Thawing Out On the Stove Train Through Tsugaru

Published in The Japan Times, March 30, 2018. Click on link below:

In Kawabata’s Footsteps to ‘Snow Country’

Published in The Japan Times, January 3, 2015. Click on the link below:

The Konyoku Experience: Dipping into the Diminishing Culture of Mixed-Gender Bathing

Published in Metropolis Magazine on June 13, 2017. Click on the link below:

In Search of Pink Eiga: Tracking Down the Last Remaining Erotic Cinemas in Tokyo

Published in Metropolis Magazine on March 27, 2017. Click on the link below:

Wabi-sabi and the Transience of Things: The Essence of Boro Patchwork

Published on Japan Boro Vintage. Click on the link below:

Kei and Yoko

Originally published in Tokyo Notice Board, Aug 22 – Sept 4, 20014 issue

by Dan Asenlund

The question can hardly have escaped any expat in Japan, and is something most of us have to answer on an almost daily basis. I’m talking, of course, about the question why we chose to come to Japan. “To buy a cabin in Karuizawa and spend the nights chatting with Kawabata’s ghost” is one of my stock answers. “To marry Shibasaki Kou” is another. Not many, however, know the actual truth of why I chose to settle in Japan. Here’s the story about Kei and Yoko.

I had just arrived from Sweden (my place of birth and the country I grew up in) to Eugene on the American west coast. It was the first day of what was to be a four-year adventure studying journalism at the University of Oregon. The first day of international orientation where students of all nationalities were brought together to help indoctrinate us into the American system. Among us was a Japanese couple named Kei and Yoko. They were of the exact height, both had sparkly polished cheeks and stylish haircuts. Yoko was slightly older, and she was the one between them who spoke (English). Kei mostly stayed back and smiled. But they were always together – at the food court, the parties, in the classrooms. If you happened to see only one of them, you could be sure that the other one was not far away.

And then there was the ping pong battles. Me and a guy named Bjarne from Norway always got beat, but there was something in the manner of the couple in victory that really impressed me. Not to mention the manner of their occasional defeat. Something about the harmony this couple emanated must have moved me deeply, because I ended up choosing Japanese as the foreign language I needed for my Journalism degree. I got the last spot available and my life changed forever.

Soon I was a member of my university’s Japanese Student Organization, in charge of writing and directing a stage production for Japan Night. I made a bunch of Japanese friends and slowly fell in love with all things Japanese. A year and a half later I set foot in Japan as an exchange student in Tokyo, and a year after graduating (with a double major in Japanese) moved there to stay. None of this would have been possible if it weren’t for Kei and Yoko.

One day in the spring of my freshman year I saw Kei sitting alone at the foodcourt. I thought Yoko was away getting dessert or something and would soon join him. But she didn’t appear. I asked Kei about her and he said, a tear discernible in his eye, that she had just been accepted into a prestigious university in Tokyo and would transfer there. He was happy for her, of course, but at the same time he realized the inevitable.

Kei and Yoko broke up. Yoko moved to Tokyo while Kei stayed in Oregon. I didn’t see him again until the fall of my sophomore year, when he passed me in the street with blood-shot eyes in the company of a tough gang. We said hi, but not much more. Kei’s studies fell apart and he met a new girl, totally different from Yoko. What happened to Yoko I don’t know.

And with this sad ending I would like to say thank you. Thanks Kei. Thanks Yoko. May happiness find you after all.


Neon Dance in Hongdae – Aesthetic Heaven of Seoul

Originally published in Tokyo Notice Board, Dec 26 – Jan 15 2015 issue

by Dan Asenlund

Midnight. Silent shadows float past lukewarm asphalt, nightly specters on the run from a closed-off miracle. Above the sidewalk red neon light reflected off a frozen Seoul.

I’m home, but behind the unlocked glass doors of the dormitory lies a world I didn’t think possible. An aesthetic potpourri of triangular coffee shops, pirate ship restaurants and Turkish hookah bars with streams of crystal clear water running between the piles of pillows.

By day a palette in all the rainbow’s colors, street art and sculptures in all corners and alleys. By night a party paradise, clubs and bars embracing each other around a smorgasbord of street food stalls and glittering karaoke palaces.

