electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies

Article 3 in 2007
First published in ejcjs on 5 July 2007

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Are We There Yet?

Travelling Toward the Self in Contemporary Japanese Cinema


Timothy Iles

Assistant Professor
Department of Pacific and Asian Studies
University of Victoria

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This paper presents the relationship between travel and self-discovery in contemporary Japanese cinema, and suggests that this relationship grows from an existing tradition of literary and poetic travel writing in pre-modern Japan. However, while the pre-modern tradition focussed on travel away from the urban, daily world of the travelling poet, contemporary cinema presents the urban world as the location for travel and its attendant recuperative functions. Urban travel becomes a process by which an alienated individual may overcome his or her social, cultural, and personal alienation.

Key Words: Japan; cinema; travel; self; identity


Travel often has both outward and inward goals which work in tandem to produce a complete process through which the traveller passes, either deliberately or not, to arrive ultimately at an understanding of his or her true self. The process of travel and, more significantly, its place in Japanese literature, have a long tradition as things which permit the pre-modern traveller to situate him- or herself within a supporting, natural world. While travel still plays an important rôle in contemporary Japanese art, however, its function for the modern traveller is different from that of his or her pre-modern counterpart. This article will explore the ways in which the two dimensions of travel—outer movement through space and time and inner movement through memory and the self—cohere in contemporary Japanese cinema, proposing, after Graburn and other anthropologists (Graburn, 1989; Adler, 1989), that travel does indeed function as a multi-faceted secular ritual. Travel highlights a process of identity-formation and self-discovery not situated, as in the works of pre-modern writers, in the natural world, but rather within the urban space of the modern, westernised Japan. In order to situate my discussion of the films to which I will refer in the context of Japan's artistic use of travel as both metaphor and motivation for self-expression, and to show the significant changes in that usage, I will first introduce the function of travel in pre-modern literature, specifically in poetry and the writings of Bashō (1644–1694). Then, I will draw on several films, principally Sanshō Dayū (Sanshō the Bailiff, Mizoguchi Kenji, 1954), Vibrator (Hiroki Ryuichi, 2003), Drive (Sabu, 2002), and Tony Takitani (Ichikawa Jun, 2004), utilising both narratological and visual/semiotic analyses. Through these films, this paper will examine ways in which directors have captured these complementing aspects of temporal, spatial, and psychological movement in works fundamentally concerned with the process of creation of self-identity. I will argue that contemporary directors use travel to situate this created self-identity within a potentially alienating, modern, urban space, in order to overcome it.

The Lineage of Travel in the Japanese Literary Arts

Travel is certainly nothing new in the Japanese arts, from the earliest days of literary expression to the most contemporary notions of virtual travel in animated video games. It is no exaggeration to say that even an early work like the Taketori monogatari, the Tales of a Bamboo Cutter, from approximately 900 AD, is centrally concerned with travel, for after all not only has Kaguyahime travelled all the way from the moon, but she sends her many suitors on long and difficult journeys involving nearly impossible tasks. Many of the poems from the Man'yōshū, Japan's earliest poetic anthology, too, are concerned with travel and the sorrow it brings to those who must leave and to those who must stay, and travel was later to emerge as one of the topics judged appropriate for poetic composition, meaning that travel-themed poems are extensively represented in later collections. Travel has not always been conceived of as a source of heartbreak or danger, however—with the haikai poet, Bashō (1644–1694), travel becomes a source of inspiration for the poet as well as a means of reconnecting the artist with the antecedent classics of Japanese art.

While there is not sufficient space here to discuss Japanese poetry in great detail, a few remarks are necessary. Japanese poetry emerged as an art form with its own poetics in the early tenth century with the compilation of the Kokinshū anthology, when the awareness first developed that it could be considered a genre comparable to poetry in literary Chinese, shi. It has a variety of different forms, but the two most significant are the so-called tanka, or 'short poem' form which utilises poetic meter, that is, lines of alternating length, either five or seven syllables long for a total of thirty-one syllables; and the hokku (the pre-modern equivalent of the modern haiku) which has only seventeen syllables. Key components of all forms are highly conventionalised metaphors and imagery heavily dependent upon the interconnection between human emotion and aspects of the natural world in order to express the poet's intention. Poems are often allusive, referring to episodes from Japan's literary history, or, from about the twelfth century, earlier famous poems. Another frequently used technique was to appeal to very specific emotions or moods associated with specific locations throughout the country. In this way, literary expression has always had a relationship with nature, expressed as a type of harmony, or wa. Not only does a relationship exist between poetry and nature, but also between poetry and place—the better the poet and poem, the more subtle and intricate the ability to manipulate or work with that relationship. Because of this association of poetry with specific places, it was not at all unusual for professional poets in pre-modern Japan to embark on literary tours of particularly famous sites, recording their impressions along the way in the forms of travel diaries liberally enhanced by extemporaneous poems. In this way, the poet would connect him- or herself with the landscape and his/her literary predecessors.

This recuperative or redemptive view of travel is akin to the transformation in the attitude towards the sublime that occurred in European literature in the 19th century—a change that saw awe-inspiring nature shift from a source of terror to a source of aesthetic inspiration. It is an attitude towards travel which still resonates today—travel 'is functionally and symbolically equivalent to other institutions that humans use to embellish and add meaning to their lives… it has antecedents and equivalents in other seemingly more purposeful institutions such as medieval student travel, the Crusades, and European and Asian pilgrimage circuits' (Graburn 1989: 22). Travel existed for Bashō, for example, as something which he could not resist, as a force of nature within himself that compelled him to explore the literary landscape of Japan. As he himself has it in the famous opening lines of his most well-known work, Oku no Hosomichi (Narrow Roads to the Interior, 1689), 'I, too, now when would that have been—I, too, could not stop my thoughts of wandering, of drifting like a cloud blown by the wind…' (translated by the author). What we have here is, on the one hand, a very personal account of the relationship between the poet and travel, and a very intimate connection between the poet and the natural world. For brevity's sake I have left out the continuation of this sentence which flows forward from idea to idea very much as a traveller moves forward from sight to sight—but we still have enough of the original to appreciate the structure of Bashō's prose passage, brilliantly designed to convey a tremendous sense of restless motion, mirroring the psychological restlessness of the poet eager to embark on his journey. The key point here, however, is the necessity for travel in this poet's life to resituate both his life and his work and thus establish the sense of wa, harmony, within the wider arena of his era, his literary tradition, and his physical place within the landscape through which he travels. This necessity still exists in the modern world, within not only poets but all of us who seek to understand our situations and our relationships to history, contemporary culture, and the natural world.

