“History writing at its best” — Fortean Times

Christ's Samurai coverIn 1638, the ruler of Japan ordered a crusade against his own subjects, a holocaust upon the men, women and children of a doomsday cult.

The sect was said to harbour dark designs to overthrow the government. Its teachers used a dead language that was impenetrable to all but the innermost circle. Its priests preached love and kindness, but helped local warlords acquire firearms. They encouraged believers to cast aside their earthly allegiances and swear loyalty to a foreign god-emperor, before seeking paradise in terrible martyrdoms.

The cult was in open revolt, led, it was said, by a boy sorcerer. Farmers claiming to have the blessing of an alien god had bested trained samurai in combat and proclaimed that fires in the sky would soon bring about the end of the world. The Shogun called old soldiers out of retirement for one last battle before peace could be declared in Japan. For there to be an end to war, he said, the Christians would have to die.

The shocking true story behind Martin Scorsese’s film Silence.

“A concise and lucid account of a unique period in Japan’s history” — Japan Times

“History writing at its best” — Fortean Times

Christ’s Samurai: The True Story of the Shimabara Rebellion, is available now in the UK (and here in the US). Read extracts here and here.

The Allure of Gravure

agnes lum.jpgCommon to many Japanese magazines for the teenage male, Young Gangan features a “gravure” section – photo-sets of demure Japanese girls, posing in a sequence of fashions with occasional gormless texts.

As the name implies, gravure in Japan began with the conceit of amateur photography, giving new camera owners an excuse for titillating “research”. My recollections of early gravure are of rather sweet virtual dates, such as a pipe-smokers’ magazine from the mid-1970s that featured a photo-set of a rather prim, refreshingly plain young lady, sitting earnestly across a dinner table, perching on a couch, and lurking coquettishly near a lamp-post: the fantasy being simply that of her company, her attention, and presumably, her lack of complaint about the smell of smoke.

Later, racier magazines would go all the way, lurching from the public realm into the bedroom, with the virtual companion whipping off her clothes in a sealed bonus section. The game-changer for 1970s gravure, however, was the Hawaiian-born Agnes Lum (pictured), who parleyed her early appearances in Japanese magazines into a singing and modelling career. The fiercely attractive Lum was notable for her magnificent boobs, a feature less prominent in the Japanese girls of the day, which soon lured her photographers away from urban fashion shoots and into the realm of swimwear, all the better to show them off. This, in turn, incentivised beach locations, and it was not long before the expense and exoticism of teen photo-shoots began to spiral upwards. Wouldn’t you rather put a weekend in Hawaii on expenses? The male population’s panting obsession with a pneumatic, bikini-clad foreigner was soon satirised by manga creator Rumiko Takahashi in Urusei Yatsura and its iconic Lum-chan, a green-haired, sexually aggressive devil girl in a tiger-skin two-piece.

By the 1980s, a gravure appearance was commonplace for aspiring actress-model-whatevers, particularly among would-be idol singers. Such photo-sets are ten-a-penny in Japan, and have been largely unchanged for decades. One wishes, Viz-style, for a magazine that offers a little subversion – interfering passers-by, for example, a cameraman whose lack of ability becomes comically, rather than merely irritatingly incompetent, or a model who dresses like an Australian’s nightmare. Instead, they have merely limped along, sustained, one imagines, less from reader support than by the ever-present interest of music promoters in snatching page-space for their starlets, and by photographers’ desires to charge for weekend getaways with young soubrettes.

lumBut the U-rated images in Young Gangan are notable for how low-rent they seem: Rina Ikoma is pictured in someone’s back garden beneath a drab grey sky; Hinako Kitano has at least gone somewhere with a pool, although she oddly jumps in while keeping her clothes on. Then, she stands in the street and throws around a baseball. Don’t play in the street, Hinako! This is that most innocuous of “girlfriend experiences”, the simple presence of a female making eye contact, although also discreetly whispering that her new album is in shops now. It’s all about the male gaze, although the gaze one can’t help imagining is usually that of Alan Partridge, fumbling ineptly with a Canon 5D.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #156, 2016, as a sidebar to a Manga Snapshot article on Young Gangan magazine.

