Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Semi-sounds = Japanese Summer

If you play the above video before reading this text you might wonder what the point is: not much action other than a few bugs (yes, they are bugs, not birds) flying about, an occasional bicyclist passes by... But here the image/visual is not so important - it is the sound. Watch/listen to the video again with the volume turned up to the highest setting and you will begin to get an idea of the summer sounds of cicada (semi, セミ in Japanese). Yes, those large, fluttering creatures in the video are cicadas. The semi-sound is constant and loud of the Japanese summer. Here is a brief description of Japanese cicadas:

In Japan, cicadas start screaming around the middle of July and they disappear around the beginning of September. During this period, you can't really escape from the deafening chorus of their love songs. As long as there are some trees, you can find them on the trunks of the trees.

It said they spend several years underground as larvae and they pop out from the earth in a relatively dry summer evening. You can find their larvae slowly climbing the trunks of nearby trees. Once they have found a nice and stable position, they start the metamorphosis. Their wings are soft, thick and opaque at first, but becomes harder, thinner and clearer as they are dried overnight. Next morning they fly somewhere. However, they are allowed to live their life as a mature form only for a week or so. Therefore, they shout and scream their love songs as aloud as possible.

Normally, cicadas only sing during daylight. However, these days busy cities are brightly illuminated even at night, so that some confused cicadas scream at night as well.

There are a number of cicada species in Japan. Each has a different song.
(Source: Cicadas in Japan, http://lang-8.com/odon/journals/1034412/)

Behind my house is a stream lined with cherry trees. The spring brings beautiful sakura (cherry blossoms) while the summer brings the wall of sound of the semi. Until one gets used to it, it could drive one mad. Or inspire poetry, stories, movies and manga as it has done in Japan.

Another point here is the emphasis on sound. A good visual anthropologist/filmmaker knows the importance of a good microphone in the field and the challenge of mixing sound in the editing booth. Sound is especially important in contemporary and experimental visual anthropology. One example of this is the work of Amanda Belantara, 耳がきゅっとなる ("Ears Are Dazzled, Touched by Sound"). She describes the project as follows:

A collective exploration of the sounds that surround us, this film features sounds and images inspired by sound diaries kept by local people in Yamaguchi, Japan. An intriguing portrait of the invisible, the film’s unconventional style attempts to reveal the magical quality of sounds that lies hidden in the everyday.

Of course the semi-sound is not hidden at all. There are a number of interesting websites dealing with semi. Here are a couple:

Japanese Cicadae Homepage: http://homepage2.nifty.com/saisho/Zikade-e.html

Singing, ticking timebombs – 5 facts about the special significance of cicadas in Japan: http://en.rocketnews24.com/2014/08/11/singing-ticking-timebombs-5-facts-about-the-special-significance-of-cicadas-in-japan/

There was another excellent article about the connection between semi and notions of the Japanese seasons by cultural anthropologist/naturalist Kevin Short; unfortunately the source, The Japan News, has removed it... Anyway, articles, webpages and videos don't do justice to the sound. One must experience the hot, humid and noisy Japanese summer to fully appreciate it. But we visual anthropologists still try to share the experience...

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