Tag Archives: Japan

How can I watch “Miss Sherlock” and “Justice: Qalb Al Adala”?

There’s a plethora of international shows to keep an eye on in 2018, but after reading Deadline Hollywood’s roundup of international TV premieres, two that I hope I’ll have the chance of watching involve women cracking cases and being awesome.

Miss Sherlock (HBO Asia/Hulu Japan)

Yugo Takeguchi (L) and Shihori Kanjiya in “Miss Sherlock.”

This Japanese interpretation of the classic Sherlock Holmes character and stories gets a genderbent twist with two women playing Sherlock and Watson. Yugo Takeguchi takes on the title character, while Shihori Kanjiya plays Dr. Wato Tachibana, this universe’s Watson.

The series seems to be heavily influenced by the BBC’s Sherlock, even down to certain parts of Sherlock’s flat and Benedict Cumberbatch’s flair for entering crime scenes. However, don’t think I’m shading this version at all; in fact, I think Miss Sherlock could give us what a lot of us BBC Sherlock fans were hoping for, which is direct confirmation of (and confrontation with) the homoromantic/homoerotic themes between Sherlock and Watson’s relationship. Judging from the trailer, it seems like same-sex attraction is a big part of this series. But I write this with my fingers crossed all the while; if you’re used to the media’s bait-and-switch when it come to LGBT representation, then I’d suggest just girding your loins and watching this with hope and skepticism. But the trailer does seem to promise a lot that would definitely make fans happy.

Hopefully the style is all Miss Sherlock will take from Sherlock; I don’t need a repeat of the awful plot with Sherlock’s sister.

Miss Sherlock’s first eight-episode season will debut this April on HBO in almost 20 markets in the region on HBO’s streaming platforms. Perhaps HBO and Hulu will also provide a way for its American subscribers to watch the drama at a later date.

Justice: Qalb Al Adala (Image Nation Abu Dhabi/Beelink Productions/IM Global Television/OSN)

Fatima Al Taei in “Justice: Qalb Al Adala.”

This Middle Eastern drama will hopefully give a new take on how we Americans view the Middle East and its cultural and political diversity. The drama, filmed in Abu Dhabi, stars Fatima Al Taei as Farah, a lawyer who has graduated from a U.S. university and has returned home to succeed on her own, despite her father being one of the most prestigious lawyers in the United Arab Emirates.

The show was created by William Finklestein of L.A. Law and NYPD Blue as well as He Named Me Malala producer Walter Parkes. Similar to Law and Order, Justice: Qalb Al Adala has cases based on real cases from the Abu Dhabi Judicial Department. Hearing more about real legal cases something that excites me about this show, aside from learning more about the region in general. No word on if this show will make it to U.S. markets or on what network/streaming service it will be shown on.

More international shows are profiled in the Deadline article; which shows are you excited about viewing? Which shows do you hope make it to America? Give your opinions in the comments section below!

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Japan’s gender-bending history

Image 20170227 20702 17f5hy2.png?ixlib=rb 1.1
Genking, a male-born Japanese TV personality and ‘genderless’ pioneer.
_genking_/Instagram

Jennifer Robertson, University of Michigan

I’m an anthropologist who grew up in Japan and has lived there, off and on, for 22 years. Yet every visit to Tokyo’s Harajuku District still surprises me. In the eye-catching styles modeled by fashion-conscious young adults, there’s a kind of street theater, with crowded alleyways serving as catwalks for teenagers peacocking colorful, inventive outfits.

Boutiques are filled with cosmetics and beauty products intended for both males and females, and it’s often difficult to discern the gender of passersby. Since a gendered appearance (“feminine” or “masculine”) often (but not always) denotes the sex of a person, Japan’s recent “genderless” fashion styles might confuse some visitors – was that person who just walked by a woman or a man?

Although the gender-bending look appeals equally to young Japanese women and men, the media have tended to focus on the young men who wear makeup, color and coif their hair and model androgynous outfits. In interviews, these genderless males insist that they are neither trying to pass as women nor are they (necessarily) gay.

