Second Draft

Shout It Out? Unlikely

Posted in Research,WorldBuilding by Michael Skeet on Thursday, May 13, 2010

Spent rather too much time, recently, on my back as a result of the influenza. One of the things I did to entertain myself, while my head throbbed and the world spun, was to watch a borrowed copy of the “Shogun” miniseries from three decades ago. It was the first time I’d seen “Shogun” since its initial airing, and I discovered that a lot of what I thought I remembered about it was, well, wrong.

But I’m not writing to complain about my memory. What was I writing about? Oh, yeah. There was one thing that suddenly made me say “Hmmmm…” as I watched. And it wasn’t the historical inaccuracy (First use of firearms in battle in Japan in 1600? Really?) No, it was one of those things that likely wouldn’t have occurred to me at all if my brain had been working properly. I was watching the big set-piece, leading up to the drippy heroine getting herself blowed up real good, and shortly after the villainous samurai had stabbed his third or fourth minion in the back, I found myself wondering…

How did they clean up all the blood?

Srsly, people. Killing was supposedly anathema to Buddhists (Jill says samurai just automatically expected to go to hell) and blood and death were serious defilement to Shintoists. So when there was some sort of treachery, and blood was spilled (despite what most TV and movies would have you believe, sword wounds could bring out tremendous amounts of blood in a short time; watch the remarkable ending of Sanjuro to get an idea), how did it get cleaned up, and did everybody have to leave the house/mansion/castle until it could be purified again?

I’m pretty sure that the answer to the second question is Yes, though I’ve never seen reference to it. Even in Throne of Blood, where there’s specific reference to a bloodstain that still disfigures a room, there’s no description of the cleaning process.

As for the first question, the logical persons to do the cleaning were Burakumin. But what self-respecting samurai would have those people in his house?

As I said, it’s perplexing. Feel free to offer suggestions in the comments. (In the meantime, I’m feeling much better now, I apologize for my prolonged absence, and I’m looking forward to getting back to writing again.)


Heat that’s Up Your Nose

Posted in Food,Research by Jill Snider Lum on Thursday, March 11, 2010

I’m getting a great kick out of trying to figure out what people ate during the Sengoku Jidai.  Sometimes we’ve had to work at that problem backhandedly.  I’m thinking of wasabi right now — that tasty green root, whose effect, a wave of brain-displacing fumes up the back of your nose, so resembles that of horseradish.

Wasabi roots, in a Tokyo restaurant

Most wasabi you get in Canadian restaurants is horseradish — powdered, mixed with water and coloured green — because wasabi roots are difficult to cultivate.  (The plants only grow in or beside mountain streams, for one thing.)  Real wasabi, though, has layers of delicate flavour that transcend standard horseradish.  Much as I love horseradish, this could give it a run for its money.

Our friend Hicaru took us to his favourite Tokyo restaurant when we visited, and for the first time we got to eat real wasabi.  It was used in the way we’re used to, with sushi and sashimi, and Hicaru also showed Michael and Lorna how to use it as a garnish for their soba noodles, which was new to all of us from Canada.  He grated it on a traditional grater, which I now know, after some research, is made of sharkskin.  The flavour — of the wasabi, not the sharkskin — was lively, bright, and intense.

Grating wasabi root on a sharkskin grater

So, you ask, what’s this got to do with the Sengoku period?  Well, we were hoping to have our characters enjoy wasabi in some way.  Not being able to find a handy menu of Sengoku Jidai condiments, we decided the way to work it was to try and learn just when wasabi was first cultivated in Japan.  We’re still working on the details, but apparently written record has been found of its being grown as early as the year 685.  That means our characters will likely be able to enjoy some with their suppers.

Wasabi has antibacterial qualities as well, so maybe it was used medicinally, too — even before people knew what bacteria were, they knew that some plants seemed to help fight infections, so maybe wasabi was used in poultices for wounds.  I’ll have to look into that.  I’ll bet it would sting like crazy.

