I was invited to the first Mindanao History & Literatures to Film Summit at
Capitol University in Cagayan de Oro City this May 9 and 10, but budgetary and time constraints prevent me from coming.
The two-day summit is hosted by the Mindanao Creative Writers Group, ably led by Dr Christine Godinez Ortega of Iligan, and Capitol University. The summit’s aim is to bridge the gap between local historians and writers and local filmmakers, allowing the latter to explore Mindanao’s rich but untapped reservoir of narratives in its history and traditional lore.
I was invited to share some great stories from the Greater Kidapawan Area for filmmakers to consider. I couldn’t come and share them personally, but I realized I could still do it by writing something.
Because my work as historian (and my recent hobby reading up on traditional culture on the side) has shown me that the Greater Kidapawan Area is full of stories you would want to see on the screen. From fascinating legends to dramatic historical incidents, the region between Mt Apo and the Pulangi has been the stage of sagas since time immemorial.
Here are just some of them.
- The Legend of Tambunawan and Mamalu: This legend is told in many versions by different tribes throughout the Cotabato Region. The versions in Kidapawan are unique.
In Pre-Islamic times two brothers rule over a tribe. When Islam came from Malaysia, one had to leave with half their people, becoming the progenitors of the Lumad, while the other stayed to convert to Islam, becoming the ancestors of the Moros.
In Kidapawan’s sole recorded version (that documented by Gabriela Eleosida from the Obo Monuvu in 1961), the brothers are Mamalu and Tambunawan, and they both moved from ‘Kabakan’ to Kidapawan when muslim religious leaders called Panditas came and enforced Islamic laws. Tambunawan subsequently became ancestor to the datus of the plains of Kidapawan.
Another version I heard from the elder Monuvu Abad Ladday in 2018 (and which I record here) has Tambunawan staying and converting to Islam while Mamalu leaves, becoming the ancestor of the Monuvu. Before they parted ways, Tambunawan gives Mamalu a piece of paper, a directive which tells Mamalu to stay away henceforth from the realms of the Moros. Mamalu takes it with him, but one day, he puts it down on a tree stump while he urinated. While Mamalu was preoccupied, a bird came down and swallowed the piece of paper. That bird became the first Limokon, whose cry the Monuvu still consider an omen.
One of the attending historians during the summit, Dr Rudy Rodil, wrote the most comprehensive compedium of versions of the legend. I am hoping these Kidapawan versions will be added.
The legend is full of potential, specially because its many versions have historically been used to assert indigenous legitimacy and foster Lumad-Moro ties. Filmmakers would do well to explore the political power of this story/
- Molingling: The fascinating legend of incest, which is one of the most famous folk tales passed down among the Obo Monuvu, has appeared on this blog before. I will only add that the legend is full of psychological complexities – from Molingling’s anti-hero mentality to Kobodboranon’s own sexual awakening.
- The Dog Unearthing Springs: I’ve also written here about the fascinating recurring motif of dogs saving a community by discovering sources of waters before. This would make a great short film, specially one geared at promoting more responsible and human treatment of dogs.
- The Loyal dog of M’lang: The M’lang local government records a legend concerning a dog owned by a datu. Despite being so small, the dog followed its master across a strong flowing river, and it was swept downstream. Thankfully, it was caught among bamboo stalks and managed to scamper its way to the banks. In gratitude for his dog’s survival, the datu named the river ‘Tamlang’ (Maguindanaon for ‘bamboo’), which would later mutate to ‘M’lang’ and be the namesake of the town. The Greater Kidapawan Area clearly loves dogs (I love them too, I’ve written about this and the previous legend before)
- The Life of Datu Ogwon: One of the most colourful characters in Kidapawan history is Datu Ogwon, son of Apao and founder of the settlements of Sayaban and Sudsuhayan. Ogwon was an Onituwon, meaning he had the strange gift of being able to talk to spirits. But he was also a Tahavawi (a medicine man able to use wild plants to heal) and a blacksmith. One day he suddenly told the people over whom he was datu that the spirits told him to seclude himself, so he left his family and people behind and went deep into the forests to be one with the spirits. He reminds me of Brandon Stark from Game of Thrones after he became the Three Eyed Raven.
- Kod-Ahaw: Literally ‘to seize,’ this is usually used in Monuvu to refer to the kidnapping of wives, a common cause of tribal wars called ‘Pangayaw’ in precolonial Kidapawan. In many cases, the kidnapping is actually done with the blessing of tribal leaders, in order to save a wife from an unhealthy marriage. Bo’i Era Espana’s book Poovian woy Gontangan is full of records of individual cases (and also of dramatic cases of children being kidnapped as well).
- Kollut and The Resistance of the Monuvu Against the Japanese: The most clever act of resistance against the Japanese in the Greater Kidapawan Area perhaps came from the Monuvu. Datu Lamberto Delfin describes an incident in Maliri and Kamasi in what is today Antipas, in which the natives took advantage of Japanese barbarity. The Japanese soldiers – whom Datu Lamberto describes as being under the command of an Otaka Makuti – had the habit of stealing all the root crops that the Monuvu would carry as they travelled. Seeing this, the natives decided to one day bring Kollut instead of sweet potatoes. Kollut, or Dioscorea hispida, is a poisonous yam that can only be eaten after being subjected to several tedious processes, among which are soaking it for three days in running water or burying it in ash for an equally long duration. The proper preparation of Kollut was unknown to the Japanese soldiers, who as usual took the root crops from the passing Monuvu. As the soldiers collapsed and stopped moving, the natives took the opportunity to hack them to death. Native version of Inglorious Basterds?
- The Murder of Eliseo Dayao Sr: I’ve also written before about Judge Dayao’s murder here. His death reminds me of the death of such nationally prominent figures as Jose Abad Santos and General Paulino Santos.
- The Escape of Lorenzo Saniel: This incident I heard from the late Mayor of Kidapawan’s 90 plus year old daughter. Lorenzo, a sitting councilor of the Municipal District of Kidapawan, was summoned by the Japanese officer stationed in the town. He was asked to serve as a spy against the guerrillas in Sikitan. When Lorenzo delayed committing, the Japanese officer grew impatient. The officer slapped Lorenzo across the face before ordering seven of his men to take Lorenzo to ‘go look for chickens’ (which seemed to have been a subtle way of implying an execution). Saniel was taken to where the Gaisano Grand Mall is now, but he was able to persuade the Japanese soldiers to go to Paco, where the present location of the DPWH is.The group came across a stream, bridged only by several bamboo posts. Saniel was made to cross it first, then one by one the seven soldiers crossed after him. When the last soldier was crossing the makeshift bridge, Saniel saw that the attention of the other six was focused on the crossing soldier, and he instantly saw a chance to escape. Saniel ran for his life into the brambles, and after much walking, reached his family in Balindog. Hurriedly the family fled into the wilderness, wandering into many of the remote barrios but going into the general direction of Davao, where Saniel intended to hide his family. There are many such riveting tales of survival during the War still waiting to be told in Kidapawan
- The Torture of Patadon Tungao: Datu Patadon Tungao, a Maguindanaon of royal blood, was a 3rd Lieutenant under the Bolo Batallion during the Second World War, serving as an undercover agent for the Resistance. He was caught by the Japanese, and was incarcerated, first in Cotabato then in Manila.Under Japanese custody, Patadon was violently tortured – his beard was burned, dirty water was forced down his throat, and his private parts were painfully mutilated. The torture was to make him reveal Resistance plans and names, but he never gave in any information. He was waiting to be executed in Manila when the Americans liberated the capital on 5 February, 1945. By July of that year he was back in Cotabato. After the War Patadon would settle with his family in Kidapawan, where he would live the rest of his life contributing to the town’s growth. Patadon did not have much formal education outside of Arabic School, but he was fluent in English and was a well read man. He was known to have read Lord Byron. He is a hero waiting to be celebrated.