And Noriteo, the park where bored university girls sit and wait to be picked up by adventurous Friday poets. Where guitar heroes compose verses until the breaking of dawn and where part-time fireman Jun serves well-mixed gin and tonics for two dollars a cup.

Under the crowded benches lie carved hearts, student love sealed with a lock soon to be clipped open by the bolt-cutters of reality.

A Friday poet looks up from his rhymes and listens to a girl-group chorus about Tasty Love, while a pair of smashed sunglasses reflect broken dreams in a puddle nearby.


Wandering the Veins of the Heart of Shitamachi

Originally published in Tokyo Notice Board, Aug 2 – Aug 22 2013

by Dan Asenlund

The famous Japan-observer Lafcadio Hearn said in the early 1890s that there is no such Japan as Tokyo. By that he meant, half-sarcastically, that the values and prescriptions that were once labeled Japanese no longer existed in this city, then already polluted by foreign influences. Today, over a hundred years later, metropolitans all over the world can testify that at least for a second – Tokyo’s intrinsic quirkiness aside – they have felt just like at home.

But there is an exception, a place that at least partly has remained Japanese throughout modernization, earthquake-restoration and bomb raids – Shitamachi (old town, or low town), in which heart lies Asakusa and Ueno. Asakusa, once the capital site for Tokyo’s entertainment district (not unlike New York’s Times Square or Montmartre in Paris) and favorite place to stroll for award-winning novelists Yasunari Kawabata and Kafu Nagai, is not what it once was, even though it retains a certain historical charm and serves as a nice contrast to the high town futurism of Shinjuku and Shibuya.

Ueno, however, still looks the same. And it is here my friend Shuhei and I are headed in the bus we boarded at the Ryogoku sumo arena. Toward the park, Tokyo’s oldest and richest in content, and toward the museums. Here stands a statue of Saigo Takamori, the man who helped overthrow the feudal Tokugawa regime and modernize Japan, only to later completely change course and revolt against the modernization. I try to read the look under Saigo’s thick eyebrows as we walk by on our way to the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, but I fail.

One hour later, after a thousand-year odyssey through the art of Japan and East Asia, Shuhei’s cell phone rings and he dashes out to find his roommate and friend since high school, Miho, who is here to meet me. I choose, however, to view Katsushika Hokusai’s ghostly ukiyo-e collection one final time before meeting up with them in a nearby pasta restaurant. Miho, who works for ANA and is bound for Hiroshima the next day and Okinawa the day after that, smiles and asks what I think about the pasta, which is actually remarkably good for being prepared in Japan.

Shuhei has a job interview later at night and leaves me and Miho to further explore Ueno by ourselves, the first stop being the Shitamachi museum. Here time stands more still than the lotus leaves floating in the Shinobazu pond outside, and the experience feels somehow nostalgic. Inspired, we walk around the park to the wooden houses of Yanaka, the only ones of their sort remaining in Tokyo. Here once lived Japan oracle Donald Richie, whom I talk about with Miho. She laughs and suggests we visit him (he now lives a few blocks away, windows toward the pond). But we content ourselves with a cup of coffee instead.

After a last walk through the park, past Benten as she looks over lovers’ silhouettes reflected off the lotus leaves of the pond, we board a bus back to reality.


Unexpected Visitors in an Ebisu cafe

Originally published in Tokyo Notice Board, July 20 – August 2 2012 issue

By Dan Asenlund

I spent a few months in the spring of 2009 speaking English (and getting paid for it) at a café called Com Inn in the nostalgic alleys of Ebisu. Customers pay by the hour to practice their English in roundtable discussions or (if they are lucky to arrive at a slow hour) privately with a native speaker, who in turn gets a little money and (not so little) free coffee. But more than anything, he or she gets to meet a potpourri of strange souls and interesting characters, which is exactly what happened to me one strange evening.

First the late-twenties-something woman, clad in a shining blue evening gown, who had read her fiancé’s text messages and found out that he had a date that same night (she knew about the location and would witness it from a nearby Starbucks). She will not confront him, she says, but instead try to pretend it is her being on the date, hence the fancy dress.