Modernity's Urban/Natural Schism

But it is precisely this situation within the natural world that is problematic in the modern conception of travel, for the simple fact is that the modern world is urban. In contrast to the experience of travel for the pre-modern world, modern travel, even when conceived of as an escape from urbanity, very often still remains marked as occurring within urbanity's spaces—from station to station, via public or private transit, modern travel is inescapably part of the technologised, urban world. Air travel, sea travel, land travel by bus, car, or train, all serve rapidly and efficiently to transport the traveller from one point to another, but typically in isolation from the natural world. These modern modes of travel deposit the traveller in, more often than not, an urban space which, while perhaps different in appearance from the starting point, is not necessarily different in substance. Ways of conceiving of travel, however, have not necessarily kept pace with travel's changing face: travel agents and travel posters still emphasise the potential to reconnect oneself with nature, be that the beaches of Mexico, the mountains of Japan, or the coasts of Canada's British Columbia. Yet even though he or she may be lured by this invitation to 'the wilds', very often the modern traveller still has access to the amenities of nightlife, shopping, and a safe bed in which to sleep.

It is possible even now to perceive in travel a romanticism that calls to something fundamentally necessary to the human psyche. Writing about Bashō, Thomas Heyd remarks that 'wandering—the act of leisurely, albeit attentive, traversing the land in a relatively unaided way—has an aesthetic that may help us to recover a sense of the depth of space, of the real diversity of places, and of our human lives within the larger context of nature' (Heyd 2003: 291). This act of recovery is important because 'the practice of wandering may constitute a way to resist the de-aestheticising effects of the trends in modern society' (Heyd 2003: 291) such as urban crowding, the commodifying influences of consumer culture, and the scheduled, almost regimented, predictability of the career day. These 'de-aestheticising effects' alienate modern urban dwellers from not only the natural world but more significantly from the community around them, and ultimately from their own sense of individuated self-identity. While I may disagree with Heyd's term 'de-aestheticising' to describe the contemporary urban milieu, I can certainly accept his intentions—the urban world is essentially cut off from the natural world, and thus urbanites themselves are alienated from that which in previous ages had been accessible to them in demonstrably more tangible ways. Given that the natural world—however obscured by urban concrete it may be—always sustains their lives, the process of overcoming alienation from the natural world is of primary importance, especially to urban dwellers—and given Japan's traditional aesthetic which draws heavily on the relationship between the human and the natural (even though that 'natural' typically had been heavily mediated by artistic intervention before being appreciated as 'nature') the process of travel through the natural world remains potentially doubly important.

Nonetheless, this process of travel as it is expressed in contemporary Japanese art itself comes to accept its urban situation. As this article will show, while travel still retains its power to resituate the traveller, and to permit the traveller an occasion to overcome alienation (importantly, not only social alienation but personal alienation from the deepest psychological layers of self-identity); this process occurs within a space highlighted as urban, as technologised, as global. By locating this process of re-situation within a modern, urban space, contemporary Japanese art maintains its awareness of its antecedent traditions, but avoids the problematic aspects of the relationship of the urban world with the natural. Instead, contemporary writers, artists, and filmmakers seek a solution to alienation and the problem of self-identity precisely within the urban space conceived of as alienating and anonymous. By re-awakening modern, urban existence to the potential for an ongoing engagement with beauty, the wanderer resituates his or her life within a broader context containing transcendent aspects that permit a reconnection with tangibly enduring concepts of community and spirituality—for 'the wandering of the poet is similar in certain interesting aspects to the shaman's journey' (Heyd 2003: 291). This re-situation of the self is not contingent on fashion or the transient configurations of modernity or post-modernity—it requires a historicity and an awareness of tradition, but tradition here is the inescapable fact of the human community, not necessarily the particular traditions of the local or parochial.

Addressing this issue of the relationship between the wandering poet and the shamanistic expression of profound human truth, Watanabe Shōichi in a talk delivered in 1989 notes the long-existing tradition of wandering amongst Japanese poets, and proposes very effectively that this served the function of reverence for them—the very act of composing a poem in 'pure Japanese lacking any borrowings from Chinese' (ii yamato kotoba) was sufficient to form an expression of Buddhist enlightenment which simultaneously honoured the myriad Shinto deities as well (Watanabe 1989: 14). Shinto, Japan's indigenous religious system, sees the natural world as populated by millions of deities—kami—who reside in every awe-inspiring thing: rocks, mountains, waterfalls, trees, and other places felt to be sacred. Shinto postulates an easy accessibility to the spirit world—not necessarily an easy entrance, per se, but an easy communication, through prayer, offering, festival, or even direct speech. This accessibility stems from an understanding of the worlds of humans and spirits as indivisibly joined. 'Shinto maintains that human beings are internally related to kami and without this relation people would not be what they are. The other side is just as important: it is in the inherent nature of kami to be interdependent and intimately connected with the world, including human beings' (Kasulis 2004: 17).

