Tuesday 28 October 2003


The sixth (Special Bonus) DVD is in my recently delivered Ozu Box Set is fascinating too, for its title just as much as the contents. As you’d expect, the bonus DVD includes:

  • Ozu Yasujiro Special Bonus DVDa profile of Ozu’s career (Ozu Yasujiro’s World);
  • an interview with German director Wim Wenders;
  • an interview with Ryū Chishū about working with Ozu at Shochiku’s Ōfuna studio (near Kamakura);
  • documentaries about the making of Tokyo Story and An Autumn Afternoon;
  • cinema previews of some of the later films;
  • footage of the press conference at which the Box Sets were announced;
  • a compilation called Ozu no fūkei: sentakumono, entotsu/denchū (Ozu’s Scenery: Items to Be Washed, Chimneys/Telegraph Poles), which contains a selection of the brief exterior shots with which Ozu punctuates his films.

Ozu Yasujiro's Scenery, Items to be washed, chimneys and telegraph poles

Ozu used interior “still life” shots for the same purpose: to separate the various sections of a film and to indicate a change in narrative direction (he stopped using fades and dissolves early in his career). Donald Richie calls these transitional shots “empty scenes”; Paul Schrader refers to them as “codas”; for David Bordwell they are “intermediate spaces”.

But the real surprise is that the bonus DVD is titled まほろば (Mahoroba), a word I’d never heard of. I asked Natsuko what it meant but it was a mystery to her too. Nor could I find mahoroba in any of my Japanese-English dictionaries, print or electronic. Even more surprisingly, it was not listed in Jim Breen’s EDICT Japanese-English Dictionary file, which currently has approximately 106,000 entries.

Yet a Google search in Japanese yields about 55,500 results whilst a search in English for its Romaji equivalent returns about 99,700 entries! The top site for both searches is Internet Mahoroba, an ISP and web hosting provider. Other Japanese results include a ski club, a band, a resort hotel, and a patisserie. Episode 6 of an anime called Iria: Zeiram is titled Mahoroba (Shangrila). And in Pinnacle—a high-level D&D campaign—there’s a character called Yuriko Mahoroba.

According to the Mahoroba Restaurant in Vernon, BC, mahoroba means:

Surrounded by mountains, and nice to live (from oldest Japanese book: Kojiki)

The Kojiki (古事記) or Record of Ancient Matters is a loose account of Japanese history from the mythical age of the gods to the reign of the Empress Suiko (592-628).

I emailed xiaolongnu and Jim Breen, asking them if they’d heard of mahoroba. xiaolongnu wrote back that it sounds like a Buddhist term:

“maho” being the Japanese pronounciation of Chinese “mohe” which translates the common Sanskrit prefix “maha” meaning “great” (as in Mahatma —” Great Soul” — Mohandas Gandhi’s epithet). I can’t make anything out of “roba” in the absence of kanji (it’s that old signal to noise problem again).

The absence of kanji does make interpretation difficult yet mahoroba seems to be spelled almost exclusively in hiragana (a search for まほろ場 yields only 14 results).

In a follow-up email, xiaolongnu picked up the reference to the Kojiki, noting that mahoroba “is associated with the notion of Yamato (i.e. an idealized homeland in the mountains)”. Some further Googling revealed that a Japanese musician named Sojiro has released an album called Mahoroba

with a theme of deep respect and understanding for the Jōmon culture and people that had high technology and strong spirit more than 5000 years ago. Examining his own roots, SOJIRO elevated the album into a worldwide work. MAHOROBA, the old Japanese word, means Utopia.

Jim Breen replied that he’d found one online dictionary (available in three locations) with an entry for まほろば. I followed his suggestion and checked Excite, where the Sanseido Daijirin J-J dictionary provides a definition confirming mahoroba as an old Yamato word meaning “surrounded by mountains”, that it was used in the Kojiki, and that it is the same word as mahorama and mahora.

Jim also found it in the Fifth Edition of the (paper only) Kenkyusha J-E dictionary:

まほろば [すぐれた場所] an excellent [a splendid, an unsurpassed] location

And he mentioned that he is adding mahoroba/mahorama/mahora to EDICT as:

まほろば;まほらま;まほら /(n) excellent location (Yamato word)/splendid place/

Tonight, as I was finishing this entry, I called another friend, Nana, who loves Japanese art and literature. I asked if she’d heard of mahoroba. She hadn’t but, as I was midway through explaining that the word was used as the title for the Ozu bonus DVD, she suddenly said, Atta! (Got it!). As I’d been speaking, Nana had been looking it up in both her Sanseido dictionaries.

As Nana explained it, one of the dictionary definitions associates maho with two kanji: (makoto: truth, reality, genuineness, a Buddhist sect originating in the 13th century) and (shū: excel, excellence, beauty, surpass). Adding the ra to maho—as in mahora—turns it into a place, she added.

“It’s an old Yamato word meaning ‘surrounded by hills or mountains’,” said Nana, “but the sense I get is that it’s beautiful and special, a kind of mythical place that’s perfect and complete.”

