Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Tag Archives | Japan

Getting Inside the Head of the Long Dead

Samurai RisingDon’t be alarmed by the ghoul­ish­ness of my title. Try­ing to res­ur­rect the life of some­one who turned to dust cen­turies ago is a chal­lenge, espe­cial­ly if the per­son left behind no per­son­al writ­ings such as let­ters or diaries. But it can be done. In prepa­ra­tion for writ­ing Samu­rai Ris­ing: The Epic Life of Minamo­to Yoshit­sune, I read all the aca­d­e­m­ic and pri­ma­ry sources I could find about late-twelfth-cen­tu­ry Japan. And while what-hap­pened-when is the basis of biog­ra­phy, you can chal­lenge stu­dents (or adults) to dig deep­er. If you real­ly want to try to get into the head of the long dead, go beyond the obvi­ous. Try answer­ing these ques­tions.

What did this per­son believe was going to hap­pen after they died?

No, I don’t mean what they thought might hap­pen to their king­dom or their rep­u­ta­tion. I mean: did they believe in an after­life? How would such a belief (or lack of belief) col­or their per­cep­tion of the world? Twelfth-cen­tu­ry Japan­ese of Yoshit­sune’s social class were Bud­dhists. In all like­li­hood, at the very end of his life Yoshit­sune accept­ed that his fate was deter­mined by kar­ma (the sum of good and bad deeds dur­ing his cur­rent and past lives). He hoped that his next life would be kinder and he would be reunit­ed with his friends and fam­i­ly.

What assump­tions did this per­son have about their place in soci­ety?

In oth­er words … there was prob­a­bly some­thing about this per­son­’s role or sta­tus that they nev­er ques­tioned. What was it?

We are all mem­bers of human soci­ety. Each soci­ety, in each time peri­od, has some under­ly­ing assump­tions that are rarely (if ever) ques­tioned. Nobody in Yoshit­sune’s time ques­tioned the notion that the Emper­or was semi-divine … or that some peo­ple were bet­ter than oth­ers because of their impe­r­i­al descent … or that loy­al­ty should be based on blood­lines. I think it’s safe to say that Yoshit­sune enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly believed in his own supe­ri­or­i­ty. If you insist­ed to him that “all human beings are equal” he would’ve thought you were nuts.

(Extra cred­it if you can artic­u­late an assump­tion from con­tem­po­rary cul­ture that may seem real­ly bonkers to your great-great-great-great grand­chil­dren.)

How was this per­son impact­ed by tech­nol­o­gy (or lack of it)?

Here’s an exam­ple. The tech­nol­o­gy of war­fare in twelfth-cen­tu­ry Japan demand­ed that samu­rai lead­ers dis­play per­son­al brav­ery and cred­i­ble mar­tial skills. In those days you had to get up close and per­son­al to kill your ene­my — with­in ten yards to be real­ly accu­rate in horse­back archery, and much clos­er with spear or sword. There were no guns, no can­nons, no sit­ting in HQ and phon­ing orders to your troops. To be an effec­tive leader Yoshit­sune had to be will­ing to risk his life.

What’s under­neath all that armor?

What kind of under­pants did this per­son wear?

What’s under­neath all that armor?

Some­one actu­al­ly asked me this about Yoshit­sune. Amus­ing­ly triv­ial? Well, as it turns out, you can’t answer the ques­tion with­out an under­stand­ing of the mate­r­i­al cul­ture spe­cif­ic to the soci­ety and time peri­od. So here we go.

When Yoshit­sune was an appren­tice monk, he would have worn a loin­cloth (a strip of cloth wrapped and tied around his pri­vates). It would’ve been made of hemp cloth because that’s what poor peo­ple used as fab­ric in twelfth-cen­tu­ry Japan. (Cot­ton was­n’t intro­duced until cen­turies lat­er.) When Yoshit­sune was old­er and liv­ing in Hiraizu­mi, Kamaku­ra, and Kyoto, he would have had clothes ben­e­fit­ting his sta­tus, and high-sta­tus Japan­ese wore silk. How­ev­er, I strong­ly sus­pect that when dressed in full armor, wear­ing a loin­cloth under his haka­ma (wide-legged trousers) would’ve made reliev­ing him­self quite a has­sle. In that case I think Yoshit­sune would’ve gone com­man­do.

See how much fun bio­graph­i­cal research is?