Some who document today’s genderless look in Japan tend to treat it as if it were a contemporary phenomenon. However, they conveniently ignore the long history in Japan of blurred sexualities and gender-bending practices.

Sex without sexuality

In premodern Japan, aristocrats often pursued male and female lovers; their sexual trysts were the stuff of classical literature. To them, the biological sex of their pursuits was often less important than the objective: transcendent beauty. And while many samurai and shoguns had a primary wife for the purposes of procreation and political alliances, they enjoyed numerous liaisons with younger male lovers.

Only after the formation of a modern army in the late-19th century were the sort of same-sex acts central to the samurai ethos discouraged. For a decade, from 1872 to 1882, sodomy among men was even criminalized. However, since then, there have been no laws in Japan banning homosexual relations.

It’s important to note that, until very recently, sexual acts in Japan were not linked to sexual identity. In other words, men who had sex with men and women who had sex with women did not consider themselves gay or lesbian. Sexual orientation was neither political nor politicized in Japan until recently, when a gay identity emerged in the context of HIV/AIDS activism in the 1990s. Today, there are annual gay pride parades in major cities like Tokyo and Osaka.

In Japan, same-sex relations among children and adolescents have long been thought of as a normal phase of development, even today. From a cultural standpoint, it’s frowned upon only when it interferes with marriage and preserving a family’s lineage. For this reason, many people will have same-sex relationships while they’re young, then get married and have kids. And some even later resume having same-sex relationships after fulfilling these social obligations.

Contentious cross-dressing

Like same-sex relationships, cross-dressing has a long history in Japan. The earliest written records date to the eighth century and include stories about women who dressed as warriors. In premodern Japan, there were also cases of women passing as men either to reject the prescribed confines of femininity or to find employment in trades dominated by men.

‘Modern girls’ (‘moga’) stroll along the Ginza, Japan’s Fifth Avenue, in 1928.
Wikimedia Commons

A century ago, “modern girls” (moga) were young women who sported short hair and trousers. They attracted media attention – mostly negative – although artists depicted them as fashion icons. Some hecklers called them “garçons” (garuson), an insult implying unfeminine and unattractive.

Gender, at that time, was thought of in zero-sum terms: If females were becoming more masculine, it meant that males were becoming feminized.

These concerns made their way into the theater. For example, the all-female Takarazuka Revue was an avant-garde theater founded in 1913 (and is still very popular today). Females play the parts of men, which, in the early 20th century, sparked heated debates (that continue today) about “masculinized” women on stage – and how this might influence women off the stage.

However, today’s genderless males aren’t simply weekend cross-dressers. Instead, they want to shatter the existing norms that say men must dress and present themselves a certain way.

They ask: Why should only girls and women be able to wear skirts and dresses? Why should only women be able to wear lipstick and eye shadow? If women can wear pants, why shouldn’t men be able to wear skirts?

Actually, the adjective “genderless” is misleading, since these young men aren’t genderless at all; rather, they’re claiming both femininity and masculinity as styles they wear in their daily lives.

In this regard, these so-called genderless men have historical counterparts: In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, cosmopolitan “high collar” men (haikara) wore facial powder and carried scented handkerchiefs, paying meticulous attention to their Westernized appearances. One critic – invoking the zero-sum gender attitudes of the era – complained that “some men toil over their makeup more than women.” Conservative pundits derided the haikara as “effeminate” by virtue of their “un-Japanese” style.

On the other end of the masculinity spectrum were the nationalistic “primitive” men (bankara) who wore wooden clogs (geta) to complement their military-style school uniforms. Ironically, like their samurai predecessors – and unlike the foppish haikara – the macho bankara would engage in same-sex acts.

Japan’s ‘beautiful youths’

Probably the biggest contemporary inspiration for today’s genderless males are a spate of popular androgynous boy bands. Cultivated and promoted by Johnny & Associates Entertainment Company, Japan’s largest male talent agency, they include boy bands like SMAP, Johnny’s West and Sexy Zone.

