Monthly Archives: September 2011

Land of Disaster

Roiled by earthquake, typhoon, tsunami, fire, and volcano — not to mention nuclear attack and terrorism — Japan for centuries has been a land of disaster, as reflected in popular culture from art to literature to our favorite monster flicks.


A string of islands in the so-called Pacific Ring of Fire, gripped uneasily between the Pacific tectonic plate and the Philippine Sea Plate, Japan has seen more than its fair share of catastrophic disasters, from the 1888 eruption of Mount Bandai, shown above, which killed almost 500 people and laid waste to entire villages, to last week’s horrific earthquake and tsunami, the devastation from which is still uncounted. In the 20th century alone, Japan was besieged by earthquake, typhoon, tsunami, fire, and volcano, not to mention nuclear attack and terrorism. Like Britain, another resolute island nation half a world away, Japan has always responded with stoic rebuilding. But unlike the British, or really anyone else in the world, the Japanese have refracted their historic misfortune through a unique cultural lens, producing monster movies, Zen poetry, modernist post-apocalyptic literature, and even pornographic manga involving tentacle rape. Why is Japan’s cultural response to its history of disaster so fantastical — and where does it come from?

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

For centuries, Japanese authors, poets, and artists have mulled over the existential instability of their island life. The essayist Kamo no Chomei (1155-1216), in the Walden-esque Account of My Hut, wrote a long consideration of disaster and the importance of responding to the world’s ills through retreat and nonattachment. In one passage, he discusses the earthquake of 1185, which he saw as an opportunity for man to meditate on “the vanity and meaninglessness of the world” — an opportunity, he wrote, that few took advantage of.

Paul Anderer, the de Bary/Class of ’41 Professor of Asian Humanities at Columbia University, says that this tendency to meet catastrophe with calm meditation is typical, dating back to the “Burning House” parable in the Lotus Sutra: “The world rightly seen is a burning house, and it is that because it’s a fragile world, it’s made the more fragile because of human greed and avarice and desire, and a way to deal with it is to curb desire if not to suppress it entirely.” Above, an image from an 1876 earthquake in a Japanese village.

“Then there was the great earthquake of 1185, of an intensity not known before. Mountains crumbled and rivers were buried, the sea tilted over and immersed the land. The earth split and water gushed up; boulders were sundered and rolled into the valleys. Boats that rowed along the shores were swept out to sea. Horses walking along the roads lost their footing. It is needless to speak of the damage throughout the capital — not a single mansion, pagoda, or shrine was left whole. As some collapsed and others tumbled over, dust and ashes rose like voluminous smoke. The rumble of the earth shaking and the houses crashing was exactly like that of thunder. Those who were in their houses, fearing that they would presently be crushed to death, ran outside, only to meet with a new cracking of the earth. They could not soar into the sky, not having wings. They could not climb into the clouds, not being dragons. Of all the frightening things of the world, none is so frightful as an earthquake.” — Chomei, Account of My Hut

SSPL via Getty Images

As Susan Napier, professor of Japanese literature at Tufts University, says, a common thread throughout much of the cultural response to disaster is a sense of “mono no aware” — the Japanese notion that transience brings its own beauty: “It’s precisely because things don’t last that they’re beautiful, [and] it’s because of that that we have this intense feeling about the world.” Above, destruction in a suburb of Nagoya after the quake of 1891. Kokan Shiren (1278-1346), a poet and Zen master, wrote this poem about the aftermath of an earthquake:

Still things moving,

firm becomes unfirm,

land like ocean waves,

house like a boat —

a time to be fearful,

but to delight as well;

no wind, yet the wind-bells

keep on ringing.

Imperial Household Ministry via Wikipedia

Inventing monsters to explain or come to grips with natural disasters has deep roots in Japanese culture. The “namazu,” or catfish, is a legendary figure and a popular subject of ukiyo-e woodblock prints: a giant underground catfish who swishes up his tail to cause earthquakes — often shown with a monkey or a minor deity called Kashima on his back attempting to restrain the damage. Earthquakes were also explained by an imbalance of yin forces (water) and yang forces (fire) inside the earth.


