(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.
Fujiwara, T. “Maigetsusho.” in Browner, R. (ed). 1985. Monumenta Nipponica, vol 40, No. 4. Sophia University. (Original work published n.d.)
Hozumi, I. “Naniwa Miyage.” in Shirane, H. (ed). 2002. Early Modern Japanese Literature. New York: Columbia University Press. (Original work published 1738)
Ki, T., et al. “Kokin Wakashu.” in McCullough, H. C. (ed). 1985. Kokin Wakashu: The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. (Original work published 905)
Beichman, J. 2002. Masaoka Shiki: his life and works.
“Japanese Aesthetics.” In 2011. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.
Keene, D. (ed). 1955. Anthology of Japanese literature, from the earliest era to the mid-nineteenth century. Grove Press.
Keene, D. 1978. Some Japanese Portraits. Tokyo: Kodansha International.
Murakami, T. 2001. Superflat. Last Gasp.
Rimer, T. & Yamazaki, M. 1984. On the art of the Noh Drama: The Major Treatises of Zeami. Princeton University Press.
Ueda, M. 1982. The Master Haiku Poet, Matsuo Basho. Tokyo: Kodansha International
The Pasmodern Manifesto
By Frank Edwin Macapanas
- The very nature of modern Filipino identity is of hunger – for belongingness, for recognition, for resolution. And yet the Filipino is unaware of this, for he is sustained with the bahaw (stale) – pan-os (spoiled), even – ideology of the past. He is essentially hungry and malnourished, he is pasmo. This is called the Pasmodern Condition.
- What are the stalenesses and spoilednesses that the Filipino partakes of? These are foreign essences he imbibes to define himself: Spanish holy water, the American spirit, and today for those in the regions the water of the river Pasig. And yet this does not help him define himself, it only ascribes unto him the identity of the cultures from whence these objects are pirated. We are all just indios, just little brown Americans, just variations of Manileno, or a combination of all these with K-pop bangs. The Filipino identity is a Budots identity, a repetitive and heterogeneous pastiche of influences, but forever devoid of coherent substance.
- The condition of being unaware of one’s hunger for identity is called Dinanghag. The Filipino must liberate himself from this ignorance, from the blindness at his own malnourishment, and realize that he is hungry. Only then can he move forward as a human being.
- The duty of the artist is to dispel Dinanghag by exemplifying hunger. He must embrace his own emptiness and let it define his art.
- Prolonged hunger begets delusion, and the acceptance of the Budots identity without knowledge of it is itself a delusion. And yet this is a world of lies, we are all caught in Indra’s net, all beneficiaries of Nietzscheian balikbayan boxes. Nothing, therefore, is truer than the delusions of the Pasmodern.
- True cultural incorporation is the making of borrowed elements our own. We however make ourselves what we borrow, we adjust to what we take, compromising our identity creation in the process. The artist must redeem the Filipino identity of such compromises, purge it of its anomalous voids. Before the Filipino can recognize he is malnourished of actual identity, he must wretch out all the otherness he has swallowed. He must kill the Spanish Jesus, he must kill Uncle Sam, he must kill Rizal. The beginning of Pasmodern awakening is purgation.
- And yet truths that establish themselves are difficult to remove, like addictions to the immediate and familiar pleasure of junk foods. Dinanghag is most problematic when it is permeated by a sense of attachment, of seriousness. But the solution to this is whimsicality in derision. To move the Filipino with art, the artist must yaga-yaga, but he must not only yaga-yaga, he must yaga-yaga with the intention of hurting in order to scrape off barnacled old ‘truths’: the artist must bugal-bugal. The artist must initiate Bugal-Bugal Revolution, for the individual Filipino and for the Filipino people synchronically. This will lead to identity purgation.