Johnny’s West performs their song ‘Summer Dreamer.’

There’s a term for the type of teenage boy that Johnny & Associates cultivates: “beautiful youths” (bishōnen), which was coined a century ago to describe a young man whose ambiguous gender and sexual orientation appealed to females and males of all ages.

Similarly, Visual Kei is a 1980s glam-rock and punk music genre that features bishōnen performers who don flamboyant, gender-bending costumes and hairdos. In its new, 21st-century incarnation as Neo-Visual Kei, the emphasis on androgyny is even more pronounced, as epitomized by the prolific career of the androgynous Neo-Visual Kei pop star Gackt, who enjoys an international fan following.

The ConversationSince the word “genderless” is misleading, a better term might be “gender-more,” in the sense that young men – especially in Tokyo – are insisting on the right to present and express themselves in ways that contradict and exceed traditional masculinity. In the long span of Japanese cultural history, there have been many things that were – and are – new under the sun. But genderless males aren’t among them.

Jennifer Robertson, Professor of Anthropology and Art History, University of Michigan

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Akai samurai: The Praetorian Guard’s Japanese influence in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”

If you’re a Star Wars fan, you’ve definitely seen the arresting image of the new enforcers in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the Praetorian Guard.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi Praetorian Guards

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, writer-director Rian Johnson revealed that the Guard, Supreme Leader Snoke’s personal protectors, is a more amped-up version of the Imperial Guard in The Return of the Jedi. 

While the guards get their name from the real life guards who protected ancient Roman emperors, the look and feel of the Praetorian Guard is clearly more samurai in nature. Star Wars fans are already intimately aware of the cyclical nature of the Star Wars lore–any theme that has come up in the past can (and probably will) come up again. The same can be said of the Japanese influence on Star Wars, which is embedded right in the DNA of the Praetorian Guard.

The Jedi, samurai with lightsabers

Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan Kenobi in “Star Wars: Attack of the Clones” (Lucasfilm)

Johnson gave Entertainment Weekly the background on the Praetorian Guard, including the guard’s Japanese connection.

“The Emperor’s guards were very formal, and you always got the sense that they could fight, but they didn’t. They looked like they were more ceremonial, and you never really saw them in action,” he said. “The Praetorians, my brief to [costume designer] Michael Kaplan was that those guys have to be more like samurai. They have to be built to move, and you have to believe that they could step forward and engage if they have to. They have to seem dangerous.”

The Praetorian Guard are wearing a simplified, almost-blocky style of samurai armor with a touch of the 1980s digital aesthetic in the curved grate that makes up the Praetorian helmet visor. However, the idea of samurai is nothing new to Star Wars. The Jedi themselves are based on the idea of the samurai, including the unwritten code the Jedi live by, a type of space-bushido (without the ritualistic honor-bound suicide, seppuku, of course–these are “kids’ films” after all). Even Darth Vader’s iconic headgear and outfit are based on ornamental samurai armor.

As Samurai: The Last Warrior author John Man wrote for Salon:

…I looked at the inspiration behind the look of both the Jedi Knights and their opponent Darth Vader. So much of it derived from samurai traditions: the cloaks, the tunics, Vader’s helmet, the lightsaber.

…They are expert in the use of swords, despite their ability to call on the most fearsome and destructive of long-distance weapons…Both forgo armor to fight in loose tunics. That is how the Last Samurai, Saigo Takamori, went into battle against the Japanese Empire in 1877; that is how Toshiro Mifune appears in Kurasawa’s film “The Seven Samurai”; that is how young Skywalker, up and coming Jedi, faces up to Vader, the father hehs lost to the Dark Side of the Force.

