Vital Statistics

Continuing to make a mockery of the supposed four-panel format is I Love the Best Boobs in the World by Wakame Konbu. Yes, that’s a pseudonym, since it means Seaweed Seaweed, and you’d probably want to hide your real name if you were writing a comic about a kind-hearted teenager, Chiaki, who is best friends with classmate Hana, whose mammary glands are apparently the top of the tit tree. In this month’s instalment, our two heroines go shopping for bras, which allows the implied male reader a delicious, erotically-charged peek at what goes on in lingerie shop changing rooms. Chiaki, in fact, is a wolf in sheep’s clothing – as a girl, she gets a free pass into such inner sanctums, although she secretly has a fetish for large breasts, and loves to be around them.

Because NEO leaves no stone unturned in its investigation of Japanese culture, it’s time to talk boobs. The Triumph company has been logging Japanese bust-sizes since 1980, allowing statisticians to plot a curve of Japanese… curves. The story it tells is a compelling one born from changes in Japanese dietary habits (particularly dairy products containing bovine growth hormones) and trends, suggesting that A, B, and C cup sales have been dropping for a generation. Whereas A-cups in 1980 were worth 58.6% of all Japanese bra sales, now they’ve fallen to 4.1%. 2016 was the tipping point – the first year in which D, E and F cup sizes represented more sales in Japan than A, B, and C.

However, before you rush off to impress your friends with this news, some things to bear in mind. Firstly, Japanese bra sizes are not the same as other countries’. A Japanese E-cup, for example, is the same size as an American D-cup or a British DD.

Even allowing for these differences in definition, there is still a palpable change in bra-buying in Japan since 1980, but this does not necessarily mean that Japanese women are suddenly bustier. Triumph cautions that it may simply mean that women with bigger chests buy more bras, either as a feature of their struggle to find one that fits properly, or possibly because they are more likely to work in a sector that requires what we shall gingerly call performative lingerie exhibition.

University undergraduates who have suddenly decided on their final essay topic while reading this page are also advised to bear in mind that many Japanese bras are also aspirational – you might be a humble A-cup, wearing a padded C-cup because you think it will get you noticed. In that regard, the changing statistics may have less to do with changes in body type, and more to do with 21st century standards of beauty.

Jonathan Clements is the author of  A Brief History of Japan. This article first appeared as part of the Manga Snapshot column on Comic Cune in NEO #180, 2018.

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The Curse of the Muramasa

Urban myths of the late eighteenth century suggested that Tokugawa Ieyasu had been troubled by the constant recurrence of the name of one particular swordsmith among his enemies. Late in life, he developed a superstition that blades made by the sixteenth-century school of Muramasa had been specifically cursed to do damage to the Tokugawa family. The reasoning for this, at least as far as the rumours went, was that Ieyasu’s grandfather had been killed by one, his father had been stabbed by one, and Ieyasu injured himself with one when he was a child. His worries only increased when he discovered that in the case of two executions, that of his adulterous wife and supposedly treacherous adopted son, the executioner’s blade had been a Muramasa, too. Over time, Ieyasu came to believe that every one of the generals who had opposed him had wielded a Muramasa blade, including Sanada Yukimura, who had supposedly dealt him a troublesome wound at the Battle of Tennōji in 1615. The attentive reader may note that sources from the time report that, if Ieyasu was wounded at all by Sanada, he was wounded with a spear, but no matter – the fiction was already more alluring than the already shaky facts.

Muramasa blades were highly prized, so it should have come as no surprise that they were in the possession of wealthy members of the aristocracy. Nor should it have been a mystery why aristocrats facing death would insist on their executioner using the sharpest, highest-performance blade available. But the stories about the ‘Curse of the Muramasa’ seem to have served another purpose in eighteenth-century Japan: delivering a chilling frisson to audiences with the reminder that there was a time when someone stood against the Shōgun, and that their legacy lived on, hidden within clans, buried in storehouses, and traded among sword-dealers.

Muramasa blades, it was said, were cursed. Their creator was half-mad, and the weapons he made could impel their wielders into murderous rages. One story tells of a young samurai, Gentaro, up in Edo as part of his obligatory domain service, who sees a Muramasa hanging among the other swords on a dealer’s rack:

Trembling, he withdrew it from its scabbard, and he forgot to breathe. The sword had hidden depths, like morning mist welling up within the metal. Light danced off the blade in the colours of the rainbow . . . Just by holding it in his hand, he could tell it was a masterpiece . . . an artefact suitable for a lord’s treasure house, fated never to come into the hands of a common samurai.

