Kado: A historical reading

Another interesting way to look at Kado:  The Right Answer is as a retelling of Japan’s history.  This, in turn, brings out another facet of the show’s religious connection.  Warning–spoilers ahead!

If one considers ‘the anisotropic’ as a symbol of ‘the world outside Japan,’ then Yaha-kui zaShunina, who forces his way into Japan proffering dreamlike technology and spouting a Nietzsche-esque cosmology, represents Western influence in the Meiji Period.  As at that time, Japan attempts to combine the foreign technology with its native values.

From the beginning, the show is unabashedly nationalistic–consider, for example, the episode where Japan outwits the UN with the power of origami.  As the show progresses, we are also given a tour of traditional Japanese values through the character of Saraka Tsukai, who takes Shindo on a day-long date to the places she spent her childhood.  She emphasizes Japan’s traditional crafts, the very human quality of low-tech production, living in harmony with the environment, and the joys of family life.  Accepting technology from the anisotropic (symbolic of Meiji industrialization) will change all that.

Shindo takes her appeal to heart (and, er, also takes her as his wife–we even get a baby before the end!) and begins to push for these Japanese values.  In the end, when Japan has been defended from zaShunina’s encroachment, we see the CEO of Setten (a stand-in for Google) conclude that what Japan has gained from this whole ordeal was knowledge of the existence of the anisotropic, which will henceforth be the subject of further research.  In other words, the philosophy safely rejected, Japan will pursue the technology.

It’s interesting to consider what, exactly, the rejected philosophy consisted of.  At first, it seems like the writers of the show want us to accept zaShunina’s claim that anisotropic beings created the universe out of boredom.  Later, it seems likely that this was only zaShunina’s delusion of grandeur, or even attempted trickery (one could also argue that zaShunina is a symbol of the devil, although that’s a topic for another post).  It’s revealed that zaShunina is proud and requires personal growth that will start with a sense of humility.  Providentially, he has come to Japan–just the place where he can learn that virtue.

Is the show suggesting a historical parallel with proud Westerners barging into Japan, all but claiming to be gods, and leaving with a healthy sense of humility?  It just might be.  After all, here is one person who went to Japan an atheist and came back a Catholic.

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Kado: The Right Answer (apparently, they found it in the Catechism)

I don’t watch much anime anymore, but when I heard there was a recent series about the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I had to give it a try.  I’ve known a few diplomats in my time, and I was curious whether I could learn anything about the way they think.  After finishing the series, I can’t say whether I’ve levelled up in diplomatic mind-reading skills, but I did find a surprising Catholic connection that I wanted to write about here.  Beware:  spoilers ahead!

The series is called 正解するカド, or Kado:  The Right Answer, and the basic premise is that MOFA has to negotiate with aliens.  Specifically, an ‘anisotropic being,’ Yaha-kui zaShunina, lands his giant cube in Tokyo and begins offering mankind fantastic devices from beyond the universe with the ability to alter time and space.

As the series goes on, it becomes clear that zaShunina’s motive is, more or less, boredom–he feels that he knows it all, and resents this.  Through his contact with humans, however, he begins to develop more of an emotional side to balance out his intellectual side.  He falls in love, his love is not reciprocated, and he gets irritable and tries to impose his will by force.

Opposite zaShunina is Shindo Kojiro, a former MOFA diplomat who quits his job to become a negotiator for ‘the anisotropic.’  Shindo projects an aura of invincibility, displaying almost no emotion, which causes the codependent characters in the story (of which there are more than a few) to desperately seek his validation in the form of romantic attention.  Shindo identifies strongly with his mission as a negotiator, following the basic rule of “both sides getting something they want.”  As the series goes on and it becomes clear that zaShunina’s motives are not altruistic, Shindo considers the best outcome for humanity, while still trying to give each side something it wants.

And this is where things get Catholic.  After unsatisfying attempts to clone Shindo, zaShunina realizes that human beings are more than just ‘information’–they have a soul which can’t be copied or replaced.  What zaShunina really wants is for Shindo to ‘come back to the anisotropic’ with him, but Shindo refuses, and zaShunina realizes that to interfere with a human being’s free will is to make him something less than he is.  In other words, he cannot obtain love through force.  Frustrated, he decides if he can’t win Shindo’s love, he will kill him instead.

