90s anime and the joys of the ‘everyday episodic’

For a while now, I’ve had a real fervour for a very particular kind of anime content – episodic series. This kind of series is best typified by none other than Cowboy Bebop – namely, a show where each episode is mostly self-contained and resolves itself within the space of 20 minutes. Characters and wider-arching plotlines may exist on the periphery – but ultimately, all set-up and resolution is done within one television episode.

The skill at crafting such a lean piece of televisual entertainment speaks for itself. When we think back to the finest episodes of Cowboy Bebop, they remain distinctly vivid – a callmark of a ‘Oh, the one where… xxx… happened…’ – each episode revolving around a singular concept or plotline.

These days, series like this feel rare at best, and at worst – out of fashion. These days, most shows are distinctly serial in nature, each episode rolling seamlessly into the next in service to cliffhangers or wide-reaching story arcs that will take 12 episodes to resolve. The most notable ‘episodic’ series I can recall recently would be Osomatsu San, Space Dandy and the latest incarnation of Lupin III. Comedy invariably plays a role in many of these – although I’d place a caveat in delineating between ‘episodic’ series and ‘sitcom’ style comedies (which are common) where each episode will essentially be a series of skits which return to a status quo.

To really understand the essence of the very best kind of truly episodic show, we have to return to the 90s where these kinds of show were ten a penny. I’ve recently been watching Nightwalker, which recalls the similar Vampire Princess Miyu (the TV version, not the OVAs) – both of which, while never mastering the episodic art as well as the likes of Bebop, both show shades of the same self-contained stories.

The ultimate episodic content will invariably introduce ‘episode-only’ characters or side-characters who each get their ‘turn in the spotlight’ – shifting the focus away from core protagonists for an episode, and allowing us a deeper connection precisely because the episode has to work all that harder to establish our relationship with them for 20 minutes.

In this, we get a sense of the true novelty of episodic shows – that inherently, each episode will be vastly different. While with serial shows, it is usually evident after three or four episodes (the famous three episode test) whether we will enjoy the show as a whole, episodic shows always come with the distinction that they might suddenly drop a truly exceptional piece of storytelling one week that blows everything else out of the water. Space Dandy nailed this very particular joy – and you could watch it safe in the knowledge that even if you disliked one episode, odds are you might love the next.


Science fiction is Makoto Shinkai’s version of the ‘mystery box’

Tonight I was watching an interesting video on the notion of Hollywood director employing a rhetorical ‘mystery box’ as part of his work when it struck me that anime director Makoto Shinkai (yup, him of mega-hit Your Name fame) does something very similar in his incorporation of science fiction ‘elements’ within films that are for the most part not primarily science fiction movies.

The concept of the mystery box is that while the box stays unopened, its capacity to fascinate and allure remains intact – an irresistible draw that keeps the viewer ‘switched on’ and desperate for more information. The whole essence of the work becomes – for the viewer – an exercise in obtaining information. The TV series ‘Lost’ epitomised this mindset. For a literary example, I’d cite something like Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events.

How does this relate to Shinkai’s movies? Chiefly, I’d point in the direction of 5cm Per Second, The Place Promised In Our Early Days and Your Name – all films that employ science fiction ‘aspects’ as a smaller spot device within films that are arguably more located within the sphere of ‘drama’ or ‘romance’.

With these films, the science fiction element is never the overriding element of the film – for the most part, these films take place in worlds that are, aesthetically at least – identical or very similar to our own contemporary world. But by providing a ‘tease’ of a science fiction ‘otherness’, we are placed sufficiently on edge to require us to pay especial notice to the peripheral aspects of the film as well as its central elements.

In 5cm Per Second – what is the significance of the rocket launch? How far-along is humanity’s exploration of the solar system in this version of our reality?

In Place Promised In The Early Days – the ever-lingering presence of the tower on the horizon. Just how high is? How can it *be* that high? How was it constructed?

In Your Name – why is the asteroid on course to hit Earth? Would it really cause that much destruction? Did it not cause *enough* destruction?

With the addition of these elements, via the medium of science fiction, Shinkai conjures the allure of ‘fascination’ in much the same way Key visual novel adaptations like Clannad and Kanon do so via ‘magical realism’. Our human nature compels us to seek understanding in the face of the un-understandable.

As opposed to an out-and-out fantasy or science fiction setting, overloaded with the trappings of said genres, instead by utilising only slight elements in a largely realist world, Shinkai’s worlds are suffused with a tantalising nature of something half real, half unreal. A kind of unassuming, distinctly post-modern uncanniness.

LOGH + HxH – Mythologizing the ‘elitist’ anime fan

On seeing a post today about anime elitism, I was reminded of an train of thought suggested by YouTuber DigiBro about a so called ‘most boring taste in anime’. The essence of which gravitated around a beige kind of ‘elitist’ anime taste which would invariably contain a number of select shows: a Masaaki Yuasa show. A Yoshitoshi Abe show. A slice of life show (usually ARIA). And then the two most important ingredients – the Legend of Galactic Heroes, and Hunter x Hunter (specifically the Yorknew and Chimera Ant arcs).

Symbolised in this kind of elitist ‘God Tier List’ is a sense of shows that the more ‘cultured’ anime fan will outline as their favourites. Just as music fandom has its imagine of the bearded indie hipster, so too does anime has its mythologised image of an elitist anime fan who bypasses populist hits like Sword Art Online or Re: Zero to mine a rich jugular of shows that offer some thematic or artistic depth that goes beyond the norm.

In the Legend of the Galactic Heroes, this attitude is epitomised via a kind of ‘above the odds’ mentality – namely, that because the show is not legally available in the UK, those that have sought it out (through illegal means) and watched its 100+ episode duration are of a higher calibre of anime fan – through their dedication. Through services like MAL which consistently showcase a high user rating for LOGH – the show has achieved a kind of mythical ‘white-whale’ quality which will no doubt persist until Sentai Filmworks (who previously announced they had licensed the show) actually release the show to disc.

In Hunter x Hunter, we have the apotheosis of the ‘thinking man’s’ Shonen action series. No Naruto or Bleach dross here – oh no. Hunter x Hunter is offered up as a kind of thematic ‘deconstructionist’ masterpiece that belies the bright, optimistic ‘kid’s show’ aesthetic of its early arcs to deliver a war-torn story of deep religio-psychological resonance.

And then in material from ‘auteurs’ such as Yoshitoshi Abe or Masaaki Yuasa, we are given a kind of ‘indie chic’ aesthetic – shows that either ‘don’t look like normal anime’ (in the case of Yuasa), or shows that subvert an idealised anime ‘cuteness’ into works that are, again richly layered with thematic depth (Serial Elements Lain etc.) – this concept can be furthered in the appeal of shows like ARIA. The idea being that you make sit back in your comfy couch, light up a splif and drift away on a sea of ambient slice-of-life bliss.

The irony of all these ideas is that this fan doesn’t actually exist – or rather, they are an amorphous figment of imagination that combines genuine tastes in fandom with a perceived image. A kind of ‘uber-hipster’ boogieman to rival previous figures of conjured hilarity such as the body-pillow-loving mega-Otaku who watches School Days and Kodomo no Jikan on a daily basis.

Fandom needs these illusory boogiemen to remind us that our own taste will always remain more personal, or ‘better’. That ‘our’ shows are the ‘best’ shows – or at the very least, that the enjoyment we extracted from them is valid.

Why Eurovision is the most ‘anime’ thing on British telly

It’s that time of year again. May is nearly on us, and with it, the Eurovision song contest. Which calls to my mind something I’ve been musing on for a while, but that I’ve also heard expressed by the good folk at the UK Anime Network.

Namely, that Eurovision is – for one night only – the closest UK telly gets to ‘anime’.

Let me explain – obviously, Eurovision is distinctly ‘not’ anime. It isn’t animated. It isn’t Japanese. But what it does represent is a rare opportunity for two niches rarely catered two on British TV these days to get a brief, triumphant night of singular glory and spectacle. Those two niches are firstly, a product of non-Anglophone focus. And secondly, a pop-music show on prime-time TV (sadly a rarity these days).

Watching Eurovision always reminds me of one of my all time favourite scenes in anime – from Macross Plus – where digital idol Sharon Apple projects here holographic form over the city and we say a tour-de-force of lasers play out over the stadium of ecstatic music fans. Yoko Kanno’s euphoric music plays, and we are presented a kind of techno-utopia in which pop music commands a thrilling power to bring a mass of diverse humanity under its spell. That is the power of music. That, is Eurovision.

This aesthetic of surging, hi-energy pop tunes and a laser’n’light-studded night is one that I want to focus on – because for me, it’s always spoke of this kind of techno-utopia-futurism Eurovision seems to promise. From the little snapshot VTs that precede every song – to the lengthy, endlessly fascinating of seeing all of Europe ‘call in’ to the show, there’s a kind of majesty and spectacle to Eurovision that seems inherently tied in to the kind of ‘wired’ cyberism we saw in anime in the late 80s and early 90s.

From the extravagant costumes to the music itself – which, crucially brings us anglophone melodies and rhythms, watching Eurovision is like watching the worlds of cosplay and karaoke collide in a glorious festival of carnevalesque play. If we tout anime’s ‘otherness’ to traditional media as core to its appeal, then Eurovision plays to the same sensibilities – it offers a taste, for one night, of something so far beyond the rooted traditionalism of British aesthetic taste.

Some decry Eurovision as weird, tasteless or backward in its cheesy tunes or gaudiness. But in reality – these merely represent unfamiliarity of its disparate cultural origin points. And in its amorphous bringing together of all of Europe – it portrays a kind of futurist ‘Europe as superpower’ vision in which Europe is united via the medium of song.

Both message and visual allure – maybe I’m making a stretch here, but for me, these two aspects of Eurovision have always struck that same deep chord in me that watching anime does.

‘Let’s patrol the discos’ – In search of Robotech’s ultimate 80s aesthetic

Recently I’ve been delving into the seemingly endless vein that is Japanese ‘City Pop’ and all its associated paraphernalia, spurred on – I imagine like many – by its deft appropriation by the likes of current producers like Macross 82-99.