In the meantime, one or the other of us will see you tomorrow, all going well!

Blood and Gunpowder

Posted in Research by Jill Snider Lum on Wednesday, March 10, 2010

TCM is running a festival of films by the great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa every Tuesday evening this month.  Last night, being interested for various reasons in Japanese history, I turned it on and watched ‘Throne of Blood’ for the first time.

Even if Japanese history isn’t your thing, this film is a treat.  Openly based on William Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’, it takes place in feudal Japan… and though I have been so far unable to verify this, it looks to be set in the same part of the Sengoku period as our novel.

It’s Kurosawa, so it’s wonderful — I’m a big fan, and I’m by no means alone.  But quite apart from the quality of the film-making and the acting, it was so much fun to see people as they would appear in our book, particularly samurai mounted on horseback, fighting with bows and arrows and spears, and not a gun in sight.  Our book is like that, being set before the Portuguese introduced firearms to Japan.

There seems a more attractive, imagination-inspiring quality to the idea of battles fought before gunpowder.  Weapons were hand-made, and their mechanical function was basic — plain physics, without the involvement of chemistry.  The weapon did nothing automatically, so that the man wielding it had to have training and a great deal of practiced skill to use it properly.  And tactics had to be different from today’s fighting methods, and the differences are fascinating.  Dornford Yates says “gunpowder killed the romance of the battlefield”, and I know what he means — even though I believe the only good war is either virtual or fictional.

But I digress.  Watching ‘Throne of Blood’ improved my visualization of what kind of world the characters in Demon Gate inhabit, and how they relate to that world and do each other.  And besides that, it’s a great movie, impossible not to recommend.

Some Things Don’t Change…

Posted in Research by Jill Snider Lum on Monday, March 8, 2010

Humans have always been humans.  Throughout history and across cultures, though we may have had have different levels of technology, different knowledge-bases, different toys, we’ve still been people.  And people in pretty much every country on Earth have been enjoying the company of cats for thousands of years.

Japan is no exception.  These models are set up behind a barrier in the Vanity Tower in Himeji Castle, to provide visitors a glimpse of what life must have been like there for Princess Sen, who married into the Honda family about 100 years after our novel Demon Gate takes place.  You can see it better by clicking on the picture.  Princess Sen had companions; she had hobbies and amusements; and in this interpretation, she had a cat.

The Japanese word for “cat” is neko.  An approximation of “kitty” would be neko-chan.  You just know that this particular neko is about to lash its tail, spring forward, and bat one of the shells across the mat as though it were a mouse.  The cat demands attention.  The cat wants to play.  The can enjoys hanging around with its humans, and wants to be included in their activity.  And possibly the cat is about to remind its humans that now is the time for fish, because the cat is a good mouser and has taken care of most of the rodents available for munching in the Vanity Tower, and the cat is now hungry and must be fed.

Princess Sen may be a princess… but the cat is, after all, a Cat.

Six-Guns and Swords

Posted in Research by Michael Skeet on Friday, February 26, 2010
Katana blade in National Museum, Tokyo

Blade of a katana, photographed in the National Museum, Tokyo, 2007.

One of things I’ve always enjoyed about Japanese chanbara movies is the direct link with Hollywood westerns. A circular link in the case of Seven Samurai, because Kurosawa always spoke of his admiration for John Ford’s westerns, and Shichin no samurai was itself the inspiration for The Magnificent Seven. Which you already knew, of course.

At any rate, I’ve discovered a significant (to Demon Gate, anyway) commonality between chanbara and western cinema: both of them provide a misleading sense of what fighting was actually like during the period in which they are set. Think about all of those westerns in which the characters blaze away at each other, using revolvers, at distances ranging from dozens to improbable hundreds of yards. Now think about the image of the samurai that pops into your head. You’re seeing a guy with a sword, aren’t you? In the same way that when you think of the Old West what pops into your head is a guy with a six-gun.

