History Special 8: Garden of Edo

I. WHEN ABSENCE MATTERS If it's in the title, it must be in the story, too. But if you run through the 700 pages of Hinako Sugiura's comic, Sarusuberi you won't find trace of the titular flower. Not even a petal. At the same time, it is there. All the time. In (almost) each story. You simply need to know what to look for. Because this is a work of fiction conceived by an Edo period's mind, therefore the answers are not exposed, but demand to be discovered. And are meant to be personal, and not universal.

People in the Edo period favoured an attitude to life called iki. Being smart and stylish while remaining simple and spontaneous, was considered savoir vivre. The opposite to this concept was yabo, or being self-centered and greedy, pretentious and showy, and obsessed with money and material things. It goes without saying that literature and art of that age were conceived under such iki aesthetics. Authors abhorred being straightforward about meanings or conclusions, because it was regarded as utterly yabo, or unsophisticated.

II. ONE HUNDRED DAYS OF CRIMSON Sarusuberi is the Japanese name of a woody perennial tree known as Lagerstroemia indica, crape (or crepe) myrtle in English, lilas d'été or myrte de crêpe in French, espumilla or árbol de Júpiter in Spanish, bae-gil-hong in Korean and zī wēi in Mandarin. Originating from southern China, it is very common in Korea and Japan. As the trunk grows and the cork layer starts peeling off, it exposes an extremely smooth new bark, hence its Japanese name, literally "monkey slide," because the trunk is so slippery that a monkey (saru) could use it as a slide (suberi). However, the word "sarusuberi" is written with three Chinese characters that have no phonetical relation with the Japanese reading, nor with monkeys or slides, but instead they provide an additional meaning, or "one hundred day-lasting crimson." This refers to the tree's extended blooming period, because during three months, from July through September, the crape myrtle flowers bloom and fall, and bloom again, offering the unique view of a tree permanently in full bloom, despite the ground is covered in its fallen pink petals.

Crape myrtle flowers can be found in almost every temple or shrine in Japan, where they are appreciated for their beautiful flowers during summertime. The tree was first introduced in Europe from India circa 1759 through the Swedish East India Company. At the time, the Company was directed by Carl Magnus von Lagerström (1691-1759), who never visited Asia personally, but gave instructions to gather botanical specimen from India and China for his friend, Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy. Von Lagerström died that very same year, and Linnaeus decided to name the new species after him: lagerstroemia indica. The tree was first introduced in North America, and specifically in South Carolina, by French botanist André Michaux in 1790 (photo: fp).

In the frontispiece of the very first story of her comic book, Sugiura quotes a haiku by poetess Kaga no Chiyo (1703-1775): "As they bloom, so they scatter; as they scatter, so they bloom. Sarusuberi flowers." In the book's foreword, Sugiura explains how she could not find a more appropriate metaphor to describe Hokusai, who tirelessly produced so many works of art, yet his creativity seemed to never wither. She called the sarusuberi blooming season "a long festival," an expression that Hara transformed into a dialogue line given by O-Ei at the very beginning of the film.

III. THE CIRCLE IS NOT ROUND Many of Kaga no Chiyo's haiku are dedicated to flowers, and flowers were something Sugiura particularly loved. Aware of this interest, Keiichi Hara decided to express the flow of time in his movie (which is a story told through the four seasons) by featuring flowers that are specific to each season. This artistic decision is one of Hara's many understated contributions to the source material. Miss Hokusai opens in the summer of 1814, with O-Ei remarking that the crape myrtle tree in her mother's garden is blooming, therefore it can be assumed that the time should be around July. When O-Ei takes O-Nao to Ryogoku Bridge, we can see red spider lilies (higanbana in Japanese) in the background. These flowers bloom around the second half of September, as suggested by their Japanese name, literally meaning "autumn equinox flowers". Higan also refers to the other side of the Sanzu river, or the river flowing between this and the other world.

The snow sequence, set at Mimeguri Shrine, features beautiful Japanese camellias, also known as "roses of winter". This flower will acquire particular relevance as it will return in one crucial scene in the second half of the film. In the episode of the haunted picture, Hara seems to make an exception to his flower rule, with swallows announcing the month of May, followed by heavy rain (June being the rainy season) used to enhance dramatic effect during the scene with O-Ei and Hatsugoro. But toward the end of the film, when Hokusai is heading to Koto's house, Hara masterfully includes a very short and apparently accidental glimpse of the very same crape myrtle tree featured at the beginning of the film, its flowers blooming again: summer has come once more, one year has passed.

This is the only clear time reference the film provides to its audience.
Unless, of course, you paid due attention to the adorable puppy hanging around Hokusai's place. (fp)

The crape myrtle tree in Koto's garden, as seen at the beginning of the film.

Red spider lilies can be seen when O-Ei takes O-Nao to Ryogoku Bridge. Originally from China, these flowers were introduced into the American continent from Japan.

O-Ei describes the colour of a camellia to blind O-Nao in the poetic snow sequence.

(8 - to be continued)

© 2017 fp
© 2014-2015 Hinako Sugiura•MS.HS / Sarusuberi Film Partners