Shindo, who for all his lack of emotion shows a surprising capacity for self-sacrifice, first risks his life to protect Saraka Tsukai, the MOFA diplomat in charge of negotiations with the anisotropic.  Faced with the opportunity to destroy zaShunina, Shindo chooses instead–much to Tsukai’s consternation–to give zaShunina something he wants.  Not to return to the anisotropic with him, but to solve his real problem–his existential boredom–by knocking him off his high horse, solving his God complex, and proving to him there are a lot of things in the universe he doesn’t understand and can’t control.  In the end, zaShunina kills Shindo, who dies in his arms, both seeming to accept with sadness that Shindo’s ultimate motive was love and the growth of zaShunina’s soul (and by the end, it certainly appears that he has one).

I’ve necessarily left a lot of threads in the story untouched, but it seems to me that the ultimate message was that humanity will not be saved by technology or by merely human love.  It must be saved by God–by a selfless love that seeks the good of the other.  That good is to be drawn out of the myopic, mistaken little worlds we have trapped ourselves in, into the freedom of truth.  The truth is that none of us are God, and the humility to recognize that is the first step toward happiness.

And that, my friends, is about as Catholic as you can get.

If beauty makes you sad, what makes you happy?

A Japanese coworker once told me that he wasn’t happy.  He didn’t want more money or a better position.  He just couldn’t put his finger on what it was.

“You need a vacation,” I told him.  It was an objective fact–I’d never actually witnessed the man leave the office.

Knowing that he liked camping, I added, “Why don’t you go camping and think about the meaning of life or something?”

“No, then I would get depressed,” he said.

That broke my heart.  I’d always thought of spending time relaxing in nature as an uplifting and spiritual pursuit.

Then I remembered a T.V. show I’d caught a snippet of once in a Japanese dentist’s office.  On this show, a group visited different tourist attractions and restaurants in Japan, and gave a witty running commentary.  One joke, in particular, made an impression on me.

After a particular experience that everyone was raving about, one man quipped mournfully, “But this will fade into oblivion too someday!”  I felt it was a particularly revealing joke, as the sincere emotion that he was making fun of was that Japanese wistfulness at the transience of things.

And I wondered if sometimes Japanese people look at beautiful things and feel sad.

Fast-forward to today, when I visited a particularly beautiful garden.  It was one of those gardens that somehow feels like a map of the heart.  It felt like a place I’d longed for–remembered or dreamed about long ago–and I couldn’t believe it was real.  It occurred to me that maybe such a place is a spiritual symbol for Heaven.

Then my mind wandered back to that coworker, and I wondered if it would do him good to spend some time in such a garden.

Or would it make him sad?

Folding a kimono

Today, as I was packing for a move, I pulled a large, flat box out from under my bed.  As soon as I lifted the lid, it was as if another world wafted out.

The textured black fabric with purple chrysanthemums and cherry blossoms was familiar enough.  I think it was the meticulous way the kimono was folded that took me back.

I recalled the second-story practice room in my Japanese dance teacher’s house.  We sat on the hardwood floor; one wall was occupied by a huge rectangular mirror.

My teacher was a tiny woman who had been learning traditional Japanese dance since she was 3 and was now a grandmother.  Her mastery of the art would easily have merited her being the center of attention but she was very down-to-earth and seemed to naturally focus on other people.

That day she spread out my new kimono on the immaculate floor and demonstrated the proper way to fold it.  First smooth out all the wrinkles and pull on the seams so that it lies perfectly flat and rectangular.  Then fold it in half lengthwise–this required both hands and the whole body to execute as precisely as folding a giant piece of origami.  Smooth out the wrinkles again.  Then fold the first sleeve back, making sure that it bends just at the crease.  Fold the skirt up, carefully turn the neat bundle over, fold the other sleeve over.  It was a work of art.

Seeing my kimono folded just so in the box reminded me of the reverence with which my teacher treated the garment.  There was no pretension in it–the folding seemed to be an act of gratitude for owning this fine article of clothing.

Today, when I opened the box, the memory of that novel sensation of gratitude and humility stopped me in my tracks and made me wonder.

It was in the Japanese countryside that I first perceived the puffy layers of pride and ingratitude that cover my own heart.  The people I met seemed to have a clear view all the way to the bedrock.

Tea and Christianity – Crisis Magazine

The first time I lived in Japan, I took classes in flower arrangement and Japanese dance.  Upon hearing this, people would always ask me, “Are you going to take up tea ceremony, too?”  Apparently these are the three Traditional Japanese Things young women learn.

Since I never learned to sit with proper posture and make polite conversation, the highly regimented tea ceremony never appealed to me.  Then, after I returned to the Church, a Japanese Catholic friend asked me, “Did you know that the tea ceremony ritual was actually copied from the Consecration at Mass?”