Thus the act of wandering, and along the way composing poetry, becomes an act of communion and communication between the poet and the Shinto kami—an act which corresponded to the European pilgrimages of the Middle Ages to redeem the souls condemned to Purgatory (Watanabe 1989: 13). It was also an act of locating the self within that world of natural beauty as the momentary consciousness able to appreciate, though fleetingly, the surrounding beauty that equally infused the self. Watanabe refers explicitly to Saigyō (1118-1190) as the poet most keenly aware of this relationship between wandering, poetry, and philosophical transcendence, and as the model Bashō was to follow 500 years later in his own peregrinations. Saigyō, Watanabe argues, believed in the direct experience of reality—the manifestation of the originary noumenon, honjisuijakusetsu, and the direct expression of this experience through the creation of poetry infused with the spirit of the poet in good Japanese. As Watanabe puts it (1989: 14), kokoro o komete yamato kotoba de utaeba sorede yoroshii, 'it's enough just to compose a poem in Japanese, putting all of one's heart into it,' in order to fuse the poet, the expression, and the direct experience of reality within the locus of poetry inspired by the process of travel. Watanabe proposes that Bashō, too, was a believer of this same principle, the direct experience of reality, and as such—as a wandering poet—was a successor to the tradition of which Saigyō was a part. In fact, Watanabe suggests that Bashō's very motivation for setting out on his travels, the record of which was to become his Oku no hosomichi, was precisely to follow in Saigyō's footsteps (1989: 15). Thus the lineage which runs through Saigyō and on to Bashō is a lineage of religious/philosophical expression of the poet's direct experience of reality made possible by the very act of wandering and composing poetry. This direct experience of reality is the goal of travel. Travel thus becomes the process of seeking out the 'best places' in Japan and leaving behind one's poem, one's memento of reverential expression (Watanabe 1989: 15). In this way art, nature, reverence, and the self are fused in the process of poetic composition and travel.

While Bashō and Saigyō may exist within Japanese literary memory as exemplars of the wandering shaman/poet, their legacy is not lost on other artists working in many media. For example, Murakami Haruki utilises travel in some of his most effective narratives—Suputonikku no koibito (Sputnik Sweetheart, 1999), Hitsuji o meguru bōken (A Wild Sheep Chase, 1989), and Dansu, dansu, dansu (Dance, Dance, Dance, 1994) are all centrally concerned with travel as a process of discovery through which an alienated character must pass. Suputonikku no koibito is especially clever in this regard for its insistence on following the travels of the narrator who manifestly is not the most interesting character in the work, and who remains completely unaware of the travels of Sumire, whose disappearance on an island in Greece drives the narrative's central core. Abe Kōbō, too, uses travel and disappearance in several of his works, notably the novels Mikkai (Secret Rendezvous, 1977), Hako otoko (The Box Man, 1973), Hakobune Sakura-maru (The Ark Sakura, 1984) and the play Tomodachi (Friends, 1967), to demonstrate the alienating forces of an urban space not yet fully understood by its residents, whose loss of self-identity (as in Moetsukita chizu (The Ruined Map, 1967)) comes as a direct result of trying to resist the inevitability of transformative, urban modernity.

Modern Japanese cinema, too, has within it well-realised examples of the travel genre which correspond to the process of creation of a situated self-identity inherent within the lineage of literary travellers from Saigyō through Bashō and on to Abe and Murakami. This lineage emerges most strongly in post-war cinema when Japan as a nation was faced with the heartbreaking tasks of rebuilding its cities, industry, and economy, on the one hand, but also societies and personal lives, on the other. In the films of Kurosawa Akira, for example, we often encounter rōnin, masterless samurai, who wander from place to place in search of whatever destiny may bring to them. Rashomon (Rashomon, 1950), Yōjimbō (Yojimbo, 1961), Shichinin no Samurai (Seven Samurai, 1954), and even Kakushi Toride no San-akunin (The Hidden Fortress, 1958) all have travelling rōnin or outlaws at their cores, and while these films are not urban, they are all concerned with characters who through the process of travel discover their worth—to themselves, and to others. Other directors too, such as Ozu Yasujirō, use travel as a means of critiquing contemporary Japan. This, after all, is the effect of travel in his most well-known work, Tokyo Monogatari (Tokyo Story, 1953), in which an elderly couple travel from their rural home to visit their children in Tokyo, only to discover the gulfs of alienation which now separate them. While Tokyo Monogatari is not a narrative about the self in the way that many of Kurosawa's films from the same period are, nonetheless this work too responds to the lure of travel to motivate its story and to propel its plot towards its socially-scathing conclusion.

Of course a very interesting counter-point to the travelling hero—even anti-hero—may be found in Yamada Yōji's series of 'Tora-san' films, beginning with Otoko wa Tsurai Yo (Tora-san Our Lovable Tramp, 1969). This series continued till 1995, encompassing nearly fifty instalments focussing on the main character, Kuruma Torajirō (played by Atsumi Kiyoshi). In the first of this series, the protagonist arrives home in Tokyo after a twenty year absence precipitated by a fight with his father. Now, however, his parents have passed away leaving only his younger sister, Sakura (Baisho Chieko) living with an aunt and uncle. Tora-san's return results in near-disaster for Sakura's happiness (as he destroys an arranged-marriage meeting and chases off a potential suitor), much squabbling in the family (as his drunkenness and rude behaviour cause strife between the family and their neighbours), and much humour for the audience who have the distinct pleasure of watching this uncouth vagabond assert his prerogatives as older brother before finally leaving with a younger colleague for the open road once again to seek his freedom, fortune, and recuperation from a broken heart. Travel here functions in a complex way as an occasion for isolation from the responsibilities, etiquette, and yet emotional support of home—it is a place where one matures not as a socialised being but as virtually an outsider, an outcast barely able to behave in civilised company. For all his tears and bluster at trying to be a good older brother, Tora-san really is a 'disaster' of a relative, but nonetheless as the English title alludes, he remains lovable as an irascible scamp with a 'heart of gold' which unfortunately is only rarely revealed. Travel for this character absolves him from the necessity of having to 'grow up', to behave with regard and attention for others and to act as a functioning and responsible member of society—it becomes in effect a salvation which removes the necessity of self-examination and change. Tora-san in Otoko wa Tsurai Yo acts as a permanent traveller who avoids responsibility by simply leaving, rather than facing difficulties and problems with introspection. In this regard his place in the lineage of travel films shows him to be a model of the anti-hero exactly the opposite of Kurosawa's anti-hero Kuwabatake Sanjurō (Mifune Toshiro) in Yōjimbō (Yojimbo, 1961), the outsider/outcast rōnin who is able to save the village from its competing clans of outlaws before leaving on his way. Tora-san arrives and departs as a tornado, yet a tornado for which his family waits with inexplicable anticipation.

