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'Okiku and the World': A Rare Glimpse of Edo Tokyo's Lucrative Excrement Trade

"Okiku and the World" is a human drama, a portrait of a society on the cusp of wrenching change, and as an illustration of a "circular bio-economy" in action.



Haru Kuroki as Okiku and Kanichiro as the junior partner in the excrement business in the film “Okiku and the World”. (© FANTASIA)

Piss and shit rarely feature much in historical dramas. But in the recently released Okiku and the World, they are crucial to the story. The two male protagonists are entrepreneurs in the human excrement trade. We see them stirring the stuff, pouring it into barrels, and even rubbing it in the face and clothes of an arrogant samurai. The filmmakers take care to make it look highly realistic.

Director Junji Sakamoto was inspired to make the film after a discussion with a historian about the complex "circular bio-economy" that Japan developed in the Edo era (1600-1868). In the giant city of Edo (now Tokyo), "night soil" was gathered from collection points. It was taken by barge to farming districts to the west and north where it was exchanged for crops or money. 

Okiku’s father (left) played by Koichi Sato (© FANTASIA)

The Utility of Feces

The trade was lucrative, to the extent that there were periodic protests about price gouging and market-cornering by middlemen. In the film, we see one of our two heroes watering down the product, which was another common ruse. Farmers couldn't do without the fertilizer, and Edo's one million citizens couldn't do without the fruit and vegetables it helped to grow. According to Director Sakamoto, the system has lessons for our current world of heightened eco-consciousness and SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals).

There seems little doubt that pre-modern Edo was a cleaner and healthier place than the teeming cities of the West at the time. This was partly due to the night soil trade. Professor David Howell of Harvard University goes as far as to suggest that "a cultural memory of shit's utility" lies behind Japanese people's "refusal to treat excrement as an object of special anxiety." And indeed night soil continued to be used as a fertilizer into the 1950s, much to the shock of expat housewives finding traces on the produce at the local market.

Large parts of urban Japan were not connected to the sewer system until the 1980s. They relied on vacuum trucks to suck the excrement out of septic tanks a couple of times a week. Your own personal dung did not disappear in a flash, as if by magic. It was still there, as the odor proved.

Okiku and the World
Most of the film is in monochrome. (© FANTASIA)

'Unko' in Kawaii Culture

Contemporary Japan's relaxed attitude to its feces is best captured by the Unko Museums (Turd Museums) located in Tokyo and other major cities. Here turds are amalgamated into Japan's "kawaii" (cuteness) culture. Visitors can play "unko" games, take selfies of themselves sitting on fake plastic toilets with friends and family, and buy "unko" mugs and snacks in the souvenir shop. We are a long way from the anality taboo that underpins much Freudian psychoanalysis. 

Who is out of step here, Japan or the West? Professor Robert Muchembled of Paris 13 University has written extensively about the history of smells. He notes that disgust at smells is fundamental to humans but is not biologically programmed. 

"It takes four or five years at least for European children to construct disgust at their own excrement. Few people nowadays are willing to acknowledge this, preferring to believe that  such disgust is natural … in fact, it is the result of several centuries of cultural pressure." 

Muchembled goes back to the French people of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to make his case. "Having no choice but to see and smell what Rabelais called 'joyful matter' on a daily basis, they showed little disgust at feces and urine, whether human or animal; indeed, both were widely used in medicine and beauty treatments."

"Okiku and the World" is set in pre-modern Edo. (© FANTASIA)

Open-Minded Acceptance of Bodily Functions

Two phenomena changed this consciousness. First, the miasma theory of disease, which was debunked only in the late nineteenth century. It held that malodorous air from rotting organic matter was the source of infection. Secondly, the Counter-Reformation, which ushered in a hard-line religious morality. It associated bad smells with Satan, ever ready with his temptations. Publishing dirty jokes could get you exiled or killed. 

On this reading, it is the countries of the West that have been behaving bizarrely, not Japan, which had no Reformation or Counter-Reformation and never subscribed to the miasma theory. Instead, the open-minded acceptance of bodily functions that characterized the earlier Europe of Rabelais and Erasmus carried on uninterrupted in Edo-era Japan.

If Professor Muchembled is to be believed, we have little need to feel sorry for the two piss-and-shit dealers in the movie. "Things do not smell good or bad in and of themselves: our brains categorize them and then record the memory," he states. "Humans adapt perfectly to strong smells. After about fifteen minutes, we stop smelling even the worst stench or most delightful fragrance."

According to Professor Robert Muchembled, "Humans adapt perfectly to strong smells." (© FANTASIA)

On the Eve of a New World

The action in Okiku and the World takes place in the 1850s and 1860s. It was on the eve of the Meiji Restoration when the old order was visibly crumbling and a new world was waiting to be born. But you don't have to be interested in history or ecology to enjoy the film, which subtly and poignantly recounts the trials and tribulations of the two men and Okiku, the school-teacher daughter of a down-at-heel samurai. 

Despite — or, perhaps, because of — the unusual subject matter, the filmmakers had no problem assembling a star-studded cast. This includes the luminous Haru Kuroki as Okiku and handsome boy Kanichiro as the junior partner in the excrement business. 

The acting is uniformly strong and the cinematography stays in the mind's eye. Sakamoto uses an uncommon aspect ratio, and most of the film is in monochrome, with color seeping in at the beginning and end of some scenes. That semi-retro look is, it seems, a tribute to Humanity and Paper Balloons (directed by Sadao Yamanaka; 1937), a prewar classic that clearly influenced him.

The film works on all levels — as a human drama, as a portrait of a society on the cusp of wrenching change, and as an illustration of a "circular bio-economy" in action. Given the unique background, it should intrigue foreign audiences too.


Author: Peter Tasker