I remembered that in one of the Google results someone had mentioned “Arcadia” as well as “Utopia” so I looked up “Arcadia” in my electronic Oxford dictionary/thesaurus/encyclopedia.

“How does this sound?” I asked Nana. “‘A mountainous district in the Peloponnese of southern Greece. In ancient times Arcadia was the home of the god Pan and a noted centre of song and music. In poetic fantasy Arcadia is a rustic paradise, the idyllic pastoral home of song-loving shepherds.’”

Nana agreed that mahoroba had a similar connotation. A Japanese Arcadia.

I’d been wondering whether the Ozu bonus DVD had been titled Mahoroba to convey the sense that the world Ozu created in his films was a kind of beautiful, mythical place, remote from the reality of contemporary Japan. I asked Nana what she thought.

“I think once you’ve watched thirty Ozu films,” she replied, “you’ll have a better idea of what mahoroba means.”

Ozu Yasujiro in center-rear, working as an assistant-director at Shochiku's Kamata studio

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I also grabbed right for the dictionary when I read the title of your latest post. まほろば also appeared in 広辞苑 version 5, although it was only a reference to まほら which is defined as 「すぐれたよい所・国。」with the same explanation of まほ as given by your friend. I must say that once I got to the point where I understood enough Japanese to be able to read its entries, I have found the 広辞苑 to be far more useful in defining words than most Japanese-English dictionaries. It is also very good with obscure words/places/names of people. Just thought you might like to know.


Posted by Eric on 29 October 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Et in Arcadia ego. まほろばにもいます。 Is Ozu the Japanese Poussin in this respect? Does he ask us to meditate on impermanence even in the midst of Utopia -- the gravestone on the Arcadian hillside? (Apologies for my rotten Japanese: the effect should be "I too am in Paradise," or "Even in Paradise, there too am I." For Poussin, the "I" was Death -- the quote is from Virgil's Fifth Eclogue.)

How interesting this all is. I guess I don't need to go look anything up in the 仏学大辞典 (Dictionary of Buddhism) after all, which was what I'd suggested when I first heard the word. If Mahoroba is a Yamato word, it is clearly pre-Buddhist, and my guess as to the significance of "maho" as a prefix is spurious (but I wouldn't put it past the early exponents of Buddhism in Japan to have made use of it somehow). It's just a coincidence.

Probably the kanji association is sort of after-the-fact too, no? I get the sense (mostly from multiple-kanji words like makoto: 真、誠、信、実、and fifteen other kanji at least) that when kanji were adopted for the writing of Japanese, a single word (like makoto) could be assigned to multiple kanji that in some cases would correspond to its different valences of meaning. Looking at the four kanji I listed above (through Sinological eyes), I would translate them as "true," "honest," "faithful," and "actual," all of which are aspects of the meaning of the word makoto -- no?

Posted by xiaolongnu on 29 October 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Another thought after re-reading Jonathon's entry: if the Kojiki was written during the reign of the Empress Suiko (and hence also of Prince Shotoku), it's not exactly pre-Buddhist, even though the events it describes certainly are. So maybe I should go find out if the term has a Buddhist sense after all. More on this later when I've had a chance to do that.

Posted by xiaolongnu on 29 October 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Man, I love this stuff. To me, the tracking down of an obscure word is better than an Agatha Christie mystery. Here's another explanation, from the history of the Dazaifu TMC (http://www3.coara.or.jp/~flynn/TMDAZAIFU/ ):

"Mahoroba is said to be the ideal place for mankind to live in Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters), the oldest literature piece in Japan. The slogan of Dazaifu City is to realize the dreams of our great forefathers. The spirit of Mahoroba TMC follows suit. Each Spring, when the wind blows, the fragrance of ume (plum) blossoms drift by and Michizane Sugawara, poet and statesman, exiled from Kyoto to Dazaifu, experienced a pleasant reminder of his hometown of Kyoto."

Interesting that mythical paradises tend to be set in mountainous areas, like Arcadia and Shangri-La; China's Peach Blossom Spring (Tao Hua Yuan,
http://www.wfu.edu/~moran/TaoHuaYuan.001.gif , http://www.worldwideschool.org/library/books/lit/shortstories/PeachBlossomShangri-laTaoHuaYuanJi/Chap1.html ) is also reached by entering a passageway into a mountain. I guess that's the only way they could stay secluded from the turmoil of the world below.

Posted by language hat on 29 October 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Ozu "is" a great master. I always wished he was more appreciated in the West. Apparently he is overshadowed by the other Japanese master.

Now that the DVD's are out maybe a bit more publicity for him.