- The Love Story of Hayao Nakamura: The memory of Hayao Nakamura is now almost lost, but I was able to record it from the last known living person to have met him, Bonifacio Madrid. Nakamura was one of the Japanese officers given command of the Imperial Japanese army detachment in Kidapawan. His taking over saw more humane treatment of Filipinos in Kidapawan, and he even oversaw construction of bridges and roads that Kidapawan would use well after the War. He was in such a good relationship with the locals that he fell in love with one, Rosalina Madrid, and they married and had a daughter. But the war called him, and in spite of the Madrids’ plea for him to hide, he led his men to Davao, where he was never heard of again.
- Sultan Omar Kiram, the Lost Sultan: I have written before about Sultan Omar Kiram. His story is perhaps one of the most dramatic you will ever hear in Kidapawan.
- The Moro Massacres of Sitio Palera, Sitio Pagagao, and Manobuan: One of the films attending the summit, Teng Mangansakan, is renowned for documenting the Malisbong Massacre in Palimbang during the Marcos era. In Kidapawan, there are similar incidents – Moro civilians as young as twelve and as old as 80 murdered en masse simpy for being Muslim. But the incidents in Kidapawan remain largely unrecorded and are waiting for keen filmmakers to explore the intense human struggles that went behind them.
- The Katindu Saga: One of the early success stories of the Lumad struggle, the Katindu saga was the decades long struggle of the descendants of Datu Ansabu in Arakan against the landgrabbing of Kidapawan mayor Augusto Gana, a struggle that has seen both legal action and actual violence. Fr Romeo Villanueva documents the incident in vivid detail.
- The Murder of Tulio Favali: One of the most macabre episodes in North Cotabato history, the murder of Fr Tulio Favali by the Manero brothers caused international outrage and spawned legends of brain-eating (Read my article on Tingug to learn more) . Filmmakers would do well to explore these legends as well as the actual facts of the crime.
- The Life of Connie J. Brizuela: A character of more recent history, Connie J. Brizuela was a journalist and human rights lawyer who was among the those killed in the 2009 Maguindanao Massacre. Her life – along with other great but untold lives of people in the Greater Kidapawan Area – deserve to be told in film.
I have said before that Kidapawan is a rich reservoir of human experience just waiting to be tapped and harnessed into stories. That is not an exaggeration, because as a fictionist I have been mining this reservoir and have barely even scratched its surface. I enjoin Mindanao’s filmmakers to do the same.
Give us films about Kidapawan!
(Leoncio P. Deriada, Palanca Hall of Famer, Polyglot, and Father of Western Visayan Literature, has passed away. Those who follow this blog will know what a profound influence sir Leo was to me. I paid tribute to him in this week’s Lifestyle section of the Manila Bulletin. Special thanks to Sass Rogando Sasot and Krizette Lauretta Chu for making it possible)
Leoncio Deriada wrote about Mindanao, and he wrote about it a lot.
His large body of fiction and drama depicts the Davao region he explored as a young boy— Philippine eagles still hovering over the vast, virgins forests of towering Lawaan trees, squirrels still spiralling up Durian trunks before digging their teeth into the fruit’s tough shell, and downtown Davao still full of coconuts and carabao water holes—a Mindanao long gone, but which has been captured for all time in the vivid settings of his stories.
Although he migrated from Iloilo with his family to Davao after the Second World War, Deriada was a settler. He became the person he was in Mindanao, in the truest sense of the Cebuano term, he was “natawo” here. The place dominated his imagination all his life.
(read the rest of the article on The Manila Bulletin website)
I will be giving a lecture, entitled ‘Finding the Settler Voice, in two of Mindanao’s metropolitan centers in the coming week. In the lecture I will elaborate on a Mindanao Settler lens of reading texts by Settler authors.
The first will be this Thursday, 24 January in General Santos City. Hosted by the Mindanao State University- GenSan, it will unfortunately be open only to members of the MSU community.
The second will be on Saturday, 26 January, at the Ateneo de Davao University. The event is open to the public with an entrance fee of 50 pesos.
For both events I will be joining poet, novelist, and critic Christine Godinez Ortega, film producer Santiago Diokno, and film maker Teng Mangansakan.
Come join us!
(Work and the lack of inspiration conspired to prevent me from posting here for some time. I hope to break that inactivity in the coming weeks starting with this post)
Anyone who says that anime is only for immature people does not know anime well enough. I’ve said that already here before. The long history of Japanese animation has produced a diverse range of titles, in genres often unique to it. From cooking battle shows to tentacle porn, anime is a testament to the wild imagination of the most creative culture on the planet.
And because this is Japan we are talking about – the culture that produced Zen and Superflat – it should come as little surprise that many anime titles already reach the level of literature in terms of style and substance, dealing with heavy philosophical and/or aesthetic themes with often complex story telling techniques.
This is a list of my favourites among them, works that have had a profound influence on both my philosophical and stylistic growth. The list is by no means exhaustive, and I am sure there are many great titles out there I have yet to discover which would easily fit into this list.
Revolutionary Girl Utena
I start this list with a bang. Shoujo Kakumei Utena (literally ‘Girl Revolution Utena’) has been described as one of the most complicated anime titles ever made. The first major work by the anime auteur Kunihiko Ikuhara (with the exception of the Sailor Moon series he only directed, every one of his works is here), the series revolves (pun intended) around the eponymous character Utena, who, and my struggle to make sense should reveal how strange this series is, enrolls in a school where she must engage in duels to defend a classmate, Himemiya Anthy, from being abused by Duelers as the Rose Bride. Initially proceeding with narrative coherence, the series descends into near-incomprehensible symbolism, involving a Student Council which receives instructions from someone named End of the World, heavy hints of abusive brother-sister incest, and a character turning into a cow. There is a movie adaptation, which is almost a completely different work altogether, and it ends with Utena becoming (literally) a sports car.
Utena is a monstrosity of a work, forcing you to retain your disbelief and instead analyze the symbolism the series is literally filled with. In that sense Ikuhara has succeeded in achieving Brechtian verfremdung where Brecht himself had failed spectacularly with Mother Courage. In typical Brechtian style Utena consists of repetitions of tropes (the damsel in distress, the duel of honour, the prince on a white horse) to reveal the metafictive character of the series, but where it diverges (and arguably why it succeeds) is in how it repeats those tropes so often and puts so many of them together to the point of absurdity, such that there isn’t even any room for the lazy bourgeoisie imagination to revel in formulaic familiarity. To that end, then, Utena shows that the future of Brechtian narrative is in Theatre of the Absurd.
But to say Utena is merely a Brechtian title would be too simplistic, because it also heavily demonstrates that Russian Formalist tenet of polyphony: it is so full of symbolism that there are multiple possible interpretations of the series. I am deliberately avoiding a reading of the series here, there is a website, Empty Movement, which compiles critical essays attempting to interpret the title. Essays (properly cited and intellectually elucidated) range from the interpretation of many that it is a critique of the Shoujo genre and of societal standards of femininity in general (this is why it is considered a classic feminist work), to the eye-opening theory that it may be an allegory of Buddhist cosmology and ethics. The constant quoting the famous ‘the egg is the world’ line from Hermann Hesse’s Demian certainly lends to the series a metaphysical bend, but the series is coherent stylistically, not didactically, demonstrating best Barthes’ description of the literary work as a ‘crossroads of meaning.’