The 1923 Tokyo earthquake was one of the worst in the 20th century worldwide, with deaths totaling roughly 100,000 in a population of about 4 million. The quake was followed by days of fires that tore through the city’s remaining houses. In the aftermath, some of Tokyo’s citizens and police took up arms in a virulent racialized backlash against the city’s long-hated Korean population, accused of taking advantage of the earthquake’s turmoil to plot sedition: 6,000 Koreans and suspected Koreans were killed, many with swords and bamboo poles.

The director Akira Kurosawa, who was 13 at the time of the quake and may have drawn upon this vision of stark, lawless chaos for later films like Rashomon and Seven Samurai, describes the ruins of the city in his 1983 memoirs, Something Like an Autobiography: “The whole Edogawa river district was veiled in a dancing, swirling dust whose grayness gave the sun a pallor like during an eclipse. The people who stood to the left and right of me in this scene looked for all the world like fugitives from hell and the whole landscape took on a bizarre and eerie aspect.”

Getty Images

The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 ushered in a whole new era of horror to Japan. The aftermath of the disaster was unimaginably grotesque — and made worse by the fact that it was manmade. The response from many Japanese writers and filmmakers was to displace the trauma by addressing it in oblique, fantastical ways, through monsters and allegorical realms; the nuclear attacks and their long-lasting aftermath of radiation poisoning, as described below by Masuji Ibuse in his 1966 novel Black Rain, may have been, for many, simply too painful to address head-on. Above, children in Hiroshima in 1948 protect themselves from radiation.

“It felt as though night were drawing in, but after I’d been home for a while I realized that it was dark because of the clouds of black smoke filling the sky…. I wasn’t aware until Uncle Shigematsu told me that my skin looked as though it had been splashed with mud. My white short-sleeved blouse was soiled in the same way, and the fabric was damaged at the soiled spots. When I looked in the mirror, I found that I was spotted all over with the same color except where I had been covered by my air-raid hood…. I suddenly remembered a shower of black rain that had fallen after Mr. Nojima had got us in the black market boat. It must have been about 10 a.m. Thundery black clouds had borne down on us from the direction of the city, and the rain from them had fallen in streaks the thickness of a fountain pen. It had stopped almost immediately. It was cold, cold enough to make one shiver although it was midsummer.” — Black Rain, Masuji Ibuse


The Godzilla films are well-known for their vivid allegory of apocalyptic nuclear chaos engulfing Tokyo. But, as Napier points out, they also illustrate what comes after the initial shock: the slow and sad process of rebuilding, as doctors begin helping radiation-poisoning victims at the hospital and scientists look toward preventing the next disaster. “One of the things the Japanese are very good at is talking about the aftermath of the disaster — the poignancy, the mourning,” she says. “Already in [the first Godzilla], the elegiac quality is being established” — as in the haunting score by Akira Ifukube.

1954 Japanese movie posters for Godzilla; Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The January 1995 earthquake in Kobe hit 6.8 on the Richter scale, claimed almost 7,000 lives, and caused $102.5 billion in damage. Coming halfway through Japan’s lost decade of economic stagnation and just two months before the Aum Shinrikyo poison gas attacks on the Tokyo subway, the Kobe quake helped to plunge the country into a long-term malaise. The novelist Haruki Marukami wrote a book of short stories, after the quake, which dealt in various allegorical and direct ways with the disaster.

“Five straight days she spent in front of the television, staring at crumbled banks and hospitals, whole blocks of stores in flames, severed rail lines and expressways. She never said a word. Sunk deep in the cushions of the sofa, her mouth clamped shut, she wouldn’t answer when Komura spoke to her. She wouldn’t shake her head or nod. Komura could not be sure the sound of his voice was even getting through to her.