The Beliefs of the Hidden Christians

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In the legends of Japan’s Hidden Christians, we can see the preservation of the Christian faith, seemingly by word of mouth, in the utmost secrecy, throughout the centuries of the Shōgun’s persecutions. The Kirishitan ‘Bible’, as written down by one group in the 19th century, begins with the creation of the world by Deus. The first man is called Adan, created on the seventh day along with the first woman, Ewa.

Lucifer (Yusuheru), another of the creations of Deus, demands that Adan and Ewa should worship him, as he is similar to their creator. Deus admonishes all three of them, and tells them not to eat a particular fruit in the land of Koroteru (Portuguese: hortelo – ‘garden’). However, Ewa is swindled into tasting the forbidden fruit, and as a result, she and Adan are cursed for four hundred years. The children of Ewa are sentenced to live on the Earth and worship unworthy gods, until a future date when Deus will send a messenger to show them the way back to heaven. Lucifer is transformed into a demonic form, and placed in the sky as the God of Thunder.

Much of the rest of the Old Testament is then skipped over, in favour of the story of Jesus. Mary becomes pregnant by swallowing a butterfly, and spurns the advances of a covetous king in the Philippines. Mary gives birth in a stable, and three days later she is allowed into the innkeeper’s house for a bath. Re-using the same bathwater, as is usual in Japan, the innkeeper’s son, who suffers from a skin disease, is miraculously cured after touching the same waters as the infant messiah.

The kings of Turkey, Mexico and France come to offer their congratulations on the birth of Jesus (in a stable), but they tell their story to King Herodes (Yorōtetsu), who orders the massacre of all children – his two henchmen are named as Pontia and Pilate. Fleeing to Egypt across the river Baptism, Jesus and Mary are protected by local farmers, whose crops magically grow as soon as they are sown; farmers who refused to help them are stuck with barren fields. The young Jesus argues over matters of religious doctrine with Buddhist priests, before he is betrayed by Judas (Judatsu), executed and then brought back from the dead.

Sacrament, in the belief system of at least one cell of Hidden Christians, is not a thing but a person – a teacher sent by Deus to educate Jesus. Judas is punished for his betrayal by transforming into a tengu – a Japanese demon. These creatures will return to tempt believers during seven years of bumper crops – the last chance for heathens to convert to the true faith.

It is impossible to tell how much of the story of Amakusa Shiro lies buried within the legends of the Hidden Christians. There are Biblical analogies or understandable errors for almost every element, but some are still tantalisingly similar to reportage of the Rebellion. At the end of the world, say some Hidden Christian legends ‘…a great fireball will descend. Winds will roar, torrential rains fall and insects plague the earth. All kinds of human negligence will be visible.’

Christ's Samurai cover smallSoon after, the world itself shall be consumed in fire, leading to times so desperate that animals and birds will beg to be eaten by Christians, so that at least some small part of them might survive the apocalypse. Finally, Deus will return to the Earth and sit in judgement upon humanity. Those on his right, the Christian believers, will all become ‘buddhas’, and live eternally. Those on his left, the unbelievers, will be kicked down into hell along with the tengu.

Book extract from Christ’s Samurai: The True Story of the Shimabara Rebellion by Jonathan Clements.

Out of the Silence

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But for the paltry handful of Dutch traders, kept cooped up like zoo animals at Dejima, Japan was closed to the West. A Shōgunate inscription said it all: ‘For the future, let none, so long as the Sun illuminates the world, presume to sail to Japan, not even in quality of ambassadors, and this declaration never to be revoked on pain of death.’

Japan remained closed in such a manner for more than two centuries, until modern powers, with modern colonial ambitions, began to bang on the gates of seclusion. After centuries in control, the power of the military aristocracy began to wane. It was eventually brought down by the arrival of foreign powers, when the Shōgun, supposedly appointed as a Great Barbarian-Suppressing General, proved unfit for purpose. Not only did the Shōgun fail to keep out American, British and French warships; he proved unable to assert his authority against foreign merchants and priests. Christians were still forbidden from missionary activity in Japan, but by the later half of the 19th century, the growing community of foreign merchants and industrialists in Nagasaki was allowed to have its own bishop. The rules, however, were strict – he was not supposed to talk to the Japanese, only to meet the religious needs of his fellow foreigners, at the newly completed Ōura Catholic Church in Nagasaki’s Glover Hills district.