Posted by Kaveh Kh. on 29 October 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Eric, I hadn't realized the advantage of a comprehensive J-J dictionary until I saw how quickly Jim Breen and Nana found まほろば. (I have an electronic Kenkyusha J-E/E-J dictionary but it wasn't any use in this case.) I'm not yet at the point where my Japanese is good enough to read the J-J entries without difficulty but, as soon as it is, I'll definitely buy one.

xiaolongnu, the kanji association is definitely after the fact. Your example of 真、誠、信、実、is an excellent one since my friend Nana was trying to explain the makoto kanji over the phone -- she meant the first one in your list and said "It's the character for truth" -- and I immediately asked: "As in 'shinjiru' and 'Nobuko', with the two-stroke 'person' radical on the left and the seven-stroke 'say' radical on the right?" To which she replied, "No, with 'ten' on top of 'eye'." I got a real surprise when I checked later and found how many different kanji share the reading "makoto".

LH, I thought you'd enjoy "mahoroba" and thanks for the pointer to the Peach Blossom Shangri-La story. Interesting that it's always easy to find one's way in but, if one chooses to leave, impossible to find one's way back.

Kaveh, I always wished Ozu was more appreciated in the West, too -- though I'm wondering which "other Japanese master" you're referring to as overshadowing Ozu. Kurosawa?

Posted by Jonathon on 29 October 2003 (Comment Permalink)

To Keveh and Jonathan,
I take a different view on whether Ozu is sufficiently appreciated in the west or not. If the west means America, then yes, there has been general decline in film culture in the Academic world, to the point that art or great films are not appreciated at all. But in Europe the situation is not as dire. My impression is that
Ozu is very appreciated among the cineastes
and filmmakers. Kurosawa, Mizoguchi and Ozu
keep company with each other as great cinema
masters. I see them mentioned repeatedly among
the film enthusiasts. Ozu has had an unquestionable an influence on many, many filmmakers today (Jim Jarmusch, Wim Wender, Wayne Wang, various Taiwan filmmakers). They constanly refer to Ozu, pay him tribute, make films about him. Even writers like Kazuo Ishiguro who grew up in England learned about Japan from watching Ozu's films.

Posted by Fung Lin Hall on 31 October 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I am delighted to find your ongoing discussion of the new Shochiku Ozu series. If I am lucky, my volume 2 will arrive today. ;~}

I think Ozu is one of the most influential classic directors in world "art" cinema today -- even if his influence is largely "under the radar". He seems to have had a major impact on "younger" Japanese directors (from Kitano to Kore'eda) and Korean ones (HUR Jin-ho and JEONG Jae-un). It would seem that Ozu has had some impact of HOU Hsiao Hsien (though this seems to be somewhat a matter of debate). In addition, Aki Kaurismaki's recent films show a great appreciation of Ozu's essence.


Posted by Michael Kerpan on 8 November 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Fung-Lin and Michael, I confess that I just don't see the influence of Ozu in the work of the directors who are said to be influenced by him. Yet enough people say it, so perhaps I'm blinded by Ozu's light.

I may not have seen the right Kaurismaki films because those I have seen bored me to stupefaction. Nor have I been able to discern Ozu's impact on Hou Hsiao Hsien, though I like his work very much. (And, as I mentioned in another post, I think the idea of Ozu's influencing Jim Jarmusch is laughable.) But I'm going to follow up the two Korean directors Michael mentioned since I have a high regard for contemporary Korean cinema.

Michael, I need to thank you for something else... I did a Google search on "Ozu Kaurismaki" and found the Yahoo group devoted to Ozu. I'll make sure to drop by regularly. (And I place to place my order for volume 2 later in the week.)

Posted by Jonathon on 8 November 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Well, Vol. 2 of the Shochiku Ozu series arrived today -- and it looks pretty good too (based on skimming ruthlessly through all 5 films).

I can't see much trace of Ozu influence on either Wenders or Jarmusch. Hou Hsiao Hsien? I just don't know. Based on the interview with Stanley Kwan in the extras for Vol. 1, I'd say he has a fairly reasonable appreciation -- but I haven't seen any of his films yet.

Kore'eda does not "imitate" Ozu in any fashion -- but I think his work shows a deep understanding of Ozu's style. (In any event, I just plain love everything he has done).

Kitano's "Scene at the Sea" and (to a lesser extent) "Kids Return" show strong stylistic traces of not just Ozu -- but less well-known Ozu (the 30s "social" films). His "Kikujiro" draws fairly significantly on Ozu's "Record of a Tenement Gentleman".

I especially like Kaurismaki's "Drifting Clouds" and "Man Without a Past" -- and do see a real kinship here with Ozu's work.

I've only recently become a "Korean convert" -- and continue to be impressed by the vitality of that nation's cinema.

The Yahoo Ozu group has had its ups and downs -- but it has been a remarkably lively (and informative) place for much of the past 3 years -- especially considering the small size of its active membership during most of that time. Hope to see you join in there from time to time.

I was glad to figure out that I could tame the Criterion "Tokyo Story" by turning my TV's contrast way down -- once this has been done, it doesn't look much different from the Shochiku version (but I wish the subtitles weren't so spindly). I am really happy about the bonus documentary "I Lived But" (which I previously had seen only via a 1000th generation video copy). This definitely makes the Criterion set worth while.


Posted by Michael Kerpan on 8 November 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour