Tuesday, August 30, 2011

"The Graduate" (1967) (Film review)

The Graduate is a so-called iconic film from the 1960s, directed by Mike Nichols and with music by Simon and Garfunkel. Dustin Hoffman plays college graduate Benjamin, who has an expressionless face, wants to be left alone and refuses to socialize or think about his future. He drifts everyday dreamily in the family swimming pool.

Well, that is something you can do when your parents are well-off (and give you a flashy red sports car for your graduation). It may also be a typical attitude of those who came of age in the sixties. Later generations have learned that life is not so soft that they can passively let it float by.

Strangely enough, this is a youth film and it has the image of being rebellious. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Benjamin suffers a bit from the usual generation conflict, but in his deepest heart he is an arch conservative. He allows himself to be seduced by the wife of the business partner of his father, Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), but considers their affair as "sordid." Is that the famous sexual revolution?

When Benjamin is next forbidden to date Mrs. Robinson's daughter Elaine, he on the contrary decides to marry her without knowing anything about the girl. Elaine (Katherine Ross) studies at Berkeley but she is only remarkable for her false eyelashes. Benjamin even goes so far as to kidnap her from the altar when she is marrying another guy (an idea copied from Harold Lloyd's Girl Shy). In the last shot they sit together in a bus, speeding away, and you see each of them wonder: What now? Benjamin has in fact done the reactionary thing, picking the girl his parents originally wanted him to marry.

So there is nothing at all subversive in this romantic bedroom comedy. Instead of a map to liberation, it offers only a key to conformity. It is still watchable and there are some funny episodes (Benjamin in a diving suit, finally finding peace on the floor of the family pool), but forget about the icons.

Nishi Honganji (Kyoto Guide)

What is now known as Nishi Honganji was the original Honganji temple built in 1591 under the patronage of Hideyoshi. It traces its origins to the mausoleum set up in 1272 for the founder of the sect, Shinran.

Like its eastern counterpart, the accessible part of Nishi Honganji is characterized by two enormous halls, to the right the Amida Hall and to left the large Goeido or Daishido. "Goei" means "holy image" and this hall is the spiritual center of the temple as it is dedicated to Shinran, whose 85 cm high statue is placed on the altar. It is said to be coated by lacquer through which part of Shinran's ashes were mixed, so it is very sacred.

The Goeido Hall dates from 1636 - in recent years the huge roof was restored, partly with new tiles. The hall is 62 meters wide and 48 deep. Height of the roof is 29 meters. There are in all 227 pillars and the hall can hold 3,000 people.

[Higurashimon of Nishi Honganji. Photo Ad Blankestijn]

Amida is of course the central Buddha in Pure Land Buddhism, but he comes in second place after Shinran as the Honganji originated in a funeral temple dedicated to the sect's founder. The Amida Hall is therefore in both Hongaji temples smaller than the hall dedicated to Shinran. In Nishi Honganji it is 45 meters wide and 42 deep and contains 492 tatami mats. The heavy roof is supported by 132 pillars. It can hold a congregation of 1,500 persons. This building dates from 1760. The position of both halls is switched compared with Higashi Honganji.