Utena, as mentioned, is coherent stylistically, not meaning-wise: while I said it shows that the best way to accomplish Brechtian verfremdung is Theatre of the Absurd, it also shows that Theatre of the Absurd can also be Symbolic and Baroque. Even if it is hard to understand, Utena is a pleasure to watch because of its stylistic repetitions. The ‘revolution’ in the English translation of title plays on the word’s dual meaning of both ‘radical change and upheaval’ (the literal translation of its original Japanese title, ‘kakumei’) and ‘spinning’ (reinforced by the opening song’s title ‘Rondo Revolution,’ and the constant image of things spinning). The image of roses is a dominant motif throughout the series, and by spinning roses around and translating the series title to French (‘la fillete revolutionnaire’) in the commercial credit, Ikuhara neatly reinforces the heavy allusion to the Shoujo anime classic Rose of Versailles, itself a critique of female gender roles.
I have written about the Bakemonogatari series here before.
Bakemonogatari follows Araragi Koyomi, an ordinary young man (in the beginning of the franchise he is in middle school) who has frequent encounters with the paranormal.
But to simply say Bakemonogatari is magical realist would be too lazy. It has the typical irony and whimsicality typical of that literary genre, but it does not dispel any emotive attempts, and instead proceeds to explore how the sense of the fantastic can still be evoked even after the genre has been exposed to the point of metafiction. In a way the metafictive element of the series disarms the viewer into a false sense of security, then proceeds to playing with silence, extreme close-up shots that obscure the whole scene, and eerie use of shadows to suddenly bring out the paranormal again.
The anime adaptation of Nishio Ishin’s light novel series (this series is anything but light!) is dark minimalist, a title so heavy in dialogue it can only be deliberate. The Bakemonogatari series compels the viewer to piece the story together as it unfolds before you – the narrative is almost non-linear, and is deliberately obscured by the verbal jousting of the characters.
As I’ve said before, Bakemonogatari deals heavily with Nietzchean principles, from the moral ambiguity of the supernatural ‘aberrations’ to Nisemonogatari’s deconstruction of authenticity (and the implications of that in Barthes’ theory of the erotic and jouissance).
Another work by Nishio Ishin, I have also written here before about Katanagatari. The title is a sword-hunting series involving Yasuri Shichika, heir to the Kyotouryu style of martial arts, and Togame, a strategist working for the Owari Shogunate who hires him to seek out twelve legendary swords.
Katanagatari, as I’ve written before, deals with jouissance (a consistent fascination, it seems, of Nishio Ishin), but unlike in Bakemonogatari the jouissance is treated not in terms of erotica but the way the classic Greek tragedians used it: by obscuring the action, the reader’s fascination for it is heightened. As I’ve also said before, it also uses this denial (the name of a character in the series!) to take the discussion to the existentialist level, ending not with fulfillment but with frustration, thus becoming an allegory of life.
As a Nishio Ishin work, the series is heavy in dialogue, although unlike Bakemonogatari it does have some action. Dialogue-heavy stories is not new to the Japanese, just watch any classic Kabuki play (Kanjincho, Kanpei Harakiri, Benten Kozo, just to name a few) and you will find entire stories led by people sitting down talking. In a recent anime (I would have included here if not for there being other titles I could talk about more), Seirei no Moribito, the eighth episode is a masterpiece of narrative that demonstrates how this works in the classic sense.
In Katanagatari however Ishin treats dialogue differently: rather than being the sole driving vehicle of the story, the dialogue in the series revels at the small talk and banter, almost as if Ishin wrote the story to have an excuse to write fanservice and gags. To that end the series is metafictive like Bakemonogatari. But where Katanagatari is stronger is in its gorgeous and deliberately Rinpa-style design, further putting style over realism as its main aim. Katanagatari is much less story as it is spectacle and verbal banter.
The next Ikuhara masterpiece came out quite some time after Utena ended. Like Utena before it, Mawaru Penguindrum is difficult to give a synopsis to: brothers Kanba and Shoma Takakura live with their sickly sister Himari after they were orphaned under mysterious circumstances. Himari dies at the beginning of the series but is brought back to life with the powers of an alien penguin hat which possesses her and, using her body, tells the brother to look for the ‘penguindrum.’ Like Utena, the story gains some plot complexity before it descends into the absurd.
While Utena was set in a faux-European Roccoco world, Mawaru is very modern Japanese, and likewise deals with issues closer to the postmodern Japanese condition: there are heavy references to the 1995 Sarin Gas Attack in Tokyo, there are demonstrations of parental abuse, and consistent images of dehumanization and alienation in the post-industrial age (there’s a machine called ‘child broiler,’ where ‘unwanted children’ are ‘disposed’). Like Utena there are also multiple allusions that lead to a polyphony of allegory, heaviest of which are references to Kenji Miyazawa’s Night on the Intergalactic Railroad and Haruki Murakami’s ‘Superfrog Saves Tokyo.’ Like Utena, it too has spawned a myriad critical essays (here is an excellent one for example) Mawaru is rich with symbolic possibilities in its absurdity, probably more so than Utena.
The character I love best in this series was Oginome Ringo, who seeks to fulfill her ‘destiny’ by following the diary her dead sister Momoka left behind. The diary is written in future tense, laying out Momoka’s dreams (along with seemingly random acts apparently linked to a mysterious conspiracy to which Momoka is at least privy). Ringo and her concept are the inspirations for the eponymous character in my short story ‘Arabella Raut the Eighth’, which came out in Kritika Kultura in 2017.
Anime has many Künstlerroman titles – whether it be something as action-packed as Yukihira Soma’s growth as a cook to something as subtle as Yuurakutei Yakumo’s coming-of-age as a rakugoka (more on the latter later). But I only know one work of fiction that serves as a bildungsroman for the connoisseur: Hyougemono.
A fictional account of the rise of Sengoku-era warrior and chado master Furuta Oribe, Hyougemono chronicles Furuta’s struggle to balance his obsession with fine things and his life as a warrior, first under Oda Nobunaga and later under Toyotomi Hideyoshi. His growth as a man of the arts – with the guidance of the rising star Sen no Rikyu – is told against the backdrop of court intrigue within Nobunaga’s ranks, and at the end of the series Furuta is made to choose between being a disciple of Rikyu or being a retainer of Hideyoshi.
Furuta, in history the originator of Oribe-yaki, is a very endearing character in Hyougemono, because one actually relates to his artistic growth: the viewer cannot help but joining him in his naivety, and later enlightenment. The series can be seen as a study of the class dynamics of Sengoku Japan, but more interestingly it charts the growth of the individual into the highly developed world of Japanese high culture.
What makes this series most striking is in how it demonstrates that in traditional Japanese culture, the artist and the connoisseur are one and the same thing (such arts as Chado and Kodo, which are more performative than they are productive, give heavy emphasis on the cultivation of the individual practitioner’s taste).
Hyougemono also serves to demonstrate how much the ideal of wabi-sabi is an expression of the Buddhist dogma of the Middle Way, and how in Furuta’s initial obsession with finery he has, in typical Buddhist paradox, lost sight of himself is in his self consciousness (wabi sabi, in that sense, is also very Zen). Particularly poignant is the scene where Furuta realizes his folly when he hosts a tea ceremony with a primitive theme.
Perhaps most intriguingly, Hyougemono looks at the role cultural capital played in the treacherous politics of the Sengoku and Azuchi-Momoyama periods (Rikyu’s subtle goading of Hideyoshi with the single flower on the Tokonoma was brilliant), and how politics influenced the development of Chado aesthetics.