And of course, any discussion of Macross – musical or otherwise – invariably brings discussion round to the medium by which many English-speaking fans likely first encountered the ‘original’ 80s series in – that bastard child, Robotech.

A good couple of years ago, I acquired the complete DVD box-set of Robotech – when it was being sold on Amazon at a ludicrously cheap sub-£20 price. That said, it came at a point in my anime fandom where my shelves were rammed with back-log discs – and it wasn’t for quite some time that I eventually sat down to consume the show in its 85 episode entirety.

When I finally did – I fell in love with the rich, 80s aesthetic. While many hardcore Macross fans understandably decry Robotech for what it (and Harmony Gold) represent, I’ll always countenance that with the fact that at its heart remain three very solid shows – and as a piece of animated entertainment, whether in English or Japanese, it still ‘works’ a charm unique to whichever language you are viewing it in.

One moment that has always stuck in my mind epitomises the kind of ridiculous, dated humour present in the English dub. Namely, in episode 42 (aptly titled Danger Zone – 80s enough for you, eh?). To give a flavour, I refer to a great piece on said episode, which outlines the basic plot beats:

A newscast reports on what’s happening with the invading fleet. Weirdly, the broadcaster seems to be aware that the military commander of the Robotech Masters (Prince Charming) is called Zor, even though no one has been formally introduced. The standard of investigative journalism in the post-apocalyptic robot universe is surprisingly high.

The 15th Squadron have patrol duty in a city which is jam-packed with seedy recreation as portrayed by neon signs and hot ladies. The boys are all delighted at this turn of events and Dana is amused enough to let them have a little fun – all except Angelo, of course, who would rather have a proper patrol somewhere with no discos or strippers. Poor lad, all he wants is for everyone to take things seriously.

It’s here that the immortal line about ‘patrolling the discos’ comes from – and I have to confess when I first heard it, I burst out laughing. It was just so campy, so utterly cheesy, so utterly dated. But at the same time, so suffused with the very essence of what Robotech represents – this kind of ephemeral relic of a neon-dusted 80s where music and discos and hot girls seemed irrepressibly exciting.

When I listen to records from the era now – its this imaginary disco that I imagine. Somewhere they play 80s anime openings back to back with Flashdance and Simple Minds. An imaginary 80s that lives on, somewhere, forever.


Gao Gai Gar – The ‘ultimate’ anime OP theme?

Recently, when it comes to anime opening themes, there’s been one that trumps everything else. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll argue Evangelion’s OP as the most culturally ‘significant’ anime theme until the end of time. But as for raw, emotional essence of ‘feeling’, I feel like Gao Gai Gar’s bombastic musical intro might just edge it.

From the spacey, prog-rock synth lines of the intro as the title logo slams in, to the surge of 80s-esque gutiar riffs – everything about the OP is designed to get you pumped. The main ‘Gao Gai Gar’ chant is obviously crucial here, but personally, I’ve always felt the real core of the song is the actual ‘kiseki…’ chorus, which – like so many other exceptional songs – feels like it riffs off Pachebel’s canon chord change (see also the similarly anthemic ‘Go West’ by the Pet Shop Boys as to why this chord sequence is so important).

If that’s not already enough bombast for you, what about the ludicrously OTT shouts of ‘DIVIDING DRIVER!!!!’ and ‘GOLDION HAMMER!!!’? There’s something about these no-holds barred screams, or the emphatic, commanding ‘hashire!!!’ (run!!!) that kicks off the second verse that add a wonderfully participatory quality to the song. Whether it be a dingy karaoke den, or a cavernous stadium – this song commands to be sung at the top of your lungs, giving every ounce of your soul and being.

There’s a fluidity to the animation too that speaks of the absolute peak of 90s cel-anime technical aptitude – in the last days before the industry converted wholesale to digipaint. Sunrise were the absolute masters at these ridiculously sleek, over-produced OPs – see also Escaflowne for another outstanding example. In an age where sakuga analysis has risen to the fore, I feel like certain cuts of the Gao Gai Gar opening are simply breathtaking in what they detail – personal favourites include the train machine sliding into dock in the mech’s torso, or the the three-angle tilt as the space-shift flies past. There’s a three-dimensionality and depth of space that blows you away.

I’ve always been one to decry the ‘they don’t make ’em like this anymore’ mentality when it comes to anime – but I think, perhaps, when it comes to this song, it really does ring true.

The ‘original’ Scum’s Wish – early 00s classic Rumbling Hearts

Going through the few collections of DVD ‘singles’ I still own, one show stuck out to me – one I feel I’m unlikely to sell-off unless the UK ever gets a Blu-Ray release of it. That show is 2003’s adaptation of Rumbling Hearts (aka Kimi ga Nozomu Eien) – based off the 2001 visual novel of the same name.

I was reminded of this show again recently when watching last season’s Scum’s Wish – a show that arguably (and refreshingly) held nothing back when it came to the depiction of teenagers indulging their sexual appetites. In the medium of anime when we have so many times seen entire series go by with the very limit of romantic consummation being holding hands or a single kiss, Scum’s Wish was bracingly raw in its depiction of desire and the messy implications it can entail.

Rumbling Hearts was doing all this back in 2003. Whereas so many visual novel adaptations trim out the sexual content when converted to anime (Fate Stay Night, anyone…?) – Rumbling Hearts took unusual glee in showing us characters that, put simply, just wanted to fuck. To summarise the major plot beats – the show is primarily concerned with high schooler Takayuki and two female friends Haruka and Mitsuki – laying the groundwork for classic love triangle territory. Haruka is the shy, ‘innocent’ one whereas Mitsuki is depicted as confident, assured one.

Takayuki initially chooses Haruka – and after a lengthy ‘corrupting her innocence’ / performance anxiety scene, we see him go on to buy a ring for Haruka, causing him to be late for a later date with her. She gets hit by a car (Yes, Fuuka wasn’t the first to try this gimmick either…) and ends up in a coma. So what does Takayuki do next…?

He shags Mitsuki, that’s what. In the ultimate ‘girlfriend in a coma? Screw the next-best option’ scenario, the plot of Rumbling Hearts rapidly devolves into a guilt-wracked opera of Shakespearean proportions, further compounded when Haruka wakes from her coma and Takayuki must then pretend to not only still be dating her (but also that no time has passed, when in reality it’s a good few years down the line).

I love messy, screwy romance-dramas like this – a genre which sadly seems to have faded into the background of late; to be replaced by wistful ‘will they won’t they’ dramas so rote they’ve even started to parody themselves (My Love Story and Nozaki-kun spring to mind).

But no – more like Scum’s Wish and Rumbling Hearts please. Keep it messy – just like real life.

Anime fandom’s move to YouTube as its primary discourse field

The notion of anime fandom moving from forums, Tumblr and dedicated blog thinkpieces to YouTube as its primary creative platform is one I’ve been considering for a while. To give a little background, around a year ago – having watched the vast majority of the anime ‘canon’ of ‘good’ shows, I found myself spending more time delving into the anime YouTube community. Instead of watching anime, I was watching people talk *about* anime.

The burgeoning success of a number of key anime review/analysis channels, as well as the ‘YouTube anime community’ as its own sub-sphere within popular anime fandom is one that has become increasingly fascinating to me, and I was further spurred on to write this post when I saw a comment from Lauren Orsini where she discusses this very same issue of the community ‘moving’ to YouTube. It’s also something further echoed by a ‘traditionalist’ web outlet like Anime News Network rolling its long-running podcast feature onto YouTube as its distribution platform, as well as beginning to generate more video content themselves.

A dedicated post on my own favourites amongst the YouTube anime community and why I feel they succeed in an increasingly crowded market is something I feel I will inevitably get round to at one point. But for the time being, it feels worth saying that amongst the community, there has recently been a degree of drama or friction between those that operate primarily as ‘lifestyle’ YouTubers or who ‘game’ the system in search of higher view counts (and thus, monetary return) and those that offer a kind of more free-spirited ‘gonzo’ style of ‘serious’ journalistic/academic approaches. Just like wider anime fandom itself – the YouTube anime community is one occupied by a variety of fan ‘types’, each consuming and analysing anime in a variety of ways.

At the centre of this discussion though is one – inherently – of creation. By its very nature, YouTube presents a higher degree of ‘creative’ capability or technical know-how. One cannot simply load up a free blogging platform like WordPress and hash out a few hundred words on a subject. The most successful anime YouTube channels reach arguably professional-TV levels of quality – producing immensely capable documentary style pieces that combine well-edited footage with both synched audio and well-recorded voiceover work. From a time vs. end product framework – they inevitably suggest a higher degree of investment than a purely ‘written’ kind of fandom creative process.

Why this is important is that it creates a kind of ‘gated’ system that does not exist to the same degree in the written anime community. While anime blogs of various scale and reputation exist, YouTube’s inbuilt recommendation system naturally inclines toward a more centric, focussed kind of consumption – where one might reasonably suggest around ten or so ‘key’ channels or personas that dominate the medium. In essence, the gap between the ‘best’ and ‘rest’ is perceivably larger on YouTube than in the written medium.

While this might suggest a kind of ‘cabal-like’ monopoly of key voices – I would argue that it also creates a higher focus on quality. One of my current favourite anime YouTubers, Super Eyepatch Wolf, very rapidly began gaining subscribers over the past twelve months – precisely because their videos (from the off) were of a far higher quality than many other ‘young’ channels.

All this brings us to the question which I think lies at the heart of why the discourse around anime is moving onto YouTube as a platform – and why this is so important. Anime – as a visual medium – is one inherently at home on YouTube; and while copyright claims vs. fair-use law may still disrupt the production of this content to some degree, the added dimensions of visual and audio arguably present YouTube videos an inherent advantage over purely ‘written’ anime analysis.

