Continuing from the first part of this series, perhaps fifty years from now Usamaru Furuya will be remembered as the David Bowie of the manga industry. David Bowie had experimented with many artistic personas (Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke etc), and likewise Usamaru Furuya – having devoted his early works to mystical visions, alchemical Great Work and soul searching – made a 180 degree turn with the launch of Teiichi no Kuni [帝一の國] (2010-2016), a political thriller set in a high school that is metaphorically a microcosm of power struggles in Japan’s arena of realpolitik.
The Third Phase of Usamaru Furuya and Teiichi no Kuni
Kintsugi [金継ぎ] is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver or platinum. Instead of seeing cracks as something to be disguised, it is thought that the cracks form a unique, one-of-a-kind pattern (it is not easy to replicate the exact same cracks after all), and that the cracks become part of the history of an object. Moreover, this technique can also be used to combine fragments from different broken articles creatively to form a new item.
Continuing from Part I of this series, Lee O-young also observes the tendency of East Asian languages to incorporate contradictory properties into the same noun. For example, the English word ‘elevator’ becomes 升降機 in Chinese, meaning ‘a machine that elevates and descends’. Whereas the Chinese mind observes the elevator’s abilities to both elevate and descend, the western mind focuses on the ‘elevation’ bit and the ‘descent’ part just disappears.
The tendency of European languages to submerge two polarities into one is also observed in the word ‘man’ which can include both male and female. In a sense, the ‘woman’ has disappeared into the ‘man’.
Among the many Japanese words for describing different kinds of beauty that I wish could make it to the Oxford English Dictionary someday, high on my list are the below three words:
1) Beauty in Madness – kyouki-bi [狂気美]
The word kyouki-bi [狂気美] is comprised of kyouki [狂気] meaning ‘madness’ and bi [美] meaning ‘beauty’. It is not a word you would find readily defined in a dictionaryalthough it is used quite frequently. Personally I would define it as:
The strange and demonic beauty of madness, lunacy and all manner of mental infirmities, usually accompanied by:
an intense yearning or obsession for ‘purity,’ ‘perfection’ or ‘ideal’
a refusal to compromise with ‘impurity’ and ‘imperfection’
There is an occult meaning to the word mushi [虫 / 蟲] in Japanese, the nuances of which are lost in its English translation as ‘insect’ or ‘bug’. Here is a translated excerpt* from an article called Mushi ga ii [虫がいい] in a collection of essays Nihongo Omote to Ura [日本語 表と裏] written by the cultural critic Morimoto Tetsurou [森本哲郎] (1925 – 2014) –
The Japanese characterize such mysteries of the heart as mushi. The heart is what one desires, what one thinks and what one feels. Nevertheless, there are times when the heart does not work the way one would like it to. In other words, there is another heart within one’s heart. The Japanese call that ‘second soul’ mushi. It is believed that, of the two, mushi is by far closer to the depth of one’s being. The reason for it is that when one loses consciousness and when one’s breathing weakens, the Japanese call that condition ‘the breath of mushi‘. ‘The breath of mushi‘ means that only the mushi within one’s body is left to do the breathing. In other words, mushi is the last thing that supports one’s life. In that sense, the Japanese concept of mushi is close to Freud’s libido.
Whenever I think of Usamaru Furuya [古屋兎丸] (1968 – present), I cannot help but also think of Yoshihiro Togashi [冨樫義博] (1966 – present) as though they were two peas on the same pod. When I look at their photos, I even seem to spot a certain quality of kindred spirits between the two of them. Although they are different in artistic styles and work in different genres, they both share a deeply cynical, homophobic view of human nature and they are both, in my mind, what the Japanese call kisai [鬼才], or demonic genius.
The two men were born only two years apart, but they have followed very different trajectories as manga artists. Fame came to Yoshihiro Togashi early at the age of 24 with the launch of Yu Yu Hakusho [幽☆遊☆白書] (1990); he produced his best work Level E [レベルE] (1995) between the age of 29 and 31, before slipping into mediocrity in Hunter X Hunter (1998 -) and finally to artistic inactivity since 2012.
‘Ratai no Kigen’ [裸体の起源] from ‘Garden’ (2000) – a fantasy story inspired by Hieronymus Bosch; it depicts how in a garden where mankind are born naked and go about naked, a new human being is born wearing clothes.
Lee O-young [李御寧] (1933 – present) is a renowned critic of East Asian cultures from South Korea, and though he is best known in the West for his study of Japanese culture entitled Smaller is Better: Japan’s Mastery of the Miniature (1984)*, I think his magnum opus is actually an untranslated work named Janken Bunmei-ron [ジャンケン文明論] (2005), or “A Cultural Theory of Rock, Paper and Scissors”. It is a compact collection of his penetrating observations and insights into East Asian cultures and their contrasting differences with the West. This series of posts is intended to be an introduction to some of his ideas.
A language is like a software programme that is installed in the human brain. When you use that language to think, the programme executes certain commands that lead to certain inevitable results – that is to say, the language you speak predisposes you to think in a certain way. Moreover, the language programme also comes with bugs.
News reached me that Belladonna of Sadness [哀しみのベラドンナ] (1973) is finally being released for the first time ever in America this month. I thought it good timing to rewatch my Japanese DVD of this long lost gem in animation. Produced by the now defunct Mushi Production and directed by Eiichi Yamamoto [ 山本暎一], the film is loosely based on Jules Michelet’s (1798-1874) La Sorcière (1862), a historical account of the witch hunts.
Synopsis: The heroine Jeanne is raped by the feudal lord, who exercises his droit du seigneur on her wedding night. Her husband nearly strangles her for her ‘impurity’ but in the end tells her to forget about the incident. One day, as she is spinning, the devil appears, saying that she has called out to him to help her in exchange for her soul. The devil wakens her sexual libido and, after much resistance, she finally yields to the pleasure he gives. She goes to town wearing a green coat (green being the colour of the devil) and ‘earns’ a lot of money. A war then takes place and the feudal lord leads the men away for war. On his return, he is told by his lady, who is jealous of Jeanne’s erotic powers, that Jeanne is possessed by the devil. The lord then allows his soldiers to gang-rape her. She runs towards her home but her husband locks her out, so she turns to the devil for refuge. Later, a plague strikes the land and it is discovered that she can cure the sick miraculously, which eventually leads to accusations of witchcraft…
In spite of its relative obscurity in the West, domestically this film is classed as a masterpiece no less important than, say, Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, and it has remained my No.1 film over many years. The title of the film has also been translated as Sun in the Last Days of the Shogunate and A Sun-Tribe Myth from the Bakumatsu Era. This film is a Fellini-esque tragicomic drama set in a brothel in Shinagawa in the last days of the Edo era. The main character is an anti-hero who sponges on the brothel. It is impossible to sum up the story in a sentence. Nothing much seems to have happened and yet a lot has happened – it is like a intriguing dream. Just about every frame in the film is poster quality – you can take a screencapture, enlarge it, print it out, hang it on a wall and it would make an unforgettable picture as it is.