The popular image of the samurai is something heavily burnished by the Art of the Samurai exhibit I wrote about the other day. There were dozens of weapons shown in this exhibit—and all but three of them, I think, were swords or daggers.

My problem with this? Most samurai didn’t actually use their swords in combat. This obsessive identification of the samurai with his swords, and the fetishism about swords in general, is yet another artifact of the long Tokugawa period—a period, I hasten to add, in which samurai hardly fought at all except in the occasional equivalent of a gang-fight in the streets.

The difference between the perception and the reality really hit home to me when I got to the final section of The Art of the Samurai. Included in this section was large, six-panel screen dating from the 17th century. On the panels were paintings showing a panoramic view of the Battle of Kawanakajima (1561). This screen is an amazing piece of work, and I regret that I’ve been unable to find any representations of it to which I could link (the original is in the Wakayama Prefecture Museum).

I can, however, make the point that hit home so thoroughly by using this detail from a wood-block print of the Battle of Kawanakajima. This print (by Utagawa Yoshikazu) dates from 1853 (a good 200 years after the screen was painted) and is in the collection of the U.S. Library of Congress. Take a look at the mounted samurai fighting in this image. See how many of them are using swords?

And this image doesn’t represent the situation with nearly the effect of that six-panel screen. In that set of paintings, hardly anyone is fighting with a sword—and most of the samurai shown in the screen are fighting on foot, when presumably it would be easier to wield a sword than it would while fighting from horseback.

The truth of the situation is that, from all the reading I’ve done while researching this novel, samurai in the sengoku jidai fought with their swords only as a last resort. The preferred weapon of the samurai during this period was the yari, or lance (the word is usually translated as “spear,” but this implies that the yari could be thrown, and this was almost never the case; some yari were as big as pikes); before that, the preferred weapon was (as this image implies) the bow.

This is not to complain about the exhibit, understand. The Met is a museum of art, after all, and most practical military weapons are not what you could call attractive; they are intended to be functional. This is what really makes Japanese swords exceptional, in my view: they’re both beautiful and functional. Very functional, if you believe some of the stories.

At any rate, most chanbara movies are as useful for understanding samurai fighting as most westerns are for understanding US Cavalry tactics on the frontier. That’s not their primary goal. But it’s important for us to remember that the popular image of the samurai wading into battle with his sword drawn is at the least misleading.

Oh, and the non-sword weapons in the exhibit? One was a matchlock musket (teppo); one was the blade of a naginata, and only one was a yari blade. And the latter was only in the exhibit because it had been preserved on account of its being more than twice the size of a normal military lance-head.

More Snow

Posted in Research,WorldBuilding by Michael Skeet on Tuesday, February 23, 2010

I should mention (as we await the prospect of yet more furry precipitation) that Jill’s comment yesterday, concerning the relative lack of snowfall in Japan, applies to places like Kyoto and Edo (now Tokyo). There are places in Japan that get plenty of snow: Hokkaido, obviously, but also long stretches of the mountains on the northern side of Honshu (the side facing the Sea of Japan). The air coming across the sea is quite moist, and as it rises up to cross over the mountains it dumps that moisture; in the winter this often comes down as snow.

I was particularly pleased to learn about the Snow Monkeys.


Posted in Research by Jill Snider Lum on Monday, February 22, 2010

We Torontonians are sitting in grim trepidation just now, awaiting what is supposed to be the first bad snowstorm of the season.  In a regular year our upcoming 10cm would be just another snowfall, but we haven’t had much snow this winter (and I’m not complaining).  It’s been more like a Tokyo or Kyoto winter than a Toronto one.