- The initial result of successful Bugal-Bugal Revolution is Kahasol – an immediate feeling of somewhat bereft consternation, as if sense had been ‘hustled’ away from one. This then leads to alienation, the Filipino finally seeing he is not an indio, not a brown American, not simply a variant of Manileno. And he will realize he cannot continue thinking he is any of these. Everything he has come to know as familiar will be unpleasant and different. And there will be nothing, other than these now strange lies, but emptiness. He will be incapable of determining then who he is. This is his recognition of his own hunger for familiarity, and the discomfort he will feel is Kalain (difference/unpleasantness).
- And yet he will continue to see delusions, for hunger always begets delusions. But this time he knows he is seeing delusions, and these delusions will consciously emerge as an attempt to fill in the void where truth is supposed to be. The Filipino must embrace the delusions of the Pasmodern as they are, and not as truths, for it is better to be deluded and know that one is deluded than to see the truth and not know that the truth is a delusion. There is no truth, so we must make it. This is Pinataka, the deliberate creation of truths in its inherent absence.
- The role of the artist is to create. The artist must take Filipino identity in his own hands, grip it firmly, stroke it violently until it blisters, and let liquid possibilities spurt out of it. The artist must not be limited to who the Filipino is, or who he seems to be, but must be preoccupied with who the Filipino can and in his own opinion must be. The Pinataka artist consciously contributes to the endless discourse of identity creation.
- Any artist who believes he is ‘depicting’ realities is being deluded without knowing it. The nostalgics who hark back to long gone precolonial times, the colonialists who deify the Spanish or the Americans or the Koreans, the activists decrying anything not dealing with farmers or the urban poor or the environment or gender as ‘socially irrelevant,’ the removed poets aspiring for ‘moral universals:’ all of them are deluded without knowing it. The only serious artist is the Pinataka artist.
- The Pinataka artist is also superior to De Man’s ‘deliberate misreaders,’ for more often than not the deliberate misreader is not really misreading deliberately but accidentally, inadvertently forging new meaning out of the old. The Pinataka artist is conscious even of his deliberate accidents.
- There are two types of Pinataka artist: the ones who are completely devoid of any tradition, and the ones disowned by their tradition. Both types contribute to the creation of identity, but the latter is superior to the former, as the former, out of native genius, may simply produce unwittingly what has already been produced, while the latter are aware of what has been said in the discourse before and will deliberately be different.
- The Pinataka artist is a prophet, and as such he cannot be encumbered by the mundane communicative difficulties of class in conveying his prophecy. And yet in his attempt at initiating Bugal-Bugal Revolution he can take advantage of class. He can Lim-buwag – shatter (in Tagalog ‘buwag’) the established Dinanghag by overturning (in Cebuano ‘limbuwag’) the accepted hierarchies in that class. Bakhtin calls it carnivalesque, but we will not borrow his term (we must rehabilitate ourselves for the time being of our addiction of borrowing!) as we already have our own. By presenting lower class culture to the upper classes and vice versa, they will see not that their class has defined who they are, but that they have allowed their class to define them – seeing what is not one’s own does not present universals, it alienates one from the familiar. This will lead to Kahasol, then ultimately Kalain.
- The end of the Pasmodern endeavour does not exist, one Bugal Bugal Revolution must come after another endlessly. The Filipino identity will never be fixed. It is the duty and mission of the Pinataka artist to make Filipino identity one of permanent kalain, one of Ka-ugaling-on, ‘however-ness,’ the state of identity that will always have its insufficiencies and contradictions. Liberated from Dinanghag, the Filipino will never be complacent and will forever be a being ahead-of-himself, constantly taking his own identity as an issue.
- It is not strange for the Pasmodern Filipino, enlightened by Pinataka art, to embrace his Budots identity. Rather it is expected, as true and complete rejection of any sense of inherent essence will make incongruous hybridity as acceptable as, if not preferable over, any delusions of purism. Filipino identity may easily become its own question. It is the duty of the artist to constantly ask that question.
Kate Griffin, associate programme director at the Writers’ Centre Norwich and Chair of the Poetry Translation Centre in UK, made a wrap up of the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators gathering in Manila earlier this year. The piece is an informative introduction to the literary situation in the Philippines.