As I will show, however, the lineage of travel within contemporary Japanese cinema also contains a positive potential, something which speaks directly to the enduring necessity of travel for urbanites whose daily journeys, while often exceeding dozens of kilometres, rarely take them beyond the confines of their cities' underground shopping centres and train systems. For these urban consumers of cultural commodities, travel has the potential to be a liberating technique from the sense of alienating entrapment within an isolated and vaguely defined individual identity. In short, it becomes a means by which the self may be reclaimed as a subjectivity, by which an individual may come to reclaim his or her sense of autonomy and self-identity in the face of an otherwise potentially disturbing urban world.

Vibrator—The Road Trip as Spiritual Journey of Self-discovery

A case in point is Hiroki Ryuichi's film Vibrator (2003), in which the female protagonist, Hayakawa Rei (played by Terajima Shinobu) embarks on a whimsical late-night journey with a truck driver, Takatoshi (Ohmori Nao), whom she has just met. As the film progresses, Rei and Takatoshi travel from the south-central region of Japan to the north, becoming increasingly intimate along the way, revealing more about their pasts and their interior realities, until Rei achieves a breakthrough of self-understanding instigated by a crisis in her relationship with her travelling companion.

Graburn writes that travel may be seen as 'a special form of play… affording relaxation from tensions, and for some, the opportunity to temporarily become a nonentity… there is a symbolic link between staying: working and travelling : playing…' (Graburn 1989: 22). For Rei the opportunity of the road trip becomes an escape from the confining insecurities of her daily life, a 'time out of herself'. In this regard, Rei's road trip gives her what Yamaguchi Masao has identified within travel: a 'release from the time of daily life' (Yamaguchi 1989: 16). Yamaguchi further suggests, in that both operate to remove us from the spatial and temporal constrictions of our lives, that 'festivals and travel resemble each other in their fundamental aspects' (Yamaguchi 1989: 16). Festivals—matsuri—Yamaguchi proposes, analogously to the carnival for Bakhtin, are necessities for social beings because they permit a release from the 'burden' of 'living within a group' (1989: 16), but Yamaguchi also draws a parallel between even a simple journey to a nearby destination with the journey a deity might make—a journey of only ten or twenty paces—during the course of a matsuri (1989: 16). Thus Yamaguchi proposes the recuperative qualities of spatial and temporal relocation as spiritual, but more importantly, as necessary for social beings. This has implications for our first encounter with Vibrator's protagonist, Rei, whom we meet within one of those inescapable symbols of Japan's urbanity, an all-night convenience store. This location situates Rei very much within her daily life as a social being nonetheless alienated from her fellow members of society. This is made very clear by the repeated and explicit references to 'White Day': that day in March on which Japanese men give chocolates and other small gifts to the women in their lives (Valentine's Day being reserved for women to give chocolates and so on to men)—Rei has no one from whom she will receive anything. Her monologue, delivered in voice-over, is very much self-directed, and she seems in several respects fearful of the other shoppers around her. This social being who lives within a group, but who is separated from that group by her alienated interiority, is very much haunted by the isolation of her daily life, as is quickly apparent when we listen to what it is that she says to herself, and see where it is she is: in this convenience store, surrounded by strangers. Rei tells herself in her interior monologue (that occasionally escapes through her lips) that she wants to touch someone (hito ni sawaritai) and that she is afraid of people whom she cannot touch (sawarenai hito kowai). When she catches herself speaking out loud, she tells herself to be quiet, berating herself and wondering what the people around her must think of her. Isolated, lonely, needing contact, but fearing the prying eyes of strangers, Rei tells herself that when she feels threatened she becomes threatening (kōgeki saresōde dakara kōgeki shisōde) and that her instinct for self-preservation is so strong she worries she may kill someone (hito koroshiteshimawanai ka to).

It is very significant that we first meet Rei shopping for white wine, the 'delicious Madonna,' that will help her tolerate her empty nights at home—it helps her sleep and the troublesome voices, hers and others, become quiet (arukōru wa yoku nemureru; jibun no naka no mono o kangaeru koe, watashi ga kiita dare ka no koe, sonna urusai koe ga nomu to kieru)—and so become at least temporarily free from her 'normal identity' the better to discover her ideality, her ideal self. For Rei, who seeks as she does a spiritual salvation from alienated, lonely, emptiness in the form of alcoholic anaesthetisation, the journey upon which the film sends her comes to involve a celebration of her corporeality, as well as a psychological release. It functions in many ways as a pilgrimage or extended, mobile matsuri: 'Vacations involving travel… are the modern equivalent for secular societies to the annual and lifelong sequences of festivals for more traditional… societies. Fundamental is the contrast between the ordinary/compulsory work state spent 'at home' and the non-ordinary/voluntary 'away from home' sacred state. The stream of alternating contrasts provides the meaningful events that measure the passage of time' (Graburn 1989: 25). The issue of matsuri which Graburn identifies, and to which Yamaguchi refers, is also quite important in this context. The social function of matsuri is two-fold: on the one hand it is to create within each individual member of society an awareness of his or her place within a supporting and necessary community; on the other, it is to release each individual from the daily strictures of social existence by providing an ex-static experience, an experience literally 'out of place.' Urbanisation threatens matsuri by simultaneously increasing the 'burden' of daily, social existence, and by weakening the bonds of community, by diluting them to the point of disappearance. It is true that there are ways of imagining 'community' that can cope with modern urbanity. However, and despite Benedict Anderson's oft-repeated insistence on the importance of the 'imagined community' in contemporary life (Anderson 1991: 6), for example, the imagined is not as strong as the actual communities which exist in pre-modern societies, based as they are on the undeniable and visible bonds of kinship, on the one hand, and regional, linguistic, and spiritual proximity, on the other. What is lacking in the contemporary urban world is the simple knowledge that your neighbour will remain your neighbour throughout all of your life. For Rei, the lack of this knowledge creates within her a lack of her own place, a lack of her own situation—in short, a lack of her own self-knowledge, something she is able to regain, at least temporarily, through her travels with the truck driver, Takatoshi.