A Japanese friend of ours tells us that when they get a zero-degree day in Tokyo they feel very hard-done-by, and go about muttering how cold it is.  To us Canadians this sounds pretty strange… but keep in mind that Tokyo is so hot for most of the year that they don’t bother with things like cental heating.  If you live there you don’t heat your whole house in winter; you have a gas- or electric-powered heater that you move from room to room as you need it.  That means  you can store your beer in the bathroom to keep it nice and cold, and if you’re taking a hot bath in there you can move it to the bedroom temporarily to keep it chilled.  It’s no wonder residents of Tokyo and Kyoto complain when the thermometer hits the freezing mark!

In the Sengoku period, you’d have had braziers and a stove to heat your rooms, and you’d put hot coals in them and huddle around them.  There were little hand-warmers, too, that you could put a coal in and hold on to.  Padded kimono would help keep you warm, as would lots of blankets on your futon at night.  And the cultural tradition of drinking hot green tea all day would be a blessing!

As for snow, you wouldn’t see very much, as a general rule.  Just ice in the streets from time to time, and the occasional, quiet dusting of white flakes on the ground, which might last for a day.

Our Japanese friend experienced a 10cm snowfall in Tokyo a few years ago, and got himself a backache shoveling out the intersection by his house.  I told him that if he had to do it three more times that winter, we’d make him an honourary Canadian.  He was not at all enthusiastic.

The first flakes are falling outside my window.  Yuck.

Sengoku Jidai Munchies

Posted in Food,Research by Jill Snider Lum on Friday, February 19, 2010

I like writing about food, historical food included.  It’s not been easy, getting a lot of details about what people ate in the Sengoku period during which Demon Gate is set.  When you think of Japanese food, what do you think of?  Sushi?  It dates back to the Edo period; too late.  Tempura?  Also later than our story — the practice of deep-frying food in batter was introduced to Japan by the Portuguese.  Even rice wasn’t commonly eaten by ordinary people during our time period.  It was reserved for the higher classes, while the workers and peasants and shopkeepers ate millet.  If you were a peasant growing rice, most of it went for taxes.

But we know that people ate a lot of seafood, fish, and vegetables.  Lots of vegetables.  Cabbages, cucumbers, sweet potatoes, eggplants, mushrooms, daikon radishes, snow peas, and all sorts of things without English equivalents, fresh and pickled.  Buddhists weren’t people to eat meat, so things like beef and pork weren’t on the menu.  But Japanese udon noodles date back to the 13th century, well before our story begins, and certainly everyone ate fruit — grapes, oranges, plums, pears, even the occasional watermelon.

Visiting Japan we discovered one reason why obesity isn’t common in that part of the world:  it’s hot.  September in Kyoto is hotter, and much more humid, than July and August are in Toronto, which takes some doing.  In the morning we’d have a light breakfast and some green tea, then spend the day exploring, sometimes stopping for a small lunch — lunch was almost unknown in the Sengoku Jidai, unless you were a soldier.  By four o’clock we’d be so hot and exhausted that the idea of eating an actual dinner didn’t appeal to any of us.  So we’d stop at a convenience store and get a few snacks, and some beer, and bring them home to our guest house to nibble away at during an evening of writing and chat.

Convenience store supper. The basil potato chips were addictive.

It wouldn’t surprise me a bit if our Samurai characters found themselves doing the 1506 equivalent, noshing on a small bowl of udon and a few pickles in the evening, rather than a full spread of broiled fish and boiled millet and stir-fried sweet potatoes with mushrooms and onions.  It’s too bad they didn’t have ice cream in those days; it would have made life a lot easier.

The big one was called "Sumo Special".

A Youkai for Everything

Posted in Research by Jill Snider Lum on Thursday, February 18, 2010

One of the most fun things about writing Demon Gate has been learning about youkai.

Youkai are supernatural creatures in Japanese folklore.  In English they are sometimes referred to as spirits, ghosts, demons, or monsters, but none of those words seems to completely encompass what they are.  They are not human, though they sometimes look like humans, or were humans once, or can change into the form of humans.  Sometimes they even start out as objects made by humans — umbrellas, paper lanterns, straw sandals.  Then… something happens to them.  They turn one hundred years old, or they go through some other out-of-the-ordinary experience, and the event transforms them, distorts them… gives them motivations of their own.

