Japan from the inside out

Your heads are too high

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, August 29, 2012

SEPTEMBER is almost here, and that means it’s time to get ready for the 7th Udatsu Komon Matsuri held every year in Mima, Tokushima. The event, which starts on the 15th, is something of a Japanese-style Renaissance fair for the Edo period. People walk in parades dressed in the clothing of the age. There will be a police marching band, short drama sketches, musical performances, and dancing, including the nationally famous Awa Odori. Actors from the Toei Kyoto Studio Park, the site of a recreated Edo-period town used as a set in television programs and movies, will offer sword fighting lessons and joke around with the visitors. It will also feature the appearance of a group dressed as the six regular cast members of Mito Komon, the popular television series set in the era.

In fact, that’s the reason the festival was created — to commemorate the use of Mima as the location for filming the series. The festival will continue to be held, even though the series was cancelled last year.

Mito Komon is another name used to refer to Tokugawa Mitsukuni (1628-1701), the second head of the old Mito domain. That was in modern-day Ibaragi, a few hundred miles to the northeast of Mima. Mitsukuni was the grandson of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first of the Edo period shoguns. He was the first daimyo to prohibit junshi, the practice in which retainers of feudal lords followed their masters in death when they committed ritual suicide after a defeat in battle. He is known for his interest in historical research and cultural preservation. He is also said to be the first person in Japan to have eaten cheese. Korakuen Stadium, the baseball park for the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants from 1937 to 1988, was built on land that was once his Tokyo estate. His birthplace is now a Shinto shrine. That’s it in the photo below.

Photo by Meinaka Miyuki

Legends arose about Mitsukuni’s sayings and conduct even when he was alive, but they took on an existence of their own in the mid-19th century. Fictional stories were created of his incognito travels throughout the country taking up the cause of the common people suffering at the hands of oppressive rulers, and a few were made into kabuki dramas. Some people think these stories originated from Mitsukuni’s real tours of the Mito area in connection with his position and his interest in historical and cultural matters.

A written collection of these stories was published in the 19th century, and the first Mito Komon movie was filmed in 1910. There were 14 movies by 1920, and many more afterward. There have also been 15 separate Mito Komon television series. The most famous of these, which everyone alive at the time in Japan has seen, ran from 1969 to 1983 and had 381 episodes. When TBS finally cancelled production last year, the mayor of Mito and other area mayors visited the studio to ask that it be continued because of its beneficial impact on tourism. TBS declined, but assured them there would be repeats.

The star of the 69-83 series was Tono Eijiro (1907-1904), a well-known actor in movies and television. He had roles in the Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai and Yojimbo, and played the part of Admiral Nagumo Chuichi, the director of the air attacks on Pearl Harbor, in the film Tora! Tora! Tora! He became so famous in the Mito Komon role that a few older people, seeing him on the street in ordinary clothes in real life, dropped to their knees in a deep bow. (Tono told an interviewer that he never knew quite how to handle this.)

The program was broadcast in the San Francisco Bay Area on UHF just before the advent of cable. As a beginning student of the Japanese language, I watched the three or four Japanese-language shows offered by the station to improve my linguistic skills and glean what I could of popular culture.

I would have watched anything that was on, but it quickly became apparent that Mito Komon was a lot of fun, even though I understood only about 10% of the dialogue at the time. The actors in this particular series were perfect for the parts, particularly Tono. It had unique incidental music that was immediately recognizable. It was based on the winning theme of a group of crusaders — one a Tokugawa, another a ninja —- traveling incognito around the country righting the wrongs the farmers and craftsmen suffered at the hands of the powerful.

Best of all was the climactic scene that appeared at the same point in every episode, in which the good guys fought it out with the bad guys, who were often armed with guns. At length Kaku-san, one of Mito Komon’s retainers, would whip out a medicine case bearing the Mitsukuni family crest. Kaku-san demanded to know (translated from the period speech to today’s vernacular), “Just who do you think this is?” The other retainer followed up with, “Zu ga takai! Hikaero!” Literally, that’s something like “Your heads are (too) high! Desist!”

You can see how everybody responded to that command in this video. Some clever guy created a one-minute Mito Komon summary for Youtube that hits all the high points. It starts with the theme song (that everyone in the country could probably sing by heart), shows the classic scene with the medicine case, and then jumps to the closing Mito Komon laugh, which signified all’s well that ends well. (Tono said it took him three years to perfect.) It ends, as did the program, with the group walking off down the road to continue their travels to the following week’s adventure. The narrator himself was famous for his voice-overs on Japanese television at the time.

What better way to get in the mood if you plan on visiting the Udatsu Komon Matsuri next month?

One Response to “Your heads are too high”

  1. 21st Century Schizoid Man said

    A: A popular criticism we children (then) had was that Kaku-san should have used the medicine case from the beginning and that while the crusaders were hesitating to do so, many other good guys were killed. We as kids did not have a hint of dramaturgic things. “Hikaero!” might have been “Hikae-Orou!” 「控えおろう!」which, to my understanding, translates to something like “Stay desisted!”

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