Thursday, July 29, 2010

神 Kami の Rainier-Yama?

It is often said in Seattle Washington, that Mount Rainier is known as the ever disappearing mountain. Seriously! Up until now, I had not much interest in seeing Mount Rainier or never considered Mt. Rainier’s similarity to another famous mountain Fujiyama, but there we were on the deck of a tour boat starring at this majestic sight that slowly emerged from the haze of Puget Sound. Neither, Tinahime or I had ever seen such a large volcano before and were instantly awestruck by its massive scale and beauty. What a sight indeed in all its natural wonder and majesty! Seeing Mount Rainer’s 14,000ft snow capped peak in the middle of July from the Seattle Waterfront, one could not be remiss without recalling that first image of Fujiyama in the 2003 American film epic The Last Samurai. Despite this not being Tokyo Bay, I could not help but be mesmerized by the power of this towering volcanic peak.  Mount Rainier does not share the romantic smooth slopes of Mt. Fuji but it does have a beauty all its own.

Awe and natural wonder aside, this was just the start of where our troubles began. You see Tinahime and I had come to Seattle to visit the Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America located just north of the city in Granite falls to study Shinto and participate in Shinto ceremonies there. In by doing so I had come to recognize the Kami and their ever present nature around us. Call it crazy, but I started to think of Mount Rainer in such a fashion. I had recalled that scene in the German film Kirschbluten-Hanami playing in my head where Rudi travels to Fujiyama in hopes of seeing it but is repeatedly daunted by Fujiyama’s repeated disappearing acts into the haze and cloud cover. Rudi goes as far as to rent a room at a Ryokan with a view of Fujiyama so he can open his sliding shoji door and see if Fujiyama is there. He of course opens it and finds clouds over and over again until finally one morning the powerful Fujiyama stood before him starring right at him in all its magnificence!

Perhaps I had become carried away or dialed-in to my experiences at the Tsubaki Grand Shrine, but in any case I got into this habit of calling Mount Rainier “Rainier-yama.” And very much like Rudi, I found it frustrating to get a clear view of it. It was on our second day there that the sun cleared the sky of the clouds and revealed this incredible sight of this massive snow peaked volcano overlooking Seattle. Now to try to get a picture of it! Or at least try.

We had previously tried to get a good view to take a picture of Mt. Rainier two days earlier when the volcano first appeared. We had set out in our Avis rental car and started driving down the 5 freeway to get a better glimpse but the closer we would get something kept drawing us to keep driving even closer to it. Suddenly, I was really feeling like Rudi on his quest to see Fujiyama and going far off the beaten trail to get close to the towering volcano. Either I had gone insane or there indeed exists Kami there for as I endearingly mentioned the name Rainier-yama I got this amusing thought shouted back in my head in a Japanese accent from a distance yelling: “I’M NOT FUJI-YAMA!” Ok, I know I’m a bit eccentric and in tune with the nature of things but this started to get amusing and a bit weird if I may say so! But it didn’t stop there!

We kept on driving and damned if it was coincidence or this volcano’s Kami was seriously messing with me. It was like a game. Each time we lined up a good photo while driving the mountain would disappear! Ok, not really! Or did it? The road took dips and turns and then out of nowhere sprang tall trees and magnifcent forests and if that were not enough, hills just popped out of nowhere! It’s like the mountain was having a hysterically good time sticking its tongue at us and having a ball at our expense. Tinahime was like “What is going on?” It became unreal as now we were both hearing “I’M NOT FUJIYAMA!” It wasn’t a mean or scolding voice shouting in anger but more like something out of a crazy comedy sketch but we were still driving and it didn’t end there. We put this out of our heads for awhile and concentrated on why we were there in the first place. We toured Seattle one last time on our last day there and paid this no mind until it seemed the mountain was literally peaking around a building to see if we were paying him attention. Oh boy! The game was on again and there we were trying to catch a photo of this elusive mountain whose Kami was having a good time playing with us.

I am sure some people who will read this will relegate this as whimsical nonsense. It’s ok. You don’t have to believe in Kami (Shinto expression for natural things and godlike spirits that inspire awe in nature) to find this story amusing. But there at last we had boarded our Virgin America flight back home to LA when we noticed out of our window was that mountain again literally grinning at us in the beautiful red skies we had not seen before. “Remember now, I’m not Fujiyama,” went the Kami much like in the way Walter Matthau once repeated “I’m Not Rappaport.” It seemed the mountain had fun with us as we did on our crazy adventure with the mountain. And as an added bonus or a final farewell, Mount Rainier presented us with the most spectacular view from the air. I swear if that thing had arms it would have been waving bye to us as we waved back and bid Sayonara. It was something else!