While these huge halls are more or less the same as those of the temple's counterpart, Higashi Honganji, Nishi Honganji owns some precious architectural treasures, representative of the showy and gorgeous artistic style of the Momoyama-period. Unfortunately, these are not open to the general public (they were in the past, but apparently the temple's policies have changed).
  1. In the SE corner of the temple grounds is an enclosure hiding the delicate Hiunkaku or Pavilion of Flying Clouds (National Treasure). Its complicated roof style is perhaps a bit mannered, but it can compete in importance with the Golden and Silver Pavilions. It has three stories, the first one with Karahafu / Irimoya roof style, the second one with Karahafu / Yosemune roof style and the third one with Hogyo roof style. The pavilion stands at the Soro Pond and at the time it was built, the only means of access was by boat. On the pond side the pavilion has a Funairi where boats could be moored. The windows of the pavilion, called Katomado, are covered by a fine lattice. 
  2. To the SW of the Goeido Hall stands the Shoin (National Treasure), the largest shoin-style structure in Japan. Lavishly decorated, it consists of two halls: the Taimenjo or Audience Hall, which is 330 square meters large, and has been gorgeously decorated by Hasegawa Tohaku. The room is divided into an upper and a lower part; between the pillars separating these two parts is an openwork screen depicting swans in the clouds (therefore the room is also called Otori no Ma, or Swan Room). Also note the secret chamber (musakakushi) at the back of the upper part, where guards could hide, and the Katomado to the right with behind it an alcove with chigaidana staggered shelves. The Shiro Shoin contains three chambers: Jodan no Ma (the First Room, also called Shimyo no Ma or Purple Room), the Ni no Ma (Second Room) and the San no Ma (Third Room, also called Kujaku no Ma or Peacock Room). Note the coffered ceiling with its sunken panels; the mural on the rear wall depicting legendary Chinese Emperors and the Kugikakushi or carvings designed to conceal nails, often depicting shishi, Chinese lions, or peonies.There is also a classical garden, Kokei no Niwa
  3. Northern Noh Stage (1581, National Treasure)
  4. Kuro Shoin (National Treasure). 
  5. Karamon, also called Higurashimon, as one can keep looking at it for a whole day (National Treasure). This magnificent four-legges gate features a roof in Irimoya style with a Karahafu decorated with brilliantly colored ornamental carvings, depicting persons from Chinese legend and history. On the front of the gate one also sees carvings of Chinese lions (karajishi ). 
The temple possesses other treasures as well, such as the Sanjurokunin-kashu, calligraphy of poetry on decorated paper.

Access: 15 min walk from Kyoto Station. The temple stands to the northwest from the station and faces the broad Horikawa Ave. Or take bus 9. 28 or 75 from Kyoto St to Nishi Hongaji-mae. You can also walk here from Higashi Honganji, through the district selling religious items. Grounds free.  
The mausoleum of Shinran that belongs to Nishi Honganji is called Otani Honbyo and stands at Gojo, next to the entrance to Pottery Slope leading to the Kiyomizu Temple. 
In the vicinity: Shimabara. Also explore the Buddhist shops in Honganji Jinaicho, the area between both Honganji temples.

Monday, August 29, 2011

"Ninotchka" by Ernst Lubitsch, with Greta Garbo (1939) (Film review)

Ninotchka (d. Ernst Lubitsch) was promoted as the film in which Greta Garbo, the femme-fatale with the dark image, for the first time "laughs." Well, in this fluffy film she is made to laugh about Melvyn Douglas falling on his back and I am sure the real Garbo would never have laughed at such a stupid gag.

Ninotchka is a comedy of which parts have aged badly. The sociological banter is outdated. Although there are some snappy lines (thanks to the presence of Billy Wilder on the writing team?), I miss the subtlety I associate with Lubitsch and find in his other films.

So that leaves us Greta Garbo, playing Ninotchka, a stiff and unsmiling Soviet apparatchik come over to Paris to call three of her agents to order. Ninotchka falls rather too easily in love with aristocratic playboy Leon (Douglas), after which she is transformed into a frivolous romanticist loving beautiful clothes (gown designer Adrian deserves honorable mention here).

It was not capitalism that toppled communism, but flirtation. I sure am willing to buy that, but the only part of the movie that worked for me was the beginning, when Garbo plays a sort of parody of her own screen image: cold, curt and humorless - those are scenes that contain some real humor. After she converts to a softer image she gets drunk on champagne and has to talk with a double tongue in two extended scenes that are totally unfunny (I was relieved to find that also Garbo hated it).

Greta Garbo certainly was a great actress, she has real screen charisma. But why did she mostly play in the wrong films? She doesn't appear in even one film that is great and of artistic importance. That is her tragedy and also why her image has faded in recent years.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Shungiku (Kikuna)

Shungiku (also called "kikuna") are edible chrysanthemum leaves (Chrysanthemum coronarium, garland chrysanthemum).

Originally from the Mediterranean, reached japan via China in the Muromachi period (1336-1573).


Shungiku lit. means "spring chrysanthemum." These are not the leaves of actual chrysanthemums, but a different type which is a real vegetable. Shungiku taste slightly bitter. The autumn variety is officially called kikuna.