It can be read here: Notas De Viaje – literature and the writing life in the Philippines
My literary and linguistic background, as well as my views on Mindanao literature, are briefly mentioned at some point in the redivivus.
I have earlier uploaded my full discussion during APWT 2015 here in this blog.
An international mention is quite flattering!
‘Barely anything’ is the short answer.
I have to be honest, I’ve been reading less and less over the past few years.
For form’s sake I’ve maintained one book I’m officially reading for as long as I can remember. Right now it’s a collection of Plays Political by George Bernard Shaw (drama plus politics plus British wit – my kind of stuff).
But it’s been over two years since I actually finished a book (I’ve been officially reading this Shaw book for three months now, and I’ve only read five pages).
I even got hold of a great new book recently: ‘Davao Cuisine: Recipes of the Ten Tribes of Davao.’ It’s a brilliant compilation of traditional recipes from the ten designated indigenous tribes of Davao city, edited by Macario Tiu and published by the Philippine Women’s College of Davao, the result of two years of painstaking research. It sells at 300 and is available at PWC.
And nope, I haven’t gotten to reading it yet.
I also recently read short story entries to the 2015 Banaag Diwa Awards, sponsored by Atenews of the Ateneo de Davao University – I was asked to be among the judges for the Short Story Category. I and fellow judge and former Atenews EIC Reymond Pepito then deliberated on the entries and reached a consensus on this year’s crop of fiction from my former school.
The results? Find out on the awarding ceremony this Thursday, 26th March 6pm at AdDU’s Finster Auditorium!
But that was just a total of what, twenty pages, in three weeks? I hardly felt I was on reading-mode.
I guess three things have been preoccupying me lately, distracting me from reading.
Yes, I watch more anime than I read now. I was an anime fan first anyway before I started any literary interests, so I guess I’m just being consistent.
My current anime list includes Akatsuki no Yona, Kiseijuu – Sei no Kakuritsu, Kamisama Hajimemashita 2, Durarara x2 Shou, Yurikuma Arashi, Magic Kaito 1412, the usual Naruto Shippuuden and Detective Conan, and some old One Piece episodes while I eat (I’m trying to catch up on the latest episodes).
I’m not too worried about my lack of literary exposure then, because Yurikuma Arashi is one of the most literary anime titles I’ve ever seen. Now I can say with certainty, that the new face of Theatre of the Absurd is anime, and the next Ionesco is Kunihiko Ikuhara!
Then there’s Kabuki.
I try to watch whatever I can on the internet, and that’s surprisingly a lot. I recently got hold of ‘Hana kurabeshiki no Kotobuki – Manzai‘, featuring actors Nakamura Fukusuke IX and Nakamura Senjaku III. This auspicious dance drama celebrating the Spring has an interesting history: it’s inspired by a Bunraku puppet play of the same title. But the fact that it’s a dance drama makes it unusual for Bunraku – its writing itself was influenced by Kabuki. It’s a Kabuki dance inspired by a Bunraku dance which is inspired by Kabuki dance!
Fukusuke IX is also becoming one of my favourite Onnagata (his portrayal of Omiwa in this performance of Mikasayama Goten was heart wrenching).
Kabuki is increasingly bringing me back to my primeval theatrical urges – the reason why I started writing in the first place. More and more do I want to write not to come up with a profound articulation of some universal truth (there’s literature in a nutshell for you), but to create something fabulous, something undeniably intense and fun.
And yes, finally, I’ve been writing!
Wordsworth once said, not that I’m a fan of him, that the genuine scholar is preoccupied with reading only when there is nothing better to do. I do not presume to be a genuine scholar (I cannot find monocles in Davao for that), but I have been busy writing.
Outside of the posts to this blog (which you might have noticed is increasing), I’m also completing this collection of short stories that have formed a stylistic suite of their own. I’m calling the collection ‘Proclivities,’ and it includes two published works, ‘In the Manner Accustomed’ (the first of the suite, which won the Joaquin in 2013) and ‘Condign Restitutions’ (which was published in Graphic in 2014). I’ll see if I can get others in the collection published elsewhere.