In this list, Ikuhara’s latest work (his shortest to date) is the work I had the hardest time penetrating (this time, any possible puns unintended). Yurikuma Arashi is, if anything, even denser than Utena and Mawaru, because where those two begin with some semblance of plot comprehensibility, it descends into the absurd early on. Yurikuma Arashi follows Kureha, a student in Arashigaoka Academy, living in a world dominated by a large wall called the Wall of Severance. The wall was set up to separate humans from alien bears, who eat humans. The series also follows two of these bears, Ginko and Lulu, who infiltrate the human world and enroll in Arashigaoka. As Ginko befriends Kureha, a mysterious force looms over the characters, the Invisible Storm, and tensions of identity and sexual determination emerge.
Where the lesbian undertones are only implied in Utena and Mawaru, female homoeroticism takes center-stage in Yurikuma (Yuri, literally ‘lily,’ is of course the genre name of lesbian anime). There are almost no male characters, and the main characters frequently engage in sexual behaviour with one another, often to the point of glorious camp (Ikuhara is a master of camp): in one transformation scene, Ginko and Lulu are depicted licking nectar oozing from the petals of a glowing lily emerging from a naked Kureha’s groin.
Consequently, unlike Utena and Mawaru Yurikuma’s allegory, while denser to penetrate than those two, is nevertheless almost singularly directed at the critique of female gender roles. It is a testament to its intellectual complexity that Anime News Network’s episode reviews of the series (competently written by Gabriella Ekens) serve more to discuss it rather than give feedback to it (it is a must-read when watching the anime).
Show Genroku Rakugo Shinju
One of the best anime titles released in the past decade, Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju is a romance Künstlerroman based on the manga by Haruko Kumota, dealing with the traditional Japanese performing art of Rakugo.
Showa Genroku follows Yuurakutei Yakumo, the holder of a prestigious name in Rakugo, as he takes on a young ex convict named Kyoji as his apprentice at a time when the art is struggling. Yakumo’s past as Kikuhiko (his first stage name), his initial reluctance to do Rakugo, and the tragic past that led to his assuming the name, are revealed throughout the two-part series.
The title is as much about Yakumo’s sexuality as it is about Rakugo and its aesthetics (those two are intimately linked). His early repressed sexual attraction to fellow Rakugo disciple Sukeroku, his inability to respond to the erotic advances of the geisha Miyokichi, and the bitterness born of Miyokichi’s affair with Sukeroku all make this at once a cerebral and carnal series.
But where Kikuhiko dies inside because of his frustrated sexuality, he blossoms artistically as he finds his voice as a rakugoka in depicting the sensual. It is a stroke of artistic genius for Kumota to set Kikuhiko’s artistic (and sexual) awakening at a farcical performance of the Kabuki play Benten Kozo, in which he plays the eponymous character, a famous icon of sexual ambiguity. As a fan more of Kabuki than Rakugo, the series definitely taught me a deeper appreciation of that art form, which I had initially taught was just a form of standup comedy. Rakugo, it turns out, is just as subtle and complex in its standards as Kabuki is, and the case of Kunihiko demonstrates how, just like in Kabuki, individuality plays a key role in the artist’s inheritance of a repertoire of performances performed for centuries.
I consider myself a benign snob, and these titles, remarkably cerebral for a medium often dismissed as ‘children’s entertainment,’ were practically made for me. It would be an understatement to say I recommend these titles to anyone.
(Appeared on Davao Today 10 September 2017)
Last week I wrote a review here of Leoncio Deriada’s novel, “People on Claveria Street.” With the nomination process underway, readers will forgive me if I will be a fanboy again this week as I push for the man’s declaration as National Artist for Literature.
To those who don’t know, Leoncio Deriada is a prolific writer of fiction, drama, essays, and poetry, writing in English, Tagalog, Hiligaynon, Kinaray-a, and Cebuano. He has won the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Award – the Philippines’ version of the Pulitzer prize – so many times that he has been named a Hall of Famer (and he holds the distinction of winning it in the most number of languages). He is also an influential literary activist, organizing lectures and workshops for the past few decades.
The Order of National Artists is the highest honor the Republic of the Philipines can grant to any artist, a recognition of a lifetime of relevant work promoting the country’s arts and contributing to national consciousness. National Artists are named for music, dance, literature, theater, film, visual arts, and architecture.
And these are the reasons why I think Deriada should long have been named National Artist for Literature.
1. He’s a great writer. The awards should be indication enough that Leoncio Deriada doesn’t just join contests a lot, he wins them a lot. Deriada’s fiction manages to strike that difficult balance between good writing and gravitas of theme (far too often, well-written stories are shallow, while socially relevant ones are boring). Deriada’s plots are clever and original (just read stories like ‘Dam’ and ‘The Hunt’), and his language is easy and accessible but often throws out startlingly fresh phrases (I and my girlfriend Nal love how he describes one character’s crossed eyes as ‘a facial calamity’). But at the same time they deal in an insightful manner with some very serious realities: the urban-rural divide in Mindanao, landgrabbing of tribal ancestral domain, the horrors of the war in the countryside, the dehumanizing impact of modernity.
2. He’s the local writer par excellence. The bulk of Deriada’s fiction is set in Davao, with the rest set in his ancestral home of Panay. One of my first exposures to literature set in a locale familiar to me was his work (I started my college life devouring the Ateneo de Davao’s copy of his short story collection “Week of the Whales”). Deriada represents best the power of literature to elevate the local into the realm of creative imagination: the lingering horrors of war in Guerrero Street, the deep knowledge of life among frontier settlers in Mawab, the clash of classes in Artiaga.
3. He created the literatures of two Philippine languages. Deriada has been nicknamed ‘Father of Western Visayan Literature.’ But as grand as that moniker sounds, it doesn’t fully capture the monumental achievement of this man in Philippine literature. Before Deriada, Akeanon (the language of Aklan) and Kinaray-a (the language of Antique) did not have literary traditions. This was largely because these two languages were treated as inferior to the local lingua franca Hiligaynon – which in turn was considered inferior compared to Tagalog and English. In a span of a few decades, Deriada went about looking for young writers who speak these languages, and mentored them to write in their mother tongues. These young writers have gone on to achieve international recognition (“Kinaray-a is now an international literary language,” as Isagani Cruz put it). No other Filipino writer can claim to have started the tradition of one language, and Deriada single-handedly did it with two. In a country where only English and Tagalog are considered prestigious languages, Deriada managed to convince government agencies to give grants to writers in languages which have long been marginalized twice over.
4. We need a regional writer as National Artist. The Order of National Artists fails ridiculously to represent the diversity of Philippine cultures. The rostrum of National Artists for Literature in particular is the crowning institution of Tagalog Imperialism: of the twelve awarded National Artists since the honour was first granted, only one, Edith Tiempo of Dumaguete, is not from the Tagalog area (although she ultimately comes from Luzon). And all awardees were or are writers in either English or Tagalog. Deriada is uniquely positioned to address this gross cultural injustice, being prolific in the most number of languages among the country’s many literary figures. Seriously, the Order of National Artists needs him amongst its ranks to fully deserve the label ‘national.’
5. A Dabawenyo President deserves a Dabawenyo National Artist. Digong’s election as President threw all your Manila imperialist expectations of what is likely in the Philippine halls of power out of the window. There is no better time to name a regional writer and regional literature advocate to the National rostrum of artists than now. And what better way to fulfill this timeliness but with a writer who hails from the same frontier town as our hillbilly president?
Recently in Mindanao, local writers have been surprised to receive emails and private messages on social media from senior high school students about their life and work. These questions and requests for interview seem to be from requirements being asked in school, an innovative class activity, I suspect, by idealistic young teachers who want our young people to get in touch with our local literary scene.
This is of course unprecedented, specially among local writers, as Filipino literature in general is largely underrated, unread by the Filipino readership. This is particularly the case with the youth, which largely consumes foreign literature, and if there is ever local consumption it is limited to works of popular fiction, very far from the literary crop. Our writers rarely get so much attention.