[With regard to Darth Vader’s armor]: …[A]fter Japanese unification in 1600, the samurai became redundant, but instead of vanishing they reinvented themselves as vital members of society, adopting ever more extreme armor designs, with overlapping plates, masks with bristling mustaches and helmets with horns, or crab-like extensions (symbols of protection), or rabbits’ ears to suggest longevity. Vader’s headgear is a simplified version of a samurai face-mask and helmet, with neck protection and ear-flaps. Unlike a samurai, though, he does not need a hole in the top of his helmet through which to poke an elaborate top knot.

Side-by-side comparisons really show the connective thread between the samurai, the Jedi, and fallen Jedi like Darth Vader and his Imperial Guard.

Lucasfilm, Felice Beato/Public Domain

Even after we move away from the original Star Wars films, the idea of samurai-esque robes remains throughout the Star Wars universe, including the latest in the Star Wars main storyline, The Force Awakens. 

Star Wars “samurai-in-space” focus comes from George Lucas himself. As Ollie Barder wrote for Forbes:

It’s widely known that George Lucas was a fan of Akira Kurosawa’s work and famously used inspiration from films like The Hidden Fortress for many of the film’s plot and characters as well as whole scenes.

Barder goes on to write that even the word “Jedi” stems from a Japanese connotation.

…[T]he term “jidaigeki is Japanese for “period drama.” Films like The Hidden Fortress and other aspects of Kurosawa’s oeuvre were often period pieces. Featuring the trials and tribulations of samurai and peasants caught in-between petulant warlords.

The word itself also gave birth to the Jedi and it’s no surprise that they too borrowed many elements from the samurai as well.

Lucas borrowing for the real world is nothing new; Lucas has used the name of Tunisian city Tataouine as the basis for the name of the desert planet Tatooine and in the Star Wars prequels, the costume design for Padme/Queen Amidala feature motifs from several world cultures. In Rogue One, the idea of a space Mecca, Middle Eastern stereotypes and all, is apparent in the spiritual planet Jedha. There are even more examples of Lucas borrowing from other Japanese properties. But despite all of the other disparate elements Lucas brings into his world, including 1950s diners (looking at you, Clone Wars), the biggest throughline in Star Wars is that this is a space opera featuring space samurai protecting the innocent against the space ronin, masterless samurai who are only thirsty for power.

A Shinto color for protection used for evil

Torii at Itsukushima Shrine in Hiroshima Prefecture (Rdsmith4/Creative Commons)

The Praetorian Guard’s relationship with Japan doesn’t end with just Lucas and Johnson’s affinity for samurai. The bright red color that forms the Praetorian Guard’s formidable look also has ties to Japanese culture. In this case, it’s more than just mere borrowing–it’s borrowing with irony.

There are several meanings for the color red in Japan (as is anywhere else), but there is a particular meaning for red in the traditional Shinto religion: protection. However, unlike with the Praetorian Guard, who’s charged with protecting an evil leader, red is charged with protecting Shinto worshippers from evil and disease.

According to Mark Schumacher, who wrote about the history of red in Shinto, the meaning of red might have come from “demon quelling and disease (e.g., smallpox, scarlet fever, tuberculosis, measles).”

According to Japanese folk belief, RED is the color for “expelling demons and illness.” The rituals of spirit quelling were regularly undertaken by the Yamato court during the Asuka Period (522-645 AD). Centered on a fire god (a red deity), these purification rites were designed to purify the land by sending evil spirits to the Ne no Kuni [“The Land of Roots,” an underworld]. This association with evil easily segues into other links with child mortality, protection against evil forces (sickness), fertility, the caul (embryonic membrane covering the head at birth), and other child-birth imagery. The red bibs, red robes, red scarfs, and red caps found frequently on certain Japanese deities…lend strong support to his interpretation.”

Schumacher wrote that for a small amount of time, the Japanese god of smallpox, Hōsō Kami, was closely linked to the color red. This association came at some point between smallpox’s initial introduction to Japan in 550 AD and the first recording of smallpox in 720 AD. It was believed that if the skin of a person afflicted with smallpox turned purple, they would die, but if the skin turned red, they would live. Eventually red came to mean protection against ailments.