Recently, I’ve come to theorise a kind of ‘euphoria’ effect around the very best of these anime analysis videos. And while it’s perfectly fair to argue that a very well written essay on anime could perceivably achieve the same effect, in my view, instigating this kind of worked ‘euphoria’ is far easier to achieve in the form of a YouTube video essay, where voiceover, well-cut visuals and accompanying audio work toward a kind of crescendo in which euphoria is achieved via some kind of ‘Oh yes, I absolutely felt that too when I watched that…’ elicitation from the viewer of the video.

It is this notion of inclusiveness that I feel YouTube absolutely nails as a medium – via subscribing to a YouTube channel (and by extension, often becoming a monetary supporter of said channel via Patreon), we achieve a kind of one-to-one relationship with a YouTube content creator that goes above and beyond a writer/reader relationship. In the singular experience of sitting down to watch a video on a screen and hearing the words of a narrator via voiceover, we are offered a distinctly personal experience that taps into a powerfully unifying element of fandom – that of unity-of-opinion.

Over the past year I’ve already observed shifting currents in the make-up of anime YouTube video-essays – from the aforementioned friction amongst the kinds of creators operating in the space, to shifts in the kinds of videos made by individual channels. Some of my favourite creators have ‘gone quiet’ – lowering their output of content, while others have ‘stepped up’ with an increasingly ‘gamed’, overly-sleek approach, which has arguably decreased the quality or integrity of their productions.

I have no doubt the medium will continue to evolve over the coming year or so, as other players look to encroach on the medium in search of the vast viewer-counts and immediacy the platform offers.

The Rambling Guitarist – Gender, genre and archetypes in Nikkatsu Action’s mukokuseki eiga


Nikkatsu Action – a new, exciting genre to cater to a new, exciting generation of Japanese youth. For Japan’s oldest film studio Nikkatsu, the late 50s and early 60s represented a rapidly evolving, cosmopolitan playground in which Eastern and Western influences could be collided together in an explosive mix that ultimately resulted in movies that felt quite apart from either. These were the mukokuseki eiga (literally, ‘borderless’ or of ‘no nationality’) and as Mark Schilling details in his book No Borders No Limits, “To young audiences growing to adulthood in post-war Japan, that mix was not just fantasy: it reflected the Western influences all around them”.

Released in 1959, The Rambling Guitarist (Gitaa o motta wataridori) is the first in the nine film wataridori (wanderer) series produced by Nikkatsu from 1959 – 1962. Directed by Buichi Saito and starring Akira Kobayashi in the leading role of the titular ‘wanderer’ Shinji Taki, the film plays out in the northern port town of Hakodate as Taki finds himself embroiled with the local yakuza. Mob boss Akitsu (Nobuo Kaneko) tasks Taki with evicting a family-run fishery, and it is within this context that Taki must also contend with a romantic entanglement with Akitsu’s daughter (Ruriko Asaoka), as well as a recurring foe from the past in the form of pistol-wielding hitman George (Joe Shishido).

January 2016 saw The Rambling Guitarist released on home video for the first time in the UK via a new High-Definition Blu-Ray transfer on Arrow Video’s Nikkatsu Diamond Guys compilation set; directly referencing the film’s position within the wider context of Nikkatsu’s powerful ‘star system’ of the time, in which their line-up of ‘Diamond Guys’ would slot interchangeably into their latest action movies. With this powerful stable of big-name male talent at their disposable, Nikkatsu was able to efficiently crank out an immense volume of highly populist material. While often referred to as belonging to ‘pulp movie culture’, it is precisely for this reason that the Nikkatsu Action films make for such an intriguing case-study. Working within the medium of bold character ‘types’ and off-the-hanger genre tropes, there is a marked ‘standard’ by which to measure the way these films present themselves to their audience.

With the wataridori series as arguably the ‘purest’ example of Nikkatsu’s borderless action, it stands as a prime candidate through which to better understand the precise appeal of these films as well as the way their settings and characters captured a new, worldly aesthetic. Through a close analysis of The Rambling Guitarist – and more specifically, the way it presents and challenges various gender archetypes – this essay will look to present a snapshot of what Nikkatsu Action represented, straddling the borderline between two camps; East and West, old and new, tradition and modernity. As Tom Mes writes in the booklet that accompanies the Arrow Video release of the film: “The Rambling Guitarist is as archetypal a genre film as can be. But it is also jauntily playful with those archetypes, making it an exuberant reminder of the timeless, and borderless, appeal of popular cinema.”

A man’s world – masculine power and honour

As part of Nikkatsu Action’s production-line output of ‘Diamond Guys’ films, The Rambling Guitarist is by definition a ‘star vehicle’ movie, precision designed to present male lead Akira Kobayashi in the most attractive way possible. From his dress sense (T-shirt and leather jacket) to his ability to handle himself in a fight, his every move within the film is a calculated effort to evoke a clear sense of ‘cool’. While his persona as a kind of ‘Japanese Elvis’ who sings and charms his way through Hakodate is arguably riddled with cliche and excess (the theme song that Kobayashi sings in the movie is repeated no fewer than six times), it is these same elements that shape the character of Taki into something embodying just as much of the mukokuseki aesthetic as the film’s East-meets-West setting. His titular guitar might ooze Western style and stand as the most overt signifier of an old school ‘cowboy’ feel – but crucially, the song he’s singing is in Japanese.

Taki’s initial guise as a lonely wanderer morphs once he enters Hakodate and signs up as hired muscle for gang boss Akitsu. His initial reservations make him out as a man of morals: “I hate bullying the weak,” he tells Akitsu, setting the stage for a classic exploration of the themes of giri and ninjo. Hiroshi Kitamura lays the groundwork for the theme’s significance in his essay Shoot-Out In Hokkaido – The “Wanderer” (wataridori) series and the politics of transnationalism: “In his autobiography, [Akira] Kobayashi wrote that the protagonist’s motivation to help society in the Wanderer series stems from his sense of ‘duty’ (giri) and ‘compassion’ (ninjo).”

By agreeing to work for Akitsu, Taki ties himself into the giri system – one of complete obedience to his superior. But this obedience clearly stands at odds with his inner moral compass – while Taki might enjoy knocking back drinks, chatting up pretty girls and taking on odd jobs for the yakuza, the film makes it clear he is a fundamentally good man at heart. This is best symbolised in an early scene where Taki meets a young boy who has lost his balloon; Taki immediately steps in and offers to buy him a new one, with some candy thrown in to boot. The message is plain: what kind of hardened criminal would buy a balloon for a kid?

All this ties into a deep-rooted system of signs and symbolism, fundamental to the successful workings of a ‘genre’ film. Steve Neale defines this aspect as ‘iconography’, and details how, by applying this concept to cinema, we are able to glean far more from an individual movie by placing it in context with our knowledge of other movies of that type. In essence, a system of ‘visual conventions’ or patterns of imagery, which he explains – via a quotation from McArthur – as:

“those surrounding the physical presence, attitudes and dress of the actors and the characters they play; those emanating from the milieu within which the characters operate; and those connected with the technology at the characters’ disposal”

An understanding of this system of visual conventions is important because it allows us to place the fundamentally ‘good’ character of Taki in stark contrast to his key rival in the film; the hired hitman George – memorably played by the puffy-cheeked Joe Shishido. Arriving thirty-three minutes into the film’s run-time, George (whose Western name only furthers the mukokuseki feel of the movie) is immediately marked out as a ‘bad’ character by the prominent scar on his cheek (physical presence), his disparaging comments about women and the fact he cheats at a dice game with Taki (attitudes), as well as the fact he is most frequently shown cradling a pistol (technology at his disposal) and shoots seagulls with it for target practice.

With ‘good’ and ‘bad’ set in clear opposition to each-other, the film’s fundamental nature as a ‘genre’ work is allowed to fully click into motion. The conventions of populist action cinema tell us that a showdown between Taki and George is inevitable, and so our anticipation for this is formulaically increased through a series of ‘almost’ encounters such as the aforementioned dice game. This is further emphasised by the fact that Joe Shishido had form for playing these ‘types’ of character, as Mark Schilling comments: “Joe Shishido became a Nikkatsu star by portraying characters who often begin as hitmen, conmen and other disreputable types, but end up on the side of the hero, if not always the angels.”

Here, we return to the notion of giri and ninjo – which like the opposition of good and bad, achieve so much of their dynamic narrative drive from the fact (as a convention) the audience knows the film must move inexorably toward a point where the characters must make a fundamental choice between the two. Both Taki and George are forced to decide between continuing to blindly obey Akitsu (giri) or to do what they feel is morally right (ninjo). While to a certain degree it is obvious that Taki – as the hero of the film – will make the ‘right’ decision, things are left more open-ended with George; which all helps to arguably make him the most morally complex (and interesting) character in the film. As many reviews attest, it is Shishido, invariably, who steals every scene.

As the film progresses, we begin to see that George – while outwardly cruel – has hidden depths. Via a flashback, we are shown how he and Taki (during his previous role as a policeman) previously met in Kobe; with Taki gunning down George’s friend. George longs for retribution, telling Taki: “He was my only partner. I’ll take revenge for his death. I won’t be a coward like you.” And yet, in the very next scene – when the stand-off between George and Taki is interrupted by the arrival of a marine patrol, George quips: ‘We’ll put our duel on hold. I play fair.”

Here, we see the purest distillation of the codes of gentlemanly honour and chivalry George holds himself account to. At numerous points in the film he could have ostensibly finished Taki off, and yet he feels compelled to constantly frame their showdowns in the context of a ‘game’. This reaches its natural conclusion in a surreal sequence near the film’s finale where Taki and George both stand – Western shoot-out style – with two pool tables between them. In their hands they each hold a pool ball, which at the count of three they will drop and then quickly pick up their guns from the pool tables and fire one shot at each-other. Taki – inevitably – wins this contest; and George – once again seemingly compelled by his own personal honour – chooses to give himself up to the police and is arrested.

Isolde Standish frames this kind of honour code as specifically masculine, and belonging to another traditional Japanese concept – jingi, which she describes as governing “male-male relations and is in fact synonymous with the more commonly accepted moral code of giri ninjo… both of which can be rendered in English as ‘justice and humanity’”.

The specificity to ‘male-male relations’ in regard to the idea of jingi is important because it places both George and Taki’s actions in a sphere of reference which is inherently competitive. As a man, who is strongest? Who can drink the most? Who can romance the prettiest girls? Who is the most honourable? Who is the most ‘manly’? If we consider The Rambling Guitarist as a kind of male power fantasy – with Taki as an aspirational self-insert character for the audience, these notions of masculinity must inherently be measured against other men to be fully realised (either within the film itself, with other films of its type, or within society at large). Standish elaborates, quoting from Ikegami who places these masculine ideas of honour within the long-standing tradition of the samurai:

“When a samurai regulates his own behaviour based upon considerations of what is deemed ‘honourable’, he has an imagined community, or a symbolic reference group, in his mind that carries his reputation and social dignity.”

It is this same self-regulation that we see time and time again in the character of George, whose notion of honour is evidently formed from his measuring of his own masculinity against others – such as Taki. For George, when he says ‘I’m not a coward’ or ‘I play fair’, he reinforces a wider societal (or at the very least, a cinematic ideal) of what masculinity stands for, and to do otherwise would be to utterly destroy the self-conceived social dignity he sees himself operating within, despite his role in the lawless criminal underworld. As Standish further notes: “The principle difference between practitioners of the code of jingi and those of giri ninjo, is that they exist in a community which operates on the margins of ‘legitimate’ social institutions” – ie. just as George and Taki do, within Akitsu’s murky yakuza world.

This notion of marginal communities returns us once again to the ‘borderless’, elusive quality of the Nikkatsu Action films. By definition, the titular wanderer of the wataridori series is a man that never wholly exists within a community – his existence there is purely transitory. In a world where the rules of ‘legitimate’ society never really quite apply to Taki, it is instead against the film’s other key players (and the character archetypes they represent) that we must measure him. And just as the film’s Eastern qualities must inherently contrast with its Western overtones, so too must its depiction of femininity contrast with its masculinity.

The girl next door – evolving with the times

For every ‘Diamond Guy’ outing, it was typical for Nikkatsu Action to pair the male lead with an equally attractive female – again, from a stable of regular talent who would appear time and time again. In the wataridori series, this came in the form of actress Ruriko Asaoka. The original trailer for film even pairs her and Kobayashi together as “The pride of Nikkatsu, the charming duo” – referencing to their previous appearance together earlier that year in Farewell to Southern Tosa (Nangoku Tosa o ato ni shite), also directed by Buichi Saito. The duo had form, and Nikkatsu was ready to milk their on-screen dynamic for all it was worth.

Mark Schilling begins his mini-biography of Asaoka in No Borders No Limits in largely aesthetic terms: ‘[her] on-screen image was slightly exotic, excitingly modern. With her slim, petite figure, she may not have been a Hollywood glamour queen, but her big eyes, small face, full lips and slender, perfectly proportioned legs made her an Audrey Hepburn-like stand-out’. Evidently, Asaoka’s core role within The Rambling Guitarist is to act as visual allure – and this is important to consider, because for all that her character Yuki plays the epitome of the ‘modern girl’; dressing in fancy Western clothes, playing Chopin on the piano and driving a flashy car, the foundations of her character – like Taki – are built on far more traditionally Japanese roots.

The Oxford Handbook of Japanese Cinema defines an ‘ideal Japanese femininity’ as one rooted in obedience and domesticity, ultimately in service to an established patriarchy. The character of Yuki embodies this perfectly – the majority of her actions within The Rambling Guitarist are with either Taki (the love interest) or her father Akitsu (patriarchy). When Akitsu says to Taki: “When did I give you permission to take out my daughter?” we see Yuki’s status as an individual succinctly negated – within the context of the film she is allowed to exist only as an adjunct to a man; so much so that she is in effect blinded to everything else going on around her.

As the film draws toward its climax, Yuki finally confronts her father about his shady line of work, and the naive, black-and-white way she has envisioned the world up until now is made clear:

YUKI: “You were a perfect father to me, but a demon to the rest of the world.”

AKITSU: “Everything I do is for your happiness.”

YUKI: “I don’t need that kind of happiness, as long as I can be proud of you.”

The implication being, of course, that even now, her happiness is still symbiotically linked to the pride she desires to feel for her father, rather than any kind of individually defined happiness for herself.

In contrast to the patriarchally-dominated Yuki, we are given a powerful symbol of ‘new femininity’ and the changing societal roles of women in Sumiko (played by Sanae Nakahara) – the wife of the fishery-owner, and more significantly, Akitsu’s sister. When Taki and his lackeys first visit the fishery, we are immediately shown that the owner is reserved and cowardly while Sumiko herself is far more outspoken and bold than her husband. This is reaffirmed later as Akitsu explains: “She refused the marriage I arranged for her and married that coward instead. She ignored my wishes. I’ll never forget that.” His possessiveness is inflamed by his sister’s blatant flouting of his authority, and in one of the film’s most powerful scenes, we see Sumiko confront Akitsu while Yuki – the perfect ‘kept’ daughter – sings a song downstairs, all dolled up in a fancy Western dress. Sumiko, notably, is wearing a sharp business suit in this scene – her clothing delineating a woman of purpose and societal drive, whereas in contrast Yuki is reduced to a pretty ornament.

This juxtaposition is crucial, as in the following dialogue, Akitsu directly contrasts the situations of Sumiko – his sister, and Yuki – his daughter. “If you hadn’t gone there you could have lived the good life, like Yuki,” he tells Sumiko, damning her marriage to the cowardly fishery-owner again. “Don’t you feel envious? Is hardship fun? Don’t you understand how I feel? How much I care for you? You’re going to defy me?” Akitsu’s interrogatory questions highlight just how ingrained his ideas of masculine dominance are – he simply cannot comprehend Sumiko’s reasoning for pursuing her own life choices instead of meekly following what he had envisioned for her. As Jennifer Coates discusses in Making Icons: Repetition and the Female Image in Japanese Cinema, 1945–1964: “Young working women… presented a potential threat to the patriarchal social order in their adoption of new roles in the public rather than domestic sphere, challenging pre-war and wartime ideals.”

The changing roles of women is not the only theme we see The Rambling Guitarist handling a mix of old and new archetypes. In 1956 Nikkatsu had seen massive success with its zeitgeist-capturing taiyozoku (sun tribe) films such as Season of the Sun (Taiyō no kisetsu) and Crazed Fruit (Kurutta kajitsu). Sexually charged and depicting a powerful cocktail of youthful excess, the subsequent public outcry surrounding these films and the example they might be setting for impressionistic young audiences of the time ‘forced Nikkatsu to soften its edges’, laying the framework for the more muted manner in which The Rambling Guitarist handles the topic of sex.

The taiyozoku films engaged powerful symbolism to portray their deep-rooted sexuality, from the gentle lapping of seaweed in the ocean waves (Crazed Fruit) to the stark implication of a man thrusting his erect penis through a traditional Japanese shoji paper screen (Season of the Sun). The closest The Rambling Guitarist gets to this kind of sensuality between its young couple comes in a scene where Yuki comes to wake Taki up, asking him out on a date. Taki unabashedly begins to pull off his nightwear, and Yuki quickly turns round, visibly embarrassed. Here we see the perfect echo of the ‘virginal ambience’ of the Japanese girl-next-door archetype, paired with Taki’s status as the ‘chaste warrior’ – as Barrett puts it: “All ideal Japanese warriors then become chaste in their single-minded devotion to battle”. Taki might entertain an interest in pretty girls – there was even a former lover in the past – but crucially his romance within the film itself is never consummated. To do so would be to weaken his more primary role as a masculine brawler.

Reaching the film’s finale, we see Taki board a ferry and depart Hakodate for new horizons while Yuki sees him off. While on one hand there is poignancy to this wistful, melodramatic final farewell, it also brings with it a bitter irony as Yuki scathingly admonishes herself for turning a blind eye to her father’s criminal activities: “I was a bad daughter,” she says. “The next time we meet, I promise I’ll be a better daughter.”

Returning to Barrett’s Archetypes In Japanese Film, we are given a neat summary of the kind of girl Yuki ultimately represents: “The inactive existence of suffering beauties in films is often predicated on the fact that they are wrenched from a sheltered life with their parents and cannot live in the cruel world without the protection or at least support of a man”.

In this damning indictment of Yuki as the perpetual ‘suffering beauty’, the film’s ending takes on an almost mean-spirited nature. While Taki – in all his powerful, unfettered masculinity – is free to move on as he wills to begin another adventure, Yuki – the ‘bad daughter’ – is now left completely disenfranchised and powerless; still chained to the town itself. Her father is dead, and her apparent saviour – Taki – has left. With the two most significant men in her life now absent, there is a pitiful desperation in her final lines: “He’s never coming back. I know.”

In this, we see a stark contrast with the kind of tough, ‘earthy’ woman that would emerge in subsequent years – typified by the heroine of Shohei Imamura’s 1961 film Pigs and Battleships (Buta to gunkan). There, in an inversion of the ending to The Rambling Guitarist, it is the heroine who finally achieves ‘freedom’ at the end of the film – with her male love interest dead, she neatly swerves the ‘expected’ route of continuing to ‘service’ the American GIs, and instead leaves town for good. Donald Richie neatly sums the dilemma up: “the Japanese woman is a fitting symbol of a problem which many face: how to learn to be yourself in a society that doesn’t want you.”

In the blended East-meets-West world of Nikkatsu’s mukokuseki films, a girl like Yuki is only as real as the cinematic archetypes she stands for – the visual appeal of the flashy, modern West paired with the staid traditionalism of the East. Torn between the two, she ultimately becomes as plastic and intangible as the film itself, in plain opposition to the kind of gritty, realistic femininity Shohei Imamura would populate his films with. Yuki, in essence, is merely a fantasy – a dream woman that tries to combine East and West in service of populist entertainment. And it is to this concept of ‘pure’ entertainment that we must turn next.

