history. Animeigo's newest release, 1963's "Shinsengumi Chronicles" (based on the first part of a print trilogy by Shimozawa Kan), takes a far more realistic look at the group than does Animeigo's other Shinsengumi offering, Mifune Toshiro's "Shinsengumi-Assassins of Honor" (1969). The film we reviewed last week had two big name stars as its headliner (Samurai Vendetta with Ichikawa Raizo and Katsu Shintaro)-this one does as well, this time featuring Raizo and Wakayama Tomisaburo (billed here as Jo Kenzaburo). It's an excellent film from Daiei that features the distinctive down-and-dirty realistic style the studio's samurai epics were noted for-and a style perfectly suited for its subject matter.

Virtually all the characters in Shinsengumi Chronicles are based on its real life members and events. Raizo's character is Yamazaki Susumu, a member that largely functioned as a spy and because of his education also as an intermediary in 'polite society' such as the Imperial Court. Wakayama fills the shoes of the group's second leader, former farmer and Tennen Rishin-ryƫ sword instructor Kondo Isami. Most of the group's core members are on hand as well, including the first chief Serizawa Kamo, his deputy Niimi Nishiki, Kondo's second in command Hijikata Toshizo, sword prodigy Okita Soji, spearman Harada Sanosuke, and 'traitor' Todo Heisuke. The other main character is Yamazaki's woman, Shima (Fujimura Shiho). Shima functions as the voice of reason that continually tries to turn Yamazaki from the Shinsengumi towards a normal life. Interestingly enough, while Yamazaki was a doctor in real life, he is presented here as a ronin with no purpose in life and Shima is given the role of physician. Being based on a trilogy, the movie takes the Shinsengumi only so far as the Ikedaya Incident-an incident, however, that proved to be the group's finest hour and defining moment.

The Shinsengumi are cast in a poor light from the very beginning where a shot of a crucified man displays a placard that the group has killed him for his crimes against the state. While it's found out later he was killed by a ronin working for Imperialists from the Tosa clan to frame their enemies, it's clear the Shinsengumi have already inspired fear and loathing among many of the citizens of Kyoto. When ronin Yamazaki Susumu comes across a Shinsengumi member dying from wounds incurred when slaying an Imperialist, he takes the man's netsuke and attempts to return it to the group and inform them of what has happened. Initially he's repelled when the Shinsengumi's chief, Serizawa Kamo, snorts in disgust and walks off. However, he becomes spellbound when Serizawa's subordinate, Kondo Isami, displays concern and invites him to talk. Kondo had earlier restrained and apologized to Kamo on behalf of a geisha who had inadvertently insulted the drunken Shinsengumi chief. Yamazaki recognizes that Kondo, although a former farmer, embodies the true spirit of the samurai and believes that he has found a leader worth following. He joins the group despite the pleas of his woman and childhood friend Shima, who believes the Shinsengumi are nothing more than a group of murdering thugs who are worse than the men they hunt down.

From here the film focuses on the early history of the Shinsengumi and Yamazaki's inner conflict as he attempts to reconcile harsh reality with the ideals he thought that lived in Kondo. The extortion of money from merchants, the elimination of Kamo's faction and Kondo's rise to power, the casual murder of a sumo wrestler and the assassination of the police officer that arrested a Shinsengumi member for the crime, and the torture of suspected enemies all raise doubts in Yamazaki as to whether this is the life he wants to pursue. Yamazaki is seen as being a potentially traitorous element in the ranks, and is first set up to commit a murder by Hijikata Toshizo and Okita Soji. They then use this as a way to have him removed by the police, but Yamazaki is saved by Kondo's intervention with their sponsors, Aizu han. The situation has put the Shinsengumi's future in doubt, and it might take an extremely daring act to put them back in the good graces of the Shogunate-a chance that might be provided by the scheming Imperialists of Choshu han. Despite his misgivings, the distrust of his comrades, and his discovery by Tosa assassin Okamoto Kyuzo (who had slain the ronin hired by Tosa to frame the Shinsengumi early in the film), Yamazaki sets out to discover the plot-and does so, facing down the conspirators alone while the bulk of the Shinsengumi is attacking the wrong building. With enemies numbering not only the Imperialists but also among his own allies, will Yamazaki be able to survive?

Raizo's performance as Yamazaki Susumu allows him to display an emotional range that was absent in some of his films-Yamazaki is an idealist in a world full of characters on both sides with seemingly no standards. Yamazaki is caught between the honor he believes is embodied in Kondo Isami and the dishonorable acts he is required to perform as a Shinsengumi member. The moral dilemma at times puts Yamazaki into the role of the 'deer in the headlights', frozen into inaction and confusion-even when his life hangs in the balance. Raizo excelled at roles such as this, even bringing an undercurrent of the 'frustrated idealist' to his most famous film role, nihilistic ronin Nemuri Kyoshiro. Yamazaki's attempts at espionage also bring to mind Raizo's roles as ninja Goemon/Saizo in the Shinobi No Mono series. Fujimura Shiho as Yamazaki's love Shima plays her role effectively, being the picture of Japanese womanhood-feminine, strong, and both supportive and critical as the situation calls for.

For the Shinsengumi's leader Kondo Isami there were few actors better suited for the role than Wakayama Tomisaburo. Kondo tended to let Hijikata Toshizo (his deputy) perform the actual administration of the group while he provided the strong, silent symbol that the group could use as their anchor. Wakiyama's best known for roles in which he has relatively little dialogue and for his precise and vicious swordsmanship, both being attributes that served him well in portraying Kondo. His rather gruff and unpolished appearance also helped define the character, a farmer-turned-samurai. Wakayama (like many chanbara stars) also had a lot of experience playing characters that had lofty ideals but were eminently pragmatic (most notably Ogami Itto from the Lone Wolf and Cub series) and provides the balance between Yamazaki's idealism on the one hand and the ruthlessness of ones like Hijikata and Okita on the other. This is perhaps best seen when he is confronted by Yamazaki over some of the group's acts and delivers his response while staring at the Shinsengumi's battle standard-the flag displaying the kanji for sincerity. His faith and confidence in Yamazaki shows that honor is indeed still alive within the ranks of the Shinsengumi.

Director Misumi Kenji helmed many other violent samurai action films, including entries in the Zatocihi, Shinobi No Mono, Hanzo the Razor, and Lone Wolf and Cub franchises. The fast pace and brutal violence evidenced in these efforts are also on full display in Shinsengumi Chronicles. However, unlike many chanbara directors, Misumi never hesitated to show sword duels for what they were-ugly, chaotic, and bestial. This is best evidenced in the closing minutes of the film where a lingering shot of corpses frozen in awkward positions amongst the post-Ikedaya carnage shows that there's little real glory in killing, even when it's for a greater good-particularly so when it's juxtaposed with the Shinsengumi wearily trodding off. Misumi traces the culture of violence through the development of the Shinsengumi's new members, most notably Yamazaki's aide, young Oshu. Oshu is almost childishly insistent on his wish to become a samurai-someone with status, someone important. When first donning his Shinsengumi 'colors' and thrusting his sword through his sash, Oshu is beaming like a kid getting his first toy-and when first killing a foe, only thinks of how this act will make him a man in the other member's eyes. This has interesting parallels to the mentality of US street gangs-as does the Shinsengumi's insistence that new members be 'tested' by slaying an enemy as soon as possible (or implicate themselves in one of the group's more illegal activities, making it tougher for them to go rouge). The allure and glamor of the gang life is underlined when Oshu buys a woodblock print of a valiant samurai-with that appeal symbolically exposed as false when his blood spills over it in the aftermath of a fight. And as shown towards the end when Yamazaki literally turns his back on Shima (his chance at a normal life) and never looks back, once you're in, you're in for good (that of course being one of the Shinsengumi's rules-no one could quit the group). The heat of the Kyoto summer also played an interesting part in the film-no doubt this was shot in summertime, because all the actors are in a constant sweat. This helped to further infuse their characters with the uncomfortable sense of edginess that summertime temperatures can bring.

Just as it did for another recent release, Samurai Vendetta, Animeigo has included two sets of program notes. One set covers the historical background for the Shinsengumi and provides a general overview of the situation during the Bakumatsu. The other set comprises the standard cultural and film notes. Happily, both are extremely well done and extensive, using solid scholarly books as sources (such as "The Emergence of Meiji Japan", a digest version of volume five of the "Cambridge History of Japan"). Viewers unfamiliar with the history of Japan at that time will find their enjoyment of the film to be greatly enhanced by reading the Shinsengumi set. Other extras include cast and crew bios, a still gallery, the theatrical trailer, and trailers for three other related Animeigo releases (Mifune's "Shinsengumi" and Raizo's "Samurai Vendetta" and "Sleepy Eyes of Death" series). The translations are as good as we've come to expect from Animeigo, including the bonus of a complete translation of the credits (something many companies releasing Asian films fail to do).