How, you ask, did the writers react to this sudden surge of attention? Scorn.
Many writers decried the intrusive nature of the interviews. Others deplored how the students did not even bother researching basic information about them before asking. Still there are those who called on the teachers to teach their students to be formal enough and write a request letter. And others simply complained that with the barrage of interview requests, they don’t have time to write.
There is, first and foremost, nothing mature or professional about bashing senior high students on social media. If there are rude requests from them (and admittedly there have been), simply tell them off or ignore them without making it public that you have done so.
Then there is a certain arrogance to demand that any interview be conducted in formal terms.
This, I think, reveals the underlying elitism that so defines our literary – and our artistic – community.
The pervasive attitude among artists, specially writers, is that their art – and their dedication to the field of art – makes them important, somehow worthy of utmost respect and veneration. The artist is a sacred person according to the Filipino writer (many will always think of the celebrity of Neruda or the venerability of Hugo), and one ought not to treat them the way one would treat other, more ordinary people.
Filipino writers dismiss the dearth of readership they should be getting as the result of the unwashed masses’ lack of education and breeding. They scorn teenage Filipinos for reading Wattpad novels and Kilig Romances. Ironically they do so while espousing generally Gramscian ideologies.
The Filipino writer has long decried the lack of attention, and when she finally gets it, she complains it is not in the necessary note of reverence she thinks she deserves.
The truth of the matter is (and it is a painful reality I am saying as a writer myself), a writer who is not read is an irrelevant writer, and the vast majority of our so-called ‘literary writers’ are irrelevant writers who are not even read by one another. We are no important Hugos and Nerudas to whom formal letters of request have to be given so interviews can be asked, it is just downright arrogance to demand something like that when a polite, even if informal private message on Facebook, would have done.
There is even more arrogance in those saying students ought to research about the writers first. It assumes, first of all, that the writers in question are important enough to be on the books (trust me, even National Artists sometimes have very little information out there). They also forget the fact that in the Philippines, Filipino books and other material that deal with Filipino writers (academic journals, literary magazines, etc.) are both often prohibitively expensive (a 350 peso novel is average), and excessively difficult to find. I cannot even find anywhere the birth places of so many Filipino writers that I have to ask from common friends. This all just goes to show how out of touch our writers are to their own realities.
But I think the biggest manifestation of delusions of grandeur are in those saying they don’t have time to answer questions because they have to write. How utterly snobbish can you get. You refuse to entertain what can be your potential readers because you have to write stories and poems nobody will read.
It is very counterproductive. One of the frequent reasons cited by less egotistic writers as a reason why Filipino literature remains so inaccessible is because our writers are not introduced to our children. That is now being remedied, and even if the efforts are facing challenges, the sheer snobbery with which writers respond to them are far more damaging to the efforts than whatever glitches these first efforts may have.
We need our kids to start appreciating our very good body of local literature, but how do we expect them to like our work when their first experience of it is a writer publicly humiliating them on social media?
(A term paper I wrote in 2014, when I was doing my Masters in Silliman for Dr Andrea G. Soluta. Also available in pdf on Academia.edu!)
Three works of Classical Japanese Literary Criticism
Japanese literary criticism, while not as developed as western traditions, is certainly as old as the Japanese literary tradition itself. And while there are innumerable works in the two millennia of Japanese writing, three texts stand out for their impact on subsequent criticism and literary output.
History of Japanese literary criticism
Japanese literary consciousness may have begun earlier, but its oldest definite manifestation is in Japan’s oldest book, the Kojiki. The earlier of the two ancient histories attributed to 7th century court editor O no Yasumaro (the other being the Nihon Shoki), the Kojiki describes the mythological origins of the Japanese nation. In the Kojiki, the god Susanoo, god of storms and brother of the center of the Japanese pantheon, sun goddess Amaterasu, is described as writing the first Japanese poem, in the 5-7-5-7-7 kana pattern that would become Waka. Japanese mythology then served not only political purposes (it was used to assert the authority of the Imperial family, who claimed descent from Amaterasu), but also as the initial text for Japanese philology. It asserted the divine origin of literature.
Literature (poetry in particular) would serve a central role in Japanese culture. The Kojiki documents that the earliest poems, with divine authorships, were spoken, but the introduction of Chinese characters in the first century led to the preservation of many early texts. The oldest collection of poems, the Man’yoshu (Record of Ten Thousand Leaves), was compiled during Japan’s Nara period (around 759 AD) by the court editor Otomo no Yakamochi.
But it was another anthology that would showcase the first substantial work of Japanese literary criticism. The Heian (900 AD) Emperor Daigo ordered the compilation of a new imperial anthology of poetry, and four poets, Ki no Tsurayuki, Ki no Tomonori, Oshikochi Mitsune, and Mibu no Tadamine, served as its editors. The result came to be known as the Kokin Wakashu (Collection of Japanese Poems Ancient and Modern). This anthology was notable for coming with a preface, often attributed to Ki no Tsurayuki, which not only discussed the mythological origins of literature, but also the development of styles across the ages. The Kokin Wakashu’s preface would be the first of many discussions of the nature of Japanese poetry, and its approach to discussing poetry would be used for millennia by succeeding treatises.
The Heian, considered Japan’s classic age, also saw the emergence of the Utaawase, poetry contests, which contributed further development in literary consciousness. Participants in an Utaawase would write waka about a given topic, and a judge, usually an accomplished poet, would serve as arbiter, giving critical justifications to his decision. These justifications contributed to the development of Japanese poetics.
It was with the early Heian’s critical output, in the form of anthological prefaces and justifications by Utaawase judges (which were often circulated among the court nobles), that the aesthetic of miyabi emerged. Often translated as “elegance,” miyabi was the aspiration for what has been described as courtly polish, free of emotional excesses and archaisms, characterized by restraint and dignity. With the introduction of Buddhism during the Asuka period (500-700 AD), miyabi was also highly influenced by its teachings, and the Buddhist-oriented aesthetic of mono no aware (the pathos of things) was closely associated with miyabi. Miyabi’s restraint and dignity was often cast against a backdrop of decline and impermanence. To the miyabi sensibility, the most distinguished poems are those which express grief at loss or suffering from failed love in the most restrained manner.
Miyabi’s emphasis on restraint became restrictive of expression, and the arbitration of judge on diction, driven by the desire to promote polish and perceived appropriateness as well as remove excess expression and archaism, led to a rigid system of acceptable words for poetry. This made miyabi so repetitive and stifling that, by the late Heian, the poet Fujiwara no Teika had to lead innovations in expression to prevent expressive stagnancy.
Considered by successive generations of poets as the most influential Japanese poet, Teika’s poetry made use of fresh diction that brought in new life to the waka tradition. His influence arises mainly from his body of poetry, but his treatises were considerably influential as well. A letter written to an unidentified student, the Maigetsusho, encapsulates both Teika’s views on the principles of miyabi, and his ideas on the proper composition of poetry, and it serves today as one of the most referenced works of literary criticism in Japanese literature.
Teika wrote at the tail end of the Heian period, and after him there was a considerable hiatus of literary output as the nation was plunged into successive military conflicts: the Hogen Rebellion (1156), then the Genpei War (1180-1185). Literary output was further stifled by the volatile Kamakura shogunate (1192-1333), which saw continued dispute between the Seiwa Genji clan who held the shogunate, and the Hojo clan who served to provide its regents (and at times held actual power) upon a shogun’s minority.
Lasting stability in fact would not come again until the Ashikaga shogunate of the Muromachi period (1337-1573). Around this time, the trend in tastes in the imperial court in Kyoto (where culture had been centered since the Heian) had shifted to the aesthetic of yugen. Often translated as mystique, yugen is the implication of profundity in art, the effect of hinting at greater realities, achieving the profound mystique found in koans, often paradoxical anecdotes that impart Zen doctrine. It has its roots in Teika, who defined it as one of his ten styles of poetry, but it would see its literary culmination in another form, drama, and with the work of another writer, Zeami Motokiyo.