Then the 85-year-old woman wearing Marilyn Monroe-like sunglasses and talking about how her school class escaped the bomb raids of 1945 and how she was in her mother’s womb during the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake. All this in fluent English, perhaps after a romance with an American GI during the Occupation.

But just as I am about to end my shift, two beautiful young women sit down at my table and the boss asks me to work for another hour. No complaints on my side, especially not after they introduce themselves as actresses. Their English leaves much to be asked for, and when the boss isn’t looking I speak to them in Japanese. Marilyn Monroe doesn’t seem to mind, and the last person at the table, a guy in his early twenties, is shocked to find out that one of the actresses is Chiaki Ota, his favorite Gravia model (he doesn’t speak another word, his eyes glued to the protruding bosom of his tablemate).

The other actress looks familiar, as does her name, Tomomi Miyashita. We talk about movies (the boss is still not looking) and when I say that I love horror movies she asks if I have seen Ju-on. I have, I answer, and she says that then I must know that its director is Takashi Shimizu. Of course, I tell her.

“He has also made a movie called Marebito…”

Zap! A lightning crashes through the roof and hits me strait on the head, piercing through my brain. Across from me is the female lead in Marebito, the monster existing in Shinya Tsukamoto’s head as a pet, twisted in his mind from its original identity of his own daughter. Marebito, the film I had seen three times and in one of my university classes even read an interview with Miyashita. And here she was.

We keep talking until the café closes. The young guy is still eying Chiaki Ota, and the old lady comfortably leans back and smiles behind her Marilyn Monroe-glasses. All this while the woman in blue evening gown probably has taken her position in a window seat at a nearby Starbucks.


New Year’s Eve at Tokyo Bay

Originally published in Tokyo Notice Board, March 05 – 11 2010 issue

By Dan Asenlund

It’s 3 a.m. and I swim in a stormy sea of heads and raised glasses. Three trash cans float by on my right, the same colors as my favorite Swedish soccer team – I smile. Somewhere ahead (or possibly starboard) is the toilet, my destination, but I don’t have to know exactly where as the stream in the overcrowded club takes me right there. The colors are strong, the lights blinding and I feel as trapped as a character in a Ryu Murakami novel.

Three hours and five minutes earlier and I stand beside a pool – for some reason not enclosed – with a glass of champagne in my hand.  I look at the screen above this outdoor dance floor of Club Ageha which tells me in decreasing digits that a new year is in the wake. Before me three girls constantly dance in a trance-like state. They’ve probably done so since the place opened two hours ago, which I mention to Yuko who stands beside me, also with a glass in her hand.

5000 people, 6000 yen. Tokyo’s biggest New Year’s Party at the club everyone talks about. I’ve been in town for two weeks and this party marks the high point of my stay, the first in winter solstice and negative degrees.

Yuko many times disappears into the crowd, but the colorful hat another friend has given me for Christmas is easily spotted and soon we sit beside each other on plastic chairs by a kebab tent that warms in the wintry cold.

Earlier in the evening I saw the last sun of the year set behind Mt. Fuji from the 50-year anniversary celebrating Tokyo Tower’s observation deck. Later, in a shuttle bus with Yuko from Shibuya I saw through the window the same tower, lit and inviting. But the bus drove past it and onto Rainbow Bridge, colorfully lit as its name suggests. With my mouth wide open I wondered if I’d ever been this drunk without having had a glass to drink all night.

Somehow I manage to float on the wave into the toilet, the undertow quickly taking me back onto the dance floor and then through the glass door revealing Tokyo Bay. Yuko is gone but soon appears, along with the first sun of the year behind the horizon.


Korean Memories

Originally published in Korean Ducks Magazine, March 2006 issue

by Dan Asenlund

I have always wondered where my home is. Is it Sweden, where I was born, grew up, and learned how to make good pancakes? Is it the United States, where I have lived for three years, pursuing my college degree? Or is it Japan, which I discovered two summers ago, and is the host of my spiritual soul? Whatever the answer may be, I had not the slightest thought that it would be Korea, as I disembarked the airplane from Tokyo for a four day visit last summer.

Let’s rewind the tape a bit.