Neither here nor there – Borderless spaces and the freedom of populist joy

In describing the unique hybrid settings of the Nikkatsu Action films, Mark Schilling employs the phrase ‘internationalised spaces’ – epitomised in the aesthetic of the ‘Eastern Westerns’ of which The Rambling Guitarist is an obvious example. The notion of ‘internationalised space’ is symbolised in a striking visual reference within the opening minutes of the film – a brief preamble shows Taki travelling on the back of a horse-drawn cart through the dusty wilds of Hokkaido. Pure Western – evoking classic John Ford vistas. But in the very next scene, we are shown a city street at night-time, full of neon-lit signs in Japanese script. Taki has suddenly ‘arrived’ at one of the town’s many drinking dens – we are never shown how he entered the town, and the transition point between the ‘wild’ and the ‘urban’ remains elusive. What remains is the continual notion of a fantastical playground – one in which further opportunities for freedom are enabled.

It is this notion of ‘freedom’ that forms the core of Gregory Barrett’s discussion of mukokuseki eiga, as he outlines how Akira Kobayashi’s hero in the wataridori series is just as elusive as the abstract ‘No Nation Land’ the films are set in: “Entering the new No Nation Land like a phantom from out of nowhere and in the end vanishing, he becomes an invincible, abstract figure, since he had neither past memories to weaken him nor future concerns to restrict his conduct.” The Rambling Guitarist outlines this notion precisely in the way it handles the elusive question of Taki’s past. When Yuki enquires about Taki’s former lover, who we are told has passed away, Taki replies mysteriously: “You shouldn’t hang around someone like me. I come from a different world than you”. Here, we get a sense of how the artificial, borderless world in which Taki operates has started to seep into his very persona.

The Taki of the present, freed from the chains of his past, achieves a kind of invincibility (both emotionally and physically) that allows him to navigate this borderless world unfettered by either social or practical constraints. Indeed, it is telling that despite how frequently Taki gets into fights in the film, it is only as we reach the final showdown – an hour into proceedings – that we see him bleed. This superhuman quality is even referenced in an earlier scene where Taki is embroiled in a punch up with one of the fishery workers. The worker, believing Taki is responsible for the fishery-owner’s death, proclaims angrily: “Are you even human?”. When Yuki runs over and intervenes, she asks Taki: “Why were you letting him hit you?” – implying that here, any physical weakness displayed by Taki was purely self-imposed, and that he could have easily fought off the fishery worker if he’d wanted to.

Here again, we return to the idea of male power fantasies and ideas around the self-regulatory masculinity of jingi. With Standish and Ikegami drawing a link between contemporary jingi and that of the samurai, it is rather apt that the film that Buichi Saito is perhaps best remembered for in the West is 1972’s Lone Wolf And Cub: Baby Cart In Peril – the fourth in a six part chanbara (swordplay) series featuring a disgraced samurai as the central character, wandering the country as a for-hire ronin. With this in mind, we can interpret The Rambling Guitarist’s Taki in much the same light – a ‘modern day’ samurai treading a morally grey area between good and bad, using fists and pistols instead of a sword, a theme that would be continued to its logical extent in Kinji Fukasaku’s immensely popular yakuza series of the early 70s – Battles Without Honour and Humanity (Jingi Naki Tatakai).

This continuing trend of the same traditional character archetypes within multi-installment populist cinema is worth examining in detail. In Genre And Hollywood, Steven Neale talks of two parallels of film discourse – on one hand actively hostile to populist cinema and its “values of entertainment and fantasy rather than realism, art or serious aesthetic stylisation”. On the other hand – a new strain of discourse looking to popular culture to “debate and re-asses its value”. It is this dichotomy that we see in The Rambling Guitarist – a film that wears its populist, genre status openly on its sleeve. As a piece of mass-market entertainment operating within the fantastical world of the mukokuseki genre, to what extent does it craft its own individual merit as a piece of cinematic art beyond the formulaic archetypes in which it exists?

Mark Schilling’s No Borders No Limits references how landmark critical studies of Japanese Cinema such as Donald Richie and Joseph Anderson’s The Japanese Film: Art and Industry makes little or no reference to Nikkatsu Action or the wataridori series – in many ways confirming Neale’s ideas about film discourse – that as a purely populist piece, it was somehow less worthy of analysis or depth. Even within Schilling’s book, while other Nikkatsu directors like Toshio Masuda and Seijun Suzuki are given their own chapters, Buichi Saito is not – seemingly validating the sense of his directorial input as un-auteur-like; instead relegating him to a kind of workmanlike figure – merely a product and part of the system itself.

In his essay included in the booklet accompanying Arrow Video’s release of The Rambling Guitarist, Tom Mes discusses this exact issue: “The very breadth and diversity of Buichi Saito’s output make him an unlikely candidate for auteurist rediscovery, but his rich filmography and the number of titles still fondly remembered by Japanese audiences demonstrate how skewed and limited our officially sanctioned version of Japanese film history is – and how much pure joy is left to discover.” Here – the essence of a ‘genre’ director like Saito is equated with the breadth of his output (ie. quantity vs. quality) – but also the notion of whether that same work, by definition, might offer a ‘pure joy’ that goes beyond the more refined viewing experience of ‘officially sanctioned’ Japanese cinema classics. Is a mechanised, formulaic means of evoking cinematic joy any less valid than an artistic means?


Much like the plastic, fast-food accessibility of its characters, much of the depth that can be found in The Rambling Guitarist can only be seen in context with the component genre codes and gendered archetypes that the film dresses itself in. In regards to masculinity, the film eclipses its muscular face-value Nikkatsu Action trappings to offer a deeper statement on the traditional values of both giri-ninjo and jingi. Likewise, the film holds up two parallel ideals of femininity – one modern and business-minded, the other outwardly Westernised but held back by a deep-rooted Japanese traditionalism.

In both its male and female characters, The Rambling Guitarist examines a kind of slippery middle ground – not quite one thing but, equally, not quite the other. Just like its borderless mukokuseki setting, the film’s men and women are caught between two divides – elusive, transitory, evolving. And at its heart, Akira Kobayashi’s Shinji Taki – the most elusive of all, the character that stands as the very personification of the film’s borderless nature – bodily Japanese, but aesthetically Western. A system of filmmaking that succeeds precisely because it bases every part of itself on a series of contrasts. As one review of the film puts it: “The Diamond Guys, with their more modern attitudes and disrespect for authority, probably resonated well with a youth that had grown up in a culture that had been nearly brought to utter ruin by the previous generation.”

What the wataridori series, Nikkatsu Action and its star-system of ‘Diamond Guys’ all signify is the very point of the populist ‘genre’ model of filmmaking – a distinct awareness of tropes and archetypes; and by extension, how to play both with and against them to maximum effect to keep audiences coming back for nine installments in a single series. While the framework of these films may have been formulaic, this in many ways only served to heighten their core appeal – the ‘attitude’ they gave off. A reinvented cinema, for a reinvented nation.


Barrett, Gregory (1989) Archetypes in Japanese Film: The Sociopolitical and Religious Significance of the Principal Heroes and Heroines. Selinsgrove: Susquehanna University Press

Coates, Jennifer (2016) Making Icons: Repetition and the Female Image in Japanese Cinema, 1945–1964. Hong Kong: Kong Kong University Press

Coffel, Chris (2016) Nikkatsu Diamond Guys Vol. 1 Is a Great Intro to Japanese Cinema, Bloody Disgusting (8 February) http://bloody-disgusting.com/reviews/3377526/blu-ray-review-nikkatsu-diamond-guys-vol-1-great-intro-japanese-cinema/ [Accessed 28 March 2017]

Ikegami, Eiko (1995) The Taming of the Samurai: Honorific Individualism and the Making of Modern Japan. Cambridge: Harvard University Press

Kitamura, Hiroshi (2012) ‘Shoot-Out In Hokkaido – The “Wanderer” (wataridori) series and the politics of transnationalism’ in Transnational Asian Identities in Pan-Pacific Cinemas: The Reel Asian Exchange. New York & London: Routledge

McArthur, Colin (1972) Underworld USA. New York: Viking Adult

Mes, Tom (2016) ‘North By Northwest: The timeless adventures of a rambling guitarist’ in Nikkatsu Diamond Guys Volume 1. Shenley: Arrow Video

Miyao, Daisuke (ed.) (2014) The Oxford Handbook of Japanese Cinema. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Murray, Noel (2004) Battles Without Honor & Humanity, AV Club (13 December) http://www.avclub.com/review/battles-without-honor-humanity-11137?permalink=true [Accessed 28 March 2017]

Neale, Steve (2000) Genre and Hollywood. New York & London: Routledge

Powers, Richard Gid, Hidetoshi Katō, Bruce Stronach (eds.) (1989) Handbook of Japanese Popular Culture. Santa Barbara: Greenwood Press

Quandt, James (ed.) (1999) Shohei Imamura. Toronto: Cinematheque Ontario

Raine, Michael (2005) Crazed Fruit: Imagining a New Japan—

The Taiyozoku Films, Criterion (27 June) https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/373-crazed-fruit-imagining-a-new-japan-the-taiyozoku-films [Accessed 28 March 2017]

Richie, Donald (2001) A Hundred Years of Japanese Film. Tokyo: Kodansha International

Salazar, Evan (2011) MISSING REEL: The Rambling Guitarist, The Loft Cinema (9 November) http://theloftcinema.blogspot.co.uk/2011/11/missing-reel-rambling-guitarist.html [Accessed 28 March 2017]

Schilling, Mark (2007) No Borders No Limits. Godalming: FAB Press

Sharp, Jasper (2005) Midnight Eye Round-Up – Nikkatsu Action special, Midnight Eye (25 August), http://old.midnighteye.com/reviews/round-up_016.shtml [Accessed 28 March 2017]

Sherif, Ann (2009) Japan’s Cold War: Media, Literature, and the Law. New York: Columbia University Press

Standish, Isolde (2013) Myth and Masculinity in the Japanese Cinema: Towards a Political Reading of the Tragic Hero. London: Routledge

Warner, Kyle (2016) The Rambling Guitarist, City On Fire (15 March) http://cityonfire.com/the-rambling-guitarist-1959-review-nikkatsu-diamond-guys-vol-1-arrow-blu-ray/ [Accessed 28 March 2017]

Watson, Grant (2016) The Rambling Guitarist, The Angriest (16 September) http://angriest.blogspot.co.uk/2016/09/the-rambling-guitarist-1959.html [Accessed 28 March 2017]

(2013) The Rambling Guitarist, Letterboxd (27 February) https://letterboxd.com/film/the-rambling-guitarist/ [Accessed 28 March 2017]

(2016) Nikkatsu Diamond Guys Volume 1. Shenley: Arrow Video

(2016) The Rambling Guitarist Original Trailer, Arrow Video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ve8wNBGl4cE&t=123s [Accessed 28 March 2017]

Transactional Relationships – Supply and demand in Japanese urban shamanism and popular fortune-telling


The UK-based Asian popular culture magazine NEO runs a regular a column by writer Jonathan Clements which, each month, analyses a Japanese manga magazine from a perspective of both narrative content, demographic and market conditions. Over a period from 2014 through to late 2015, the column regularly drew attention to a specific trend in publications aimed towards women: ‘advertorial’ content combining actual manga stories about characters whose lives were changed for the better after purchasing ‘magic’ bracelets, charms or crystals, alongside a subsequent ‘promotion’ highlighting how the magazine’s readers could contact a series of spiritual ‘specialists’ to buy real-life versions of these same charms.