Like Teika (who was the son of the eminent poet Fujiwara no Shunzei), Zeami was also the second generation of a family of artists. His father, Kan’ami, had earlier brought innovation to Japanese performance by merging the now obscure Dengaku (solemn harvest rituals) with more festive dances like Sarugaku (literally “monkey fun,” ribald performances) to lay the foundations of Noh. Zeami, who would win the favor of the Ashikaga shoguns, would elevate his father’s innovation to the respectable court performance Noh is today.
Zeami was the first to write treatises on drama in the Japanese tradition, and today he is considered the father of Japanese drama. Among his many treatises, his most influential is the seminal Fushikaden (Transmission of the Flower through the Forms). In it, Zeami mirrors what Tsurayuki and Teika have done for poetry, define the origins of the art, provide its basic aesthetic principles, and give suggestions for the proper handling of the craft. In Fushikaden, Zeami metaphorizes his aesthetic ideal of Noh as the “flower,” a metaphor which is closely tied with his treatment of yugen. To Zeami, it is the ultimate aesthetic aim to reveal without showing, and as such the power of art is in implying and suggesting rather than in showing. Consequently, Noh became highly symbolic and minimalist in its representation. This discussion of mimesis would prove to be influential in later discussions of art in Japanese culture.
The Muromachi period was to be followed by the tumultuous Sengoku Period, during which various feudal lords would scramble against one another for power following the collapse of the Ashikaga shogunate. Lasting nearly two centuries, the Sengoku became a period of constant unrest, and the Japanese people grew used to living in turmoil.
It was during the tail end of this age of upheaval that the aesthetic of wabi sabi emerged. Even more closely tied with Buddhism than was yugen, wabi sabi could roughly be translated as “imperfection,” and was founded on the appreciation of transience. But while it shared miyabi’s link to mono no aware in this appreciation of impermanence, wabi sabi differed with its emphasis on simplicity, asymmetry, and deliberate crudeness. Whereas miyabi was polished with cold dignity, wabi sabi was rustic and somber. Wabi sabi was particularly pronounced in the Japanese Tea Ceremony, and its leading aesthetician was the tea master Sen no Rikyu.
While no contemporary treatise about the application of wabi sabi on literature was written (one, In’ei Raisan by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, would only be published in 1933), it nevertheless came into the written art with inter-media influence (a recurring theme in Japanese aesthetics: the arts inform one another). It saw its literary manifestation in the haiku. Written during the tail end of the Sengoku period, the brief Azuchi-Momoyama period, and into the early Edo period (1600s), the haiku was first called “hokku,” the first three lines of a five-line waka (of 5-7-5 syllables, with waka having 5-7-5-7-7 syllables respectively). The hokku came to evolve as an independent form with renka, or linked verse: one poet would write a hokku, and another would add the two remaining lines to form a waka. To these two lines another poet would add another hokku to make another waka, and so on. Influenced by wabi sabi and its emphasis on imperfection, the early haiku poets wrote hokku as poems of their own right, “imperfect poems.” To add to this, many of the haiku written were about raw images of nature and rustic life, further adding to the effect of wabi sabi. Poets who first wrote in the form include Matsuo Basho, Yosa Buson, and Kobayashi Issa. It would not be until Masaoka Shiki, who wrote during the Meiji period (1868-1912), however, that discussions on the haiku, and its links to wabi sabi would appear.
The Sengoku period ended with the unification of the warring domains started by Oda Nobunaga and completed by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1568-1603), but lasting peace only came during the Tokugawa shogunate of the Edo period.
During this period of stability and isolation, there came a boom in arts, with several art forms emerging from the various capitals, including the shogunate capital of Edo (now Tokyo). Among them were two performing arts of related origin: Joruri, or Bunraku (puppet theater); and Kabuki. Playwrights for one form often wrote for another, and plays in one were also adapted to the other, making the two forms intimately connected. The connection is such that Kabuki’s theatrical movements have always emphasized on mimicking the movement of Bunraku’s puppets.
One of the most prominent playwrights for both stages was Chikamatsu Monzaemon. At various times described as the Shakespeare of Japanese drama, Chikamatsu wrote diverse plays, from historical action to his famous Love Suicides, and many of his works were adapted for both Bunraku and Kabuki. Chikamatsu’s work was what contributed to the development of the dramatic form during his time, but one commentary of his exists, the Naniwa Miyage. Compiled by Hozumi Ikan, the Naniwa Miyage is Hozumi’s record of remarks made by Chikamatsu (a close friend of his) about writing for Kabuki and Bunraku. As the two theatrical forms have been governed more by convention than by theory, Naniwa Miyage serves more as a manifestation of poetics common during its writing rather than as prescription, although subsequent writers would invariably take heed of Chikamatsu’s remarks from time to time.
A cultural sensibility also emerged during the Edo period: Ukiyo. Literally “floating world,” Ukiyo was the urban decadence characterized by the seeking of pleasure, both aesthetically and corporally (often together), and was the result of the wealth a large middle class had come to acquire as a result of the political stability. Brothels and Kabuki theater houses were often the focal point of this decadence, and the lifestyle manifested itself in art. This was most visible in the woodblock printing form known as “ukiyo–e,” which often depicts scenes of this lifestyle, but it also manifested itself in literature (ukiyo-zoshi): from the respectable, often aristocratic art that it was, literature suddenly found itself a mass product as the novel emerged as a popular form. Works of high drama and action, written for the emotional pleasure of the reader, were written during this time and contributed to the overall decadence of life. Such writers as Ihara Saikaku, who wrote both lurid erotic stories and historical action serializations, and Akinari Ueda, known for his grotesque and perverse tales, characterized Ukiyo literature. No work of criticism other than Chikamatsu’s emphasis on feeling in Naniwa Miyage, however, comes close to discussing Ukiyo in writing.
The Edo period ended with the Meiji Restoration, and with the succeeding Meiji era came rapid Westernization. This had a profound effect on Japanese literature, and modern Japanese literary criticism has its roots during this time.
With many Japanese writers receiving European education, Western aesthetic and literary movements began entering the Japanese tradition. Most notably, many Meiji writers began writing in a style that was roughly parallel to European Naturalism, with such writers as Natsume Soseki, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, and Yasunari Kawabata leading the helm. In poetry, Masaoka Shiki continued the writing of haiku, but shifted it away from Basho’s wabi sabi and applied instead the principles of what would later be seen as Imagism in western poetry. Shiki in particular wrote numerous treatises, both attempting to evaluate the tradition of poetry he was following (sometimes in negative light, as he criticized Basho’s poetry) and to bring it to modernity.
Japanese society was devastated after the war, and many writers reflected the sense of existential crisis felt by post-war Japanese society in their works. Chief among these post-war writers was Osamu Dazai, whose seminal novel Ningen Shikaku captures both the cultural schizophrenia of the post-war Japanese and the hollowness of urban life. The development during this phase was evident more in the literary output than in the criticism, which was at best minimal.