This early association between demons of disease and the color red was gradually turned upside down–proper worship of the disease deity would bring life, but improper worship or neglect would result in death. In later centuries, the Japanese recommended that children with smallpox be clothed in red garments and that those caring for the sick also wear red…The Red-Equals-Sickness symbolism quickly gave way to a new dualism between evil and good, between death and life, between hell and heaven, with red embodying both life-creating and life-sustaining powers. As a result, the color red was dedicated not only to deities of sickness and demon quelling, but also to deities of healing, fertility, and childbirth.

An argument could be made that, if the Star Wars crew were conscious of the fact that red has such a huge meaning in Shinto, maybe they were using red to align the Guard and Snoke even more with the evil and danger they represent. However, with what red has come to mean in Shinto over time, the all-red Praetorian Guard is more of an unintentional ironic statement; just like the red torii gates that signify a protection of the spiritual realm and a cleansing of the worshippers that stand near, the Guards are protectors who signify that entering Snoke’s realm is a rarefied experience. However, unlike those that visit torii, there’s no holiness or goodness to come from the Guard and especially not from Snoke. Instead of healing, there’s only spiritual disease.

Aniline Red 

From “Samurai: Armor from the Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Collection” at the Phoenix Art Museum 2017 exhibition.

The history of red gets even more complicated when you add westernization into the mix. If you notice, the color of the Praetorian Guard is not just red, but it’s a shocking red. It’s a red that makes you sit up and stand at attention. It’s an unnatural red, to be sure.

This unnatural red looks like it could be aniline red, a synthetic color that owes part of its origins to British scientist William Henry Perkin trying to find a cure for malaria. You can read more about aniline red’s road towards becoming a marketable color at Prints of Japan, but just keep in mind that it was the Europeans who brought this synthetic color to Japan. I would say it’s become one of its more iconic colors, too; as a synthetic, it’s able to keep its vibrancy over hundreds of years, compared to Japanese prints that utilize natural red dyes.

Woodblock print depicting dignitaries of early Meiji Japan. ( National Diet Library Achives, Tokyo)
Part of a Kunichika triptych. (The British Museum)

These two prints are saturated in aniline red; see how pop-arty they make these 19th century pieces?

I don’t know if the folks behind Star Wars recognized they were playing deep into the Japanese color history by making the Praetorian Guard shockingly red. Of course, the Imperial Guard are also red, and the real Praetorian Guard were also associated with red. But with so much Japanese influence making its way into the Praetorian Guard, it’s funny that even this small element of Japanese history snuck its way in.

Final thoughts

Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker in Return of the Jedi. Ikeda Nagaoki in 1864 (Lucasfilm/Topps, Public domain)

So what does all of this mean in the end? It seems like there’s a conversation to be had about where the line stops when it comes to “appropriation” versus “inspiration.” It’s very easy to say that Lucas was inspired by samurai films he saw growing up, much like how Quentin Tarantino was inspired by the blaxploitation and grindhouse films he saw as a kid. While it’s certainly clear that Lucas found a more elegant way to showcase his inspirations by way of a space opera, is there much difference between Lucas’ insistence on direct Japanese ties to his work and Tarantino’s insistence on directly imitating and reworking major themes from blaxploitation? To a certain degree, both Lucas and Tarantino straddle the line between appreciation and flat-out lifting (or, to be nicer about it, “paying homage.”)

If you’re being really nitpicky, you could say that many directors out there steal from their favorite films. No doubt–every director has put in a scene that mimics a scene they’ve loved from their childhood films. But where it gets interesting for Lucas and Tarantino is that there’s a certain amount of damage attributed to how they represent (or don’t represent) the cultures they’re drawing from.