Mountains can truly inspire as do many things in nature. The Native Americans recognized this and very likely had their own tales of Mount Rainier. Perhaps we caught Rainier on a good day for it has been known to be both a powerful and dangerous mountain particularly to the brave climbers who face death on its slopes. So powerful, I can feel it’s Kami from here in LA as I write this. And though it was not my beloved Fujiyama, Mount Rainier's Kami-Sama definitely left us with a lasting impression we will never forget and will always treasure for the rest of our lives.
Arigatou' Gozaimashite’

To find out more about Mount Rainier
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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

すごいい! Nakajima Ki-43 Hayabusa: Up Close and Personal

It has been over 65 years since Japan's catastrophic defeat at the end of the Second World War. During the war, thousands of fighter aircraft were built for Japan and fought throughout the Pacific Theater. Many planes were lost in combat and many more survived to the August surrender of 1945, yet so few of those surviving planes exist today. So when I discovered by chance there was a surviving Nakajima Ki-43 Hayabusa “Peregrine Falcon” fighter of the Imperial Japanese Army Air Force, I jumped at the chance to go see her in person.

You see, when I was growing up we all watched television and movies about the war usually filmed with models dangling from visible wires. In other cases, American A-T6’s were used to double as Mitsubishi Zero’s such as the Baa-Baa Black Sheep Squadron series which I used to see being filmed out of the Oxnard Airport by where I lived as a child in the 1970’s. I was disappointed back then to know there were no real Zero’s. There were plenty of original F-4U Corsairs for the show but no real Japanese fighters. I was seriously bummed. It would be some thirty years before I learned the real truth of the fate of the surviving planes.

If any of you have seen the recent Japanese film Ore-Kimi you will know that the American conquerors of Japan deliberately destroyed 99% of the surviving aircraft to prevent Japan from breaking the peace. From the standpoint of an aircraft history buff, I found that move to be as tragic as the entire war itself. But fortunately some planes do survive in museums thanks to the dedicated work of skilled restoration specialists such as GossHawk Unlimited of Casa Grande, Arizona who helped recreate this Hayabusa in 2008 from the wreckage of four planes that were based in the Kurile Islands.

The Nakajima Ki-43 Hayabusa served the Showa Emperor from late 1941 to the end of WWII. Close to 6000 of them were built and is said to have been more maneuverable than the famed Mitsubishi Zero. She was 29ft in length with a ceiling of 37,400 ft, and a range of 1,320 miles. Her cruising speed was 275 mph but suffered from the same problems of inadequate armor and firepower which cost the lives of many brave men who flew them. This plane bears the markings of the 3rd Chutai, 54th Sentai assigned to protect Hokkaido from attack from the Aleutian Islands.

In examining this Ki-43 up close, what struck me was how cramped the cockpit was. Even more so how small the flight suit was. The average pilot must had been no more than 5’8 to have fit in this thing! The restoration is flawless! My thanks go to Doug Champlin for finding the parts to restore her and to Col. Hiroo Murata of the JASDF for their dedication to this plane’s restoration. It is really worth seeing in person which stands as a living testiment to the men who flew them. This plane can be found at the Museum of Flight in Seattle Washington. 

To find out more about the Ki-43 and other great warbirds please visit:

Friday, July 9, 2010

映画お盆の - Three Films for Obon

The Japanese festival of Obon is upon us! It is a celebration of the annual return of our ancestral spirits marking our interdependence with them. It is a time of deep reflection and more so for those who have recently lost family or friends. There was a time I used to look forward to Halloween but since adopting Buddhist and Shinto practice and traditions I have found Obon to mean much more. It occurred to me when I started going to the Koyasan Betsuin in Little Tokyo that the dead had started to visit me every July in ever so frequent occurrences. In fact, frequent enough to all but eclipse the one or two visits during the Celtic New Year where there I can expect to hear from an old friend or two for a day or so. But in contrast Obon I can expect to see my grandfather, my old roommate Deirdre, older friends, and my most recently departed grandmother Sophie to check in on me in both my dreams and sometimes in some unexpected ways to let me know they are still with me. Ever watchful and ever in my heart their memories mirror my own.

So every year at Obon there are Buddhist memorial services and festivals both in the Nihon Machi’s in America and throughout Japan. I will be going to a few of them myself to pay respects to those who have passed on. So in reflection, I have decided to write about three films that individually deal with grief and the celebration of life from three different angles. May you find them as entertaining as they are heartfelt stories that reflect life and loss in the deep and subtlety that only Japanese Culture can express to share with all.

