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Marebito, fox spirits and folklore

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    Ugetsu

    Reading Martinez’ book Remaking Kurosawa I found her explanation of Yojimbo as a marebito very convincing. In short she argues that the swordsman represents a familiar folklore character in rural areas – a sort of prankster spirit who appears as a human seeking shelter, who will reward those who give hospitality but who will wreck havoc on those who are rude or disrespectful. Her explanation certainly explains many of the less clear plot points of the film – why the emphasis on the silk fair (such fairs were considered a way of placating evil spirits), and his rescue of the kidnapped woman and her family.

    Earlier, we discussed the repeated role of the Fox Spirit in Throne of Blood and Ran. In both these films, there are strong suggestions that Asaji and Kaede were either taken over by a fox spirit, or were behaving as if they were.

    Nearly everything I’ve read about Kurosawa and spirituality focuses on buddhism or Shintoism. I am wondering if perhaps this reflects a bias of academics, both Japanese and western, who will have studied the ‘formal’ Japanese religions, but are happily ignorant of the folk beliefs that most Japanese of Kurosawa’s generation would have been familiar with?

    I’m wondering a bit out loud here, because if there is one think I know less about that Buddhism it is Japanese folklore, but I wonder if this is an overlooked element of his films? The attempts to link his ideas to Buddhist and Shintoist thought by various writers have often seemed to me to be a little over extended – I wonder if its therefore a more fertile line of inquiry to see his films as essentially pagan?

    A related question is whether this would have been conscious by Kurosawa or if he was simply reflecting the stories he would have heard as a child, while also being aware that the Japanese audience would have understood instinctively that many of his characters were in fact folkloric archetypes.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Wikipedia’s entry on marebito is here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marebito and it seems to focus on the positive attributes, rather than the vengeful qualities.

    In some ways, one could say the character of the pilgrim played by Bokuzen Hidari in The Lower Depths might be a marebito. But, I would prefer to think of this specific folkloric presence being a kind of universal archetype-probably one we don’t think much of in daily life-but one that figures in stories-the mysterious stranger.

    I believe that Kurosawa was not much of a student of Japanese folklore, although surely, he was aware, and used whatever he needed from whatever source was appropriate to the telling of a story. I know that cultural context does have an influence over the work of an artist.

    But, Kurosawa’s main interests were elsewhere-in finding solutions to Japanese Society’s problems-and most explicity in searching for a moral structure to replace the failure of the feudal/samurai structures.

    It is significant, then, that his characters have free will. I believe that Kurosawa thought the “feudal” mind was burdened with false ideas-including false ideas about the existence of spirits-particularly malevolent spirits. I don’t think Kurosawa believed in these at all, not one bit. He is showing us the flaws of those who do believe in such things. It’s not as if in any of his contemporary films these kinds of themes or forces exist.

    Even in Rashomon, evil is done-that much is sure. All are tainted by it, to a greater or lesser degree- and there is no need for a supernatural explanation…since so many answers only serve to confuse the issue more.

    No, Kurosawa leaves us uncertain and unclear about the origins and purposes of evil. It’s a thorny problem he presents but does not answer. Kurosawa doesn’t allow us attribute evil to the spirits-it’s never that simple. And, for that I am grateful.

    Yojimbo would wrap up neatly if Mifune’s character were a Marebito, though, and the idea of such a being is interesting, but not as interesting as Kurosawa struggling with good and evil and alternatives to feudal types, and trying them out in film and often in the characters portrayed by Mifune.

    Ugetsu said,

    ” A related question is whether this would have been conscious by Kurosawa or if he was simply reflecting the stories he would have heard as a child, while also being aware that the Japanese audience would have understood instinctively that many of his characters were in fact folkloric archetypes.”

    I believe that Kurosawa himself, “…understood instinctively that many of his characters were in fact folkloric archetypes”. Good call.

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    Vili Maunula

    Ugetsu: Nearly everything I’ve read about Kurosawa and spirituality focuses on buddhism or Shintoism. I am wondering if perhaps this reflects a bias of academics, both Japanese and western, who will have studied the ‘formal’ Japanese religions, but are happily ignorant of the folk beliefs that most Japanese of Kurosawa’s generation would have been familiar with?

    That’s a very good question. I would especially like to pick up one word from the above — “formal” — and elaborate on that a bit more. For, I think that we as outsiders perhaps tend to over-formalise and over-interpret cultural artefacts and symbols in the works of an artist whose socio-cultural background we do not share. There is of course a very good reason for this.

    Culture, folklores, and also religions (certainly Shintoism and to some extent also Buddhism in Japan), are not a fixed construct, but something that by definition is owned by the folk, and therefore they exist in numerous conflicting versions and interpretations. For every story gathered (and in doing so, canonized) by the Grimm brothers and other folklorists, there are numerous different versions, variations and takes out there. Folklores and mythologies do not have singular interpretations.

    Meanwhile, they are also not constructs external to members of their cultural communities, but very much a part of their cultural heritage and their own identity. This, I would say, is possibly where your feeling of “over extended” interpretations of Buddhism and Shintoism in Kurosawa’s works comes from. I think that rather than being extremely conscious about it, Kurosawa was simply playing with the narrative tools given to him by his cultural background. Just like a painter can instinctively know or notice that a red brush stroke in some part of a painting will create a certain response from the viewer — without really needing to know what the neurological reasons for that are — Kurosawa was playing around with culturally bound elements without over-analysing them or their use in his works.

    However, we as outsider interpreters of Kurosawa’s works have to put these things into words — while these cultural references were natural to him and to his primary audience, they are not that for us. It is therefore natural that we do this, because without specifically pointing out these things and often over-analysing them, it would be difficult to evaluate their importance, and to discuss and share our ideas and interpretations of the films.