The significance of the white wine Rei is about to buy at the beginning of the film is doubled by the name of the brand she seeks—'Madonna'—and its association in Catholicism with Mary. Despite the similarities in some respects between the figure of Mary as a guardian and protector of all and the Buddhist figure of Kannon (or Avalokitesvara in Sanskrit) as the Goddess of Mercy, Vibrator calls specific attention to this word, 'Madonna,' together with the country from which the wine comes, 'Germany,' and thus emphasises its 'foreignness', its 'out-of-placeness'. Not only is Rei out of place in her own life, the wine she seeks as a temporary salvation is also out of place and so, for Rei, plays with a form of 'travel'. But Rei's repeated incantation of oishii Madonna, 'delicious Madonna,' not only emphasises the spirituality of her unfolding journey. Calling attention to the name 'Madonna' also resonates with the meanings possible in the sound of Rei's own name. 'Rei' is typically written with the character for 'gratitude' but the sound rei possesses several interpretations, ranging from 'habit, custom' to 'zero, nought'. Both of these are interpretively rich for this particular character who exists as a woman trapped within a 'habit' and who values herself as a 'nought', but I feel the most important of these possible meanings is 'soul, spirit', as in the word yūrei, or 'ghost'. The journey upon which Rei embarks, a loop which returns her to her starting point now calmer, wiser, and more self-assured, is the journey of a soul's progress through life's stages, returning the soul to the originary point, but more experienced, more worldly, and more complete. Reading Rei's name as a comment on the 'spiritual' progression of the 'habitual' brings with it its own associative resonance, for as Heyd remarks,

... enacting a role similar to the shaman's, the traveller fulfills an important function (aside from the bringing or sending back of practical goods or information) in the cultural life of the community. The traveller provides perspective on the here and now (the ephemeral everyday) by reporting on the reality of other, distant places throughout the spread of space. One may say that a place here and now only properly becomes apprehensible as such by receiving a horizon in space' (Heyd 2003: 294).

The spiritual contextualisation of the habitual is a similar process, as is the psychological identification of the self; something made possible by an encounter with the Other, the not-self—this is the process through which Rei travels here, to arrive at her starting point, the habitual, but with a more mature, psychological self-identity reaffirmed by her experiences away, with the Other. For Rei, this encountered Other has two forms, one external, the other internal, but both are different from Rei's 'normal', daily self. One of these 'Others' is the truck driver, corporeally separate from Rei but tender to her, respectful, sexual—a tangible human being with whom Rei is able to connect in a vital, physical, and reassuring way. The other 'Other' is Rei herself but Rei-away-from-home, Rei-the-Other, similar to what Susan Napier describes as the 'internal alien' (1996: 113) in her discussions of fantasy in Japanese literature. This 'internal alien' can serve as 'a feared alter ego' (Napier 1996: 95), but also a division of the self into interrogating parts which permit an individual to discover something buried, hidden, or otherwise obscure about him- or herself (Napier 1996: 113-4). This other Rei, Rei-away-from-home, is able to connect with another person, is able to be intimate sexually but more importantly psychologically and emotionally—with both the truck driver and with herself, as well. Graburn discusses the renewal of the self through travel in a way which is pertinent for Rei, who becomes changed through this process of leaving her daily life to return to it resituated and rejuvenated: 'We step back into our former roles… often with a sense of culture shock. We inherit our past selves like an heir to the estate of a deceased person who has to pick up the threads for we are not ourselves. We are a new person who has gone through re-creation and, if we do not feel renewed, the whole point of tourism has been missed' (Graburn 1989: 27). In Vibrator, Rei does emerge with a renewed sense of self—for her, her 'spiritual tourism' has had its hoped-for effect.

Here it is productive to recall Bashō and once again to think of travel as a type of art, a performance which, like all art forms, contains a goal transcendent of the merely functional aspects of its components. Writing in 1989 on this subject, Judith Adler contends that

Travel undertaken and executed with a primary concern for the meanings discovered, created, and communicated as persons move through geographical space in stylistically specified ways can be distinguished from travel in which geographical movement is merely incidental to the accomplishment of other goals.… [T]he traveler whose activity lends itself to conceptual treatment as art is one whose movements serves as a medium for bestowing meaning on the self and the social, natural, or metaphysical realities through which it moves. Performed as an art, travel becomes one means of 'worldmaking'… and self-fashioning (Adler 1989: 1368).

This movement in 'stylistically specified ways' with especial concern for meanings discovered is precisely the movement through space which Rei carries out here, always remaining aware of the function of this journey to take her out of her ordinary setting, permit her an opportunity for self-exploration, and return her to her 'normal' state renewed and reformed. Travel here indeed is an art with a very specific, personally recuperative goal.

The Political Aspect of Self-discovery

Following this conception of travel as a formative process through which the self is configured within a simultaneously constructed world setting, it is logical to propose that all representations of travel are equally and directly concerned with the formation of the self within a conception of the world, a 'reality' proposed by the representation. This is the central concern of art which conceives of travel as an integral component of itself—i.e., art about travel—and creates the central metaphor of travelling/journeying as an experiential progression through life's stages. We have this in Hiroki's Vibrator, but also in other works which conflate or compress the notion of geographical distance and temporal or chronological growth. This growth, however, need not limit itself to the strictly personal—a political dimension is possible. Mizoguchi Kenji's masterpiece, Sanshō Dayū (Sanshō the Bailiff, 1954), is an example of this type of journey through both geographical space and chronological, experiential life development which conceives of travel as a metaphoric site of personal, social, and ultimately political growth.