Shinsengumi Chronicles is one of the more accurate film portrayals of the historical group. It never hides the excesses or blemishes of its members but never simply writes them off as Shogunate thugs. Despite the infighting, extortion, and treachery the group was often noted for, when it came time to fight for their ideals, they were by and large the most effective and passionate group the Bakufu had to offer (and in many ways not much different from their Imperialist foes). Heroes to some, villains to others, but never boring-and with Raizo and Wakayama, a chanbara hound's delight. You can get a copy of Shinsengumi Chronicles direct from Animeigo or from Amazon through the SA Store.

All images courtesy and copyright 1963 Kadokawa Pictures, Inc

Sunday, October 17, 2010

One Arm, One Leg, Two Legends-Animeigo's "Samurai Vendetta"

The story of the 47 Ronin is perhaps the most popular subject for Japanese literature, and almost as popular are the various 'gaiden' dealing with the various members of the group. 'Gaiden' means 'side story' and in this case the efforts of novelists and kabuki playwrights who fictionalized the lives of the Ronin leading up to the assault (and the time after it as well). This applies to Japanese cinema as well-there are dozens, if not hundreds, of 47 Ronin efforts and many of them are gaiden-for example, the excellent 1994 "Chushingura Gaiden Yotsuya Yaidan" that combines the world of the fictional Ronin with the famous "Ghost Of Yotsuya" story. Another would be the film being examined today-Animeigo's DVD release of 1959's "Samurai Vendetta" (Japanese title 'Hakuoki'**, "A Chronicle Of Pale Cherry Blossoms"). Taken from a story by noted novelist Gomi Kosuke, it combines the 47 Ronin with elements of the Tange Sazen story. It also stars two of chanbara's biggest headliners-Ichikawa Raizo and Katsu Shintaro (not to mention one of our favorites, character actor Date Saburo, as one of the film's rotten apples). As a bonus, you'll even get to watch Raizo play virtually two characters-respected Shogunate Inspector and swordmaster Tange Tenzen and the one armed (and later one legged) scruffy ronin Tange Tenzen. Along with Katsu's portrayal of 47 Ronin swordsman Horibe Yasubei, this gives the film one arm, one leg, and two chanbara legends in one of their better films together.

Nakayama Yasubei's not having a good day-he's just found out his uncle has been challenged to a group duel by a rival sword school, and the fight is already underway. Yasubei is hauling ass to the duel when he comes across the procession of Shogunal Inspector Tange Tenzen. Apologizing to Tenzen and requesting an emergency right of way, Yasubei is chugging past the procession when Tenzen notices that the cord Yasubei's used to tie back his loose sleeves is of poor quality, putting him in potential danger. Tenzen attempts to stop Yasubei but the flustered swordsman doesn't understand and continues on his way. Yasubei manages to make it to the fight just in time, but is indeed put at a disadvantage when the cord unravels. A samurai from the crowd throws him a makeshift cord made from his daughter's sash. A concerned Tenzen has followed Yasubei to render aid but seeing that he needs none (and that the enemies are from the same school he trains at), takes his leave. The heavily outnumbered Yasubei manages to clean house and in the process becomes wildly popular in Edo, with crowds of girls following him around and offers of employment from respected daimyo houses being extended.

Meanwhile, the duel has had repercussions for Tenzen-he has been spotted at the fight by other members of his dojo and is accused of being a coward by his fellow students. The accusations fly (after all, why didn't the men who reported Tenzen charge in to save their comrades?) and the situation only defuses when Tenzen is exiled from the dojo. As the master does so to indicate to the opposing school he desires peace, Yasubei's sensei follows suit, exiling him as well. The two cross paths again shortly after this, when Yasubei bails Tenzen out of a tight situation involving an 'honorable dog'. During Shogun Tsunayoshi's reign, dogs and other animals were protected against harm by his 'Laws of Compassion', and killing a dog usually meant death for the offender. Tenzen inadvertently kills one when his sword scabbard breaks as he attempts to defend his bride-to-be Chiharu from a pack of dogs (this scene is hilarious, as it appears dogs are being thrown by stagehands at Raizo from offscreen). Yasubei performs a Noh dance to defuse the suspicions of the 'Dog Hut' patrol (yes, really) and disposes of the carcass. Later, Tenzen returns the favor by stepping in for Yasubei to fight several members of his former sword school that are out looking for revenge. He disfigures five of their number, and the 'five bastards' are now sworn enemies of both men.

