Sunday, November 25, 2012

Kawanabe Kyōsai, Painter of Insanity

I have been asked to do my best to explain this:

I'd love to tell you about the ironic subtleties included to mock the upper crust of Japanese society, the unique use of tools to create images that remind one of the transience of life, the hidden meaning of the work which delves into existentialism and the wonders and amusements of the floating world.

Nope.  It's a fart battle.  That's all.  Sure, there are a few little interesting tidbits.  Feel free to check out the rest of the scroll.  It makes me very nostalgic.  I remember being small and having to trek out to the library and get special permission to go to the back room which smelled of dust and dead caterpillars and appeared to be coated in as much, and painstakingly search for the texts I needed and ever-so-slowly wind through the archives on a big machine that displayed them to me so my grubby little hands didn't destroy the precious originals, all the while the room becoming even more swelteringly hot and choking me.  I hated it until I had to do the same thing for a project recently, and was reminded how much I enjoy the smell of old things.

The university archive these images are from is done in roughly the same process, except for now we can all use the internet from the comfort of our own homes.  I wonder after the people who would need to look up this scroll for reference.

I can smell this one, too.  This is an old scroll I do not want to smell.

However, this is not an exclusive subject matter in any way.  Fart battles are actually a thing in Japanese art of this time.  Several artists actually did their own interpretations of the most ludicrous and powerful farts you'll ever see, everyone from the extremely famous Utagawa Kuniyoshi to a revered Buddhist monk and philosopher.

Many more interpretations, like this one, remain anonymous.  To some extent, the fart battles were a response to the encroaching Westernization of Japan, which I've discussed a few times before.  As Western influence began to seep into everyday society, and Japan was declared crude, distasteful, base and barbaric, many traditional Japanese things were adjusted or done away with entirely to appease the discerning eyes of the Western world.  Brothels were closed, pleasure districts dwindled, geisha were temporarily forced to cease activity until the West could figure out what it was that they did, kabuki plays were infused with Christian morals, and art was, to some extent, censored.  Glorifying nudity and peasant life was crude, it was decided.

So, in a way, the fart battles appear to be a kind of protest, depicting men in court hats doing the most vile and odious things imaginable, their genitals and hind-parts fully exposed and flapping in the wind, farting openly at one another as noble ladies look on with interest and swoon after the most noxious of fumes.

I can't think of a more disturbing and downright hilarious way to fully embrace the whole absurd idea of Japan's inferiority.  "We Japanese are a simple and vulgar people with no regard for your manners?  Well, take a look at THIS!"

But there is one man who produced some fart scrolls who did not wish to remain anonymous.  In fact, fart battles are almost synonymous with him.  Many anonymous works are accredited to him, or said to be "in the style of" him, and he in fact produced not one, but several fart battle scrolls of varying degrees of obscenity.

I've never really done an artist spotlight before, even though I have heavily mentioned and featured the work of Yoshitoshi, and showcased Sekien a few times in my entries on yōkai.  But since I'm here, I think I will expand the entry to show you some pictures and tell you a bit about my other favourite Japanese artist.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Ubume, the Yōkai Who Was Once Human

And now we have come to the end of our week of element-based yōkai.  Today's yōkai features that most crucial element of all, the human element (a neo-Japanesque thought if ever I had one).

I've stated before that yōkai are unlike anything else in any other country's lore, and even within Japan.  They are not revered like kami, they are not feared like ghosts, they are not avoided like demons.  Ghosts are one thing, monsters another, and yōkai are just yōkai.  They're kind of the lower rung of odd Japanese beasts, as the humourous stories many possess show.  They may attempt to explain or personify a natural phenomenon, they may just be mischievous being who wants to mess with humans, or they may just be some random, distinctive creature who happens to live in Japan.  Like I said in this week's first entry, just because we don't see yōkai so much anymore doesn't mean that they aren't still there.  Today's yōkai is no exception.

While yōkai are just inhabitants of the country, be they natural or supernatural, the creatures themselves are simply different than most things that roam Japan:  that's what makes them yōkai.  However, we've seen Tesso, who was once a man that let his unnatural death turn him into an onryō, except that it became rather monstrous, so he is viewed as a yōkai instead.  But that is a single happening: there is only one Tesso, and he only really wanted to spook one or two people.  So he isn't a breed of yōkai, he's just a guy that became monstrous in death.  That's pretty common in Japan.

What is uncommon is that certain element of humanity that enables anyone to become a yōkai.  There are only two such yōkai that I can think of, and today I will discuss one of them.