“Komura’s wife came from way up north in Yamagata and, as far as he knew, she had no friends or relatives who could have been hurt in Kobe. Yet she stayed rooted in front of the television from morning to night. In his presence, at least, she ate nothing and drank nothing and never went to the toilet. Aside from an occasional flick of the remote control to change the channel, she hardly moved a muscle.” — “UFO in Kushiro,” from after the quake, Haruki Marukami

Getty Images

Post-apocalyptic worlds run throughout modern Japanese literature, both in high-brow and low-brow fiction. The frequent Nobel also-ran Kobo Abe and Nobelist Kenzaburo Oe both wrote apocalyptic novels: Abe’s The Ark Sakura deals with the inhabitants of an underground bunker, while Oe’s The Pinch Runner Memorandum describes a man and his handicapped son fighting to save the world from the forces of chaos, including, at one point, an earthquake that threatens to overturn the social order. On the more low-end side of things isJapan Sinks, by Sakyo Komatsu, first published in 1973 and then reissued after the Kobe earthquake. A film by the same name, with the same storyline (Japan sinks, following earthquakes and tsunamis), came out the same year (and wasremade in 2006). Released in English under the name Tidal Wave, its trailercontains the now chilling tagline: “It begins with shattering earthquakes! Then come raging firestorms! But the worst is yet to come … Tidal Wave!”

Kodansha Limited via Wikipedia

Then there’s anime and manga: the wild collective subconscious of Japanese cartoon fiction, where the apocalypse is ruled by erotic demon-beasts, as in the Overfiend series, or dominated by the magical powers of young girls, as in Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and his most recent film, Ponyo, in which a young fish-girl causes a destructive tsunami when she attempts to become human. Many of the great anime and manga classics take place in millennial universes, including the Evangelion and Akira series. Evangelion is the story of a war between a para-military unit and a group of avenging Angels in a Tokyo that has been devastated by earthquake and tsunami following a mega-explosion. Says Napier, it’s “really … about psychological apocalypse — about generations and … an internal sense of unease and concern about the future.”

She adds, “That’s why it’s so tragic what’s going on right now with the earthquake — it’s fulfilling a lot of inchoate worries that have been floating around in Japan the last 10 years or so.” Above, an image from Evangelion.


It’s unclear from all of this how Japan will respond to its latest disaster. Certainly, the horror that comes with catastrophe on an epic scale is something Japan has a long familiarity with; at the same time, every new shock has provoked its own cultural aftershock, from the Meiji myths to new and innovative manga thrills. But Japan has always rebuilt by weaving trauma into its culture. The only question may be which new monsters this latest trauma will dredge up to the surface.




It’s not too difficult to see the influence that Korean pop music has had here. K-pop clone SMASH, for example, saw its first single shoot to the top of the music charts.

But K-pop’s influence has raised questions about the originality and creativity of the local music industry. Today, music producer Dino Raturandang, who put together the nine-member girl band Cherry Belle, talks about where the Indonesian music industry is headed, and explains how ‘I-pop’ does more than just mimic music and dance moves from South Korea.

First of all, tell us about what you do. 

I promote and produce music. I’ve been doing it since ’99, and along the way I’ve bounced from one major label to another. Apart from that, I’ve also put together some well-known local bands such as SHE, Andra and the Backbone and recently Cherry Belle, who just launched their first album in August.

Tell us about the local music industry and where it’s headed. 

The way I see it, there are always new trends that sweep through our music industry. A few years back the Malayan music genre was totally dominating the nation’s charts. There were lots of local bands that adopted mellow Malayan melodies and tunes. But now, the era of K-pop has taken over the industry. It’s not hard to see why K-pop can influence songs and turn them into hits. For example, all the K-pop-influenced musical acts offer the audience attractive elements like catchy songs, dynamic dance moves and cute boys and girls in the bands. How can you not like them?

What triggered K-pop’s overwhelming influence on our music industry? 

The Indonesian boy band SMASH could be called the X-factor that contributed to the rise of K-pop here. When SMASH appeared in front of an audience for the first time, I remember how people mocked them for copying Korean boy bands. But ironically, in Indonesia, bad publicity can actually be good publicity. The more people mocked them, the more SMASH turned into a controversy, which helped boost their popularity. Now SMASH is a sensation and has even made it onto television. The media — television, especially — can really help because people are curious. Television is visual and it sells anything that can catch people’s eyes, and K-pop wannabe boy bands have everything a TV show needs.

Do you think this trend will continue?

I think it will, because the entertainment industry will always have room for entertainers with attractive stage acts in addition to catchy and good songs.

How are these kinds of bands received outside of big cities like Jakarta? Do people in smaller towns have the same musical tastes? 

