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Sanjuro: The Camellias

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    lawless

    I’ve been wondering what, if any symbolism, is meant by the use of red (as opposed to white) camellias as the signal. I realize it turns out to be handy, as it’s a way Sanjuro uses to let the other know he’s been caputred, but was it meant to symbolize other things, like blood or life (a typical East Asian interpretation of the color red)?

    I haven’t read any critical essays on Sanjuro other than what’s in Richie’s book. What’s the consensus?

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    Vili Maunula

    This is a very interesting question, and also I would love to see suggestions. A cursory scan of the standard literature doesn’t reveal anything other than that the camellias were apparently very important to Kurosawa, and were hand-made. (Galbraith 328)

    I have the nagging feeling that I have read or heard somewhere that Kurosawa intended the flowers to actually be red when they float down the river, but they couldn’t pull it off. Instead, we got the pink smoke in Kurosawa’s next film, High and Low. But this is coming entirely from my memory, as I couldn’t find the possible source. I could well remember incorrectly.

    And besides, it still wouldn’t really answer why red. I suppose it had to be one or the other colour, as otherwise something like a strong wind (which would cause flowers of both colours to float down) could give a false alarm. Or maybe it was just a case of having to pick one or the other for the visuals, and the darker ones looked better on screen.

    White perhaps also symbolises freedom, so you would get your symbols mixed up if you used them to signal that you have been captured. Red, as you said, is blood, and as such perhaps more appropriate.

    But as I said, I’d be curious to hear other suggestions.

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    Ugetsu

    According to Paghats Garden:

    In Japan, where the Camellia or Tsubaki has such a long-gardened history, the language of flowers is older than in the west. Camellias are sometimes said to represent business success, virtue, happiness, fidelity, luxury, tastefulness, & a life concluding in the ease of retirement. But that is in great part a modern imposition or overlay, because formerly the camellia, akin to cherry blossoms which symbolized evanescense, was symbolic of a short life lived in a blaze of glory, or in faithfulness to a lord even in the face of sure death.

    While the camellia was an important fixture in the garden of someone of the samurai class who admired an honorable death, among farmers & merchants it was not so well liked. Basil Hall Chamberlain in his classic work Japanese Things (1904), introducing Japanese culture to a western readership, noted the following: “The camellia is neglected because it is considered unlucky. It is considered unlucky because its red blossoms fall off whole in a way which reminds people of decapitated heads.”

    Chamberlain overstated somewhat, for in the Heian court period so gloriously captured by Lady Murasaki Shikibu in A Tale of Genji, the “sudden death” which camellias symbolized could as well be the sudden death of dreams, illusions, & love affairs. There was tragedy in camellias because they are simultaneously things of great beauty & of transience, indicative of the “sadness of things” in Buddhist philosophy, & it is out of such contradictions that all beauty arises.

    I can’t find anything to indicate that ‘white’ or ‘red’ camillias have specific meanings – but the metaphor of a short life lived in glory seems very appropriate for Sanjuro.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Ugetsu-nice work! Floriography takes on monumental significance in Japan-they are the inheritors of a language of symbolism deeply felt still in China. We can think about Chrysanthemum immediately. And, for example, a pairing of three types of foliage in winter is called “the three friends of winter”-each having admirable qualities of their own, and together having an amplified meaning.

    Camelias are the flower of the month of December in Japan. Camelias flower in the cool months, and are native to Japan, China and Korea, and grow in India and Malaysia. I came a cross one site that said camelias were used as wedding flowers since 2500 BCE in Korea. But, I have some doubt as to the reliability of the site.

    Perhaps, Ugetsu, it was a tradition inherited from the Chinese that the camelia was treasured by the upper classes. It was venerated during the lunar New Year as it blooms during this season, and was offered in temples to the gods.

    I have a number of books on symbolism, but cannot find anything definitive on the colors of camelias. My web findings are inconclusive-probably informed by Western traditions, not necessarily authoritative on Japanese custom. One site suggests that deep red is a color of royalty and pale colors and white symbolized loveliness.