Yasubei, not knowing of Chiharu's impending marriage, decides to join the Nagao clan (a vassal of the Uesugi and family to Lord Kira) in order to cozy up to her-but ends up joining the Asano clan as a booby prize when he finds that she has been given to Tenzen. Yasubei is adopted by the samurai who supplied him with a 'sword cord' in the initial fight, changes his family name to Horibe, and is betrothed to the family's 13 year old daughter. Everyone seems content at this point, but it's not to last-the 'five bastards' break into Tenzen's home while he's away, have his wife drugged, and gang rape her. To add further insult, they spread rumors that Chiharu has also been unfaithful with Yasubei in an effort to provoke Tenzen into battling him, taking care of at least one of their foes. Tenzen's in a bind-as a samurai, he can't stay with a wife who's been violated even though he loves her and realizes she's not to blame. She can't be simply cast out, as her shame would compel her to commit suicide. He works up a plan worthy of the scammers in "Hana" and manages to clear her name, and divorces her with a clean record-but pays a heavy price as her angry brother lops off his arm from behind. Like another famous Tange of Japanese film (Tange Sazen), Tenzen is now a one armed swordsman-and eventually, one legged as well. How will he ever be able to track down and exact revenge on the 'five bastards'? What role will Yasubei play here, and where do the 47 Ronin enter the picture? Will Yasubei even make it to the raid on Kira's mansion in this version, and will he have to kill the woman he loves to procure information the Ronin need for the raid's success?

Raizo was a well established star by the time this film came out, with Katsu being substantially less so (his big break would come in two more years with "Shiranui Kengyo", another Animeigo release). For audiences used to seeing Raizo in his signature role as Nemuri Kyoshiro in the so-called 'Sleepy Eyes Of Death' series (yes, another Animego release), it'll come as somewhat of a surprise to see him playing a caring, loving and thoughtful husband. Rather than send Chiharu away in shame (and basically sentencing her to suicide), Tenzen bends over backwards to concoct a fairly ridiculous and risky scheme to clear her name, knowing all the while he will have to give her up anyway. Raizo pulls it off, along with Tenzen's conflict over his honor as a samurai versus his love for his wife. While the final extended swordfight between Tenzen and the 'five bastards' (now down to three) with their allies doesn't quite count as the ultimate exercise in exhausted swordfighting (that would go to Raizo's character in "The Betrayal"), it might be a solid second, with Raizo seemingly returning from the dead several times. Katsu makes an impact in his role as Nakayama/Horibe Yasubei (one of the few of the 47 Ronin that possessed a measure of sword skills), approaching it with an intensity, steadfastness, and seriousness that plays well against Raizo's more romantic character. This is a slimmer, younger, and fitter Katsu than the one seen in Zatocihi and Hanzo the Razor, but his swordplay is still among the best of its day. Maki Chitose plays the role of the duo's love interest Chiharu somewhat differently than the typical 'stoic bushi woman' seen in most samurai dramas. While she's certainly not helpless (interposing herself between Tenzen and her brother's follow up sword attack, and then leaving the family and making her own way in the world), Chiharu is the type of woman who will hold extended conversations with her husband's proxy (a small 'doll festival' groom doll she made as a child) while he is away. She's very sweet, feminine and sentimental, the type of woman most men feel drawn to protect-making the assault upon her even more odious. Her and Tange make for a well matched couple, and this gives their final meeting after the climatic battle increased impact.