So far it’s been good. The response from people outside Jakarta has been very positive. Most Indonesian musicians offer universal musical tastes that suit pretty much everyone, regardless of where they live. I do realize that our market is not limited to Jakarta.

One of the bands you promote, Cherry Belle, seems very much like a Korean girl band. Did K-pop fever play a part in putting the band together? 

Yes, it did, you can easily tell that. I’ve always been a fan of Korean girl bands. I admire their stage acts. I came to realize that the dance choreography is the biggest detail in becoming a hit. That thought led me to create a musical group like a Korean girl band. I wanted to create something that will last a long time in the industry. And I figured in order to have some impressive choreography, I would need more people in the band, so that’s why there are nine girls in Cherry Belle. These nine girls are the chosen ones. They managed to pass a super-tough audition to get into the band.

How do you respond to criticism that all your bands do is mimic K-pop groups? 

Well, K-pop itself is actually a result of an evolution from Japanese pop. However, K-pop captures a wider audience with its beats, lyrics and costumes. While J-pop remains the original, it only suits Japanese music fans. These days, I think artists have gotten to the point where instead of creating new music, we build on an existing musical genre. Then the genre starts to evolve. Indonesian musicians being influenced by K-pop are just another evolution of the genre. I suggest we call ours Indo-pop or I-pop. We don’t copy K-pop acts. We repackage them to suit Indonesian fans.

What can Indonesia’s music industry learn from Korea? 

I think music labels and producers here need to learn the way Korean music labels and producers work, especially their devotion to developing the music industry. In Korea, musicians are never overnight sensations. They’re trained for years and years. They practice singing and dancing constantly to improve, which adds to their dedication to their music careers. That’s what a true entertainer is supposed to do. But here in Indonesia, labels and producers are geared only toward making fast money. They don’t bother with the quality of an artist. And things such as copyright regulations are still somewhat blurred here.

Dino Raturandang was talking to Irvan Tisnabudi.


For every savvy comics fan there’s a reader who loved “Persepolis” or “Fun Home” but feels lost in the comics section of his or her local bookstore. This selection of 10 great “graphic novels” (an unfortunate term, since so many of the best works in the genre are nonfiction) published since the beginning of the year is for the occasional comics reader, a tip sheet on some of the best new work in the field.

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Free entry for films :

LASALLE College of the Arts, Faculty of Media Arts is proud to announce the launch of the inaugural Asian Cultural Cinema Symposium.Themed Human Spaces, the symposium looks at film as space to reflect the collision of the human condition and cultural constructs. The symposium aims to collate and publish findings that can unravel ways to centralize marginalized “voices” that exist in different spaces through film.


  • Anand Patwardhan
  • Khavn De La Cruz
  • John Torres
  • Sherad Anthony Sanchez
  • Jan Philippe Carpiores
  • Ato Bautista
  • Ho Yuhang
  • James Lee
  • Liao Jie Kai
  • Ying Liang
  • Rayya Makarim
  • Dang Di Phan
  • Rithy Panh
  • Bounchao Phichit
  • Uruphong Raksasad
  • Panu Aree
  • Megan Doneman
  • Prasanna Jayakody

Do the roots of the Arab spring lie in cinema? The question seems absurd: surely kleptocratic dictatorship, youth unemployment and grain prices all played a more important part. Iranian film scholar Hamid Dabashi disagrees: “If you want to understand the emotive universe from which the Arab spring arose, cinema is a good place to start. Look at a film like Elia Suleiman’s Divine Intervention: there the director spits out an apricot pit at an Israeli tank and blows it up. The scene is both fantasy and prophecy.”

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Fans celebrated in Shanghai after Li Yuchun won in 2005 on “Super Girl,” a talent show like “American Idol.” The Chinese government has pulled the plug on the popluar show. (Reuters Photo)

In an online essay published Saturday, one of the show’s judges, Song Shinan, suggested that China’s cultural authorities were unhappy about being cut out of the selection process and threatened by the kind of women who rose to the top. “One thing that has progressed is that ‘idols’ are no longer the product of political needs but by commercial needs,” Song wrote. “The promotion of ‘role models’ from above is dying. These girls truly represent the voices of our times and are the idols of the people.”

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