Troubled adults and the modernist experiments of transformation
“Tropical Malady” by Apichatpong Weerasethakul is a critically-acclaimed Thai film. It received the special jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2004, an extremely rare honor for any Thai film. The critics that praise the movie mostly talk about the second segment of the film, in which the main character goes into a dark forest where the transformation of a tiger and a human being occurs.
The film’s first segment is devoted to a lyrical love story of two men, a soldier and a village man. The film critics point out that the mixture of an indie-style, almost documentary-like love story and the element of folk tales proves refreshing. The audience can enjoy “what is a dream and what is reality?” experience for 2 hours, they note.
The critical success of this small-budget Thai movie in world cinema prompted me to think of one fact: people and other things transformed themselves much easier in the past than today.
Forests and mountains were still intact, and spirits had plenty of greens, meadows and shadows to hide in, waiting for the right moment to possess a person or an animal in order for them to turn into some form of visible reality. Folktales were full of such colorful spirits, ghosts and supernatural beings. Recently I read a news article about a professional Cambodian ghost buster whose work of chasing ghosts away from possessed people or houses at the Thai-Cambodian border is dramatically decreasing these days as the forests and rivers disappear. “There was so much demand [in the past], I gave up most of my other work and decided to focus more on chasing ghosts… I’ve driven away 300 or 400 spirits…… As more development came, ghosts were fewer and fewer,” the man says about his job. When ghosts and spirits were a fact of life these professionals were doing a normal job like any other, skills and trainings mostly given by family members was handed down generation to generation. In those times people didn’t question the existence of ghosts and spirits, they only accepted the phenomena as such and lived side by side with them. People’s fear, anxiety and respect towards them are their expressions of regarding them as part of communal existence.
Then, modernity has made these supernatural things in nature more and more rare. And it was modernism, if not religious authority like in Europe, that made people question, in the name of progress, why these “strange” transformations occur. And then it even made people stop questioning this question to promote a method of establishing “self” within a system, which was called “absurdité”. As those ghosts and spirits disappeared from our daily environment, literature nevertheless has evolved with these dynamics of questioning and not questioning transformation.
In Japanese literature for example, much of which is derived from China, stories of ghosts, spirits, transformation and metamorphoses of one being to another were one of the pillars of literature from its early days until quite recently. “Taketori monogatari (Tale of the Bamboo Cutter)”, a story from the 10th century that is widely considered as the first written story in Japan, is a story of metamorphose of a woman (from something else to a human, and then she goes back to the same something for reasons that are not questioned within the story). The 18th century collection of short stories “Ugetsu monogatari (Tales of Moonlight and Rain)” by Akinari Ueda is known to have elaborated ghost stories presented in a highly sophisticated and mysterious style of literature. One of its 9 tales is a story of a Buddhist monk who turned into a carp and then back to a human being again.
There was a monk who painted nature very skillfully. He often bought fish that were caught by fishermen, released them back into a lake and liked to paint them swimming with a new life. He became well known among people as a good hearted painter-monk.
Then one day he died suddenly. As people mourned and prepared his funeral, they noticed he was still alive. They waited – then he woke up and asked people to call one of the supporters of his temple. As the man came in, the monk described the party that this man was preparing in his house in detail. As people and the man were surprised why he knew such details of the event he hadn’t been part of, the monk went on to explain what had happened in his dream: He became so sick that he went to a lake to swim where a fish approached and helped him becoming a carp. He didn’t wonder why and how he became a carp and swam freely for a while until became so hungry that he bit at the bait and was and captured by a fisherman. He was taken to the man’s house, a cook was about to chop him, he screamed but nobody heard him. Then he woke up from his dream.
People were so impressed by his story that they released all the captured fish. The monk went on to live a happy long life.
Other stories of “Ugetsu” talk about ghosts that are masterfully described, demonstrating the skill of this author. Jyun Ishikawa, a modernist writer who translated “Ugetsu”, describes Ueda’s this skill as “The sentences were amazingly naturally written. It is beyond if the author is skillful or not. Not because these sentences are well written a ghost appears. It was because a ghost appeared there were these extremely precise expressions in necessity. A ghost means an expression, this had to come together spontaneously.” Ishikawa’s words describe the complex relationship between supernatural phenomena and natural expression, spirits in atmosphere and spirits in words, and in natural and the technical world. Ishikawa himself examined and practiced the technique of mastering natural description of supernatural phenomena “in necessity” to carry out a flawless narrative of a modern novel, and succeeded in number of his works.
In the Japanese language these spirits and ghosts are also called “mono no ke”. “ke” is mystery or something that will possess, and “mono” refers to on object, a thing, a material, a quality, a substance, or in other use, anything that affects people by its unknown power. Some anthropologists compare the word to the Melanesian word of “mana”, which refers to supernatural power. A well-known Melanesian expert, Robert Henry Codrington described it as “there is a belief in a force altogether distinct from physical power, which acts in all kinds of ways for good and evil, and which it is of the greatest advantage to possess or control. This is Mana.” Japan and these Pacific islands share some folk tales, and the link of these indigenous tales and languages has been researched.
How have these pre-modern “mono no ke” spirits and ghosts stories evolved in modernist time? One good example can be seen in “Sangetsuki” by Atsushi Nakajima that was said to have written around 1940 and is based on a Chinese story.
Ricyo was an elite and intelligent young man who passed the bureaucrat’s test earlier than the others. Having too much self-esteem, he didn’t want to work as a boring bureaucrat and had an ambition to become a successful poet. Failing in his ambition he went back to do bureaucratic work again, because of the necessity to feed his family, only to find out that his former colleagues had become higher ranking officers than him. He lived this humiliation for a while until, one day, he disappeared.