The services of these ‘specialists’ – Madame Sara, Madame Akashi, Madame Horai – would appear time and time again in publications like Truly Awesome Woman’s Dramatic Life, Family Suspense and Sakura Mystery Deluxe; the advertorial ‘PR Comic’ stories touting effusive testimonials such as “Thanks to the Heart Bracelet I am getting remarried to a man ten years my junior” and “Thanks to the Gold Bracelet we have achieved our dreams of becoming millionaires”. Each time, the ‘magic’ charms would be offered at a heavily discounted price.

These examples illustrate the tip of the iceberg in regards to a phenomenon referred to by Shimazono Susumu as ‘new spirituality culture’ (shinreisei bunka). Within this bracket, we might reasonably reference a number of terms of varying degrees of interrelatedness including: urban-shamanism, neo-shamanism, spiritual therapists, spirit mediums, New Age Practitioners, divination and fortune-telling. Previous studies on this topic by both Ioannis Gaitanidis & Aki Murakami as well as Suzuki Kentaro begin by addressing the inherent difficulties surrounding such diverse terminology. Indeed, Gaitanidis & Murakami posit a theory regarding the scholarly intermingling of these terms:

“…certain analytic frameworks that were developed several decades ago to study a category of magico-religious practitioners called “shamans,” become relevant again today when we study practitioners that, at first glance, resemble these magico-religious practitioners but originate from and are active in distinct sociocultural and historical backgrounds.”

Essentially, while these definitions may not be mutually inclusive – the analytical framework by which we might look at them through potentially is. Following this line of thinking, in employing terms such as ‘neo’ or ‘urban’ shaman, we do not necessarily seek to align the disparate grouping of practitioners highlighted above within formal definitions of ‘shamanism’ such as those set forth by Eliade regarding the requirement of an ecstatic, trance-like state. But rather, in focusing this essay primarily on the practices of divination and spiritual therapy in contemporary Japan and employing the term ‘urban shamanism’, we seek to locate these newer practises within the same framework of transaction and performance seen in ‘traditional’ forms of Shamanism – the ‘urban’ element simultaneously conveying the inherently money-media-and-modernity-driven quality of these newer incarnations.

I will look to unpack this specifically transactional quality by analysing how these practices manifest via a network of producers and consumers – two sides of an equation that are mutually dependent on each-other. In this sense, while Gaitanidis & Murakami’s study provides a solid theoretical framework from which we can define what an ‘urban shaman’, spiritual therapist or fortune-teller actually is, this essay will look to a more ‘real world’ understanding of the phenomenon via a number of key questions:

1) What drives individuals to become practitioners (a question of supply) and consumers (a question of demand) of divination and spiritual therapy.

2) To what extent can we identify a kind of self-generating system that keeps this supply and demand perpetuating

3) Lastly, why are the consumers in this system so overwhelmingly female

In looking to answer these questions, I will also seek to illustrate the role of both the media – as we saw in the manga advertorials highlighted above – and the notion of a wider capitalist system as key drivers in the perpetuation of these practices. The ‘real-world’ factor is crucial here, because for all that this phenomena could potentially be dismissed as an individualistic New Age ‘religion of the self’, it is ultimately made up of interactions between real people, looking to achieve real change in their lives.

Creation & Consumption – Belief, legitimacy and ‘hardship’ narratives

“If we visit today the summer festival at Mount Osore,” Gaitanidis & Murakami comment, referring to the tradition of blind itako spirit mediums commonly associated with the mountain, “We will see long lines of Japanese waiting for a private session… it is evident that both old and new types of magico-religious practitioners seem to respond to some of the needs of contemporary Japanese. ‘Magic’ is still sought in today’s Japan, although those who seek it hold different expectations in regards to its ‘reality.’”

This specific phraseology of ‘magic’ and ‘magico-religious’ is important – in essence, the notion of something which expresses the same kind of non-rationalist belief systems as religion, but without the presence of a ‘divine’ element. This is crucial to our understanding of a ‘belief’ orientated transaction, and why these consumers are able to exchange the very tangible asset of money for something that is arguably, highly intangible.

By way of illustration, as with the case of the itako at Mt. Osore, we might offer the example of divination having a long history at both Shinto and Buddhist institutions in the form of consumers paying for small omikuji fortune-slips. While this practice might be occurring at a religious premises, is the ‘act’ itself specifically religious? Namely, does the consumer interpret the outcome of the fortune-slip as the result of divine will, or merely blind chance? Do they completely and unquestioningly believe what they are being told by the fortune-slip, or are they merely ‘performing’ a facade of belief via their real-world interaction with the process?

It is this kind of ambiguity that is central here – the question of whether these practices are whole-heartedly ‘believed’ or rather – as Michael Saler puts it – “enjoyed as constructs in which one can become immersed but not submerged. Rationalist skepticism is held at in abeyance, yet complete belief is undercut by an ironic awareness that one is holding skepticism at bay”. Is it in this notion of ‘complete belief’ that we can find the distinction between a kind of ‘religious’ belief and one that is merely ‘superstitious’? Suzuki Kentaro presents a similar dichotomy in seeking to explain a wide mix of divination techniques such as astrology, tarot cards, palmistry, physiognomy, and Chinese augury, stating that: “All of these can be performed without assuming either the presence of a divine or spiritual being or the use of spiritual powers.”

The idea of ‘performance’ presents one of the most important resemblances between the older and newer forms of shamanism and divinatory practice – that of the ‘performed’ ritual and how it achieves special significance for both the performer and the consumer. As Catherine Bell summarises: “performance is understood to be something other than routine reality; it is a specific type of demonstration. It can also confer on the performance the ability to signify or denote larger truths under the guise of make-believe situations.”

This recalls the ideas of a kind of non-rationalist reality, in which concepts of whether the participant is achieving ‘complete belief’ become arguably academic because – in the precise moment of the enactment and performance – the belief is already operating in its own special kind of reality. In essence, it is the performative ‘actions’ themselves that matter most, or as Barbara Myerhoff puts it: “not only is seeing believing, doing is believing”.

In Practically Religious… Worldly Benefits and the Common Religion of Japan, Ian Reader & George Tanabe address these themes in a similar manner, laying out a kind of logical methodology that can be applied to the thought process of purchasing and ‘performing’ these types of spiritual ‘service’:

“…people feel that chance can be modified, that it can be made to work for them, and that it can be explained in a moral context that is fathomable to human beings. If luck is a matter of chance, rather than the result of calculated deliberation, then a good luck charm is not about luck at all, since it symbolizes two kinds of causes that work cooperatively together: human effort and divine help. Whenever charms or amulets are described as things that “bring” good luck, a confidence is being expressed in the ability of those objects to act in some fashion as a causal agent.”

We can take this notion of a ‘causal agent’ as synonymous with the idea of a ‘signified’ belief; a performative belief system encapsulated within an object or service which – crucially – can then be commodified. When Gaitanidis & Murakami discuss the ‘response’ of various forms of spiritual practitioner (both old and new) to the “needs of contemporary Japanese”, they highlight the centrality of the supply/demand equation in this regard. Indeed, we would suggest that the sheer diversity in ‘kinds’ of shamanism, spiritual therapy and divination offered as part of a modern society are naturally symptomatic of a ‘marketplace’ environment in which different kinds of producer are matched to the respective needs of different kinds of consumer. Where the need exists, the practitioners rise to meet it.

Where these practitioners ‘rise’ from exactly offers a crucial insight into the nature of the system – after all, for a system like this to perpetuate, logic suggests that it requires a constant stream of ‘new’ practitioners entering the cycle to replace those that leave. Equally, to what degree can we chart the course of consistent trends that shape these practitioners into the semblance of an identifiable system, as opposed to a scattering of ‘stand-alone’ instances arising from unrelated scenarios. In this regard, it is worth turning our attention to the bulk of Gaitanidis & Murakami’s study – which focuses on the narratives of 68 surveyed ‘spiritual therapists’ and crucially – how they ended up operating in that profession.

From their analysis of those surveyed, we can identify two significant stages on the path to what they call ‘spiritual transformation’ and the subsequent legitimation of these practitioners’ powers. Firstly – a consistent narrative of hardships (usually mental/physical health issues, social isolation and poor living/working conditions); socio-societal malaises which they address as fundamental to neo-shamanistic discourses.Secondly, they observe another consistent trend of what we might term a ‘fandom’ for the occult – ie. an express interest to consume vast volumes of mass media (books and magazines), seminars and workshops on various kinds of alternative therapies; with the individuals ultimately obtaining ‘official’ certifications for these.