For instance, how can Lucas draw inspiration from Japanese films just to give a set of bumbling aliens stereotypical Asian accents in the Star Wars prequels? How can it be that Lucas has only rarely featured Asian faces in general–much less specifically Japanese faces–on screen? The Force Awakens, the upcoming Last Jedi and Rogue One have featured more Asian characters than the prequels and the originals combined, and all three of those movies have been under the inclusionary focus of J.J. Abrams, not Lucas. This article isn’t about Tarantino, but since I’ve brought him up (and since I’m black) it’s time to start talking about how Tarantino only views blackness through a limited scope, not through how actual black people behave. (Yeah, I know he marched against police brutality, but that’s the least he could do–that’s something we all should be doing, to be honest.)

With all of this said, where does this put the Praetorian Guard? It would seem, regardless of the arguments made for or against “paying homage,” the mysterious samurai and Japan’s relationships with spirituality and color are imports to Western culture that still fascinate us and keep us fascinated with the culture of the Land of the Rising Sun. The Guard are only one more block that cements that fascination.

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Japan celebrates hijab fashion with the Modest Fashion Show

AJ+/screengrab
AJ+/screengrab

I’ve wanted to feature hijab fashion on the site for some time, and highlighting the Modest Fashion Show seems like as good a time as any.

The Modest Fashion Show, which recently took place in Tokyo, Japan, highlighted just how much hijab fashion is overlooked in the mainstream fashion world. It also highlighted how creative modest fashion actually is.

Take a look at the fashion show for yourself:

What I’d love is for the mainstream world to think of more than just the usual suspects as their target demographic. People of all faiths love Michael Kors, Prada, and the like. As Singaporean designer and founder of MeemClothings Nur Hanis told AJ+, “I think it’s really endless opportunities to design. There’s no one way to do or to wear the hijab.”

Also, frankly, not every woman wants to have their back or even their arms out when they’re wearing a simple dress, regardless of their faith (like me).  Wouldn’t it be great if we could see modest fashion in conjunction with the more skin-revealing styles on the catwalks? I think so.

What do you love about modest fashion? Give your opinions in the comments section below!

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Gospel singers take Neon Genesis Evangelion to holy heights

YouTube/screengrab
YouTube/screengrab

As a long time anime fan, I’ve heard and watched Neon Genesis Evangelion. But a confession that must be made is that while I appreciate the show, I never really got into Evangelion. But, I love the theme song almost as much as Oprah loves bread. It’s easily one of the most iconic theme songs in anime history. Now, the song has become even more iconic after a gospel group takes it to yet another awesome level.

The group, Glory Gospel Singers, appeared on an episode of Japanese singing show NHK Nodo Jiman (NHK Amateur Singing Contest), and they blew the audience away by combining their traditional gospel roots with classic anime. Check it out for yourself.

I love when I see videos featuring beautiful cross-cultural moments, and this video is certainly no exception. What did you think about this video? And if you’re a Neon Genesis Evangelion fan, what do you love about the show? Give your opinions in the comments section below!

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Online Vigil for Victims of the Tsukui Yamayuri En Mass Killing to Take Place Tonight

On July 26, 2016, 19 disabled residents of the Tsukui Yamayuri En care facility in Sagamihara, Japan were murdered by 26-year-old Satoshi Uematsu, a former facility employee. As reported by the Guardian, Uematsu turned himself him in to police and admitted his crime. “I did it,” he said. “It is better that disabled people disappear.”

Tonight at 8 pm ET (which would be 9 am on Aug. 5 in Japan), Alice Wong of the Disability Visibility Project and disabled filmmaker/activst Dominick Evans will have an online vigil for those killed and the 20 wounded. The vigil and chat will include Dr. Gillan Peckitt who runs disability-related site The Limping Philospher and resides in Nada-Ku, Kobe, Hyogo Prefecture, Japan.

Online-vigil-DVP

The conversation and vigil will give those participating a chance to share grief, express solidarity, and highlight the lack of coverage the attack garnered in the media. “There will be discussions of violence, ableism, murder, and death,” wrote Wong in her blog post about the event. “Please practice self-care.” She also wrote that while everyone is welcome to attend and participate, “this online vigil will be centered on the voices and lives of disabled people, especially disabled people of color who have been so impacted.”

You can learn more about the event at The Disability Visibility Project.

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