My first memory of Korea stems from the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul. I was seven years old at the time – too young to reflect on the political situation, or even consider the people concealed behind the masks of the fencers I remember watching on TV. About six years later I revisited both the country and the Olympics as I sat down to read a special edition pocket comic book of Donald Duck & Co., in which the comic was entirely devoted to an adventure Donald and his family made to the Seoul Olympics. Although I lost my copy many years ago, the story remains firmly placed in my heart. I did not, however, expect to find any traces of the story or the places they visited today. Instead, the preconceptions I had about Korea as I disembarked that plane were that it would look a lot like Japan and that the food would be killingly spicy.

I was to be proved wrong, however. My first impression of Seoul, with food stands everywhere and salarymen nowhere to be seen, reminded me more of Taiwan than Japan. Later, as I was shown around the artsy area of Hongdae, I was thinking Germany. Or maybe France. It was certainly a more diverse and multifaceted city than I had ever anticipated. And, best of all, memories of the Olympics were still there. Even in the subways, pictures of the mascot and 1980s digital age images of the different events were on display, as if time had stood still for 17 years. Although I didn’t see Donald or Uncle Scrooge, it was exhilarating to walk in their footsteps and in the millions of others’ who came from all over the world to see history being written. Simply put, it was an amazing feeling.

The food did prove to be killingly spicy, however. Right after I completed the surprisingly smooth immigration process, my host Josh took me to a restaurant for some Bul samgyeopsal, a meat dish being grilled on the table, then put into lettuce leaves to be consumed by hand. It looked really tasty, but as my tongue turned red, then black, and finally fell out of my mouth, I was not really able to feel how it tasted. At least I was hardened from then on (after drinking twenty glasses of water) and could eat whatever I wanted; I did not have to stick with my original plan of eating bibimbap every day.

After four days in Korea, I felt somewhat refreshed. It was a unique country, after all – not just a cheap replica of Japan as some people had told me. It had spirit, heart and soul. And the people were nice, too. I remember being asked at the security control before going back to Japan whether it was okay if they took a look inside my backpack – now, where have you ever been asked that?! It had been an insightful trip.

But before I conclude this, I want to mention an anecdote from my third day. After having walked disappointingly from a closed national palace to Namsan, where Seoul Tower also happened to be closed (for renovation), something peculiar caught my attention. There, from the speakers of a beautifully located kiosk and souvenir shop on top of the mountain, I heard a very familiar tune. It took me about ten seconds to realize that what I was hearing was indeed Kent, my favorite band, singing a song in Swedish that I had no idea would be played even outside of Scandinavia. How could I possibly hear this from some kiosk on top of a mountain in a country on the other side of the world? Even today I remain speechless, and the moment itself was just surreal.

But it was then, if only for a second, that Korea felt like home.


Natural Elements in Japanese Horror Films

by Dan Asenlund

While viewing a number of Japanese horror films recently, I made a small discovery. They were all abundant in natural elements. In Korei, earth and wind. In Dark Water, water. In Cure, fire (and water). For the sake of narrowing this article down, I will focus on the latter two examples. What is the meaning of the elements such strongly represented? Is it a sign that indeed evil, like the natural elements, is eternal and came to being together with goodness, such as the Chinese yin and yang concept? What does the use of these elements in Dark Water and Cure mean specifically? I will try to answer those and other questions as we go along.

First of all, let us track down natural elements in Japanese history. It is hard to cover all references to such broad elements as water and fire, but if we look into the creation tale of Japan, the Kojiki, we can make some assumptions about their meanings. The island of Onogoro, for example, is created by Izanagi and Izanami by stirring a jeweled spear in what appears to be a large basin of water (Freud and many others would say that this whole act is a phallic symbol!). Fire is also eminent when Izanami gives birth to the Fire-Deity, her private parts being burnt in the process. From the vomit she spills, more Deities are created. This shows that fire has a destructive as well as a constructive effect and involves sacrifice, which is interesting to note and something I will get back to later in the discussion of Cure.

Secondly, before delving deeper into the movies themselves, the significance of religious beliefs and customs in relation to the natural elements needs a mention. Japan is unique in the way religions are mixed within the same household. As folklorist Barre Tolken remarks in Ghosts and the Japanese: “Typically the same family that uses a Shinto ceremony for weddings will observe Buddhist rites for funerals; a businessman who espouses Confucian precepts in his profession may be a practicing Christian, a nonchalant Buddhist, or of no religion at all.“ We need to understand Shinto and Buddhism in particular to understand the Japanese people’s belief in kami (gods) and ghostly spirits such as yurei. In Shinto, “both natural elements (or phenomena) and man are given a possibility to become kami,” because they were both created by kami (see Kojiki). In Buddhism, which entered Japan from China through Korea, and became very influential about twelve hundred years ago during the Heian period, natural elements play a significant role as indicators of flow. The world is constantly floating, spinning – which by the way also could be said about modernity in Cure. Is the fire and water portrayed there just a metonymy for modernity? That could be one way to see it. But let us start with Dark Water.

Honogurai mizu no soko kara, the film’s title in Japanese which means something like “From the bottom of dim water,” primarily addresses the topic and problem of single mothers in Japan. But its imagery is more intricate than that. Why is the water honogurai and what significance does that have?

In Japanese mythology, both fire and water are related to kami. Water is considered especially holy and positive, but it is important that the water is clean to retain its positivism. In Dark Water, because Mitsuko is floating dead inside the water tank supplying Yoshimi’s and Ikuko’s apartment complex, the water is not clean. It is honogurai. This works in two ways: the water tastes bad because it is physically affected by the remains of a dead body inside the tank; also, the spirit of Mitsuko is trapped inside the floating water – she needs to be released in order for the water to become clean again.

To draw a Buddhist parallel to this, let us take a look at a Noh play that spurred out of a sequence from the classic Tale of Genji written by Murasaki Shikibu. In the play, entitled Aoi no Ue, Lady Rokujo is battling a vengeful spirit possibly sent to her for feeling jealousy over her ex-lover Genji (or perhaps it has been with her all the time, as some may argue). Before a Shamaness is sent to communicate with the evil spirit, Rokujo complains: “Harboring resentment toward others simply increases the misery of my floating life.“ Later, a holy man manages to outdrive the evil spirit and Rokujo is released from the floating and worldly attachments. Now, I don’t think this strong Buddhist message is very much related to Mitsuko in Dark Water, but I would like to emphasize water as something floating, something permanent in the world of impermanence. Mitsuko is stuck inside the tank similarly to the way Rokujo is stuck to the world of impermanence. When cleansed, both acquire peace.

We should also consider the traditional Japanese belief in the other world, anoyo (the world over there) and the road from this world (konoyo) after death. Anoyo usually means “the land across the mountains” or “over the seas” but is described by some very early accounts as lakes and streams with their own power. It could take up to 49 days to properly progress from konoyo to anoyo, but if a person dies suddenly, has unfinished business, or has not gone through the proper burial rituals, he or she might be called back to konoyo. Such is the case with Mitsuko, and hence the water is honogurai, or dark.

If water symbolizes the flow of life, then what does fire symbolize? More specifically, what is the significance of fire in Cure? As I mentioned above, many Japanese associate fire as related with kami, less holy than water but more emotional. It is also an important element in the Buddhist death rituals, performed by most Japanese today when a family member dies. For example, after the Obon festival (when the dead come back to konoyo for a few days during summer), torches accompany souls back to the anoyo (also interesting to note in relation to the previous discussion is that lanterns are placed in rivers and streams to guide the spirits, who use water to travel between the worlds). Another important factor to consider is that of the hitodama, a glowing flame sometimes seen above graveyards symbolizing ignited spirits of dead persons. A flame is also seen as a sign or omen that someone will soon die.

How is all this related to the representation of fire in Cure? For example, Mamiya uses a lighter to hypnotize some of his victims, such as the police officer in the koban (police box). That could work in many ways: the flame being an indicator that the policeman will soon die; the flame symbolizing Mamiya as hitodama with a task to fulfill (destruct modernity); the flame symbolizing the victim as a dead person stuck in the constantly spinning wheel of modernity; or simply as a metonymy for igniting the Cure (for modernity).