The samurai is even happier when the dealer offers to sell him the blade for a fraction of its true value, although he will not say why. Cheerfully, Gentaro brings the sword back with him to his home domain, where he shows it off to his fellow officers at the monthly sword club. Despite everyone’s gasps of awe, the club chairman tells him the sword is worthless. Suspecting that the chairman merely wants to buy it from him cheaply, Gentaro seeks a second opinion, and is told the whole sorry story of the cursed blades. In a spate of demises that prefigure the calamities of a modern horror film, most people involved in the story are dead within a week, as is the family servant told to throw the sword in a river, who unwisely plans to keep it for himself.

The legend achieved a wider audience in 1797 when it gained a prominent mention in a popular kabuki play Oblique Reflections of Brothel Lives (Satokotoba Awasekagami). Revived in 1815 and again in 1860 with slight variations, the story became a recurring staple of the Japanese theatre. The main narrative concerned a missing girl in the pleasure quarter, and an impoverished son of a merchant desperate to raise the money to buy his lover out of indentured servitude in a brothel. Mixed in with these basic plots are shadows of the Muramasa legend – a cursed Muramasa blade is sold by a hapless sword-dealer, who is soon murdered; it falls into the hands of one of the leading characters, and drives him into a serial-killing spree. As so often happened with kabuki theatre, real-world reportage is hidden within the melodrama. It drew inspirations from the collapse of an Edo bridge in 1807, and the 1820 murder of a capricious geisha by the man who had bankrupted himself to buy her freedom. By the nineteenth century, Muramasa swords were associated with a whole series of half-remembered macabre tales of murder and betrayal, and had come to be linked in the popular mind with the decline of samurai honour into bloody, inconsequential vendettas, and fights over bar-girls or petty debts.

Despite the superior quality of Muramasa blades, they became impossible to sell, and there are cases of some swords on which the smith’s name was doctored, Muramasa becoming altered to Masamune – another smith but without a tainted reputation. In fact, the anti-Tokugawa reputation of the Muramasa blades gave them an unexpected value among those who despised the government. Those few that survived the Tokugawa era, hidden in family vaults, are now worth millions.

Extract from A Brief History of the Samurai, by Jonathan Clements.

Flowers of Edo

The Sumida River was sure to rise every year, either directly endangering the Low City slums or increasing the spread of rat- or fly-borne diseases. But in a town of close-packed wooden houses, every one with a hearth, the greatest danger was fire. Periodic conflagrations destroyed entire districts of the city, and could be kicked off by a single errant spark. The most boggling was the Meireki Fire of January 1657 (like many such events, it derives its name from the reign-period in which it took place), which began, like some horror movie foreshadowing, with a haunted kimono.

This article of clothing had been owned by three girls in succession, every one of whom had met with a sudden death. Believing the kimono to be cursed, its new owners ordered it to be burned at a Buddhist temple. A gust of strong wind lifted up fragments of the burning silk and deposited them on a temple roof, which soon caught alight. The flames jumped from temple to tavern, over bridges and storehouses, burning down six entire districts. In the chaos, a second fire started, perhaps from a neglected cooking stove or a dropped tobacco pipe. With the populace already distracted by the first fire, the second raged through the samurai district, burning the inmates of the city prison alive, and even destroying Edo Castle. Over 100,000 people, a third of the entire population, died in the two days of the Meireki Fire, not merely from the flames, but from the wintry aftermath. Even as the wreckage still smouldered, snow began to fall with mocking irony, dooming many newly homeless residents to death by hypothermia.

Fires were so commonplace and so feared that the locals did not even dare to call them what they were. With a customarily poetic fatalism, they referred to them as ‘the flowers of Edo’. Many houses gained rooftop crow’s nests to allow the occupants to see how close nearby fires were getting. A common feature of every district was the hinomi-yagura (fire-watching tower), which looks to modern eyes like a pair of telegraph poles placed close enough together that the rungs of a ladder can run between them. At the top was a bell and a tiny perch no bigger than a footstool, allowing residents to peer into the next city block to see how great the risk was whenever they smelled smoke.

Eventually, Edo gained a new class of ‘firemen’ although their job description was somewhat different from what one might expect. Exhibiting a certain resignation about the impossibility of putting out a fire, they instead ransacked the house, carrying out the valuables to spare them the flames. Private enterprises rather than publically-funded do-gooders, the firemen existed as multiple rival brigades, often leading to scrums of contending rescuers at any disaster scene. Standard bearers carrying the standard of a particular firemen’s guild would perch as close to the burning building as possible, so that everyone could see who had arrived. Fire-hoses, using a relatively meagre hand-pumped stream from the nearest canal, were intended not to dowse the flames, but protect the firemen as they worked.