What both of these observations can tell us about the ‘origins’ or creation of new practitioners is that it is invariably prompted by an above-average interest in occult/alternative topics, and that this is – in turn – typically prompted by the kinds of life conditions that might instigate one to pursue these routes instead of traditional ‘mainstream’ solutions. This theme is one that has been discussed prominently in relation to wider themes of New Age spiritualism – Paul Heelas presents the theory that participants are typically disillusioned with mainstream society and, placed in a situation where they are powerless to change that society, subsequently turn their attentions inward and instead try and affect change in themselves. This theory is further born out in the case of Ms. Saeda – one of Gaitanidis & Murakami’s surveyed practitioners: “If she had not stopped her job… and divorced, hence being in need of an income, she would have never become a spiritual therapist.” As they observe: “Professional neo-shamans who make a living from their craft… are compelled by their environment to take very rational decisions.”

Here, we see a classic instance of how traditional mainstream narratives (a job, reliable income and marriage) have failed Ms. Saeda, and thus – as Heelas describes – causal necessity compels her toward the ‘alternative’ narrative of becoming a spiritual therapist. Here, once the individual is removed from the gravitational orbit of a ‘mainstream’ life, the allure of spiritual therapy starts to exert its own strong gravitational hold – pulling them into a new, ‘alternative’ orbit. This phenomenon has also been observed as part of a wider kind of Japanese urban spirituality – such as that seen in Japanese New Religious Movements – where a relationship can often be drawn “between their members’ economic vulnerability or uncertain future and their attraction to a religion with a world view which reflects their own sense of uncertainty.”

This concept of ‘uncertainty’ is interesting because we see it expressed not only in the motivations of those that become practitioners of ‘spiritual therapy’, but also in those that consume those very same services. In Suzuki Kentaro’s study – in which he surveys the users of the ‘Libra’ divination hall in Tokyo as to what they are specifically seeking by using divination, a marked majority attested to it being:

“…something I can count on”

“…something that helps me get my worries and fears out in the open”

…something to consult in planning my life”

“…something that provides the impetus to carry out things I’d wanted to do“

In these responses, we see echoes of the themes Reader & Tanabe expressed regarding belief systems being used as a kind of ‘confidence’ supplement. These consumers – lacking certainty in their lives – turn to divination as their specified ‘causal agent’ to engineer the narrative change in their lives they are unable to manifest by themselves. Just like the practitioners themselves – invariably driven to the role through rationalist circumstances such as financial necessity – the consumers are enacting the same kind of blend; achieving rationalist goals (more certainty or impetus in life) via non-rationalist means.

Another fortune-teller – Takahashi Kiriya, who specialises in tarot cards and astrology – testifies to this almost counselling-like role of divination, whilst also positioning it as specifically relevant to a Japanese audience: “Japan today seems to have become a society where it’s difficult for people to speak with one another, even if they are in trouble. In the olden days, people were able to turn to their family and neighbors. Unlike in America, counseling is not common here. But people still want someone willing to listen to them, and to give them advice. I think fortune tellers are meeting those needs.”

In essence, for these consumers, divination has become a kind of surrogate means of social communication – a kind of paid-for shoulder to lean on. It is this specifically transactional nature that is of relevance to our argument – essentially, to what extent does the involvement of money change this interaction from a purely social or spiritual one into something else? Just as we have identified the factors that ‘drive’ people toward a life in which practices such as divination play a significant role, what factors – in turn – can we identify that push these processes beyond simple one-to-one performative actions and into something operating on a far wider scale?

Driving transactional relationships – Media frameworks and fandoms

As we have seen above, the supply and demand of those interested in divination and spiritual therapy is fed very much from the same pool – indicating a certain synchronicity in the mindsets of those who go on to become both producers and consumers of these practices. With this foundation in mind, it is important to also understand the framework that keeps this system perpetuating – in essence, if the practitioners are the muscle of this transactional system and the consumers are the flesh, we must identify the skeleton that holds them both in place. Equally, in defining this system as transactional, we do so not only in a monetary sense, but also within a definition of exchange or interaction between people – namely, via the medium of information. As many of Gaitanidis & Murakami’s practitioners attest – their narratives are often defined by an express desire to obtain more ‘information’ about these practices via training courses, books and magazines.

In seeking to illustrate how these factors play a vital role in the proliferation of these kinds of narratives in contemporary society, we turn to Benjamin Dorman’s Representing Ancestor Worship as “Non-Religious”, which presents the case of Hosoki Kazuko; a popular Japanese fortune-teller whose best-selling divination books and TV appearances have made her an incredibly famous media figure. Of relevance to our argument here is how Dorman’s description of the Hosoki ‘craze’ is couched very much in the language of fandom and media fervour – as he puts it:

“Her fans and her programs’ participants refer to her with the honorific title “Sensei” (teacher). On the other hand, she has been labeled in a derogatory sense as a mere “shaman” or “simply a fortuneteller”… But the criticism and negative publicity she receives merely serves to keep her image firmly in the public eye and in a sense stirs up the media’s appetite for more.”

The cyclical aspect to this ‘appetite’ is noteworthy as it implies a ravenous need for both a supply and demand of information (ie. media content) regarding Hosoki – which is then ingested by both her fans and detractors. And just as the media engender a kind of habitual appetite for more ‘information’, so too does Hosoki, who has produced at least one new book per year since 1985. What Hosoki’s fans are seeking to gain by purchasing one of her books and consuming the information contained within is perhaps best explained by referring to Dorman’s introduction to a number of ‘laws of causality’ from one of Hosoki’s books on ancestor worship:

“The second law is “self-cultivation”, which encompasses (1) showing gratitude, (2) having a sense of what would constitute “shameful behavior,” and (3) being able to carry out completely a role/task/job.”

Here, Hosoki attempts to outline a link between these ‘laws of causality’ (which echo Reader & Tanabe’s ‘causal agent’) and the individual taking control of their destiny by way of ‘self-cultivation’. In these terms too, we see the same consistent rhetoric of seeking to engender positive change or impetus in one’s life. In doing so, the consumer enacts three stages of performative ‘belief’ action, that we might reasonably apply to any ‘transactional’ action of divination or spiritual therapy:

1) The monetary aspect of the transaction itself (in this case, buying the book)

2) The transfer of information from producer to consumer (reading the book)

3) The belief in / real-world performative enactment of said information (following the principles in the book)

But whereas in other instances these principles might be enacted on a one-to-one, face-to-face basis between producer and consumer (such as in the case of the itako), in this instance the transactional relationship between Hosoki and her consumers is simultaneous and one-to-many, because – by definition – a piece of media can be replicated identically many times over.

One might draw similarities between the rise of the Hosoki ‘craze’ in the 1980s with the current craze surrounding Japanese ‘decluttering specialist’ Marie Kondo and her multi-million-selling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying: A simple, effective way to banish clutter forever. Like Hosoki, Kondo has become the centre of a media frenzy – with countless articles discussing her books, the efficacy of their methods and how her background as a Shinto shrine maiden influenced her approach to tidying.

A number of quotes from Kondo’s book show a striking similarity to the ‘self-cultivation’ we saw outlined by Hosoki, namely:

“Giving sincere thanks to an item will significantly reduce or even eliminate any guilt you may feel when you decide that you will no longer have it in your home,”

“Unless you are truly committed, you will most likely become discouraged or distracted before finishing your tidying journey,”

Seen here are the same concepts of showing gratitude, being able to completely carry out an action, and by extension, a cultivation of a sense of shame if one is not able to successfully do so (thus reinforcing and locking-in the user’s belief in sticking with the system).

Like Hosoki, Kondo is not without criticism – one account discusses her methods in specifically gendered terms, something which will be of particular relevance later in this essay:

“All of her examples of clients are women. When men appear (and they only do 2-3 times) it is as part of a couple. Kondo never says tidying is women’s work, but the implication is clear. She is far from the only person who believes this, and I’m sure she has this feeling from experience: women are the ones who seek her out.”

Kondo – of course – is not a shaman or fortune-teller, but what she represents is a similar kind of transactional relationship between provider and consumer in which ‘peace of mind’ and a sense of self-improvement is obtained in exchange for money. The kind of self-cultivational habitual drive which Nikolas Rose defines as: “continuous training, lifelong learning, perpetual assessment, continual incitement to buy, to improve oneself…” I make this comparison to highlight that these systems need not necessarily be spiritual or religious in nature, but rather converge around a distinctly contemporary notion of emotional well-being and how to achieve it. Central to both cases is a clear set of psychological ‘reinforcing’ frameworks designed to continually remind us that what we are doing is having real efficacy, if only we follow the rules correctly and pay for the services that will clarify how to do this.

In this, we see the apotheosis of the capitalist system; one in which a solution for every problem in life – from practical, materialist ones to purely psychological ones – can be bought and sold. Indeed, it is the act of spending money that is the ultimate symbol of efficacy – that something ‘really works’. Just as the systems themselves are self-sustaining, by spending money on our beliefs, we inherently strengthen them. In purchasing a book by Hosoki or Kondo, we are instinctively placing belief in its contents and the notion that the (intangible) information contained within will help us manifest (tangible) real world improvements in our lives. Here, we return to the ideas expressed by Reader & Tanabe regarding the individual expression of ‘confidence’ in the purchased good or service to act as a ‘causal agent’ – as they describe: “In making a purchase, the buyer pays a material and a moral price to try to ensure that the good things in life can be guaranteed, and the bad kept at a distance, rather than being left to chance.”

In referencing terminology such as ‘purchased good’ and ‘buyer’, it is worth emphasising here the sheer scale of the market in question, with Dorman’s study citing the equivalent of over $600,000,000 spent on divination in Japan every year. With ‘divination’ as a firmly established sector within the Japanese publishing industry – encompassing both books and magazines – it should come as no surprise that many of the practitioners that Gaitanidis & Murakami surveyed also expressed a specific interest or ‘fandom’ in these ‘seishin sekai’ (New Age) publications prior to finding their ‘calling’.

