Drunk Life Dream Death


Hattori Hanzo (服部半蔵) lived nearby here in the Iga Ueno area (伊賀上野), home of the famous ninja (忍者) castle. It is also where Basho (芭蕉) wrote many of his haiku (俳句), as written in the Noisy Ninja post. Hattori lived from 1541 to 1596.

Sonny Chiba played this role in a series of movies. In 2003, he played a character by the same name in Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill”. Basically, this movie is a stringing together of homage (or knock-offs, depending on your point of view) to karate and kung fu films. The new Hattori Hanzo, is running a small bar in Okinawa (沖縄), under his secret sword-making operation. If you have seen the film, you may have noticed a work on the wall behind the bar with four characters on it.

The work is what we call yojijukugo (四字熟語), or ‘four-character compound’. When we say 2 or 3-character compound, we usually mean just that; however, when we say 4-character compound, there is the implication that it is an idiom, parable, saying, etc.,

Suiseimushi (酔生夢死) is the reading for the work at Hattori’s bar. It was originally written by Teishi, a Confucian, in the Sung Dynasty (Sou, in Japanese), sometime between 960 and 1279. The characters are ‘drunk’, ‘life’, ‘dream’, and ‘death’. I struggled through three dictionaries to try and get the meaning; often 4-character compounds are very philosophical and written in ancient Chinese, making them hard even for Japanese people to understand.

  • Completing a useless life, not even accomplishing one meaningful thing.
  • Just absentmindedly passing life in vain, not doing work that seems like work.
  • Living as if totally drunk, and appearing like one in a dream from a will of death.
  • A life coming to an end with no particular value. This entry was appended with the comment: “like the life of many people”. (And I thought I was cynical.)

I’m guessing that the second entry might have applied to Hattori working as a bartender and just chatting away. Or maybe the other meanings could apply to most of the other characters who are just living to kill each other off. When I saw the work in the movie, I thought it might have some deeper meaning, but I was pretty disappointed when I dug deeper. Certainly, not much of a motivator to study Confucianism.


4 Responses to “Drunk Life Dream Death”

  1. sunkissd1 Says:

    I have a hard time wrapping my brain around the idea that people actually lived that long ago. The tail end of the 1800’s is about as far back as I can conceptualize.

  2. びっくり Says:

    Yeah, I always find it interesting when I read stuff like, “This festival has been celebrated for 750 years.” I’ve visited a couple shrines that were built in the 8th century. America is so young!

    When I talk about Independence Day, I usually cap things off by saying, “America is a baby!” On Japan’s national day we see numbers like 2667 years as an independent nation; just not quite the same as 231 years, is it?

  3. Finding Bikkuri 2 « Neo-新びっくりブログ Says:

    […] noticed that Google put me as number two for that search; right behind drunklife.com. All I did was translate a piece of calligraphy from behind the Okinawan bar in Kill […]

  4. Rich Says:

    “Death is a dream; life is drunkenness.” Most traditional calligraphy would read right to left; only recently did it change to a Western left to right. Normally, the easiest clue for a non-Japanese to tell which is which is that the piece would be signed and sealed at the end. This piece, however, is not signed. But reading from left to right, it would be “Drunkenness [is] life; dream [is] death;” whereas the reverse makes more grammatic sense.

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