Shortly after midnight on 17th March 1865, barely a month after the church was completed, Father Bernard Petitjean heard a timid knock on his door. He opened it to find a group of over a dozen Japanese people, peering at him curiously. Petitjean was equally curious himself, as his presence in Nagasaki was barely tolerated by the authorities.

‘May I ask,’ said a young man after a while, ‘if you owe allegiance to the great chief of the kingdom of Rome?’

The baffled Petitjean hemmed and hawed through his beard, and carefully said that Pope Pius IX was probably who they had in mind.

‘Have you no children?’ asked the same man.

Petitjean was used to strange questions and his missionary gears, although somewhat rusty after months without preaching to unbelievers, began to grind back into action.

‘Christians and others are the children that God has given me,’ he replied. ‘Other children I cannot have. The priest must, like the first apostles in Japan, remain all his life unmarried.’

Just when Petitjean thought that the meeting could not turn any more surreal, the Japanese bowed low to the ground, chattering excitedly. A woman among them attempted to make things clearer.

‘The heart of all of us here is the same as yours,’ she said, explaining that the delegation had come to visit him from a nearby village. ‘At home, everybody is the same as we are. They have the same hearts as we.’

Father Petitjean was speechless. He could not believe what he was hearing, and truly doubted that the people who had knocked on his door knew the implications of what they were suggesting. One of the women then said something that made Petitjean’s heart leap.

‘Where,’ she asked in Japanese, ‘is the statue of Santa Maruya?

For two centuries, scattered enclaves of Kirishitan had continued to worship Deus, despite the Shōgunate’s prohibitions. In urban areas and major population centres, it was impossible to be a believer. But out on the periphery, in remote fishing villages and island farmsteads, Christianity clung to life. These ‘Hidden Christians’ (Kakure Kirishitan) adapted Buddhist rosaries for their own purposes. When called upon to tread upon the image of Christ, they duly obeyed to mislead the government inquisitor, and then sneaked off to confess their sin to a sympathetic fellow, who would absolve them. They pretended to worship Kannon, the Buddhist ‘Goddess of Mercy’, but gave the deity features suspiciously like that of the Virgin Mary. It was the virgin Maruya to the hidden Christians – the name gaining a vowel shift to bring it into line with the secret Christian symbol, the maru, or circle. When the mere possession of a crucifix was liable to land an entire village in deadly danger, the hidden Christians found new ways to hide their symbols. Huddled around a table in their hiding place, the Kirishitan would form a cross made of coins on the floor – a symbol that could be removed with a sweep of the hand. Christian icons were hidden in phony table bases, or in a false back to a household shrine. The city of Nagasaki, under direct government control, supposedly had no Christian presence at all, although it somehow gained four shrines to Matsu, the Chinese Goddess of the Sea, and several more to Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy.

Christ's Samurai cover smallWith the Jesuit books burned or rendered illegible by the absence of those who could read Roman letters, there was no longer a way to preserve the words of the original missionaries. Transmission of the religion proceeded solely by word of mouth, from generation to generation in isolated communities, and inevitably there were strange drifts in meaning. In some places, Christianity became little more than a cult of ancestor worship, where the ancestors who were revered were secretly remembered as Christian believers.

Book extract from Christ’s Samurai: The True Story of the Shimabara Rebellion, by Jonathan Clements.

The Have-a-Go Hero

your-name-680It’s a familiar set-up for fans of anime director Makoto Shinkai. In his latest, Your Name, a boy and a girl have never met, but are still intimately connected by a mysterious switching of their personalities.

Shinkai often writes about distance – sometimes the micro-gestures that define how two people feel about each other when they are sitting on a bench; sometimes the time-lag between the sending of a phone message and its reception. But that’s not what made Makoto Shinkai famous. He became the poster boy for an entire generation of animation fans because his debut video release, Voices from a Distant Star, was made single-handed.

Or was it? Although he used off-the-shelf software, it helped that he could liberate the most expensive pro tools from his day-job at a computer games company. And by the time the public saw it, it had been buffed up with an injection of cash and manpower from Shinkai’s new patrons. But print the legend: Voices was an anime hit, made by a computer nerd in his living room!