Of course travel as a metaphor in Mizoguchi's work is not limited to Sanshō Dayū—his Ugestsu Monogatari (Ugetsu, 1953) is also structured around a journey which takes its protagonist, Genjuro (Mori Masayuki), and his brother, Tōbei (Ozawa Eitarō), away from their humble village lives as potters and farmers into the capital during the Warring-States period (roughly mid-fifteenth to mid-seventeenth centuries), in order to teach them the values of their lives at home, the loves of their faithful wives, and the propriety of accepting their social standings in a narrative that brings in as much class considerations as humanist ones of fidelity, constancy, and gendered social rôles. Sanshō Dayū, however, opens its discursive field to include a much wider implication for the nature of government in a post-war (both Pacific and Korean), post-fascistic Japan struggling to find its direction in an increasingly capitalist world.

The story here is a simple one which Mizoguchi adapted from the eponymous work by Mori Ōgai, but to which he added a politically critical dimension not present in the original. A family, composed of mother, serving maid, and two children have embarked on a journey to be reunited with the father, the former governor of a province now driven into exile by his refusal to conscript his peasants into a bloody war. Along the way the family is kidnapped by slave traders and sold to opposite sides of the country. The brother and sister grow into adulthood in the compound of Sanshō the Bailiff, a corrupt and brutal man who works his slave mercilessly. The brother, Zushio (Hanayagi Yoshiaki), becomes a hard and himself a brutal man, having forgotten his father's principles that all men are equally deserving of happiness; a man without mercy is but a beast; and one should be hard on oneself but kind to others. Through his sister's (Kagawa Kyōko) simple devotion to their family's memory, however, he regains his sense of compassion, escapes from the compound, and is able to reclaim his heritage as governor of the province. He frees the slaves on Sanshō's land, visiting his former home in search of his sister, only to learn that she has sacrificed her life in order to guarantee his escape. Having freed the slaves, he resigns his post to become a traveller once again, now in search of his mother, whom he finds aged and blind in a seaside shack. The film ends with the two clutching each other.

This simple though timeless and powerful film is structured around the series of journeys which makes up its plot—the physical journeys in search of the family as well as the chronological, developmental journeys in search of self and self-relation to the world of realpolitik which the film criticises for its brutality, corruption, and lack of mercy. Through these journeys Zushio realises his identity as a just, humane man—this is the 'self-formation' of travel as/within art—but more importantly within the context of the film, Zushio is able to present a mode of governance and a manner of living which are socially informed and historically relevant for the Japan at the time of the film's creation. In this way the personal journey through time and across the experiential spaces of, first, the father's province, then the wilds of the mountains, then the exploitative domain of the bailiff, fuse together in the self-exploratory journey of Zushio's development, mirroring the physical journey along which his life has taken him. The purpose of these parallel journeys of self-discovery and family reunification is to create the setting wherein a political proposal for a mode of governance can be made—and made persuasive in the context of post-war Japan. The historical allegory of the exiled father's resistance to allowing his peasants to be conscripted, and corresponding personal philosophy of equality and positive humanism, would not have been lost on contemporary audiences—that this film still possesses the power to move, inspire, and compel current viewers speaks to the tremendous validity of its message, but it is the functioning of journey as process of self-discovery here which makes the reception of this message such a personally meaningful thing.

Filming the Literary—Camera Movement and the Journey through Time

Nonetheless Sanshō Dayū's use of the journey as a metaphor for self-discovery is a relatively simplistic presentation of this trope. A more sophisticated example of travel as a metaphor for self-discovery comes in Ichikawa Jun's 2004 cinematic adaptation of Murakami Haruki's short story, 'Tony Takitani.' This film presents a simple story of loss and recovery in, visually, a very interesting way, and structures that visual narrative as a continuous flow of time and plot from the left of the screen to the right. The particular feature of this presentation is that the film is relatively free of 'cuts' for moving from scene to scene; there are no fades, wipes, dissolves—only the movement of the camera laterally across the scene, typically passing through a segment of shadow or blackness to emerge into the next scene. This flow, the sense of continual and inevitable passage, echoes visually the linguistic trick of Bashō's prose, itself an effective and compelling metaphor for the unstoppable flow of time and change. While Bashō's opening phrases of Oku no Hosomichi move with an inexorable momentum one into the next, in a sequence of nouns and verbs in the ren'yōkei, the connective or 'linking' form of verbs similar to the '-ing' in English, fusing themselves into a continuous stream of travel and motion, here Ichikawa Jun's camera flows from scene to scene, ever right from left, in a stream of time and space propelling the protagonist, Tony Takitani (Ogata Issei), from his childhood through the lonely years of his education, work, and marriage, towards the tragedy which sets the drama of the film in motion.

This left-to-right camera movement as a chronological metaphor is not unique to Ichikawa Jun's adaptation of Tony Takitani, certainly, and neither is it a particularly recent device. After all, Mizoguchi Kenji's Gion no shimai (Sisters of the Gion, 1936) opens with a similar tracking shot to establish the bankruptcy of Furusawa (Shinagoya Benkei) and the inevitability of time's relentless march—the two things which drive the plot forward (the one, narratively, the other, to enable the film's metaphor of social change). Kurosawa's Rashōmon (1950) consciously plays with this device, inverting the movement from right to left when the Woodcutter (Shimura Takashi) narrates his hike through the forest and discovery of the body of Takehiro (Mori Masayuki). Chronology is so coded with camera movement, though, that it is grammatical to assume that a lateral traversal of the screen from left to right means forward motion in time, and the reverse indicates a retrogression—even Tony Takitani follows this coding when, toward the film's end, the protagonist on two occasions retreats into the memories of his dead wife (Miyazawa Rie) and expresses this return through a marked, definite movement from right to left.