Another interesting thing I would like to mention is the association with hitodama and foxes, viewed as very tricky animals in Japanese culture that are on the borderline between the natural and the supernatural, relying on natural elements, and have the ability to transform themselves into many different shapes. The thought struck me that perhaps Mamiya is a disguised agent from the past, or from somewhere beyond, with the mission to detach people from modernity, with whatever consequences and methods it may require.

But not only fire is significant in Cure; water plays a prominent role as well. For example, Mamiya uses it instead of fire to set some of his victims into trance. One example is the doctor. Another is Takabe inside the cell. Why did Mamiya treat these cases differently? Did he have other purposes with the doctor and Takabe? Did he want to use water with them as a signal of their rebirth? But then, that does not explain the doctor’s actions inside the men’s bathroom. Mamiya threw water at the doctor because he was not allowed to light a cigarette inside the hospital, so in this case I think that water just served as a substitute for fire. The water he threw in her face could have been a sign to stop of the flowing of modernity, as I mentioned earlier, whereas the fire serves in a way to ignite the Cure itself.

We can also draw parallels between Mamiya and Swiss scientist Franz Anton Mesmer, whom Mamiya obviously admires and perhaps associates himself with. Mesmer was the founder or mesmerism, or what he himself called animal magnetism, which he claimed was a previously unknown fluid inside the human body, capable of healing. He was never really recognized for his findings and was often ridiculed by his contemporaries. Mamiya uses hypnosis the way Mesmer perhaps hypnotized his patients to make them believe in the magnetic fluid, thus mentally curing their illnesses. Both theories are very conspicuous, and perhaps Mamiya sees himself as a fulfiller of Mesmer’s unfinished quest. Even though their intentions might have been different (while using similar medicine), Mamiya probably feels compassion with Mesmer on several levels.

To sum this up, we can conclude that natural elements have played a large role in the history and myths of Japan, evident in Shinto as well as Buddhism and in many ancient texts. Both water and fire have constructive powers, fire being unique as it is also destructive and serves as a symbol for death and sacrifice. Mamiya, who is heavily associated with fire, pays the ultimate sacrifice in his quest to cure his “patients” from modernity. Water, as a sign of rebirth, serves both as the road between this and the other world as well as a symbol of a floating world. Its purity is highly valued, which makes the water tank in Dark Water significant as it contains a dead body and a stuck soul who needs a proper burial. We can draw the connection here that if mistreated, water loses its universal and cyclic powers and blocks passages of life. We should also note that many Japanese fear water because of the geographical as well as natural situations that persist in the region. As Dark Water’s director Nakata Hideo says in an interview about why water is scary: “The ocean can give birth to life, but it can also swallow life.”

To answer the question I posed in the introduction, whether or not natural elements symbolize eternal evil, I would say that while not necessarily doing so, they are highly symbiotic with life itself and serve as a middle wall between konoyo and anoyo. If something goes wrong along the way, the elements can take on evil powers until neutrality is restored. Fire is powerful and needs to be handled with gently; in the wrong hands, such as Mamiya’s, it can serve as an igniter of deadly cycles of terror and misdeed. Then we can of course argue that Mamiya’s are the right hands, relieving his victims from the curse of modernity. But that, again, is the topic of another study…


Modernity in Japanese Horror Cinema

by Dan Asenlund

There are many definitions of modernity. While Garon Sheldon defines it as ”progress, science, and rationality,” Steven T. Brown adds ”advanced capitalism and the emergence of market-driven industrialized economies” as well as urbanization to the ongoing discussion about what modernity really means and how it affects us today.

Japan, arguably the world’s leader in the advancement of new technology, is thought by some to be the greatest sufferer of modernity. With its unique social traditions and cultural values, the clash between the old and the new, the modern and the un-modern, is almost as strong as the impact of an atomic bomb explosion. In this essay, I will argue why the recent Japanese horror films Marebito (Shimizu Takashi, 2004) and Kairo (Kurosawa Kiyoshi, 2001) portray a negative view of today’s Japanese society, with the effects of modernity acting as the trigger to insanity and even to the Apocalypse itself.

