Movie Review: O-oku

I just watched a movie.  This movie was full of kimono.  The kimono were the only good thing about the movie.  Everything else was just bad.  The plot was bad.  The acting was bad.  The conflicts were bad.  The special effects were bad.  The twist ending was bad.  Yeah.  It was bad.  But I was still drooling over the kimono.  So without further adieu, I present to you O-oku, A.K.A The Lady Shogun And Her Men.

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This story takes place in 1700’s Japan.  A disease has decimated the male population to the point where there are 4 women to every man.  Gender roles are completely flipped on their head in this world.  Mothers are the head of the household, men are sold in marriage (and in brothels) to women desperate to have children, and the shogun is now a 7-year-old girl with an entirely female advisory board.

In this world, we follow our hero Mizuno (played by Kazunari Ninomiya from the pop group ARASHI) the son of a lower-class samurai family.  He decides to pay back his family for their kindness (they refused to sell him to a new woman every night, apparently a common practice for the poor in this world) by joining o-oku, the harem of men kept at the palace for the pleasure of the lady shogun and to father the next in line.

I had a couple of issues with this concept, the first was that all of the servants in o-oku were men.  It just doesn’t make sense.  There is a shortage of men outside, these servants only job is to serve the men who will see the shogun (they never will themselves) so why are they there?  In traditional harems, the servants were all women or eunuchs to ensure any babies born belonged to the ruler.  The ruler is a woman here!!! Of course any kid she produces would be hers!  Get some women servants in and send those other men out into the world to start repopulating!!!!

The other issue I had with this concept was a lot creepier.  Why the *%#! do they have hundreds of sexually mature, 20-40 year old men, ready to serve a SEVEN YEAR OLD GIRL???????  It’s not like o-oku is just always there.  This fact is actually brought up after the girl dies and a new shogun inherits.  There is a threat that she will dissolve o-oku and replace all the existing men with new ones.  So this particular group of men were assembled for a CHILD.  Did nobody on the production team think this through when they were writing this?  It just creeps me out in so many ways!

Okay, okay, rant over.  This movie has issues.  Major issues.  But that’s not why you’re reading this review is it?  You want to see the kimono don’t you?  To me, the kimono don’t save this movie, but they are a nice consolation prize, so here we go!

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O-Oku tries to turn traditional gender roles on their head, so in this world, the men are peacocks, strutting around in brightly coloured kimono and hakama, painstakingly choosing fabrics and patterns, and excitingly ordering their formal clothes for the next visit from the shogun.  It truly is a sight to see men dressed in bright colors.  It’s also a treat to see men dressed in clothes that look like they could come out of the Heian era.

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The hakama are so long they drag on the floor.  The actors have to grip the side of each pant leg to lift it slightly, and they must kick the extra fabric out of the way when they change direction.

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It’s fun to watch, and it serves as a slightly funny (but predictable) joke when Mizuno first joins o-oku and steps on the trailing leg of one man’s hakama.

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In fact, our hero stands out from the crowd by insisting on not wearing bright colours, but instead choosing a modest, black set of robes.

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Good call (or bad call depending on how you look at it) because the new shogun (after the 7-year-old shogun passes) has a real disdain for finery and expense.  She chooses a more modest wardrobe and insists on it from her advisors as well.

On the very first day, the royal dressmaker introduces concept of an uchikake (a “lift-up robe” according to the subtitles).  The shogun likes the design, but hates the finery of the silk.  Her next uchikake is made from rough tsumugi silk.

Flipping gender roles continues outside of the palace too, with the courtesans and prostitutes in town being men with the women lined up to see them.

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Okay, have you drooled enough?  Overall, the movie is meh.  But the kimono are stunning.  The costume team deserves a round of applause for their work and I really appreciate the craftsmanship that went into the kimono in this film.

Okinawan Kimono and Textiles

Sigh.  Golden Week was a couple of months ago, and it’s only now that I found the time to write this post.  What’s Golden Week?  It’s a string of national holidays all in a row and it seems like the whole country goes traveling during that time.  We were no exception.  My husband and I finally made it down to Okinawa after six years of living in Japan.  It was a great and surprising trip.  I had always heard that people from Okinawa identified themselves more as Okinawan than Japanese, and until this trip I couldn’t really understand why.  Okinawa really is like a different world.  It was its own independent kingdom for a long time (the Ryukyu Kingdom) and was a tributary state of both the Chinese and Japanese Empires until Japan fully annexed it as Okinawa Prefecture during the Meiji Era.  They had their own king, their own culture, their own language, and their own food.  This division is still very palpable today.

And this division even holds true to the kimono of Okinawa.  Before I went, I already knew about bingata kimono, but I didn’t know much else, and there wasn’t a lot of information that I could find online.  I arrived in Okinawa intending to add a bingata kimono to my collection, but I quickly discovered that it wasn’t going to be that easy.  And in fact, I never did get a bingata kimono, mainly because they were so expensive, and they were so different that I would have to build up an entirely new outfit from scratch.  I couldn’t just pair a traditional bingata kimono with a Nagoya obi and be done with it.

I’d like to outline everything I discovered about Okinawan kimono and textiles in a logical fashion, but first, I have to include a disclaimer.  I am not an expert on Okinawan kimono.  The information that I am presenting to you is based on my observations and my interactions with the local people of Okinawa during my four day trip.  This information is not a complete or exhaustive list.  There isn’t a lot of information in English on Okinawan textile history.  I did pick up some books while I was there, but they are in Japanese and will take some time to translate.  They will probably add some more insight as I work my way through them.

And with that, let’s look at some of the differences!