Some time passed and one day Ricyo’s former close friend Ensan, who also became a high ranking officer, was traveling for official purposes. On his way, on a country road he was nearly attacked by a tiger. Noticing the tiger , that had hidden away, had a familiar voice, he found out that the tiger was Ricyo. Ricyo explained to him that his “cowardly pride and arrogant sense of shame” turned him into a tiger. After that he asked Ensan to write down his unpublished poems and to take care of his wife and children. He showed Ensan the last glimpse of himself as a tiger, and ran away.
As it can be seen, as a modern novel, this story of transformation is the story of a man’s self-consciousness. This story has been chosen as textbook material for high school students to educate them the meaning of transformation in modernist time. For the students to be guided, the high school textbooks pose questions such as:
What kind of man Ricyo had been before he became a tiger?
In the novel Ricyo says to Ensan “It is the fate of us living things to receive anything that is imposed on us without questioning or protesting against its reason, and to go on living without any chance to find out why we must live like that.” Try to think of Ricyo’s feeling when he said this.
List how the “human heart” has been changed inside Ricyo after he became a tiger, and think of the meaning of this change.
What does “cowardly pride and arrogant sense of shame” mean?
Considering why Ricyo became a tiger, summarize this work’s theme
Describe the effect of the moon in this novel
Try to read other works on transformation such as “Metamorphoses” by Kafka and “Stick” by Kobo Abe.
From these questions and tasks we can presume how the Japanese high school students learn about the modern concept of transformation. The aspired students then would go on to study Hoffman and Kafka in universities.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the Thai film director who created a man-tiger transformation sequence in his film, himself mentions that after his Japanese friend read the script of “Tropical Malady” he talked about the similarity of that part with “Sangetsuki” – apparently the Thai director was not aware of neither the Chinese nor the Japanese story when he wrote the script. The man-tiger in the jungle of his film is seen by the main character Keng as his subject of love, Tong. This segment thus can be explained as a sexual dream if an audience wants to rationalize the part. In fact many of the stories of transformation bring along erotic connotations, perhaps because for all of us the most dramatic physical transformation in us in reality occurs during puberty and that is in our memory. Also, transformation also brings with it some kind of uneasiness and shyness, and that can be seen as erotic to many. One of the most read folk tales in Japan is a story of transformation by a crane that was saved by a man and then turned herself to a human woman to become his wife out of gratitude. She even weaves beautiful kimonos to bring income to the home. Yet when she weaves she prohibits her husband to see her -- because in fact the crane was using her own feathers for weaving. In the end he couldn’t help but see her and found out the true nature of his wife. This is a sad story but in it there is a peculiar eroticism of a woman not showing everything. Also, the feeling of uncertainty about not knowing whether one is in a dream or in reality can be a source of erotic inspiration.
And now I’d like to examine transformation as a modern literary technique in the novels of Jyun Ishikawa. “Shion monogatati (The Archer)” (1956) is a story of a highly talented child prodigy of poetry who turned himself to an archer as a show of revelry against his own poet father. After he became a provincial official he started to kill anybody who was in his way, most of them innocent, totally misplacing literacy and militarism, and was feared. One day however he met a man who lived in the mountain and who devoted himself to make Buddhist art all his life. The archer saw him as an unconquerable rival, and tried to shoot the art-work only to see himself falling off from the mountain. The head of the art-work fell off too, and whenever people tried to place the head back in the original place, it kept falling off. This short story contains enormously complex subjects -from literature, art and culture, militarism, politics, dictatorship, and leadership. “Shifuku Sennen (The Millennium)” (1967) is a novel about a battle between different sects of secret Christians in Japan in the Edo period, with the background of Japan opening up to the Western countries. These sects try to create Armageddon, a cult leader, myths and miracles to win over rivals. A similar battle is created in the novel “Kyoufouki (The story of mad wind)” (1970-1980), but in this long fiction the battle is by ghosts against the powers in modern times. In all these novels people easily metamorphose themselves into other beings and phenomena, and vice versa. In the Archer, a fox that the archer hunted metamorphoses herself into a woman that becomes his wife and waits for the moment of successful revenge. In the Millennium, a cult member even transforms himself into a fire in a prison to let a jailed fellow secret Christian escape. Why don’t these unbelievable, almost crazy situations make these novels fall into the category of popular entertainment genre but instead, they are considered fine art or even the greatest masterpieces of Japanese modern literature by many critics and readers? Firstly, this technique, just like other literature techniques, makes the literature autonomous as literature, linking the complex plots to create the universe of imagination. Secondly, these novels guarantee the continuation of the tradition of Japanese literature, while they conduct radical experiments. And the third, each unbelievable transformation is an allegorical representation of far-fetched narratives that various authorities have created throughout history in order for it to maintain power, such as the Japanese imperial myths and the stories of miracles in different religions.
These modernists’ experiments of challenging minds of people living in modern times are today practiced in cultures in which children are protagonists. The enormous support for Hayao Miyazaki’s animation films and the recent hit movie “Pan’s Labyrinth” by the Mexican film director Guillermo del Toro are prime examples. In these films, mostly girl protagonists wander into the world of transformation and metamorphoses, meeting strange creatures and beings, accept them, take them in full, and even lead these phenomena in the end. The base of these films always lies in Alice but these recent girl movies try to touch the nostalgic heart of viewers that may or may not be mourning for the disappearing culture of animism and transformation. Modern adults are too rational and only the girls accept these phenomena without question. Grown-ups are indeed in trouble.
 “A semi-retired ghostbuster” report by Thanaporn Promyamyai, The Bangkok Post, Feb.27, 2007
 Jyun Ishikawa “Akinari shiron” 1959 Bungaku no.27 Aug.