    In China, red is an auspicious color. It represents reunion, health, happiness, harmony, peace and prosperity-and is the color of one of the three dresses worn by a bride. In my Chinese language class, we write on red paper to paste around and over doorways in the New Year.

    At “About.com” I see that there are distinctions in red colors in Japanese: Shuiro (vermilion), akaneiro (madder red), enji (dark red), karakurenai (crimson) and hiiro (scarlet). For Japanese the sun is red. Torii are painted red. I cannot quite find the link of red camelias, but if Ugetsu‘s research into symbolism is followed, the red camelias as signs of beheading might be an apt reading.

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    bartali

    Although I do not have any information on the symbolism of the color of the camellias, as I recall from the film, Sanjuro suggests the use of a specific number of red camillas as a signal for the attack on the enemies when the young woman comments on the beauty of the white camellias and how beautiful they would be floating on the water to which the old woman agrees. Sanjuro in frustration then says that he will use an unspecified large quantity of either color as the signal. If white was purity or beauty and red blood or passion, this would reinforce the idea expressed in the related link on the relationship between Sanjuro and the old woman and her attempt to moderate Sanjuro’s ready resort to violence as a solution. Sanjuro, however, responds that he will use either whichever is expedient. Later, he expediently deceives his opponents by saying that placing the white camellias in the water are a sign to his allies not to attack when in fact either color signals an attack. I am recalling this scene from memory from a viewing a couple of weeks ago. This is my first post and I just discovered the site.

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    Ugetsu

    Welcome, bartali,

    Your memory is I think right that the issue of ‘red or white’ might be related to the conflict between Sanjuro’s willingness to use force and the old womans relative pacifism. But as you also point out, the issue of ‘red or white’ quickly becomes just a comical plot device, although I suppose you could argue that this represents Sanjuros own moral confusion over whether what his is doing is right. ❓

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    cocoskyavitch

    Welcome, bartali. I think you’ve got it.

    Indulge me, though I know it’s not good practice to babble on when I’ve not reviewed the film recently myself…and haven’t had time to go back…

    That bit about the white and red camelias was haunting me, though, so thanks for bringing it up

    Your suggestion that red and white have meanings similar to those in the west, in the context of the camelias and their symbolism as used in the film seem appropriate to my recollection.

    In watching something from another culture, I do not wish to assume, and so, although my emotional response was, “Oh, of course the ladies prefer the white!- Much more pure, clean, bright…as opposed to fiery, passionate and bloody!”- I was searching for some source material that would decide the issue.

    Ugetsu said,

    “the issue of ‘red or white’ quickly becomes just a comical plot device, although I suppose you could argue that this represents Sanjuros own moral confusion over whether what his is doing is right.”

    (my italics)

    And, I would say that this more layered reading is exactly what makes viewing Kurosawa so much fun! The color choice reveals character and worldview, then becomes a plot point, then becomes layered with other suggestions of meaning-

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    bartali

    Thanks for the welcome and I agree with your conclusion about what makes viewing Kurosawa ‘s films so interesting and fun.

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    Gejsha

    @cocoskyavitch:

    Camelias are the flower of the month of December in Japan.

    Don’t know much about the white camellias, but they can definitely be found even in July in Japan.

    Red Camellias are in bloom around March in Japan. After that when it gets warmer for sure aren’t any. But I haven’t seen any in December either. 🙂 So, March it is. 😉

    @bartali:

    as I recall from the film, Sanjuro suggests the use of a specific number of red camillas as a signal for the attack on the enemies when the young woman comments on the beauty of the white camellias and how beautiful they would be floating on the water to which the old woman agrees.

    Actually Sanjuro suggests to burn down the “Camellia mansion” as a signal of attack. Then one woman suggests letting red camellias down the stream, and that it is more peaceful method. Then the other one replies she prefers white camellias, to which Sanjuro comments in a grumpy way that it doesn’t make difference. Then some man asks how is it going to be clear if camellia fell off by chance. After that Sanjuro replies what you wrote about dumping whole bunch of flowers etc.

    I really like your thought on colors and symbols regarding camellia. 😀

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