What is it about the human spirit that holds such unique power?  Today's yōkai exemplifies this quandary.  Japanese live in a wonderful country inhabited from great gods to lowly demons to bugs to pesky yōkai to ghosts to wolves to people.  Everything lives there and interacts with one another on different levels.  We know that some animals can be born, or some objects can be improperly purified and cared for and, after a long time, they become yōkai.  Some humans live unfortunate lives and have no power to control their own destiny until they are dead, wherein their spirit lingers on, hoping for some retribution.

But what if a human spirit is able to pass on, their body properly purified and cared for, but their feelings remain?  What if those feelings then manifest themselves into something frightening?  What if those feelings are able to change themselves into a yōkai all its own?  While incredibly rare, this sort of transformation is exclusively human.  What makes a human being become a yōkai?  Let's let the ubume tell us.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Raijū, the Shinto Storm God's Lightning Companion

So now it's Day 6 of Yōkai Week, and I've run out of the Five Elements of Chinese Philosophy.

"Well, that's obvious," you may be saying, "we were wondering why in the world you made such a big deal about the five elements when you knew you had a week's worth of entries to do. That was a pretty bone-headed decision."

Hey now, no need to be hurtful. I can just switch over to the Five Elements of Japanese Philosophy, which conveniently have two different elements.

"Why didn't you just do that in the first place?"

Good question. Actually, that would mean that today's element would be air (風) or nothingness (空).

"Hey, nothingness, that sounds pretty scary. What a great concept for Halloween!"

Yes, I do have projected conversations with myself quite a bit, but it's nothing to worry about. But you're right, nothingness is an extremely terrifying concept. Too terrifying for me to cover, in fact, without a bit more religious education.  Though some insight can be gained from people like Miyamoto Musashi or a high-ranking Zen monk like the one in Lone Wolf and Cub, it only really reinforces the fact that I am nowhere near capable of understanding it myself, let alone possessing the capacity to explain it to you, accompanied by witty comments and interesting pictures.

I think instead I'll just combine the remaining two elements, air, and use the alternate reading of nothingness for sky or heaven, and how about the additional element of electricity, for all you Pokemon fans out there?

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Umi-bōzu, Monster Monks from the Sea

Our next element is water, 水.  I did a water ghost before, and in fact, the Funa-Yūrei have a bit in common with today's yōkai, but they are vastly different in appearance, location, lore, and whatnot.  They are, however, sometimes considered to be partners-in-crime, if for no other reason than because a lot of really freaky things exist in the ocean.

This is not a yōkai.  This thing is definitely swimming around in the water right now.  Tastes damn good, though.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Tesso, the Iron Rat

Today's yōkai represents the Chinese element 金.  As we've seen before, this means gold.  However, since I've already talked about a gold yōkai, it also means, and is taken here in the gogyou ideology to mean metal.

So let's talk about Tesso (鉄鼠), the Iron Rat!

Friday, October 26, 2012

Konaki Jijii, A Yōkai Ripe with Superstition

Today's element is earth, 土.  Today's yōkai is also kind of popular in Japan.  Though perhaps best known from the ever-popular and all-encompassing series, Mizuki Shigeru's GeGeGe no Kitarō, sightings and stories of today's yōkai have been related all throughout the country.  Commonly attributed to Tokushima Prefecture in Shikoku, because of that island's association with the wild, natural locations in which this yōkai is known to dwell, in fact he has been spotted nationwide, and many rural villages have their own superstitions regarding... the Konaki Jijii (子泣き爺).

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Akurojin no Hi, Mie Prefecture's Roadside Phenomena

We're on Day Two of our week-long tour of Elemental Yōkai.  If you missed yesterday's entry, the Jubokko, please check it out.

The second element of traditional Chinese philosophy is fire, 火.  Today's yōkai, while not so much a yōkai as an unusual phenomenon, comes from my birth prefecture.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Jubokko, the Japanese Vampire Yōkai

Ah, it's been a while, hasn't it?  Well here, have seven new entries.

Really.  You'll recall last year at this time, the week leading up to Halloween, I posted an entry a day detailing Japanese ghost stories and folk tales.  Well, I'm ready to do it again!  But instead of ghost stories, this year I'd like to tell you about seven yōkai.

