For many years, the western world spoke derisively about products “Made in Japan.” That characterization began following WWII, as Japan copied many things and could produce them in a quality manner at a lower cost than elsewhere. However, that “copy-cat description” totally disappeared when they began to introduce a new world of Japanese electronics such as the Walkman. Moreover, as Japan in its history adopted Chinese characters into its written language and many other mainstays of Chinese culture, it was assumed that they lacked creativity. However, though the Japanese people are steeped in tradition, they can build upon that tradition to create new images, concepts and products.
Sixty years ago, a Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa, drew upon history and tradition to make a huge impact on the film industry. Nikkei Asia recently published an article entitled The First Samurai: How a Japanese Actor Created the “Macho” Role Model. The film, Yojimbo, directed by Akira Kurosawa and starring Toshiro Mifune, shown on the left in the image below, was a huge success and influenced motion pictures worldwide.
The Yojimbo (bodyguard) is an existential hero, cool and ironic driven by chance and sheer whim. Like Clint Eastwood in Man With No Name, the Yojimbo has no identity and just selects the name of any nearby flower. Ultimately, gangsters and outsiders would adopt the anonymity of Yojimbo. The Italian director, Sergio Leone, was forced to compensate Kurosawa for plagiarizing the Yojimbo story in his movie A Fistful of Dollars which propelled Clint Eastwood into stardom.
Yojimbo and the follow-up, Sanjuro, released in 1962 made Mifune the first Asian actor to reach international fame ten years before the great kung-fu actor, Bruce Lee, made the scene. If anyone would like to relive the history and drama of Mifune, you can go to a Mifune-themed restaurant in Tokyo. It is located in a backstreet of the unfashionable Ningyo-cho district. You might consult your hotel concierge for written directions in Japanese as it is not an ordinary tourist attraction. However, there is a memorabilia section with images of Mifune as well as his family crest reflecting the four Japanese character phrase dear to his heart – Yuu Mou Shou Jin – meaning “ferocious courage and intensity” which are tremendous attributes in any walk of life. Perhaps, you could also make a deal with the waiter, shown below, to buy the shirt off of his back which displays the Japanese characters referenced above. By the way, you might see the Nikkei Asia author, Peter Tasker, there too.
Another Peter Tasker article in Nikkei Asia entitled Yukio Mishima in the 21st Century reminded me of a very familiar event. The “First Samurai” created by Kurosawa was followed some ten years later by a real-life situation in 1970. The bestselling novelist, Haruki Mishima, and four accomplices invaded the office of the commander of Japan’s Self Defense Forces and demanded that his troops overthrow the government of Prime Minister Sato. As I lived in Japan at that time, I vividly remember that day. Moreover, following Mishima’s demand, he then committed seppuku or ritual disembowelment. Just prior to his act of seppuku, he is shown below voicing his demands so they could be captured by the media.
Mishima was a well-known novelist who had been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature on three occasions and the first major celebrity in Japan to become a supastar (superstar) just a notch above the famous actor, Mifune, mentioned above. Although Japan, Inc. preferred not to dwell on the “Mishima incident,” the right-wing community celebrate the various anniversaries of his “show-stopper” death. Some thirty of his novels have been translated into English. Mishima’s works ranged from intense novels reflecting his philosophical ideas as well as less serious fare as entertainment for the mass market to support his lifestyle. He is shown below lecturing a group of students. His wit and intellect commanded respect from both extremes of the political spectrum. However, in the style of his samurai ancestors and loners such as was portrayed by Mifune, he was prepared to go to whatever extremes necessary to make his point including the ultimate sacrifice. Both Mifune and Mishima dramas depict original characters though Mishima’s was real time and fatal. Nonetheless, the elements of conviction, honesty and personal sacrifice seem to be rather unique to us in today’s political world.