Over the years, it became apparent that the best way to protect one’s business was to strike a deal with the firemen in advance, so that they were sure to come quickly in the event of trouble. In order to make allegiances clear, many businesses started to hang the standards of particular guilds over their doors. This was the origin of the decorated noren, the half-curtain that can still be found at the entrance to many a shop or noodle bar.

From An Armchair Traveller’s History of Tokyo by Jonathan Clements, available now (US/UK).

Out of Tune

Music producer Akihiro Tomita has fired a warning shot at anime financers with a comment about the decline of the anime theme song. Speaking at an event in Shinjuku on 9th September, Tomita observed that Netflix’s habit of chopping off the credits was a binge-watcher’s dream, but diminished the relevance of the traditional 90-second opening and ending songs.

Their purpose has been a matter of debate for generations. They used to be handy announcements that your show was starting, reinforcing the ritual of appointment television. But producers fretted that a long theme song might lure trigger-happy channel-hoppers to see what was on the other side. This was particularly an issue in the 1990s American market, where viewers might sit through the theme song to, say, Friends, only to have to then endure another commercial break before the show began. Will & Grace saw its theme tune squashed and occasionally reduced to nothing but a musical sting if the action overran in in an episode. Frasier’s opening was just a few bars on a vibraphone – lasting just seven seconds. Anime themes, however, have remained notably long, turning into a veritable juke box of tie-ins and product placement.

Tomita’s comments quietly assert the bargaining power that Netflix is enjoying behind the scenes. The online behemoth’s ability to call the shots threatens the delicate balance of many an anime production committee, most of which feature a record company among investors. So they’ll chip in 10% of the budget, but they want their new pop idol singing the theme song. And the animators don’t mind, because 90 seconds off the top and tail of every episode means they only have to make those bits once, giving them a week off every season.

Since record companies are still substantial players in the Japanese market, they are liable to want their airtime some other way. Godzilla: Planet of Monsters, for example, on which Tomita was musical director, was made by Polygon Pictures, which is part-owned by King Records. If theme songs phase out, get ready for excuses for musical interludes elsewhere within anime shows, possibly even anime musicals that make watching the songs part of the action, and animators complaining that they have to work even harder to fill up the time. But I, for one, hope the old style of theme tune stays, because I still like that ritual quality. I might even sing along, occasionally with my own made-up lyrics. You should hear me do Evangelion. “Lots of robots / And people in misery / There’s a penguin but please don’t ask me what for…” [That’s enough – Ed.]

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Tokyo. This article first appeared in NEO #181, 2018.

Armchair Tokyo

“Clements both mourns and celebrates a constantly changing parade of lost and reborn Tokyos, layered onto and fading into each other, leaving only fragments of each incarnation behind. It’s a vista that will tempt many an armchair traveller to go and see for themselves” — Helen McCarthy, All the Anime

Published today by Haus, an Armchair Traveller’s History of Tokyo.

An Armchair Traveller’s History of Tokyo presents the modern capital of Japan from the first forest clearances on the Kanto plain, through the wars and intrigues of the samurai era, up to the preparations for the 2020 Olympics.

Repeatedly destroyed by fires, earthquakes and war, remnants of old-time Tokyo can still be found amid the modern city’s urban sprawl, where the sites of ancient temples and forgotten battles sit beside run-down boom-era boondoggles and modern malls.

As with other Armchair Traveller guides, a Gazetteer offers detailed information on sites of tourist interest, including the hidden etymologies of familiar locations on the metro map, stripping away the modern streets to reveal stories behind the lost valleys, post stations, castles and gravesites.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of the Samurai, Anime: A History and biographies of Admiral Togo and Prince Saionji. His recent books include Modern Japan: All That Matters and Christ’s Samurai: The True Story of the Shimabara Rebellion.

 

Japan Station 03: Sacred Sailors

Over in Hawaii, I’m interviewed by Tony Vega for the Japan Station podcast about the incredible story of Japan’s first animated feature, Momotaro, Sacred Sailors (1943).

“In this episode we discuss the origins of Japanese animation and its fascinating history. We particularly focus on the making of Japan’s first feature-length animated film: Momotaro: Sacred Sailors (桃太郎 海の神兵, Momotarō: Umi no Shinpei). Clements talks about how this World War II era Navy funded propaganda film got made, the challenges faced by the film’s director Seo Mitsuyo, the influence of Western animation like Popeye and the 1941 Disney film Fantasia,and what people today can gain by watching this sometimes strange and often unsettling work.”

Fred Patten (1940-2018)

My obituary for anime’s First Fan in America, Fred Patten, is up now on the Anime Limited website.

‘Fred was soon scooped up by a Japanese company, Hiro Media, which hoped to off-load straight-to-video anime on the American market, although his earnest efforts to interest American fans were hampered by two issues. “Firstly,” he wrote, “they weren’t very good.”’