Director Mori Kazuo is best known for directing Katsu in many of the "Zatoichi" films along with some of the "Shinobi No Mono" films and Zatoichi's 'predecessor', "Shiranui Kengyo". There are some nice directorial touches-the 'bride and groom' dolls made by Chiharu as a child foreshadow and follow many of the events that happen to her and Tenzen. When Tenzen tests his one-armed sword skills by slicing a sheet of paper into fluttering pieces, the scene transitions to fluttering snow. It's a nice touch how Tange's arm being cut off intersects with Asano's assault on Lord Kira in the Shogun's castle (the incident that sparked the 47 Ronin's revenge)-his palanquin is turned away at the gates of the Shogun's castle when he bleeds on the path the Imperial Envoys will be taking to meet with Asano and Kira (mirrored by Asano's crime of spilling blood in the castle). It's also a wonderful ironic touch that Yasubei, who wanted to join the Uesugi (Kira's relatives), instead joins the Asano clan as a second choice, making him Tange's nominal foe in war and romance. Rather than a typical Daiei film, Samurai Vendetta actually looks more like a film produced by Toei Studios, using the brightly colored studio backdrops and stylized swordfighting they were noted for. Even the soundtrack brings to mind Toei's more sentimental and sweeping scores. Many of the scenes appear to be shot on Toei soundstages and sets-it would be interesting to delve into the production history of the film. Since color films were still somewhat uncommon in Japan, it might simply be that the color was accentuated for its novelty value. It works well at times, such as the slow transition of the background from normal daylight to a sickly purple when Tenzen loses his arm to Chiharu's brother.

As goes without saying (but we'll say it anyway), Animeigo provides a stellar translation and English subtitle options for every level of Japanese proficiency from zero to expert. There's the usual package of extras-the film's Japanese trailer, bios of the major players (stars, director, writers), and a large image gallery of both B/W and color images. The program notes are sort of a Jekyll/Hyde situation this time around. They've been split up into program notes on the 47 Ronin (which Animeigo encourages everyone to read to give background on the film) and general cultural/film notes. The notes on the 47 Ronin were unfortunately based on the information found on Wikipedia. Wikipedia's account in turn was largely taken from James Murdoch's 'History Of Japan', a three volume set written in the early 1900's. Murdoch's account of the Ronin was based on oral legend and puppet plays/novels rather than historical fact. Noted Ronin scholar Professor Henry Smith states that "The Murdoch account is no longer of anything but historiographical use". It gives the LEGEND of the 47 Ronin, but NOT the historical facts. Perhaps this works for the disc, since the story is based on the legend, but the notes are not accurate from a historical standpoint. On the other hand, the cultural/film notes given in the second section are excellent-one of the most extensive and involved sets that Animeigo's done to date.

Samurai Vendetta certainly lives up to its name-there are more vendettas here than can be struck down with a katana. Raizo and Katsu are always welcome and any film with both of them more than deserves a look. Carrying through on the popular Japanese theme of two men being linked by fate, it supplies drama, action, and an interesting take on the 47 Ronin story. You can get "Samurai Vendetta" directly from Animeigo or from Amazon through the SA Store. And it won't cost you an arm and a leg to see these two legends of samurai cinema.

**-note this film has NOTHING in common, story or otherwise, with the 'Hakuoki' anime that's currently knocking them dead in Japan

All photos courtesy and copyright 1959 Kadokawa Pictures

Saturday, October 16, 2010

An Intro to the Sengoku Daimyo - a Translation

As a mental exercise I've been doing some translation work, and since it is a basic introduction to the Sengoku Daimyo, I decided to post it to the blog.  There isn't anything groundbreaking here, but it does serve as a good quickie introduction to where the Sengoku Daimyo came from, and who they were. 

From Family to Ability: The Sengoku Daimyo of Gekokujo - Translated from:
Sengoku Busho: Shireba Shiru Hodo by Owada Tetsuo

Oda Nobunaga
A single word that sums up the Sengoku Period of Japanese history is Gekokujo. Gekokujo refers to, for example, when an incapable lord was forcibly removed by his vassals. What determined a lord’s capability during the Sengoku period? A capable lord protected his lands and rewarded his vassals with land. A lord that can’t protect his lands exposes his vassals to danger. Furthermore, a lord needed to be willing to invade other lands in order to increase his holdings to reward his vassals. Because of this, Sengoku Daimyo were required to risk their continued survival in battle.