 

#1: The Kimono Market

If, like me, you go to Okinawa with the intention of adding a bingata kimono to your collection, you may be disappointed.  Unlike mainland Japan, there is almost no second-hand market for kimono in Okinawa.  There’s a couple of reasons for this.  First, the most famous textile, bingata, was reserved for the upper classes, which already limits the amount of stock available.  Second, the Battle of Okinawa destroyed almost everything in its path.  I lost count of the number of times I read a plaque saying “This is a recreation of something that was destroyed in the war.” And of course this applies to kimono and textiles as well.

You really only have two options in Okinawa.  The first is to buy new products, which can be very, very expensive.  The cheapest I saw was a bingata dyed yukata for ¥120,000.  A kimono could easily cost you ¥650,000 as could an obi.  That is so beyond my price range that I can’t even imagine spending that much on one garment.  And they were stunning garments.

Your second option is to buy a polyester recreation.  These are worn by people working in the tourist industry.  These kimono will set you back around ¥15,000.  I considered getting one of these, until I realized how different the construction and the kitsuke is (more on that below).

If that’s still too much for your budget, you can get a sample of bingata.  In every tourist area, there are bingata bags, furoshiki, scrunches, aprons, and even boxer shorts.  It’s all synthetic materials and dyes, but if you want to bring a bit of it home with you and can’t afford a full kimono, it’s another option.

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The bingata furoshiki that I bought in compensation for not buying a kimono.

 

#2: The Textiles

Again, disclaimer time.  This isn’t an exhaustive list of Okinawan textiles.  It’s just a list of the ones I found most interesting during my travels.

Bingata (紅型)

I’ve mentioned bingata above, but I haven’t explained exactly what it is.  There are dozens of different methods for bingata dyeing and for a complete explanation, you can check out the Kimono Dictionary website here.  Generally though, bingata has a few outstanding characteristics.

  • Bright colors: Vibrant colors are a trademark of bingata, with the most famous color being a bright yellow.  Red, purple, green, and blue are also popular colors to use.
  • Tropical designs: Okinawa really is the Hawaii of Japan.  You will find the occasional plum or cherry blossom, but you will more commonly find tropical birds, flowers, and natural phenomenon depicted on bingata.
  • Natural dyes: Today, the dyes used are mostly synthetic, but traditionally, they would use plant dyes such as hibiscus and indigo.  Artisans who are trying to revive and preserve the bingata tradition also use natural plant dyes today.

 

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Examples of bingata fabrics that show the bright colors and tropical designs.

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Some of the natural materials used to create the traditional dyes, along with the brushes used to apply the dye over large areas.

Shuri-ori (首里織)

When I resigned myself to the fact that I could never afford a true bingata kimono, I turned my attention to shuri-ori, the local weaving technique.  There are five different types of weaving and they can be roughly broken down into those created for the upper classes (using many different colors) and those created for the lower classes (using only two colors).

The interesting thing about shuri-ori is that, unlike many other types of weaving such as nishijin, there is no right or wrong side.  The obi that I bought came off the loom completely reversible.

It was also a lot more affordable.  I spent ¥15,000 on my obi.  It’s a cotton hanhaba, complete with certifications from the shuri-ori quality control associations.

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My own shuri-ori obi.  Perfect to wear in the summer heat!

For more information (in Japanese) you can look at www.shuri-ori.com

Bashofu (芭蕉)

Just before I left, my kitsuke and wasai teachers told me to look out for bashofu.  I’m glad I did.  Bashofu is fabric made from the fibre of the banana plant.  I managed to get a sample and I can see it being really effective for a tropical climate.  The only examples that I saw during my trip were in a museum unfortunately. The process to create bashofu has in excess of 30 steps and is way, way, way beyond by budget.

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examples of bashofu.  At the bottom is the raw material.  The top left is an example of the fibres that are half-way through the process, and the upper right shows the completed threads.

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Here’s an example of the final garment.

#3: The Kimono Construction

There seem to be two different types of kimono found in Okinawa; Those based on the standard Japanese construction, and those unique to Okinawa.  Bingata kimono can be made in either fashion.  I noticed three main differences in the construction of the kimono.

  • The sleeves are attached to the body of the kimono, even on women’s kimono.  In addition, there is a bit of webbing under the sleeve.
  • The sleeves are open at the front.
  • There is no kurokoshi (the seam going across the back) in Okinawan kimono.

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#4 The Kitsuke

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Traditional Okinawan kitsuke.

  • For men, the obi is tied in the front instead of the back.
  • For women, the collar is not pulled down low at the back of the neck.
  • Women do not have an obi.  The kimono is tied at the waist with a colourful koshihimo, and the end of the koshihimo dangle in front.

I only had access to tourist kimono, and I can’t vouch for their accuracy, but even in the museums, there were clear differences in the kitsuke I saw in the displays.

I hope you enjoyed this cursory look at Okinawan kimono.  If you have a chance to visit Okinawa, I highly recommend it!

Ebi (海老) lobster/shrimp

Name: Ebi (海老) lobster/shrimp

Seasonal Association Winter

When To Wear It: all year

Auspicious: yes

History: Ebi can play two different roles as a motif, that of a seasonal motif, and that of an auspicious motif.

Seasonal: Ebi is a staple ingredient in Osechi, the traditional New Year’s selection of food.

Auspicious: The hunched back and whiskers of the ebi are features that are also attributed to an old man and because of this, ebi is considered a symbol of long life. It is often nicknamed the old man of the sea.

Ebi can also be referred to as Ise Ebi (伊勢海老) which is a particular species of spiny lobster found in Mie prefecture.

Identification: Ebi will resemble a lobster or a shrimp with a curved back, long whiskers on its face, and six legs.

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