Kurosawa's Bush Warbler

By Abhijit Menon-Sen <ams@toroid.org>

2009-12-06

One of my most enduring memories of Kurosawa's Sanjuro (a sequel of sorts to Yojimbo) is of Mifune's sardonic smile as he explains to a group of well-meaning but clueless young men that they're looking for corruption in all the wrong places. The other is of a cheerful bit of bird song, repeated throughout the film; and, indeed, in many other Japanese films by Kurosawa, Masaki Kobayashi, and others. I'd always wondered which bird was singing.

I posted to the naturerecordists list a couple of years ago, describing the call: a loud, fluty (fwEEEE) whitch-chit-chew. It was quickly identified as the Japanese Bush Warbler Cettia diphone by someone in Hawai'i (where it is apparently a very successful invasive species). I learned later that the long, subdued whistle followed by an explosive jumble of notes is typical of a Cettia warbler's song; but I had never seen or heard one when I first watched Sanjuro.

I assumed the species was common in Japan (given how often its song featured in films), but once it was identified, I stopped thinking about it. There seemed little chance that I would ever hear it live (although C. d. cantuarians may occur as a vagrant to North-East India), and little else about the song to hold my attention… until now.

I had the opportunity to spend two days birding around Delhi with Mark Brazil (author of Birds of East Asia) this week, and one of the many subjects we discussed was Cettia diphone. To my delight, Mark told me that there was much more to the song of the Uguisu than I had imagined.

In Japan, the Uguisu's song is very well-known, and it pervades poetry and literature as a symbol of the spring revival; signifying rebirth, hope, and an end to the hard (winter) times. It is also called the "spring bird" and "poem reading bird", and its call is traditionally transcribed as "Hō ho-ke-kyo". In poetry, the bird is associated with the ume (sour plum) blossom, and is as evocative of spring as the cherry blossom. (Aside: the Uguisu's droppings are even powdered and used to lighten the skin, since they contain guanine.)

Its position in Japanese culture is comparable to that of the Nightingale in western Europe; and the bird's name used to be translated into English as "Japanese Nightingale", though it does not sing at night. (The only bird I can think of whose call is similarly well-known in Indian poetry is the Koel, whose incessant, plaintive song in early summer has also led to comparisons with the Nightingale.)

There are many other Cettia warblers in India. I've seen the Grey-sided Bush Warbler C. brunnifrons both in its wintering grounds and nesting near the tree line in Kumaon, but not heard its song (yet). Brownish-flanked Bush Warbler C. fortipes is also relatively common in the mountains, and other species may also occur. Now that I know something of what I have to look forward to, I always keep an ear out for them.

I may never hear Cettia diphone singing, but its song has brought me much joy.