Tony Takitani is unique amongst the films here under consideration in its conscious presentation of camera movement as a metaphor for chronological progression, mimicking its literary precedent. Its use of travel, specifically, travel through time, is thus a subtle and complex structural feature demonstrating the inevitability of chronological change. The camera's movement creates a tension between the incessantly arriving 'future' and the regrettably retreating 'past' which remains unresolved—while Tony discovers his need for Hisako and the film implies, in its closing shot, that he will make every necessary effort to connect with her, the situation of Tony in relation to his memories is left unstable. Tony visually overlaps with his father (played by Ogata Issei, as well) and thus the film presents Tony as the inheritor of his father's isolation and inability to adapt to his changing time, but this relationship with the past remains problematic, showing Tony to be equally trapped within a chronology always threatening to leave him behind. His frustrated attempts visually to return to the time of his nostalgia—the abortive movements from the right to the left of the screen—create an unbridgeable gap between the present and the past that remains troubling here, for the highlighting of the uneasy relationship between the present and the traditions upon which it is based. This gap is bridged, but not here: in Drive (2002) by Sabu.

Comedy, Tradition, and the Situation of the Modern Self

The films I have been considering till now have all been rather serious affairs but here I would like to turn to a work that blends a satirical attitude towards social propriety with a profound insight into the function of travel as a restorative, redemptive, and recuperative process able to bring together the present and the past in an empowering resolution—additionally, it is an extremely funny film, whose humour rests upon a series of incongruities of character, setting, and action. This is Drive by Sabu (Tanaka Hiroyuki) from 2002. The plot is quite simple—a pharmaceutical supply salesman named Asakura Ken'ichi (Tsutsumi Shin'ichi) one day while absentmindedly gazing at a beautiful woman (Shibasaki Kou) is carjacked by three thieves fleeing from a robbery, in pursuit of their fourth partner who has betrayed them and absconded with the loot for himself. The film follows these characters as they try to track down their missing money, but along the way, each of the thieves discovers his 'true calling' and splits off from the group—one, Arai Jōn (Terajima Susumu), leaving to join a punk-rock band; another, Makoto (Ando Masanobu), being recruited by a professional baseball scout; and the third, Goro, (Osugi Ren) leaving to take his dying wife home from the hospital. The protagonist, Asakura, is a remarkably straight-laced man who, among other things, refuses to drive above the speed limit, and who, when stabbed by the carjackers, makes a careful note of the bandages he's used to bind his wound, in order to reimburse his company. Asakura, too, along the way discovers depths of personal strength he had never imagined within himself. At the film's close he meets once again the beautiful woman he had been watching when the thieves carjacked him, but now he has the courage to speak with her and set in motion their relationship. Within this simple plot, the film is able to weave together compelling visual and narrative elements to present a powerful meditation on the relationship between travel and self-discovery, the past and the present, tradition and memory, spirituality and responsibility both social and personal, and, with all of these, love.

The film opens with the shot of an X-ray of a human head, while a voice from off-screen explains the two basic types of migraine, functional or dispositional, from which someone can suffer. This X-ray is of the protagonist as he sits in his doctor's office, complaining of stress-induced migraine, but the shot makes explicit the central focus of the film as interiority and psychological, rather than social, reality. As the doctor discusses the types of reactions to stress which animals undergo—for example, the reaction of turtles to danger, to pull their heads into their shells—we see a very young Asakura in flashback, holding a turtle while his father practices kendo, the Japanese martial art of the sword. Asakura's mother looks on approvingly, wearing kimono, while the father, clothed in traditional Japanese attire and practicing in a small traditional garden behind his home, strikes at an invisible opponent. The father then settles to read the newspaper—an article headline tells us that he has been implicated in a business scandal, while the camera cuts to two traditional swords in their holders. As the camera pulls back we see that the father has hanged himself; the mother next follows him into death by plunging from a cliff, clutching against her breast a photograph of herself and her husband.

This sequence, beginning with the X-ray and ending with Asakura practicing stress-reducing exercises in his company car, signals the presence of several layers within the film—the first is the inward nature of the journey about to be taken. This journey also has a nostalgic dimension of memories revisited. It is from this aspect that the film engages the issue of social change over time—while Tony Takitani approached the issue of Japan's increasing Westernisation through the technique of left to right camera movement, Drive approaches the same discursive opportunity from the aspect of the protagonist's uneasy relationship with the legacy of discipline left to him by his explicitly severe parents. This legacy is something to which one of the carjacking thieves, Arai Jōn (Terajima Susumu), refers when he tells Asakura that a 'spirit' is on him, an angry relative who has not passed over, who stays with Asakura because he wants him to fight in ways that the spirit itself had never been able to. Arai Jōn (literally 'Rough John') knows this because he is the son of a Buddhist priest and so has access to the spirit world. In fact this character, the first to leave the band of robbers, sees himself very much as a proselytiser, almost an evangelist: someone whose mission it is in life to spread Buddha's message of self-respect and social service. He goes on to do so by becoming the lead singer in the punk band, and screaming at his audience to follow Buddha's path. We have here in this early exchange between these two characters the explicitly overlapping layers of spiritual growth and personal reconciliation with memories of the past, made possible through travel—that the 'travel' in this case is forced upon Asakura is germane to the theme, for life, after all, is something which inevitability has thrust upon us all.

