Pirates, Monks, and Inakamono: Ehime in Contemporary Media
Tokyo is the center of Japan’s media industry, the place where a majority of production and marketing happens. The capital’s gravity is felt in everything from films to manga to advertising. Tokyo is modern Japan, and everywhere else assumes an outside position relative to the center.
There are extremes. Hokkaido is the frontier, making it a reasonable stand-in for southern Kansas in Lee Sang-il’s remake of Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” and for Norfolk in the Studio Ghibli reimagining of “When Marnie was There.” Okinawa represents both relaxation and danger in the Japanese consciousness. Characters may go to Okinawa to vacation, but often enough they go to buy guns or drugs, as in Takeshi Kitano’s “Boiling Point.” In the extreme case of the cult anime short film “Blood: The Last Vampire,” a young warrior poses as a schoolgirl to kill demons. Both films take place on or around the American military bases.
In between these two geographical outliers is the countryside, the signs of which are nearly universal and coded to create nostalgia even in people whose only experience of the pastoral is through media. Much Japanese media set outside of Tokyo emphasizes the divide between tokai and inaka. When city folk trek to the inaka, they may encounter mystery or horror rooted in local traditions (see the film “Shikoku”), find spiritual healing (“Departures”), or become wrapped up in a comedy of manners. Films and novels set in the inaka without this “visiting protagonist” may be about attempts to make the country more like the city through economic revitalization plans (“Hula Girls”) or material consumption (“Kamikaze Girls”).These rural settings have defining characteristics such as local landmarks and dialects, but they are reduced to places we want to go because they are different from the alienating crush of city life.
With all of this in mind, what images does Ehime conjure in the Japanese imagination? Using the Ehime film section at my local Tsutaya, Wikipedia, and a website cataloguing location shoots across Japan, I’ve compiled a list of media (mostly films) set in Ehime. One quality of Japanese media that frustrates this kind of research is the intentional ambiguity of settings outside of Tokyo. Many films and dramas with scenes shot in Ehime take place in anonymous seaside towns.
It goes without saying that the most famous work set in Ehime is Natsume Soseki’s “Botchan,” a gentle satire of country folk from the perspective of a city boy. The novel has been embraced by the targets of its humor, who have named everything from a stadium to clinics to parking lots after the novel. As a part of the literary canon, “Botchan” is an extraordinary example, but there are very few contemporary works explicitly set in Ehime. The ones I found fit the patterns discussed above. The settings have qualities specific to Ehime that make them curious to outsiders and familiar to locals, but thematically they serve mainly to create a contrast between the city and the country. The most common imagery in these works is of healthy, tanned seafarers and pilgrims in white, and Ehime is accordingly associated with summer. The following is a list of works that engage with the Ehime setting in different ways.
“Crying Out Love in the Center of the World” (2001)
(Also known as “Socrates in Love”)
By some measures one of the ten best-selling books of all time in Japan, this soapy teenage romance by Kyoichi Katayama is set in his hometown of Uwajima and features many of the city’s landmarks. The film version (2004), directed by Isao Yukisada (who also made “Go,” the smash hit about a Korean-Japanese teenager) was largely shot in Shikoku and features the Ehime Prefectural Office doubling as a hospital. An 11-episode TV drama aired from July 2–Sept. 10, 2004.
“The Daughter of the Murakami Pirates” (2013)
The winner of the 2014 Japan Booksellers’ Award was this work of historical fiction about Kyo, the wild daughter of the last great pirate lord of the Seto Inland Sea. She gets wrapped up in the conflict between Oda Nobunaga and Ishiyama Hongan-ji Temple. In reality, nothing is known about Murakami Takeyoshi’s daughter except for her name, which author Ryo Wada took to create a selfish, insecure, but inevitably good-hearted protagonist who idolizes another legendary ocean princess: Tsuruhime. It was recently adapted into a manga, a medium more suitable for the story’s exaggerated characters and often contemporary themes. For anyone interested in these seafaring clans, I recommend the Murakami Suigun Museum on Oshima Island.
“I am a Monk.” (2015)
Based on a collection of autobiographical essays by Missei Shirakawa, the head priest of Eifuku-ji Temple in Imabari, this film was shot largely on location. Like many contemporary Japanese films, it is more episodic than narrative-driven. The protagonist is a monk who becomes head priest at age 26. While the film is cheesy and at times even amateurish, it captures the temple inside and out. “I am a Monk” also documents daily life at the temple, including scenes of visits from traveling salesmen, meetings with disgruntled parishioners, and monks getting blackout drunk.
“Tora-san Meets His Lordship” (1977)
Released twice a year for over 20 years and almost all directed by Yoji Yamada, the beloved Tora-san films (officially “It’s Tough Being a Man” in English) are a testament to the Japanese love of formula. Over the 46 films in the Tora-san series, the eponymous protagonist visited every prefecture in Japan except Kochi, Saitama, and Toyama. The 19th installment features a visit to Ozu and opens with the hero daydreaming while waiting for a train at Shimonada Station. Tora-san is a perpetual fish out of water, a traveling salesman with a rough Tokyo-Shitamachi accent and manner. He is kind and unlucky in love. This film’s core is a friendship between him and the wealthy descendant of Ozu’s domain lord. It features many scenes shot in Ozu and on Gogoshima.
“Godzilla vs. Destoroyah” (1995)
While not entirely set in Ehime, this installment of the long-running film series features a close call between the big lizard and the Ikata Nuclear Power Plant. This imagery is uncomfortable in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, though the scene is silly in spite of itself: a high-tech fighter jet applies a soothing lotion to the monster’s burning nuclear rash. I don’t have much experience with these movies, though I learned some from Youtube explanations and rankings while watching this highly acclaimed installment.
Other films set in Ehime available at Tsutaya:
“Samurai Pirates” (2013)
Like a G-rated version of “The Daughter of the Murakami Pirates.”
“Shodo Girls” (2010) A “big competition” film set in Shikokuchuo and based on a true story.
More than “Crying Out Love” and even “Botchan,” the specific settings of “I am a Monk.” or “The Daughter of the Murakami Pirates,” rooted in real life and history, can’t be swapped out with any other place in Japan. We can enjoy most works set or shot in Ehime because we live here and our connection to the setting is different than for films set in other inaka, but I wonder what impression they have on viewers from Tokyo. Do images of our prefecture convey specific qualities, or does it merely become part of the larger dialogue between inaka and tokai? I can’t say, but I hope to see more novels and films that engage with Ehime (and Shikoku) on a deep level.
About the contributor: John Wheeler is a Saijo CIR from San Diego, Calif. He is also the previous editor of The Mikan (in magazine format); read the Fall 2014 issue here.
About The Mikan: The Mikan is a monthly blog written by and for Ehime JETs. If you are interested in contributing, contact editor Anna Sheffer at email@example.com.