But before I delve into that, I would like to mention that the topic of modernity is not a new feature on worldwide discussion boards. As Brown notes, modernity first emerged out of the Age of Enlightenment in 18th Century Europe and America. Japan at that time was still an “un-modern” nation closed to the outside world, but with the Meiji Restoration of 1868 entered a rapid modernization process that stunned the West, especially with the victory over Russia in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, the first time an Eastern nation defeated a Western power.

But the introduction of modernity in Japan did not please all. Many people suffered a sort of mental loneliness that modernity brought with it, and a deep gulf was created between the people who supported modernization and those who preferred to live by the old values. A famous example of this kind of personal struggle is found in Kokoro, Natsume Soseki’s classic 1914 novel about a young student of the modern age who meets an older mentor, whom he calls “Sensei,” who originally supports modernization but gradually comes to despise its effects. In the first part of the book, Sensei says: “Loneliness is the price we have to pay for being born in this modern age, so full of freedom, independence, and our own egotistical selves.”

Now, almost a hundred years later, and after another rapid modernization in Japan following the second world war, the same kind of loneliness permeates the lives of many people, especially those living in urban metropolises like Tokyo where private space is becoming non-existent. I will now switch to analyzing the movies I mentioned earlier and see how they support this theory in different ways.

In Marebito, just looking at the background scenery gives an idea of what director Shimizu and scriptwriter/author Konaka Chiaki want to stress. Decapitated buildings are mixed with overwhelming skyscrapers, often in scenes when Masuoka feels the most confused and disillusioned. In one instance, Masuoka says in his voice over that “Our ancestors were more perceptive than us” to a skyscraper background, while at the end of the movie Kuroki claims that “We used to be wiser” in a scene shot in what appears to be Yokosuka, with a large modern military vessel clearly visible in the background. It is obvious that Masuoka does not feel at ease living in the modern urban world, even though he himself is a technophiliac in his extensive use of advanced technology such as his endless filming and viewing on his multi-monitor home-station. But Masuoka’s technophilia could be viewed as a technophobic message.

For example, if we look at the status of Masuoka’s family, we can see that it is far from in order. He is divorced from his wife, whom he later kills to feed his daughter with blood. His perception of his family members is screwed – the treating of his daughter Fuyumi as an animal who feeds on blood is a reality to be questioned – but in his monologue Masuoka many times admits to his own insanity. To me, after watching the film twice, it seems clear that he did murder his (ex-)wife and that he in some way held his daughter captive. The phone calls he receives from the “aliens” are probably from his wife’s lawyer or other official people who suspect that Fuyumi is held captivated in Masuoka’s apartment.

This entire confusion of personal space is related to modernity in the way the family boundaries have grown larger while the space between people on different sides of the world has grown smaller. As Scott McQuire argues, ”The globalization of telecommunications flow goes hand in hand with the reorganization of the space of domestic life.” This clashes with traditional Japanese values with the family at the center.

The issue of private space should also be related to the “netherworld” that Masuoka explores beneath the surface of Tokyo (or beneath the surface of his subconscious, if you want). It could be argued that the netherworld represents the anti-modern, or a place for people (such as Kuroki, who commits suicide to escape the terrors that haunt him in the regular world) to escape the modern world. The darkness and surreal characteristics of it could perhaps be an indication that there is really no escape from modernity today. Interesting to note is that the road to the netherworld leads through some kind of underground factory (representative of modernity). Masuoka also says at one point (to Kuroki) that he does not think of himself as very different from the under-dwellers in the netherworld, hinting at his despise of the outside world.

In Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s Kairo, the result of modernity is depicted in a different, more cataclysmic way. Instead of showing its effects on individual sanity, Kairo portrays a somewhat dystopian modern society culminating in the apocalypse itself (in powerful scenes that remind of Hirayama Hideyuki’s beautiful drama Taan).

Like Sensei in Kokoro, the characters in Kairo feel trapped in their own loneliness (symbolized by Harue as she hugs herself before dying) and end up committing suicide. Computers and the Internet represent modernity, again symbolizing the issue of shrinking personal space and loneliness. While we can connect with people all over the world in an instant, we become capsuled inside our own individuality, increasing the distance between ourselves and our geographically close, such as our families and neighbors. In Kairo, none of the characters seem to have close relationships with their families, and two of them even talk openly about their disconnection with them.