This immense monetary value furthers our understanding of the perpetuation of fortune-tellers and spiritual therapists as not only a habitual need for consumption of related media or a ceaseless drive for self-cultivation, but as an inherently capitalist principle. Studies such as Tadashi Nishihira’s Seishin-Sekai: A Superficial Pop Cultural Phenomenon or an Important Culture in the Post-Modern Society? suggest an interesting dimension in which to discuss this question – namely; does a degree of ‘pop culture’ cut-through (including but not limited to monetary success) muddy the waters when discussing the ‘serious’ relevance of these spiritual phenomenons? For example, as we have seen above regarding practitioners entering the ‘profession’ through financial necessity; where do we draw the line between the proliferation of these practices for purely ‘spiritual’ purposes, and the economic role of making money and providing a convenient livelihood for the practitioner? To this extent, what happens when the system achieves such a degree of monetary impetus that the very motivations behind it start to become morally questionable?

Peer networks and the influence of belief

This very notion of a morally grey area lying at the heart of these practices is one that reoccurs in relation to the unavoidable fact that the majority of consumers in this equation are female. As Suzuki Kentaro points out as a preface to the results of his survey data from the ‘Libra’ divination hall, “The clientele of the Libra is overwhelmingly female, with women comprising a full 95% of the respondents to this survey.” Suzuki’s study mentions ‘women’ twenty-six times, usually prefaced by either ‘young’, ‘unmarried’ or ‘single’ – drawing allusions to a highly developed sphere of targeted media publications that cater to this market in much the same way as Hosoki’s books, including market-leading fortune-telling magazine My Birthday (with a circulation of 440,000).

Alongside this media network, we must also take into account the influence of face-to-face personal networks; what Suzuki terms a ‘loose community of the like-minded’ – born out in his survey results of those frequenting the ‘Libra’ divination hall, with “72% [reporting that they] had talked with someone about the result of a reading, and 90% knew of someone close to them who believes in divination.” In these results, we can see a kind of ‘If it worked for her, maybe it’ll work for me too’ mentality at work – one in which divination becomes a kind of self-reinforcing peer network where people’s thoughts and processes become increasingly aligned.

Suzuki’s survey results observe this kind of ‘aligned anxiety’ in specifically gendered terms, namely: “An overwhelming majority of the respondents (74%) said that their consultation concerned love and the opposite sex.” As he observes,  “Love, with its risks and uncertainties, can be a time of head-spinning change. What the young women are seeking is an outlook on an unclear situation and a clearing up of confused feelings.” We see this emphasis on love and sex also expressed in the outlook of Zappallas Inc., the company that runs Japan’s largest network of fortune-telling websites and mobile content – with users subscribing to any of their 220 different sites for a subscription fee of ¥300 a month. Zappallas Inc. claim their primary target is ‘women in their 20s and 30s’ and that on their sites, a ‘majority of the content was romance-related’.

These trends can be considered in the light of how – whether through peer networks or media networks – these individuals are subconsciously already ‘culturally priming’ themselves to participate in these activities themselves. We see this idea of societal surroundings engendering a kind of ‘inevitability’ in Gaitanidis & Murakami’s work too, where they envision it as the “constant accumulation of information rendered necessary by the information society that we live in”. Essentially, if the magazines you read and the conversations you have – your social reference framework – all contain narratives about divination and spiritual therapy, it must surely follow that you will also at some point entertain the thought of these narratives too. Suzuki summarises this as ‘a rhetorical and behavioral atmosphere conducive to belief in divination’ and goes on to illustrate the almost addictive habituality of the practice, with 61% of those he surveyed indicating that when they faced problems of difficulties in life “they “almost always” or “occasionally” turned to divination at such times.”

While on one hand we can see behaviour like this as a kind of social support network, there is also an inherently darker nature to it; the very fact that the community is so ‘like-minded’ beginning to breed an inherent homogeneity of thought and action, which – in turn – starts to generate a kind of ‘sensory deprivation’. In essence, once the like-mindedness becomes so uniform, we begin to follow it unquestioningly, and it is allowed to continue perpetuating, unchanged. This docility is understandably attractive in a financial sense too – a captive market ready to lap up what they are told they ‘need’. As we have seen, with the divination market representing a sizeable financial interest, it only follows that there is an express desire to see those vested interests maintained.

In analysing the question of gender as part of this transactional equation, it is useful to turn to Meredith Underwood’s work on mizuko kuyo – a memorial rite carried out “for miscarried and stillborn babies, those who die shortly after birth, and most recently for aborted fetuses”. Underwood’s essay, by definition, focuses specifically on the role of the female in understanding this ritual, and lays forth an interesting narrative regarding the link between emotional experiences and their position within a gendered society – in her words: “The experience of guilt, like any experience, is gendered, as is the need for repentance and healing. To restore one’s humanity means something different for a woman in patriarchal society because she is by definition a different sort of human being.”

Here, we see the notion of ‘gendered guilt’ inextricably linked with that of the role of a woman in a gendered society – something also present in Dorman’s study of Hosoki, where he categorises her brand of self-cultivation as ‘traditional and conservative’; indicative of the ideals present in Japan’s traditionally patriarchal system. While mizuko kuyo obviously stands on the more dramatic end of the spectrum to the vast sweep of arguably more ‘benign’ activities employed in the sphere of spiritual therapy, it is useful to our argument in illustrating how vested financial and media interests can play a role in amplifying specifically ‘gendered’ needs that must then be addressed (via payment for services-rendered) to remove the vacuum of anxiety and guilt.

Underwood’s study presents a crucial quote from Helen Hardacre, which aims to crystallize the role of the media in essentially manufacturing (or at the very least, emphasising) needs which did not really exist in the first place: “[the tabloid press] have taken a major role in highlighting ambivalent emotions about abortion and in creating the sense of spiritual anxiety motivating these women to patronize mizuko kuyo“. By placing the role of the modern media as specifically ‘active’ in its playing up of emotions that then need to be ‘salved’ by engaging with these practices, we see the case of the mizuko kuyo placed within a wider trend of “[pushing] women into modes of consumption required to sustain New Age capitalism”. The moral indictment here goes back to the idea that once established, the capitalist, financial interest of these practices ultimately eclipses the spiritual interest. This then predicates a situation where, arguably, the supply/demand equation is almost flipped on its head. Now, the ‘demand’ is for a fresh stream of willing customers, and thus, a supply must be engendered – even if via the means of artificially created anxiety.

It is this argument that suggests an uneasy tension between the moneyed commodification of these practices and where exactly to locate the woman’s ‘choice’ when she engages with them. Underwood attempts to distill this down into a simple formula: “Rather we are left with a one-to-one equation: religious entrepreneurs “create” spiritual anxiety; women flock to temples seeking ritual relief.” The significance of this is that it implies a removal of women’s agency from the equation – in essence, because the system is so strongly enforced, it begins to create a kind of conveyor-belt effect in which women move, autopilot style, in a continual system of supply and demand. An osmosis of producers and consumers which will, by definition, bypass individual choice and always move to fill a vacuum / achieve equilibrium.

Perhaps then, in answer to our original question of why the consumers in this system are so overwhelmingly female, we might suggest that just as the system itself replicates perpetually, the female demographic is simply a result of that same perpetuation principle too. Essentially, if the vast majority of inputs to the system are female, it only follows that the output will be largely female too. Media networks and peer networks dovetail into a consistent informational and societal framework in which a cyclical process of ‘spiritual anxiety’ is built up and then relieved via these transactional interactions. Equally, precisely because the system is cyclical and self-generating, its demographic make-up (both in terms of gender and personal disposition) will only change if the factors comprising the equation break, or a significant new element is introduced.


Through the course of this essay we have sought to apply to the topics of divination and spiritual therapy many of the same analytical frameworks previously used to present the case of ‘traditional’ shamanistic practices in Japan. In doing so, we have attempted to draw parallels in many of the same kinds of transactional and performative behaviours which come to define the relationship between practitioner and consumer. Via a reinforcing network of media and peer influences, we have shown how these systems are both thoroughly rooted in the nature of modern society, as well as how vested financial interests may play a key role in the desire for their continued perpetuation.

In their study, Gaitanidis & Murakami discuss a previous trend of “historical essentialism that conceives of Japanese shamanistic practices in degenerative terms, namely the more recent the practice is, the less ‘authentic’ it must be”. In light of this, and drawing on the framework we have set out above, we would suggest that instead, this notion of ‘authenticity’ is instead as ‘authentic’ as its producers and consumers allow it to be. The question of recency is crucial because it is fundamentally linked to the contemporary culture of media and money that this framework of practitioners is built on in Japan.

Likewise, when Gaitanidis & Murakami state that “Japanese spiritual therapists… are not just contemporary versions of some ‘traditional’ Japanese shamanic practice, but should be considered as mostly a Western import”, we would argue that an understanding of the term ‘Western’ should be taken synonymously with the term ‘modern’. In other words, that the concept of urban spiritual therapists and fortune-tellers should not be taken so much as an issue of Western processes exported to the East, but rather one embodying a natural osmosis or self-generation by way of societal conditions and human need, where an understanding of what it means for a society to be ‘modern’ or ‘urban’ inherently incorporates aspects of Westernisation.

What we are left with is a picture of a conveyer belt process where producers and consumers are essentially cut from the same cloth; each side of the equation validating the other’s existence. Both are essentially interested in the same thing – an alternative narrative to the one that has up to this point, not supplied them with the satisfactory impetus or confidence in their self. Thus, at some point in the individual’s life – when their degree of interest in these occult/alternative practices reaches a certain level and ‘triggers’, they will then deviate into one of two routes: either as a creator or consumer, who then go on to reinforce the framework and proliferate its narratives via both the media and their peers. The ultimate in truly cyclical systems. In context, it is not without a certain degree of irony that one reads the Japanese kanji character for ‘shop’ 店 (mise) as containing the radical for ‘fortune-telling’ 占 (uranai).

In defining the nature of these transactional relationships, we have come to understand a means by which information, performative practices and money change hands in a ceaseless chain of causal agency designed to reinforce belief that what we are paying for and consuming will bring about real change. Through this all, we have seen a consistent basis of very human, real-world concerns around self-confidence, self-belief and self-cultivation – seeking through means that may or may not be religious in nature – a little bit of certainty in a fundamentally uncertain world. The simple, and entirely understandable, desire to have ‘something we can count on’.


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