Chrysanthemum leaves are in the first place used as a vegetable in nabemono, one-pot stews, such as sukiyaki, shabu-shabu, or torinabe. I also add them to yudofu. They are also used in ohitashi (parboiled chrysanthemum leaves with a mixture of dashi and soy sauce) and aemono (parboiled chrysanthemum leaves with a tofu or sesame dressing). Shungiku can also be added raw to Western salads.

Listening to the complete Beethoven (8)

Opus 123: Missa Solemnis in D major (1823). Written to celebrate the appointment to Archbishop of Beethoven's patron and pupil, Archduke Rudolph of Austria. Huge work that puts enormous strain on the voices. There is a great sense of space and sonority. The Kyrie demonstrates an overwhelming sense of divine majesty; the Gloria is almost impossible to sing and culminates in a fugue; the Credo exudes a burning conviction; the Sanctus is reverent and mystical; and the Agnus dei is reflective and somber, leading to the double fugue of the Dona nobis pacem that lets peace triumph in a clear and confident D Major.

Opus 124: Die Weihe des Hauses (Consecration of the House), overture (1822). Overture written for the dedication of the new Theater in der Josefstadt in Vienna. Contains many fugal and contrapuntal elements. Followed by 9 short items of occasional music, which are seldom played.

Opus 125: Symphony No. 9 in D minor ("Choral") (1824). The last struggle from fate to victory, crowned by a Schiller text that sings of Beethoven's own ideals of egality and fraternity. The first three movements are in the enigmatic style of the late quartets. The choral finale, the Ode to Joy, develops a pattern set in Beethoven's own Choral Fantasy. The Ninth is Beethoven's second symphony in a minor key, d minor. The struggle to reach the D Major of Elysium in the finale is a real one, and the last movement by no means a more choral appendage. Like in Fidelio, the chorus assumes the role of the people en masse. One of the greatest symphonies ever written. Wikipedia has the text.

Opus 126: Six Bagatelles for piano (1824). These bagatelles seem to come from another world, they are completely different from anything Beethoven wrote in the same form. They are not "small, negligible pieces" anymore, no fluff, but one, deep-probing single work.

Opus 127: String Quartet No. 12 in E-flat major (1825). Essentially a lyrical work, putting more emphasis on variation techniques than fugal ones. The heart of the work is the variation-style slow movement, but even the sonata-form first movement has a variation feel. The scherzo is droll and dry and the quartet concludes in a manner of divine lightness.

Opus 128: Song: "Der Kuss" (1822). A humorous arietta. The last of Beethoven's songs to be published, but in fact dating from the late 1790s.

Opus 129: Rondo à Capriccio for piano in G major ("Rage over a lost penny") (1795). This early piano piece was in fact left incomplete by Beethoven and completed by Diabelli.

Opus 130: String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat major (1825). Huge string quartet in five long movements, even after Beethoven pruned it down by removing the final fugue for a simpler ending. The fugue is nowadays usually recorded as last track after the almost CD filling quartet, so we can again listen to Beethoven's original architecture.

Opus 131: String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor (1826). A 40 min work, consisting of 7 movements to be played without a break. The monumental quartet starts with a slow movement which incorporates a fugue. It is followed by a delicate dance movement, After a short introduction, then follows the central movement of the quartet, a set of 7 variations. Next is a presto scherzo; then a somber adagio which serves as the introduction to the final movement, with has a lyrical theme soaring up out of rhythmical violence.

Opus 132: String Quartet No. 15 in A minor (1825). Here, too, the slow movement is the heart of the quartet. Written at the same time as the quartet opus 130 and therefore closely related. The first part starts with a slow introduction foreshadowing the tense first theme; the second theme is delightfully lyrical. The second movement, continues the mood of tranquil serenity - it also contains an unexpected Landler-melody. The following molto adagio is the longest movement of the quartet and the deepest. It has strong religious overtones and resembles a prayer for strength. "With the most intimate feeling." The finale starts with a brief march, an affirmation of vitality, after which follows a vehement allegro appassionata.

Opus 133: Große Fuge in B-flat major for string quartet  (1826). The original finale of opus 130. A very difficult work, where Beethoven demonstrates his freedom in the shackles of the fugue form.

Opus 134: Piano arrangement (4 hands) of the Große Fuge, Opus 133 (1826). The fugue was so difficult to play for string quartets, that Beethoven made a piano version.