The Sengoku Daimyo came about in various ways: The Shugo of the Muromachi Bakufu who were able to evade the wave of Gekokujo became Sengoku Daimyo. Examples of these Daimyo include the Takeda of Kai province, the Imagawa of Suruga, the Rokkaku of Omi, the Otomo of Bingo, and the Shimazu of Satsuma. On the other hand, there were families and clans that drove out the Shugo to become Sengoku Daimyo. These included the Asakura of Echizen province, the Oda of Owari, the Nagao of Echigo, the Amako of Izumo, and the Ukita of Harima. There are also many examples of small time rural regional lords, known as Kokujin, who became Sengoku Daimyo as well. These included the Date of Mutsu province, the Asai of Omi, the Mori of Aki, and the Matsudaira of Mikawa.

Unlike the three examples above, some men who became Sengoku Daimyo defy classification – three examples would be Hojo Soun, Saito Dousan, and Matsunaga Hisahide, who have been called villains of the Sengoku period. Their origins are shrouded in mystery. Hojo Soun was a mere lowly ronin, Saito Dousan was an oil merchant, and Matsunaga Hisahide was a merchant from Yamashiro province.

From these inauspicious beginnings, these men rose up and embraced their dark ambitions by becoming Samurai and independent Daimyo through plots and trickery in perfect displays of Gekokujo – and symbolize more than any other the Sengoku warlord.

However, is there really a difference between these three treacherous villains and heroes like Oda Nobunaga and Takeda Shingen? If one gives a precise definition of a villain, it would be someone who is ferocious and treacherous – how does Oda Nobunaga stand up to this definition? Nobunaga is infamous for his atrocities, including his burning of the Enryakuji temple, atrocities during the Nagashima Ikko-Ikki, and for drinking sake from the skulls of Asai Nagamasa and Asakura Yoshikage. Yet, in Japan he is still considered a "hero" of the Sengoku.

Villains used treachery to remove or murder other lords, and while it could be said that driving out a lord was a more moral alternative to murder vis a vis Gekokujo, Nobunaga murdered his brother and attacked his grandfather, however Takeda Shingen removed his father from power and drove him from the province, sparing his life. So it might be a better question to ask not what makes a hero or villain but why one was designated one or the other. Even if the methods are considered heinous and barbaric, protecting one’s lands and maintaining the peace was the goal, so as long as it was effective, it could be considered heroic. So when comparing Oda Nobunaga, who burned temples and essentially maintained a sustained terror campaign of “shock and awe”, he was doing it with the relatively honorable goal of unifying and bringing peace to Japan. This is contrasted with Matsunaga Hisahide, who was essentially making a selfish grab for power. These men were a product of their age, and the glorification of brutality was a symbol of the times.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

A Second Chance at Life-"The Moss at Tokeiji"

As anyone who is familiar with Japanese history will know, the lot of women during the era of warrior rule was not always a pleasant one. Arranged political marriages resulted in relationships that were often loveless, and relationships between the parties to the arrangement meant that a woman's status could change in an instant. The loss of a husband could also put the woman at the mercy of her in-laws. Lacking many of the protections women enjoyed in the Heian era, women such as Oda Nobunaga's sister Oichi endured tragic lives. Oichi's husband Azai Nagamasa committed suicide after being defeated by her brother Nobunaga. Forced into another political marriage, her new husband Shibata Katsuie was forced to follow suit (with Oichi joining him) at the hands of Hashiba (Toyotomi) Hideyoshi. However, there were a handful of alternatives for these women, particularly during the Edo period. A woman in an abusive relationship or simply on the run from a husband could enter a so-called 'divorce temple' and receive sanctuary, being put beyond the reach of her husband. After two to three years of religious training such a woman could receive a divorce, with many returning to their birth families and even remarrying. One of the most famous 'divorce temples' that gave women a second chance at life was Tokei-ji in Kamakura. Founded by Kakusan Shido, the widow of regent Hojo Tokimune (the regent who dealt with the Mongol invasions of Japan) in 1285, the temple was called the 'run-in' temple and continued to serve in this capacity until 1901 when the convent was converted into a monastery. "The Moss at Tokei-ji" is a collection of short prose pieces called "haibun" by several women poets paying homage to the over 600 years of the temple's history and the protection it afforded to women. The book is a labor of love by co-editors Lidia Rozmus and Carmen Sterba, and the care and thoughtfulness put into its preparation, execution, and design shine through.