Travel here restores Asakura, but it does so in a very complex way that signals the relationship between this urban 'every-salaryman' with not only his personal, family history, but also with the history of Japan and with the natural world, as well. Throughout the film Asakura has been approaching his 'breakthrough', the moment at which he realises and accepts his self-identity confidently and completely, but the film consistently defers the arrival of this moment, preferring instead to grant the epiphanal instance first to the other 'travellers' who have accompanied Asakura. At the close, however, Asakura's moment finally does arrive—the cell phone which one of the thieves has forgotten in Asakura's car rings, with a call from the fourth, betraying thief, asking for help and giving his location. Asakura drives to the designated spot, but as he nears the place, his car enters into an odd fog through which, apparently, radio signals cannot penetrate—the car radio stops working, as Asakura slows, coming to a halt at a crossroad. Mysteriously, the car turn-signal flashes a right turn, which Asakura makes. He comes upon and parks behind the fourth thief's car, and then stumbles upon him in the dark field where he has been trapped, his arm stuck in a hole in the ground, for many hours. The thief insists, at gun point, that Asakura pull him out—Asakura does so, but the thief is beset by one final hallucination, and in terror he shoots off his own arm. After he has staggered away, Asakura sees emerging from the darkness the figure of a samurai (amusingly but semiotically importantly, also played by Tsutsumi Shin'ichi, the actor playing Asakura), clad completely in white, who earlier had appeared before the fourth thief, but who had committed ritual suicide in what ostensibly had been a terrifying hallucination. This samurai asks Asakura for a duel. Asakura, surrounded by other figures from the thief's hallucinations—samurai and soldiers—engages the white-clad spirit, finally defeating him. The ghostly figures vanish, leaving Asakura dumbfounded but released from his inhibitions—he shouts and screeches at the top of his lungs, slashing at the tall grasses growing in the abandoned field in which this episode had taken place, as the dawn slowly breaks, revealing the grey factories which surround the open space.

The complexity of this scene arises from the explicit juxtaposition of memory, reality, hallucination, tradition, nature, and urbanity within the site of Asakura's liberation from his restricted, conflicted, afflicted daily self—the culmination of the journey, manifestly urban, which he has just undergone. Here we have a character whose travels have taken him through the modern, urban space of his quotidian life to a place at which the personal memories of his severe parents, specifically his father's strictness and early training in the traditional martial art of kendo, are able to fuse with the hallucinatory necessity to fight, to produce an allegorical encounter with a spirit capable of inspiring within Asakura the self-knowledge of his own martial character. That this encounter with the past is situated within what passes for nature within modern urbanity—an abandoned field ringed by factories—is of course significant for it locates the encounter of the self with its innermost identity in that place where, traditionally, the shaman/poets of the pre-modern world themselves discovered their transcendent, direct experiences of reality. This act of location, while potentially nostalgic for a time when nature was not subjugated to industrial considerations, is not sentimental—it accepts the possibility for transcendence within any space and so, even though falling short of celebrating the urban, accepts the validity of even the modern urban space as a workable location for self-discovery. Asakura's journey, even though it ends in this field, has always been an inner-directed journey, a travel back into not only his past but Japan's, as well, to reincorporate a traditional bushi (warrior) attitude—embodied in the white-clad samurai—of self-confidence, loyalty, and, most importantly, self-acceptance, into the modern, urban world. This reincorporation should not be construed as nationalistic—there is no reference to Japan's global relations—but rather as redemptive and recuperative, on a level far more personal than national. In Drive we find a tacit acknowledgment of the 'idea' of Japan, an idea which, while rooted in the traditions and nature of the past, is flexible enough to perceive within the modern and the urban a continuation of itself, and through this continuation is able to inspire the modern, urban dweller through an ecstatic encounter with his or her innermost self—and certainly it is quite important that Asakura in fact wins the duel, driving his sword through the spirit who declares himself 'satisfied' (manzoku da) with the result.

Asakura returns to his normal life—he returns the stolen money to the bank, having claimed for himself only the small expenses for the bandages he'd used to bind his wound—but now he is not himself, he is not the same inhibited man whom he had been. He is made anew, as has been Hayakawa Rei, as has been Zushio, as has been Tony Takitani. Travel, the removal of the self from the ordinary in order to permit the self to discover its innermost truth, has here, too, proven its effectiveness as a source for liberation, redemption, and resituation. These characters have all emerged as resituated, as reconstituted within a world which, while superficially identical with their starting points, is substantively different. Travel, as Adler suggested earlier, is indeed the process of world-making and of refashioning ourselves to inhabit this new world, linked with the past, but anticipating the future.


Adler, Judith (1989) 'Travel as Performed Art,' American Journal of Sociology, 94 (6): 1366-1391.

Anderson, Benedict (1991) Imagined Communities, London: Verso.

Graburn, Nelson (1989) 'Tourism: the Sacred Journey,' Hosts and Guest, Valene Smith, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press: 21-36.

Heyd, Thomas (2003) 'Basho and The Aesthetics of Wandering: Recuperating Space, Recognizing Place, and Following The Ways of The Universe' Philosophy East and West, 53 (3): 291–307

Kasulis, Thomas P. (2004) Shinto: the way home, Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press.

Matsuo Bashō (1968) Oku no hosomichi, New York: Grossman.

Napier, Susan J. (1996) The Fantastic in Modern Japanese Literature: the Subversion of Modernity, London: Routledge.

O'Leary, Brian (2003) 'Camera Movements in Hollywood's Westering Genre: A Functional Semiotic Approach,' Criticism, 45 (2): 197–222

Watanabe, Shōichi (1989) 'Nihonjin no tabi to bungei no keifu,' Kokusaikachikaigi: Sekai no tabi, Nihon no tabi:Nihonbunka to kokusaikouryū, Tokyo: IBM Japan: 12-15

Yamaguchi, Masao (1989) 'Tabi, bunka, shimboru,' Kokusaikachikaigi: Sekai no tabi, Nihon no tabi:Nihonbunka to kokusaikouryū, Tokyo: IBM Japan: 16-19

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About the author

Timothy Iles is Assistant Professor of Japanese Studies at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, where he teaches Japanese culture, cinema, and language. He has an MA from the University of British Columbia in Modern Japanese Literature, and a PhD from the University of Toronto, also in Modern Japanese Literature. He has taught courses on Japanese literature, theatre, culture, and cinema in Canada and the United States, and has published articles on those subjects. He is also author of Abe Kobo: an Exploration of his Prose, Drama, and Theatre (Fuccecio: European Press Academic Publishers, 2000).

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Copyright: Timothy Iles
This page was created on 5 July 2007.

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