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The Japanese Onion

by Christopher
The best way to communicate the idea of the “Japanese Onion” (as I have termed it) is to offer a passage from J Thomas Rimer’s essay, “Japanese Literature: Four Polarities” in which he discusses the role of the waka poem in Noh theater: “At the heart of many of those plays lies a famous waka poem, often one already known to the audience from a previous familiar source. The events of the play and the characters who meet or reenact them are woven around this poem like layers of an onion. As the drama begins, a secondary character, often a traveling priest or monk, is, like the audience, at the outer layer. Then, one layer after another is… Read more

The best way to communicate the idea of the “Japanese Onion” (as I have termed it) is to offer a passage from J Thomas Rimer’s essay, “Japanese Literature: Four Polarities” in which he discusses the role of the waka poem in Noh theater:

“At the heart of many of those plays lies a famous waka poem, often one already known to the audience from a previous familiar source. The events of the play and the characters who meet or reenact them are woven around this poem like layers of an onion. As the drama begins, a secondary character, often a traveling priest or monk, is, like the audience, at the outer layer. Then, one layer after another is stripped away until, at the moment of highest tension, the actual poem is recited. The complete Noh play thus provides not Shakespeare’s clash of incident and personality but rather a crucial context that can justify the implicit emotional power of the poem. Such a structure of discovery, when the reader or spectator begins on the outside and works his or her way towards the central concern of the writer is a powerful one that, in various forms, continues in many great works of modern literature.”

And, of course, in cinema as well. The following is a list of Japanese films that employ this device of hiding some kind of poetic revelation (or in some cases, lack thereof) at the center of the plot’s “layered onion”, or some variation on the idea.

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