Shinkai bypassed the usual route to an animation career, but that didn’t come without a price. He was propelled into movies, even though he had no apprenticeship in running a studio, and no experience in writing long. Hopeful hype rashly proclaimed him as the next Miyazaki, a ludicrous assertion to make about 31-year-old first-time feature director. His first full-length feature, The Place Promised in Our Early Days, was unremarkable, leading him to drift back into shorts amid whispers that he might have peaked too early. His next work, 5cm Per Second was a far more accomplished, emotionally compelling work, but comprised three linked shorts that fell seven tantalising minutes short of feature length.

Forget the Miyazaki comparison. Shinkai has much more in common with Charlotte Church (no, bear with me…!), an undeniable talent, successful at a perilously young age, and forced to learn the ropes of a more mature career path while trapped in the public eye. Shinkai has literally not had the time to make the mistakes and discover the skills that other animators hone over a decade. His particular style is often born from the things he never got around to learning, like photo-real backgrounds suffused with wondrous sunsets and dappled lighting effects to obscure the fact they’ve been ripped off from real photos.

your-nameIn the first flush of his success in 2008, he ducked out of the industry for several months and became an English student in London. His idle days spent mooching around the British Museum, he said, helped inspire his second feature Journey to Agartha. But Journey to Agartha was something of a flop – a bloated, half-hearted fantasy epic that evoked a meeting of accountants trying desperately to reverse-engineer the appeal of the retiring Hayao Miyazaki.

Shinkai’s follow-up was a bold return to his fannish roots, the 40-minute Garden of Words, about a student and a teacher who play truant in a Tokyo park. Garden of Words was a triumph – a thoughtful, bittersweet platonic romance, distributed in a bespoke, small-cinema format in which, more often than not, the director himself was in attendance, ready to sell you a signed DVD on your way out. At the time of its release, as its box office swiftly climbed, he gingerly told me that it was liable to steer his future productions. Money-men were sure to determine that his next movie should be another romance, not sci-fi. The fantasy elements in Your Name are liable to have been smuggled in by the back door.

Now in his forties, Shinkai continues to live in the glare of publicity, now as the first Japanese animator to be in competition at the London Film Festival. But he also has something of the geek made good about him, barricading himself in his hotel room to complete the next instalment of the novelisation of his own movie, and using his clout as a film maker to fulfil the occasional nerdy dream. I asked him why he had cast Fumi Hirano, the actress who played devil-girl Lum in Urusei Yatsura, as the teacher in Garden of Words.

“Well,” he blushed. “I’d always fancied her…”

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. Your Name opens throughout the UK on 24th November. This article first appeared in Geeky Monkey #14, 2016.

Mumbai or Bust

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I’m off to India in December as a guest of the Times LitFest, where this year’s theme is “That Man Woman Thing, exploring the relationship, or lack of it, across time, place, space, profession, family, and oh yes, literature.” I expect I shall be mainly pushing the Indian edition of my Silk Road book, which is yours for a mere 196 rupees. Although considering the topic, I expect Empress Wu will come up a bit, too. Apparently,  my schedule so far is:
  • Saturday 3rd Dec, 11:45am to 12:45pm 
  • The East is Read 
  • Two Asia analysts unravel the inscrutable. Jonathan Clements with Pallavi Aiyar.
  • Sunday 4th Dec, 1:30pm to 2:30pm 
  • Wanderlit – Three travel writers explore the craft 
  • Alexander Frater, Jonathan Clements, and William Dalrymple in conversation.

Hear Me Now

silent-voiceOver at All the Anime on their monthly podcast, I appear in my role as jury chairman on the awards committee for Scotland Loves Anime, in discussion with members of this year’s panel: Eric Beckman from Gkids and the New York International Children’s Film Festival, Anna Francis from the distributor National Amusements, and Miles Thomas from Crunchyroll. The fourth and final juror, Shelley Page from DreamWorks, was off climbing a hill in Edinburgh.

Discussion includes the four films under consideration: Kingsglaive, Momotaro — Sacred Sailors, A Silent Voice and Your Name, alongside the likely damage that Mods can cause to international sales, the rise and rise of Makoto Shinkai and the tropes of “disability” drama.

Listeners with an interest in what goes on behind the scenes at film festivals can also check out podcasts from earlier years. Highlights include Justin Sevakis and a NSFW digression on hentai in 2015, Gemma Cox on writing about women in anime in 2014, and Hugh David on film and video restoration in 2013.