It’s amazing fun to be a Western fantasy writer with these resources at one’s disposal.  In Japanese folklore there seem to be supernatural creatures for every situation imaginable.  Perusing the Wikipedia list of Legendary Japanese Creatures , I’m like a kid in a candy-store of ideas.  Some of these are from specific folktales, and some are just youkai you might encounter anywhere, down the street, beside the river, going for a walk in the hills… or in your own house.   How to chose just a few for the story, from this embarrassment of riches?

There’s abumi-guchi, the fallen commander’s stirrup that’s been transformed into a little furry monster, waiting in the grass for its owner to return.  There’s basan, the giant fire-breathing chicken-monster; ikuchi, the sea serpent that travels over boats and drips oil on them; jatai, the old sash turned into a snake; jubokko, the vampire tree.  And kagge-onna, a very specific sort of creature — the shadow of a woman, cast on the paper shoji doors of a haunted house.

Then there’s the trio of weasels that haunts the mountains and attacks passers-by; we’re using them in Demon Gate, because they’re the weirdest tag-team we’ve ever heard of.  There’s the creature made of hair, the pillow-moving spirit, the ghost fire that follows people, the bean-grinding hag who eats people, and the giant catfish that causes earthquakes.   And more:  the hair-cutting spirit, the upside-down haunted pillar, the reanimated lump of decaying human flesh, the horse’s leg that hangs out of trees and kicks people as they go by, and of course the unharvested persimmon that turns into a monster.  (How do you keep house without an unharvested-persimmon monster?  I have three in my fridge.)

There are so many more than I won’t begin to mention them, and I’ve decided I like them all.  But I admit that most of them are personalities I wouldn’t want to encounter in real life.  Except perhaps the akaname — the spirit that licks the bathroom clean.  It sounds like it might be a useful youkai to have around, at least on house-cleaning day.

But then I suppose I’d have to clean the bathroom all over again afterwards, to remove the akaname spit.  There’s always a catch.

Now This is Research!

Posted in Drink,Research by Michael Skeet on Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Sometimes I have more fun than others when researching the background of Demon Gate.

When Lorna, Jill and I visited Japan in 2007 we were amazed at the selection of shochu/shoju available in the liquor shop down the road from our guest house in Kyoto. At the time it was difficult to find any shochu in Canada, much less a selection (shochu is distilled from an impressive variety of starches). I had liked the shochu I’d had up until then; after trying buckwheat and sweet potato shochu I was pretty much hooked.

So it came as a pleasant surprise to discover that, contrary to my guesses, distillation was not introduced to Japan by the Portuguese. None of the sources I’ve been able to check has been in agreement on precisely where the art of alcohol distillation came from (one source claims Thailand by way of Okinawa, another says China, and Wikipedia opts for Korea as the conduit through which distillation techniques came to Japan), but that doesn’t matter so much to me.

What matters is that most of the sources agree that shochu was being made in Japan by the end of the fifteenth century, though the first recorded reference to the drink was in 1549. That puts shochu into the realm of possible drinks for our characters to consume, with the proviso that the only shochu being distilled in the early sixteenth century was rice-based.

This was good news for us, because we had had our characters in “Beneath the Skin” merrily quaffing shochu—without our ever having gone to the trouble of checking to see whether or not we were being anachronistic. I hate being anachronistic in my fiction.

I will celebrate this discovery in a couple of days, when our annual winter cocktail party will feature at least one shochu-based cocktail. (Normally I drink mine straight, the way it was intended to be, but the shochu-based cocktails served at Momofuku Noodle Bar inspired me.)

As for anachronism, there is still the matter of futon and tatami to be dealt with…

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