This largely continues to be the case to this day, with the sole exception perhaps of visual artist Takashi Murakami’s discussions of the “Super-flat.” According to Murakami, post-war Japan had to deal at once with two things: the disintegration of the traditional social hierarchies dismantled after the war; and the popular, largely western culture brought in following Japan’s reconciliation with the west. What emerges is a “super-flat” culture, where there seems to be no social stratification, and where all consume a popular culture that is a mishmash of western as well as traditional Japanese influences. This condition makes art spread out rather than stratified, and what would be considered “high art” in other cultures would be popular consumption in Japan, and vice versa: a manga with an anime adaptation, Aku no Hana, was recently produced, inspired by Baudelaire’s Le Fleur du Mal; while Murakami himself often creates anime-themed sculptures that are auctioned for millions of dollars or are exhibited in such venues as Versailles or the Louvre. Whether this may in fact be a return to the popular consumption of art in the Ukiyo age of the Edo period (when prostitutes were expected to know Heian poetry) is simply this author’s conjecture.
Ki no Tsurayuki, The Preface to the Kokin Wakashu
The tradition of Japanese literary criticism substantially traces its roots to the preface of the Kokin Wakashu. While it is often attributed to the poet Ki no Tsurayuki, it is uncertain if he, or one of his other fellow editors, wrote the preface. Posterity has remembered him most among the editors, and as such the preface is attributed to him.
The preface comes in two: the first one in Japanese, written by Tsurayuki, and another one in Classical Chinese, attributed to Ki no Yoshimochi, a rough translation of the first one.
The preface begins with a declaration of poetry’s emotive origins (“it has the human heart as seed and myriads of words as leaves”) and its power (“It is song that moves heaven and earth without effort”). It then continues by mentioning the divine origins of Japanese poetry before pointing out that poems of old were unregulated in the absence of form until Susanoo introduced the waka form.
It then proceeds to describing two poems, the Naniwazu poem, and the Asakayama poem, as the mother and father of Japanese poetry.
The Naniwazu poem goes thus:
saku ya ko no hana
ima wa harube to
saku ya ko no hana
(Flowers on the trees
in bloom at Naniwazu
say “now the winter
yields its place to the springtime!”
flowers blooming on the trees)
The poem, attributed to the semi-legendary scholar Wani, was obliquely referring to the emperor Nintoku, who had just been put on the throne but who was thinking of abdicating. The poem is indirectly convincing Nintoku to stay as the court wishes him to continue reigning, with his reign characterized as “springtime.”
The Asakayama poem is thus:
Kage sae miyuru
yama no i no
asaki kokoro o
wa ga omowanaku ni
(Mount Asaka –
Its reflection appears in the mountain spring
that is not shallow, and of you
my thoughts are not shallow either)
The poem is attributed to a daughter of the governor of Mutsu province, who recited it to cheer up a disgruntled prince Kazuraki, who was sent to the distant province and was poorly received.
The preface then provides its six styles of Japanese poetry, with examples provided for each style: the indirect style (which implies its allusive reference); the enumerative style (which is direct and non-metaphorical); the figurative style (which draws comparisons); the metaphorical style (which refers to scenes of nature); the correct style (where there is a logical chronology of things described); and the eulogistic style (which praises the current reign and the gods). This categorization of styles of poetry, a mimicry of Chinese poetry’s tradition of making categories, would be continued by succeeding generations of Utaawase judges, but many more systems will emerge, most notably Fujiwara no Teika’s ten styles.
Then the preface describes how the art of poetic expression is an ancient one, once dominated by the poet’s expression rather than the “frivolity and empty show” the author saw in his time.
It then proceeds to discussing great poets of old, beginning with Kakinomoto no Hitomaro and Yamanobe Akahito, and mentions the Man’yoshu, the first anthology of poetry (which the Kokin Wakashu follows).
What follows is the preface’s famous criticism of the Rokkasen, or the Six Gods of Poetry: Henjo, Ariwara no Narihira, Fun’ya no Yasuhide, Kisen Hoshi, Ono no Komachi, and Otomo Kuronushi. Henjo was judged “master of style but deficient in substance,” Narihira “tries to express too much in too little words,” Yasuhide’s language “is skillful, but his style is inappropriate to his content,” reading Kisen is like “trying to keep the autumn moon in sight when a cloud obscures it before dawn,” Komachi’s poetry “is lacking in strength,” and Kuronushi’s poems “are crude.”
Pointing out the emperor’s realization of the lack of education of many with regard to poetry (the same lack which has allowed these six poet’s flaws to go unnoticed for centuries), the preface then describes how the emperor has called for the collection to be made with discerning eye to further the development of the art. It then describes how the collection is divided into themes, before the editors extol the immortality the collection will bring to poetry and collectively lament their own shortcomings as poets.
As is evident, the preface was not only aware that it is the first work of literary criticism in its literary tradition, the collection itself had been written to fill in this gap. The preface makes up for the lack of criticism before it by making a general assessment of poetry before its (the preface’s) writing: that poetry in ancient times was heartfelt and of genuine expression, but was crudely written and unpolished. This assessment would be echoed by subsequent critics later on.
Fujiwara no Teika, The Maigetsusho
Written as a subtly admonishing letter to a disciple of high rank, Fujiwara no Teika’s Maigetsusho (Monthly Records) is the lengthiest and most detailed discussion of poetics Teika has written. The letter is crucial in providing insight into the creative process of the poet who has been considered the greatest waka poet.
The letter begins apologetically, as Teika has always resisted giving lengthy lectures on poetry lest he be deemed pretentious by posterity. He is unable to resist this time, as the student has sent him hundreds of poetry and, while he has seen the improvement in them, he feels he must caution him against several errors in writing.
He first points out that not everything in the Man’yoshu, or in fact in imperial anthologies in general ought to be taken as models for poetics without some skepticism, as the tastes of the times vary. He thus cautions against contemporary poets writing in archaic styles, emphasizing instead on writing in fundamental styles first before the poet can experiment with this archaisms.
He then sets out his ten styles of poetry, which he however does not discuss as he has already written about them in previous correspondence: the style of mystery and depth (yugentei), the style of appropriate statement, the style of elegant beauty, and the style of deep feeling (ushintei) which he considers the fundamentals the beginning poet must learn, the lofty style, the style of visual description, the style of clever treatment, the style of novel treatment, and the style of exquisite detail, which are easy to learn after the fundamental styles are mastered, and the demon-quelling style, which says is most difficult to write. He particularly cautions against this last style, which is characterized by violent, “demon-quelling” words, as they may be deemed inappropriate in the tradition of “gentleness and sensibility” that dominates Japanese poetry. Teika makes particular emphasis on the style of deep feeling (ushintei), saying it is in deep feeling (ushin) that the success, or failure, of poetry lies.
He then enjoins the poet to take his writing seriously, lamenting many who take poetry for granted, and he insists that the writing of poetry demands rigid attention and dedication. It is in this dedication, he says, that the poet captures authentic ushin.
He gives advice on writing: one must not write when one is dispirited or in mental turmoil, as it will not wield deep feeling; at such times, easy poems such as those of nature’s beauty ought to be written instead, specially if the topics of writing has been provided in the Utaawase, not only because they are easier, but because they cheer one up with their lightness; Ushintei must be used in such topics as “love” and “expressing grievance.” He reiterates the importance of Ushintei, and enjoins the poet to extend it to the other nine styles.
He then discusses diction: making a distinction between “thick” words (words of heavy imagery and connotation) and “thin” ones (which are otherwise). He then enjoins the poet to consider the balance, never letting thick words overwhelm thin ones, or isolate thick ones in thin ones, and to consider if the overall line is too thick or too thin.
Teika then discusses the literary metaphor of fruit and flower, which he takes from the preface to the Kokin Wakashu (which, however, does not discuss it in detail). By “fruit” is meant thought and feeling, while by “flower” is meant language. He points out that some poems “have fruit but neglect blossoms, while others are all blossom and no fruit.” He emphasizes the importance of ushin (which is synonymous with the fruit) but nevertheless insists that the two must be considered with equal care, enjoining the poet to ensure organic unity between the two.