Theater: “The Story of Crow Boy”


Story of Crow Boy Bruce Silcox Minneapolis Star Tribune

In the Heart of the Beast play In the Heart of the Beast, pho­to cred­it: Bruce Sil­cox, Min­neapo­lis Star­Tri­bune

There are sev­er­al excel­lent, insight­ful reviews of The Sto­ry of Crow Boy, on stage Feb­ru­ary 18 – 28, 2016, at Min­neapo­lis’ (MN) In the Heart of the Beast Pup­pet and Mask The­atre. Links to these reviews are below, and I won’t restate their con­tent here except to reit­er­ate that the work tells the sto­ry of the Calde­cott Hon­or (1956) book Crow Boy’s author and illus­tra­tor, Taro Yashima (the pen name of Atsushi Iwa­mat­su).

Crow Boy, Taro YashimaWhat I do wish to remark upon in this lit­er­ary venue is the gen­e­sis of this show, a seed plant­ed decades ago through the pages of a pic­ture book into the cre­ative, bril­liant, inspired mind and spir­it of a teenaged Sandy Spiel­er (one of the founders of In the Heart of the Beast Pup­pet and Mask The­atre, and its artis­tic direc­tor since 1976). The book even­tu­al­ly brought Spiel­er to the larg­er sto­ry of its author/illustrator, which she and her amaz­ing col­lab­o­ra­tors bring to joy­ful, painful, pierc­ing, and ulti­mate­ly hope­ful life on the stage.

Take heed and take heart, those of you who are mak­ers of books for the young. Your sto­ries mat­ter, these works of first Art you cre­ate for chil­dren through text and through pic­tures. Write and draw truth and joy and friend­ship and pow­er and over­com­ing and the exquis­ite nat­ur­al world and human expe­ri­ence. Your sto­ries bur­row and blos­som in still-mal­leable young minds; they are busy nur­tur­ing roots of strength and pur­pose and hope and trans­for­ma­tion long after you have turned your own atten­tion toward oth­er tales.97

If you are able to attend the Heart of the Beast show, please know that there are some extreme­ly intense and soul sear­ing seg­ments in the work, doc­u­ment­ing por­tions of this world’s evil his­to­ry that must be remem­bered. The stag­ing expands our under­stand­ing of atroc­i­ties as they affect indi­vid­u­als and fam­i­lies, even though we can’t pos­si­bly com­pre­hend the true mag­ni­tude of loss and dev­as­ta­tion behind those flash­es with which we are pre­sent­ed. The show is def­i­nite­ly not for chil­dren. (The the­atre’s pub­lic­i­ty states that the “show is rec­om­mend­ed for age 11 and old­er.”)

The intri­cate inter­play of pup­petry, pro­jec­tions, masks, human actors, and music in the show is seam­less, inspired and often mag­i­cal. Small moments such as the book-lov­ing boy pup­pet Taro snug­gling to sleep lit­er­al­ly between the cov­ers of a book, and lat­er launch­ing into a brief moment of flight from his perch on the pages will trans­fix any bib­lio­phile’s heart.

The Story of Crow BoyThe pro­gram notes cite Taro Yashima’s ded­i­ca­tion “against all odds, to a tena­cious belief in the abil­i­ty of art to trans­form the world.” Cer­tain­ly Art that is made espe­cial­ly for chil­dren — and actu­al­ly for chil­dren — does have this capac­i­ty, since chil­dren are the ones who may be able to ulti­mate­ly trans­form this world. Thank you, chil­dren’s book mak­ers, for giv­ing them seeds of inspi­ra­tion and strength through your books.

At Heart of the Beast, a Chil­dren’s Book Grows Up” by Euan Kerr, Min­neso­ta Pub­lic Radio News

Crow Boy Takes Flight at Heart of the Beast,” by Gray­don Roye, Min­neapo­lis Star Tri­bune

Heart of the Beast Pup­pet The­ater Takes Flight with Crow Boy,” by Chris Hewitt, St. Paul Pio­neer Press

HOBT’s Much Antic­i­pat­ed The Sto­ry of Crow Boy on Stage Feb 18 – 28,” press release, Phillips West News

A descrip­tion of the play from In the Heart of the Beast­’s web­site:

The Sto­ry of Crow Boy explores the intrigu­ing life sto­ry of Taro Yashima who wres­tled with human bru­tal­i­ty, racial dis­crim­i­na­tion, and the rav­ages of WWII to build work of social con­science, com­pas­sion­ate insight, poet­ic visu­al form, and ulti­mate­ly — of joy. Yashima reminds us what it means to be human, and offers under­stand­ing into the com­plex­i­ties of cul­tur­al sur­vival. This pro­duc­tion draws on his auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal and fic­tion­al books includ­ing the Calde­cott Hon­or Award-win­ning Crow Boy (1956) about a young boy who learns to sing the “voic­es of crows” in defi­ance of his years of being bul­lied.