“What?!” I said.  That was a pretty wild claim to make about one of the quintessential Japanese arts, so after I got home I looked it up.  Turns out, she was right, and you can read all about it here:

Francis Xavier’s feast day is December 3. For those of us who love our afternoon tea, it is a feast we should well note. For the world’s most civilized habit owes a huge debt of gratitude to Xavier and his Jesuit missionaries who traveled to Japan in 1549. Now, to properly appreciate this story, you …

Source: Tea and Christianity – Crisis Magazine

Japan, time capsule of Christian culture

The other day I wanted a little inspiration while I was folding laundry, so I put on a CD of my favorite Japanese cellist, Yoko Hasegawa.  They say that the sound of the cello is haunting because it is the closest to the voice of a man.  The song that particularly haunts me on this CD is Chopin’s Nocturne No. 20.  How elegantly yet tragically it soars and plummets, as if to express that it is nobler to suffer than to be loved.

As I was listening to the song, it occurred to me that it was familiar to me from someplace other than this CD.  Now where had I heard it?  Was it at one of the classical music concerts my cousin and I used to attend together?  Had I perhaps heard it while learning the cello in school?

Then I placed it.  I’d first heard this song in an episode of Sailor Moon.

There is something slightly embarrassing about having to learn one’s own culture from Japan, but it happens often.  I admit that I know the words to more jazz standards in Japanese than in English.  I first encountered reproductions of my favorite paintings of the Annunciation in Japan.  From Mont Blanc (a French dessert) to paso doble (a Spanish dance), from Rococo objets d’art to Victorian tea houses to big floppy hats, I would often find myself admiring something beautiful in Japan and then stop and say, “Wait a minute, they got that from us!”

It’s not that these things aren’t present in America.  They’re just not considered relevant.  (When was the last time you asked someone their favorite musician and got “Chopin”?)  They’re buried in history, appreciated as relics by historians, not young women hanging out with their friends.  The West has lost the thrill of the romance of Christian culture.  We’re embarrassed by it.  We mock it.

The Japanese treasure it.  It was through them that I was introduced to many of these works, not as dusty historical facts, but as living, relevant objects of beauty.  Japan, for me, has been a time capsule of Christian culture.

It’s true what they say about love and death

When I started this blog, I said that one of my aims was to answer the question, “What has Japan got to do with the Catholic Church?”  So far I’ve compared Japanese culture to Church teachings, finding that sometimes they’re quite similar, and sometimes quite different.  But today I want to introduce a third category:  the uncanny.

And where better to start than with death?

Specifically, a play about death.  A play in which Death is one of the main characters.  This play is called Elisabeth, and was originally written, I believe, in Austria.  However, what I want to talk about is the Japanese adaptation of the play, which, after the localization process, wound up being something astonishingly . . . well, you’ll see!

First of all, the plot.  This is a historical play about the life of Empress Elisabeth of Austria, with just one twist:  Death is one of the main characters.  As the story goes, Elisabeth died as a girl and descended to the underworld, where she met Death.  However, Death fell in love with her, and rather than accept her life, he restored it to her, saying that he wouldn’t let her die until she fell in love with him.  The play goes on to tell the true story of the life of the Empress, with the addition of Death pursuing her throughout her life, and, in the end, winning her heart.

The original version, as I understand, depicts Death as an abusive beast, and is something of a morbid horror story (the historical Elisabeth did have something of a fascination with death).  The Japanese version I saw, however, changed the play to make Death a romantic gentleman.  The biggest change in the script was the addition of an entirely new song, a love song which Death sings to Elisabeth when they first meet, establishing this as a classic love story.  Except, you know, that she has to choose Death over her husband and, well, die, before the happy couple can be united.

It was a wildly popular play.  Something about the idea of Death as a romantic gentleman waiting to welcome you into his arms really struck a chord with Japanese women (and a fair number of Westerners, as well!)  And if you ask why . . .

. . . I’m sure the Catholics out there are saying, “Well, of course, because it’s a true story–including the part about Death!  The minute they changed Death into a romantic character, the character essentially became God.  God, who is all-powerful, has chosen to grant us free will that we may freely choose to love Him.  But He doesn’t stop there–He actively pursues us throughout our lives.  And, should we chose to love Him, we can spend forever with Him after we die.  He Himself even describes this relationship as a marriage that supersedes our earthly marriages.”

Yes, yes, you got it already, and I didn’t even have to say anything.  But here’s the real kicker:

How did the Japanese know that?!