Mention Japanese film and responses will likely range from the 1950s Golden Age to today’s panoply of genre movies. The variance has less to do with conflicts between artistry and populism—even Kurosawa famously trafficked in samurai—than with context and perspective. International acclaim, whether past or present, offers only a limited vista on a country’s internal cinematic life; to make full sense of Japan’s giant dinosaurs, yakuza gangsters and animated princesses, you need someone well-placed on the ground. Someone like Mark Schilling.
In Jia Zhangke’s 2018 movie “Ash is Purest White”, the protagonist, Qiao, gets off a Yangtze river ferry near the Three Gorges Dam. She knows nobody in this new city and has no money. Desperate, the ruse she employs is to walk into a restaurant, call a rich looking young man out of a private dining room and tell him he has got her younger sister pregnant. She demands money as compensation. The trick works, the scared man hands over a bunch of red hundred RMB notes. Qiao, a gangster’s girlfriend fresh from jail, has skills that Matthew Evans, the antihero of Tom Carter’s “An American Bum in China”, couldn’t dream off. Evans, like Qiao, finds himself broke and alone in China. Unlike Qiao, he is not a character in a movie where wild schemes succeed.
Among all European countries, Russia’s relations with China are unique in that the two countries—empires for most of their relevant histories—shared a border. Trade between the two was, on the whole, carried out by caravan rather than ship; there were border garrisons a stone’s throw from each other. People and information transited the border along with goods.
When Sophie Cairns’s parents announced they were leaving Hong Kong, where she was born and raised, she vowed to return. A teenager, biracial and fluent in Cantonese, she never felt like she belonged in the UK, and longed for the Hong Kong of her childhood.
A lucrative international black market exists for nearly every plant and animal imaginable. Donkeys are stolen and slaughtered in Africa for the gelatin found in their hides, which is sought after in China. Otters are captured in Indonesia and Thailand and trafficked to Japan to supply the latest pet craze. Succulent plants are stolen from protected areas in South Africa, the American West, and Peru to be smuggled to collectors around the world. Even insects are the occasional victims of massive heists.
In this extended essay, David Chaffetz, a scholar of Persian and related literary traditions who has lived for years in China and Southeast Asia, zeroes in on erasures in the history of these traditions: the brilliant and highly trained women virtuosos—poets, singers, and dancers—who cut a swath through the opulent courts of Iran, India, and China.
The mid-20th century comic strip Terry and the Pirates, as cringeworthy as its artless racism is, tells us as much about the Americans of the era as it does about the Chinese. In a similar way, the Longstreets’ Geishas and the Floating World is a delightful artifact for seeing Japan through the 1960s American, more especially male, gaze—so ineluctably male, in fact, it can be hard to identify what Ethel’s contributions might have been. Stephen Longstreet is the perfect American to reflect on the Yoshiwara pleasure district. A painter, jazzman, Hollywood screenplay writer, at home in both Saint Germain des Prés’s Tabu and Harlem’s Cotton Club, he instinctively identifies Yoshiwara as the Chrysanthemum Vie de Bohème as he effortlessly conjures the kaleidoscope of senses which Yoshiwara offered its male visitors. Geishas is one of a hundred books Longstreet wrote, so one does not read it for either the literary insight of Donald Keane’s translations or the erudition of Ivan Morris’s The World of the Shining Prince.