Another interesting issue brought up in the movie is that of our world being over-crowded by ghosts. There are many ways to look at this. It might be a literal reference to the actual overcrowding taking place in modern urban Japanese centers such as Tokyo or Osaka. It could also be seen as “uncanny technology” overcrowding us, or perhaps as ghost victims of modernity who have had enough and come back to remind us all about where our society is heading, organizing the kind of apocalypse that the film ends in. As director Kurosawa said in an interview, his apocalypse depictions should not necessarily be seen as something bad. “Many people construe those images and ideas as negative and despairing, but I actually see them as just the opposite – as the possibility of starting again with nothing; as the beginning of hope.”

A minor but nevertheless interesting detail to note in Kairo is a long-take of a group of friends shot from outside an ice cream store window, making the name of the store visible to the audience: “Sweden.” I don’t know if this choice of location is a coincidence or not, but if we look back at advanced capitalism as a form of modernity, we could look at Sweden to find a less extreme version of capitalism than what is operating in Japan or in the United States.

Other references to modernity are everywhere to be found. Like in Marebito, decapitated concrete buildings and factories play a big part in the narrative of Kairo. And I do not think it is a coincidence that we see the majestic skyscrapers of Shinjuku’s business district in the background of the scenes from the greenhouse roof, where much of the drama takes place.

Another thing that the two movies have in common is the use of eerie sound effects. In Marebito, the sound of the Deros is very creepy and inhumane. In Kairo, strange sounds surprise us every once in a while, often in relation to machinery or old decapitated buildings. In a way, we can say that the sound of modernity in these two films is comparable to the sound of impermanence as reflected by the temple bells in the opening lines of the Japanese classic work of literature The Tale of the Heike, which read: “The sound of the Gion Shoja bells echoes the impermanence of all things.”

In comparing the two movies and their approach to modernity, we have noted that Marebito tells the story of a disillusioned man cursed by the effects of modernity. In a way, the effect of mise en abîme (a whole within a larger whole) is present here on many levels. More literally in that which Masuoka is filming works as a story within the story, but also on a deeper level as Masuoka’s anomalous world is part of a larger whole – that of humanity’s struggle to find its identity and personal space in today’s technology-dominated society.

In Kairo, a viral horror film that affects many characters’ lives, mise en abîme is present as well. For example, in the scenes inside the computer lab, Harue shows Kawashima a computer program one of the graduate students has made, depicting dots that represent humans: if they get too close to each other, they die. Later in the film, something uncanny is going on inside the program, where the dots take on ghostly characteristics and collide one after another, in what serves as a smaller whole of what is going on in the main narrative. [Even the title itself represents mise en abîme, as the Japanese character Kai (回) shows, although I am sure that is nothing more than a coincidence, as Kairo (回路), “circuit,” is more relevant here.]

Despite their differences in approach, it can be argued, as I have shown above, that both Marebito and Kairo portray a society whose inhabitants suffer from the effects of modernity, finding themselves all alone and cut off from regional communities that used to support them in the past. As Kurosawa Kiyoshi says, “A human being, isolated amidst a huge aggregation of people and information systems, [still] remains entirely, entirely alone in this metropolis.”

Whether the Apocalypse is the only solution to cure people from the disease of modernity remains to be seen.

List of sources:

Garon, Sheldon. “Rethinking Modernization and Modernity in Japanese History,” Journal of Asian Studies 53.2 (May 1994): 350.

Brown, Steven T. “What is modernity? – Towards a Working Definition.”

Natsume Soseki. Kokoro. Translated by Edwin McClellan. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 1957. (30)

McQuire, Scott. “The Uncanny Home: Television, Transparency and Overexposure,” Paradoxa, vol. 3, no. 3-4, 1997. (528)

Kurosawa, Kiyoshi. Quoted in Japanese Horror Cinema. Edited by Jay McRoy. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005. (6)

Selections from The Tale of Genji and The Tale of the Heike. Translated by Helen Craig McCullough. Stanford: Stanford University Press: 1994. (265)

Kurosawa, Kiyoshi. “Emerging Cinema Master – Kiyoshi Kurosawa.”


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