He then points out, almost romantically, that it is impossible to fully teach poetry, and that while poets of his time focus on form their work’s empty polish is inferior to poems of old. He then describes characteristics of the superior poem: it is free in its topic and theme, fresh in its treatment, and it is characterized by ushin.
He describes the seemingly inarticulate spontaneity of some poems to be works of masters, as it takes great skill to express by failure of expression, but cautions against beginning poets from attempting this without mastering fundamental styles first. He then condemns overly fancy verse, insisting that poetry must be of genuine feeling.
His famous discussion of the honkadori – poetic allusion – then follows: it takes great skill to allude to thematically corresponding poems, such as one about cherry blossoms, to describe seasons (in this case, alluding to the cherry blossom poem in writing a spring poem), so he advices beginners to use autumn or winter poems instead in writing spring poems. He also cautions against copying too much at the risk of un-originality. He condemns those who obscure phrases in order to achieve a semblance of breathing new life into an old verse at the risk of making the line nonsensical.
He then discusses the use of the topic words in the poem, suggesting to disperse the words of topics of several words, and warns poets never to begin the poem with the topic word.
Teika mentions the several “poetic ills” that have been prescribed against by centuries of Utaawase judges, but never discusses them in detail except for a passing expression of what he thinks as their irrelevance in the face of a superior poem. He does however agree that rhyme is a fault in poetry.
In a return to diction he tells the poet to avoid both repeating a word too much, and giving the impression that one is fond of a phrase.
While he enjoins the mastery of the ten styles, he insists that each poet has his temperament, and that a student of poetry must be allowed to grow in the style he is most comfortable with before he can explore other styles. In what might be one of the earliest discussions of teaching Creative Writing, he insists that beginning poets must be taught how to write in their comfortable style, and the teacher must adjust to this, and he alludes to the Buddha adjusting his teachings to the capacities of his disciples.
Teika then laments that deplorable trend of judging a poem by the poet, pointing out that many will criticize an otherwise good poem by an unknown author, while an inferior poem by a well known poet is deemed a masterpiece.
He then discusses allusions to Chinese poetry, which is conventionally deemed improper. He agrees with this but only if it is made a habit, it ought not to be completely shunned. He then goes on describing the merits of old Chinese poetry.
Teika then discusses how the poet must write: never over think, and write in a relaxed manner. Citing his father Shunzei, he says a poet must not try too hard to write to many, advising the poet to contribute just seven or eight in an Utaawase.
His last point is then to advise the student to consider the first line thoroughly, as it is the most important. He says he got his father’s habit of writing the body of the poem first before the first line, and recommends the student to do so as well. He then apologizes for the vanity of giving these suggestions and expresses deep respect.
The addressee of the Maigetsusho remains unknown, but likely candidates are two of his disciples at that time: Kujo Ieyoshi, or Minamoto Sanetomo. Two versions of the letter, with subtle variations, have been passed down to the two families descended from Teika: the conservative older Nijo branch, and the innovative younger Reizei branch. Historians have pointed out that the Reizei manuscript appears first in historical records and it may have been the original.
As is evident, Teika is at once a follower of tradition and an advocate of innovation. He agrees with many accepted ideas during his time, but he insists that it is the poet’s feeling – the ushin he constantly repeats – which matters in poetry. He is moderate with many of the rigid prescriptions on poetry common during his time, and advocates instead freedom of expression so long as form and appropriateness are not neglected.
The Maigetsusho also continues several traditions that the preface to the Kokin Wakashu begins: the metaphor of flower and fruit (and the insistence of balance between the two); the assessment of ancient poetry as emotionally authentic but formally inferior; the emphasis on ushin; and the independence of the poem from the poet (Teika, with his views on those judging by the poet’s fame, no doubt admired the audacity in the criticism of the Six Gods of Poetry in the Kokin Wakashu’s preface).
Chikamatsu Monzaemon, Naniwa Miyage
A compilation of Chikamatsu’s remarks on writing for Bunraku attributed to Hozumi Ikan, Naniwa Miyage (Souvenirs from Naniwa) is important in not only giving insight into Chikamatsu’s creative process, but also at the state at which literary and dramatic criticism had reached at this time.
The compilation begins with emphasizing the power of words in Joruri. Because Bunraku puppets have to compete with live Kabuki actors, Chikamatsu says, the words in Joruri have to be more powerful and must evoke action more.
He refers to a Heian story he had once read, wherefrom he learned the power of words to evoke feeling. He insists that even the descriptions of locations must be charged with feeling in order for the work to come alive. He compares this to what poets call “evocative imagery.”
Chikamatsu described Joruri plays before him as “lacking in fruit and flower,” and hinted that it is his work, with the careful attention he has paid into writing them, that has brought polish into the art.
He describes his first principle as the distinction in characters’ social classes, and from there determine how to describe them and how to make them speak and move.
Then he begins his famous discussion of the nature of art and mimesis: while Joruri attempts to mimic reality, it is nevertheless an art, and it must work by that definition. As such, a woman in a Bunraku play may say things a normal woman would not, but this might be essential for revealing facts to the audience.
In another famous portion he distinguishes his plays’ pathos from that of other playwrights by emphasizing emotion not with explicit statement but with reason (giri). “The audience will be moved by the convincing logic (rikugi) of the dramatization (giri no tsumarite)… it is important that the moment be filled with pathos in and of itself.” The same he argues must be true of beautiful description: beauty must be conveyed by its details shown rather than beauty being explicitly pointed out.
He then continues his discussion of art as mimesis: while he agrees with the general chagrin over frivolous antics on stage over realistic acting, he insists that art lies between the real and the lie, “between the skin and flesh.” He gives a parable to demonstrate the view: a court lady in the Heian is prohibited from seeing the man she loves, so she has a wooden sculpture made in his exact likeness. The statue is so similar to him that it was possible to be deceived and think it was him. But when she saw how the imitation had been so successful her desire for him subsided, and her love for the man began waning as well. Chikamatsu then points out that if the real thing is duplicated exactly it is somehow repulsive, and so art must know its limits. It is the artist’s license to fabricate plot, or make unrealistic dialogue, where he deems it most entertaining or artistic to do so.
The discussion on feeling with which Naniwa Miyage begins is immediately reminiscent of Fujiwara no Teika’s discussions on ushin, himself taking it from the preface to the Kokin Wakashu. The use of “fruit and flower” is also a testament to the lasting influence of the preface, as it has been applied to drama as well.
Chikamatsu’s discussion of giri, reason in dramatization, is reminiscent of Aristotle’s inevitability of action in his Poetics. While it is not impossible that Chikamatsu might have read Aristotle, however, it is quite unlikely that he had considering the policy of isolation Japan was in at the time.
Chikamatsu’s views on the role of art in mimesis are only different than those of Zeami Motokiyo’s in his Fushikaden in their emphasis and motivation. Zeami insisted that “for the actor to represent the flower, the flower itself must not be shown.” Zeami made Noh the theater of suggestion, with the aim of revealing to the audience the true nature of things beyond their physical aspects. Chikamatsu agrees that outright realism would produce substandard, even repulsive drama, but his motivation seems to be for the enjoyment of the audience rather than for any introspective intent. Both of them have their roots in Teika, but while Zeami follows Teika’s yugen, Chikamatsu subscribes to his emphasis on ushin.
Judging by these three texts then, it seems that Japanese thinkers have recurring emphases across the ages. There is an insistence on the balance of thought and feeling and language, encapsulated by the convenient metaphor of “fruit and flower.” There is the freedom of the current generations to innovate from and even criticize writers of the past (Masaoka Shiki himself would be a later reflection of this). And most distinctly, there is an emphasis on the importance of ushin, deep feeling, in literature. Above all else, it seems, the Japanese value literature of authentic, honest feeling.
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