    I wouldn’t therefore see Kurosawa as particularly either a Buddhist, Shintoist or pagan film maker. Rather, I would say that he was a Japanese film maker who made use of his rich cultural background to, as Coco pointed out, tackle certain topics that he found important to deal with in his works.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Vili said:

    “Kurosawa was simply playing with the narrative tools given to him by his cultural background.”

    There ya go-that’s what I meant to say! Thanks for saying it for me!

    And, I do think that revealing the cultural context of any artist is tricky and fascinating work; making the connections is the fun and fascinating part, and putting the right weight on discoveries is the tricky part!

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    Ugetsu

    I had another look at Yojimbo over the weekend (I think its the AK film I’ve seen more than any other, I think I enjoy it more after every viewing), and I’m coming to the conclusion that Martinez is right that many of the ronin’s actions are those of a marebito (on the assumption that her description of what a marebito does is correct – i.e. that they reward good behaviour and punish the inhospitable).

    On this viewing, the key thing that struck me about Mifunes actions is that he only ever acts with compassion to those who have directly or indirectly shown some level of hospitality. In the film the only person he meets who he seems to like is the Innkeeper. He shows equal contempt to the ‘gamblers’, the merchants, and (contrary to the standard mores of such films) the downtrodden townspeople and whores (its notably that he never attempts to help the whores, despite the fact that they are in a similar situation of the woman he saves). He explicitly states his dislike of the father of the family he rescues and never gives any indication of liking either the little boy or the mother.

    His three acts of compassion are:

    1. Rescuing the family.

    2. Sparing the young man who didn’t want a life of ‘mush’.

    3. Saving the Innkeeper.

    You could argue that he also showed a little compassion to the dying gunman.

    In the case of 1 and 3, it seems that both acts arose from the reluctant hospitality given by the Innkeeper. I think Martinez is right that his only clear motive for saving the family is as a favour to the Innkeeper as he never shows any compassion for the individual members of the family, even the little boy. In the case of no.2, the only clear motive is that he is responding to the (reluctantly granted) water given by the young mans father. In all cases, the hospitality was given reluctantly, but in line with tradition, maintained in the face of general anarchy.

    So I think that if you are to look for logic in Mifunes actions (from the perspective of the contemporary audience), he can be seen as either a marebito doing what they do – punish those who break traditional customs, reward those who show hospitality to strangers, or you can see it as a subtle plea for people to maintain traditions of hospitality in the face of societal breakdown – not on the basis of ‘common decency’, but as a practical response a degeneration of society.

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    Vili Maunula

    I think that we need to dig deeper into the nature of marebitos — anyone know any good books on Japanese folk beliefs? Your arguments certainly make much sense, but I would like a third party description of marebitos before I’m entirely sold to the idea. 😉

    Also, if Mifune’s character in Yojimbo is a marebito, would that make him a marebito also in Sanjuro? Since it’s our this month’s film club title, let’s all keep this question in mind when watching the film!

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    Ugetsu

    Vili:

    anyone know any good books on Japanese folk beliefs?

    Martinez wrote a book that seems to have covered the topic. Thats why I assume her interpretation of what a Marebito is should be true. I’ve done the usual googling, but I can’t find much, but the bits and pieces I’ve read do indicate that one of the characteristics of a Marebito is that they do punish those who don’t follow traditions.

    Also, if Mifune’s character in Yojimbo is a marebito, would that make him a marebito also in Sanjuro? Since it’s our this month’s film club title, let’s all keep this question in mind when watching the film!

    A good point! But as Sanjuro had a very different gestation from Yojimbo, I think he is very much a different character in that film. I think he is very much a flesh and blood samurai in Sanjuro (especially in his relationship with his alter ego, Nakadai’s character). But one thing that has puzzled me about the film (maybe something for a specific posting) is Sanjuros relationship with the old lady. Why is he so intimidated by her from the very beginning? He seems to know that she sees right through him.

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    Vili Maunula

    I did some digging around, mainly with Google Books. It seems that the Marebito theory is the work of poet and folklorist Shinobu Origuchi (1887-1953). It is a controversial theory, and many are apparently suggesting that it had very little actual historical background and was primarily Origuchi’s own theoretical invention. But as far as I can see, it should have been a part of the academic discourse in the 40s and 50s, and the concept could therefore well have come into Kurosawa’s attention at the time, or at a later point.

    The characteristics that Martinez gives marebitos also seem accurate.

    One thing that pops up here and there is the suggestion that marebito are often associated with mountain people and mountain gods. It could be just a coincidence, but Yojimbo does in fact start with shots of mountains, and it could be argued that the opening sequence indeed associates Mifune’s character with those mountains.

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    Ugetsu

    Some interesting reading in those Google book links, Vili. The few paragraphs in ‘Audience and Actors’ by Jacob Raz where he discuses Origuchi’s theory is (in part) very reminiscent of parts of Yojimbo. He says that the Marebito always start by defeating low ranked Kami – and that low ranked humans and kami become the ‘audience’ to the performance of the marebito. Difficult to prove of course if this was in Kurosawa’s mind, but I find the connection very interesting!

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    cocoskyavitch

    One possible theory other than the supernatural is that the Mifune roles in Seven Samurai, Yojimbo and Sanjuro are characters that Kurosawa is playing with to determine what he (Kurosawa) thinks about things…and they are versions of the same character-in a progression in time.

    Hey, it’s film, so Kurosawa can resuscitate Kikuchiyo and name him Sanjuro, and give him new problems to wrestle with!

    At the very least, Sanjuro is a corrective for the excessive violence of Yojimbo.

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