Now, you may recall that yōkai aren't necessarily a "scary" thing in Japan.  Of course, I think some of the yōkai I will cover this week will be quite scary, but some yōkai are just troublemakers, and some are even helpful.  But we won't talk about those since it's near Halloween.  I'll stick to ones that are generally frightening or, barring that, at least manage to cause death and destruction.  Even though the word "yōkai" is often translated into English as "monster," in Japan they run the gamut from the horrifically demonic, to helpful house-keepers.  Mostly they leave humans alone and want to be left alone, and only strike out with anger if they are disturbed, or wronged, or bored.  Mostly, yōkai are just creatures, things, unique to Japan, part of the odd and wonderful nature of things that dwell within our country.  We fear them, we respect them, we put up with them.  Many yōkai scholars describe yōkai as the embodiment of strange or unexplainable phenomena.  "What is that strange sound outside of my house?"  "Oh, it must be one of those types of yōkai that makes sounds like that."  "Why do I have an ache in my ear?"  "Oh, it must be one of these yōkai that like to mess with humans' ears."  Many such yōkai came about this way.  But then, what about the particularly well-known and disturbing ones whose stories seem to have spread throughout the country on their own?  Thousands of people across Japan don't just happen to come up with the same stories and ideas about the appearance and habits of yōkai simultaneously.

Well, it's because they're real, of course.

It's true, they're not seen so often as they were back in the days of Old Edo, but it's not because of new scientific understanding or loss of interest.  Yōkai are still everywhere in Japan, people just forget how to see them, because they don't know what they're looking for.  But yōkai should never be forgotten.  They are essential in the preservation of Japanese folk culture, and an important and fascinating element of the country.

So, let's do a series of yōkai corresponding to the elements!

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Boy's Day

Golden Week in Japan takes place at the beginning of May, in which so many public holidays happen in quick succession that schools and businesses usually give everybody the whole week off.  I remember painstakingly circling school days off in my calendar in an attempt to deal with going every day.  "Just 80 more days until Old People Day.  Then I can sleep in!"  Golden Week culminated with Boy's Day, in which everyone would go to a festival and have fun and returning to work and school didn't seem so bad.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Fox-fire, Samurai, Traditonal Theatre and Visual Kei: Yoshitoshi's Art in a Kagrra, Pamphlet

Finally we arrive at our third and final installment of my look into the Yoshitoshi prints used in Isshi's last photoshoot for Kagrra,.  I'd like to thank everyone for reading this series, as well as to LiveJournal user sutafairu for letting me use her scans of the photoset.  If you missed Part I, please read it here, and Part II can be found here.  Today's photo is the one that made me want to write these interpretations of the shoot.  I think it's really quite fantastic.

So let's interpret that one right in the middle, possibly the most famous of all three.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Heian-era Poetry, Kabuki, and Visual Kei: Yoshitoshi's Art in a Kagrra, Pamphlet

Part II of my reviews on Isshi's last Kagrra, pamphlet, featuring the art of Yoshitoshi from "New Forms of 36 Ghosts".  If you missed Part I, please be sure to read it here.

Today, let's take a look at the photo on the right.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Buddhist Monks, Prostitutes, and Visual Kei: Yoshitoshi's Art in a Kagrra, Pamphlet

This entry marks the very first entry for the New Year, all the more reason for my blog to start being more productive.  Even though I'm going to be very busy with college, I will need to write to relieve stress and focus myself that much harder, and the New Year is a time for new beginnings.

Originally, I was working on this entry last July when the calamity happened.  And I've held onto it in favour of more traditional but non-Kagrra, related posts since then.  But with the New Year I want to work harder to spread as much traditional Japanese information as I can.  I think my first entry of 2012 may as well be a continuation of this philosophy; I want to write about some things that only Kagrra, can manage to bring up and make some vague sense out of in order for me to discuss it.

For the most part, besides this introduction, I've kept the entry just as it was while I was originally writing it.  I still plan to joke about Isshi's dumb ideas and purposefully difficult over-traditional themes, because I am still a fan of that music and motif, and I will always remember fondly his obsessive personality and traditional leanings, as I see myself developing them further as well.  I also keep all mention of him in the present tense; partly out of laziness, but mostly because now I've decided there's no use to make it seem so dour.  Kagrra,'s music and words and pictures and stories will always be with us; and here on the internet we can always find much more information about it, new fan or old, that everything remains present and relevant.  Isshi's beliefs will never really be gone, or over, or finished, so it's not like I can just stop all entries related to that.  I will always find something new from something old, and songs about old things wrapped in twelve layers of Heian kimono and mysteries will always plague each and every one of us Kagrra, fans.

So I'd like to pick up just where I left off and tell you about a popular old folk character, traditional Japan, and Isshi.