The first film is the German film Kirschbluten aka Cherry Blossoms - Hanami. It is a moving drama by director Dorris Dorrie made in 2008. The story is of an German elderly couple in Bavaria played by Elmar Wepper and Hannalore Elsner. Elsner plays Trudi who learns that her husband Rudi has come down with a terminal illness to which she chooses not to tell Rudi the gravity of his prognosis. Instead she talks her accountant husband to go on a spontaneous trip at the suggestion of Rudi’s physician. So they take a trip to Berlin to see their two grown up children and grandchildren in Berlin but they are so consumed with their own lives there is no time for Trudi & Rudi. Trudi’s third child is the grown up Karl who also works as an accountant in Tokyo Japan. It was her wish to see Mount Fuji but settles to see the Baltic Sea with Rudi instead of remaining in Berlin to be neglected by their family. Once there at a Baltic Sea Resort Rudi awakes to find his beloved Trudi had passed on. In his grief Rudi is consoled by his daughter’s girlfriend who was aware of Trudi’s love of Japanese Butoh Dance. And in going through her things he discovers she had sacrificed her life long desire to see Japan and more specifically Mount Fuji to live for her husband Rudi and their three children. In death Rudi realizes his wife had wished to live another life in Japan which makes him see his wife in a whole different light he had never known.

The poor grief stricken widower Rudi becomes consumed with guilt and loss and decides to go to Japan to fulfill his wife’s desire to see Mount Fuji. So in doing so he packs her Kimono and her clothes in an effort to bring her along. Once in Tokyo he is the care of his accountant son Karl who asks the question: “Why have you never visited me in Tokyo?” Rudi can only answer: “Because we always thought we would have more time.” Karl proceeds to deal with his own grief by being a workaholic and utterly neglecting his elderly father who can not speak Japanese. The isolation and neglect leads Rudi to go out on his own and explore Tokyo while engaging in some eccentric grief inspired behavior. During his visit to the Hanami he comes across a homeless teenage Butoh dancer named Yu played by Aya Irizuki who strikes up a strange and unlikely friendship. No this is not Lost in Translation. Yu’s dance is a shadow dance from which she interacts with her recently departed mother. In grief the two become art and in a climatic gesture, the two embark on a journey to see Mount Fuji in hopes of living his wife’s lifelong desire. This is a two hour film which starts off slow but becomes an engrossing drama. It won several awards and inspired many people in Germany to make check up calls on their parents. Enjoy Kudasai

My next film is the 2003 Australian film Japanese Story directed by Sue Brooks. Toni Collette plays Sandy Edwards who is a director for a software company in Perth, Australia. Her business partner arranges for her to act as a tour guide for a Japanese businessman Tachibana Hiromitsu played by Gotaro Tsunamashima – task she is least enthusiastic about. To add to her sense of indignity, Hiromitsu expects her to open doors and carry his luggage which adds to her level of resentment to her partners who expects her to do her best in order to sell their company’s software. As expected, Sandy and Hiromitsu do not get along. He winds up talking her into driving into the Australian Outback where they end up getting their vehicle stuck in the mud. The two become stranded and are forced to spend the night in the desert together. The following day, Hiromitsu realizes that his arrogance and disregard for Sandy's consideration had placed the two in danger which motivates him to free the vehicle and make the situation right which leads to Sandy becoming his friends.

 Now that they can stand to speak to one another, they begin to start a friendship which leads to a sexual relationship. It is only afterwards that Hiromitsu reveals he has a wife and children living in Japan. The two go swimming then unexpectedly tragedy strikes. Hiromitsu dived into a shallow end of a watering hole and comes up dead. The tragedy sends Sandy into a tailspin as she tries to deal with her sudden circumstances. Not only will she have to explain what happened to her business partner, she will have to deal with Hiromitsu’s grieving wife. Talk about reality check in the harshest terms! There are some expressions that need no translations. I didn’t think I was going to like this film but then before you know it you get hooked and feel the sense of loss along with the characters. It is possible you may too.

My final film for Obon is the 2008 film by Yojiro Takita "Departures." Unlike my first two films this does not share the moving song titled Chinsagu no Hana. This Japanese production stars Masahiro Motoki who plays Daigo Kobayashi. A cellist in the Tokyo Opera. Upon hearing the the news of the orchestra’s disillusion, Kobayashi decides to sell his cello and move back to his home town to which his wife passively accepts. Once back in his hometown of Sakata, Yamagata he finds an ad for an NK Agency for assisting departures. Kobayashi naturally assumes this is a job at a travel agency but it turns out he has just been hired on the spot for a job where he must ceremoniously prepare the dead in front of mourners for burial. The money is good but the feared wrath and embarrassment from his wife is not. So after being advanced money from his new job he tries to explain his new position to his wife without detail.
This is a fascinating film which shows you the ins and outs of the Japanese funeral industry. The methods of what they call nokan (encoffinment) are indeed a foreign concept here in America but performed with such dignity before the family. Kobayashi must clean, dress, and apply makeup all before the mourning family. He inevitably becomes really good at his profession but just when you think it’s safe his wife Mika played by Ryoko Hirosue finds the training video and demands he quits immediately. But when his estranged father passes away, new meaning to his work becomes evident to both Kobayashi and Mika. It is a deeply fascinating movie and one that leaves you in awe of the dignified customs of Japan. Enjoy kudasai!