From a design standpoint, the book reflects the best features of the Japanese aesthetic. It can best be described as simple and elegant. Nature views taken at the temple by Mamoru Luke Sterba Yanka illustrate the page edges, providing a subliminal boost to the prose within. The editors have included a very helpful glossary that will be invaluable to those new to haibun. Among other things, it explains the concept of 'seasonal words' and definitions of the different art forms. There's a short history of Tokeiji that one would have liked to seen expanded. There are biographies of all the authors and a selection of books intended for further reading-a solid variety of scholarly works devoted to both history and the arts.

The book collects 11 haibun (defined by the book as "a short prose piece with one or more haiku") penned by some of the better known women in the field of Japanese poetry. Authors include Margaret Chula, Patricia Donegan, Abigail Friedman, the late Kayoko Hashimoto, Masako Kokutami, Patricia J. Machmiller, Emiko Miyashita, Lidia Rozmus, Carmen Sterba, Nanae Tamaura, and Ikuyo Yoshimura. The educational credentials and publishing history of these ladies are impressive to say the least, and gives the book much credibility before a page is turned. Each of the haibun shares the author's impressions of Tokeiji, with an excellent variety of approaches. Some such as "Sasanqua" (Miyashita) or "Tokeiji Temple" (Donegan) revolve around a visit to the temple and the feelings and introspection it arouses in the author, while others such as "Regina of the Clouds" (Friedman) seemingly have nothing to do with the temple at first glance (detailing the author's friendship with a self-destructive young woman). Others like "Tokeiji Temple-Soothing the Spirit" (Kakutani) and "A Safe Place To Run To" (Sterba) address the history of the temple. Of course, many of the pieces combine these approaches to one degree or another. Perhaps our favorite was "Reveries of the Water Moon Kannon" (Chula), a selection that stretches from pre-WWII Japan through the Edo period to the Kamakura era and is written from the viewpoint of the Bodhisattva Kannon as she observes some of the many women who sought shelter at Tokeiji. Some of the haibun have multiple haiku and some contain Japanese versions of the poems. While the road taken by each of the authors vary, the destination always proves to be the temple of Tokeiji and the women it served.

The haiku (the popular 'three line' poems of Japan) encapsulate and underline the prose, giving it added depth and another layer of feeling. As with poetry in general, exploring the different interpretations and what the author might have meant for them to say is a major part of the enjoyment in reading the haiku. Offerings such as

near the gate
spiderweb catching the sunlight-
no master around

from "The Spiderweb" (Rozmus) are both obvious and subtle in their implications, allowing the book to work well as an introduction to haiku for neophytes as well as food for thought for longtime poets. The haibun dealing with seasons and nature such as "Haibun" (Machmiller), "At Tokeiji Temple" (Tamura), and "Four Seasons in Tokeiji Temple" (Yoshimura) benefit greatly by the allusions and symbolism of classic Japanese poetry. The authors have succeeded in 'marrying' their haiku to the haibun, producing pieces where one form elevates the other.

The haibun is further enhanced by the accompanying haiga paintings by Lidia Rozmus. Haiga is an art form that combines elements of haiku and sumi-e ink painting. Composed with black ink and brush, each haiga contains one haiku from each author's contributed piece along with a stylized image meant to "complement rather than illustrate" (much as the haiku complement the haibun). Much of the enjoyment gotten from reading the book is derived from putting one's own individual interpretation to the paintings and how the images and poetry build on each other. While many of the images seem to be fairly obvious at first glance, they are open to many interpretations upon further examinations. Are the images in "Unforgettable Encounters" (Hashimoto) meant to be raindrops, blossoms, or perhaps tears? Some images even attempt to define the undefinable, such as the haiga illustrating "the sound of sweeping sunbeams" from "A Safe Place To Run To" (Sterba). In the best tradition of Japanese culture, the haiga are simple in their execution but complex in their symbolism and will reflect the mindset of the viewer as much as they do that of the author.

"The Moss at Tokeiji" works on several levels. The haiku, haibun, and haiga give the reader a pleasing variety of Japanese art forms authored by some of the best known names in the field. It's designed to be accessible and enjoyable for both aficionados and beginners, and the subject matter will appeal to not only haiku writers but historians and even advocates of women's rights. This elegant volume is a well-executed tribute to the 'walk-in' temple that gave many a woman a second chance at life.

For information on obtaining a copy of "The Moss at Tokeiji" (published by Deep North Press), contact co-editor Carmen Sterba at carmensterbaATyahoo.com (replacing AT with @-we can't have Carmen flooded with spambots, y'know).