Opus 135: String Quartet No. 16 in F major (1826). Beethoven's last written work, lyrical like the quartet op. 127. The scherzo is the only violent note in the divine lightness that infuses the other parts. The lightness is however no a denial of struggle, but an embracing and thus taming of the warring elements. "Must it be? It must be!" is the motto Beethoven gave to one of the movements and which could stand for the whole quartet.

Opus 136: Cantata: Der glorreiche Augenblick (1814). An older, occasional work.

Opus 137: Fugue for String Quintet in D major (1817). An older work.

Opus 138: Leonore, opera (earlier version of Fidelio, with Leonore Overture No. 1) (1807). The third Leonore overture.

Concluding Beethoven
It was good to listen to all Beethoven's opus numbers and a selection from his other compositions. In grammar school, Beethoven was by far my favorite composer. As a teenager I liked of course loud music: his symphonies, concerts and overtures. But I heard his music so often, that later I grew tired of it.

Then, when I was a student, I discovered chamber music. This was initially for purely technical reasons: I had obtained an old reel tape recorder (mono!) and used it to make recordings from music on the radio, but the only music that could be recorded with some fidelity was chamber music. That is how I discovered the violin sonata, piano trio and string quartet - also those by Beethoven.

Later, in my thirties, when I collected CDs (and had done away with tape recorder, tapes and records), I bought new recordings of Beethoven. The orchestral works I bought as much as possible played on historical instruments. I also acquired the chamber music: the complete violin sonatas, the complete piano trios, complete cello sonatas, the string quartets (complete but played by various quartets) and most of the piano sonatas. This was the time I really enjoyed Beethoven's chamber music.

What I discovered by listening to the complete Beethoven now, is that most of the symphonies and concertos,which I heard almost daily in my teens, are still too familiar to my ears. I did however, appreciate anew the more meditative music of the violin concerto and the fourth piano concerto. Among the symphonies, I was this time most impressed by the Third (and Fourth).

The violin sonatas and piano trios still sounded fresh. New discoveries were some of the piano sonatas (and the experimental character of most serious piano music of Beethoven) and - above all - the string quartets. Many were as new to me - and I will be often coming back to this great music.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

"Broken Blossoms" (1919) by D.W. Griffith, with Lilian Gish (Film review)

Cheng Huan (Richard Barthelmess) is a Chinese storekeeper in London's slummy Limehouse district. A disillusioned man, he is addicted to opium. The only bright spot in his life is seeing Lucy Burrows (Lillian Gish) walk by his store. Lucy's stepfather "Battling Burrows" (Donald Crisp) is a brutish, boozing and womanizing prizefighter, who uses his daughter as a punching bag to get rid of his frustrations. Cheng saves her from the brute's claws, but when the boxer sees his daughter with a "yellow man," the beast is loose. He beats his daughter Lucy to death. Cheng, although a man of peace, kills the "pig" and then voluntarily exits this life himself. End of film. The "broken blossoms" are of course symbolic of Cheng and Lucy.

When I was a kid, I sometimes came across children's books that were melodrama incarnate. Children would be beaten and maltreated, they were all alone in the world, would get a terrible illness or die a painful death. I hated those books. Broken Blossoms reminded me of those despised books. If any keyword is applicable for this film, it must be "mawkish." This is a film for the handkerchief brigade.

On top of that, the film is totally dated. In 1919 the Chinese were called "yellow men" or "chinks" and interracial marriage was forbidden by law - it was a crime. When you spot a Chinese in the film, you can be sure he is clutching the cliche of an opium pipe. Cheng is not played by a Chinese actor, but by the American actor Richard Barthelmess, whose Caucasian nose and eyes give him away (if not the way he moves, which is not at all Chinese). Even so, a love story between the "yellow man" and "white maiden" was out of the question. Reviewers point out that Griffith was quite liberal in this case as he made a film about this subject at all, but that doesn't make me happy.

Gish was Griffith's favorite actress and has been praised for her role in this film, but I am afraid she looks a bit too old for it (twenty-three, while Lucy is supposed to be fifteen). On top of that - to show how pitiable she is - she staggers with small steps like an old woman, sentimentally overacting her role.

This is not a classic, but treacle trash and should be relegated to the back-shelves of the museum of film. D.W. Griffith has been praised as the first great American film director, and although he applied some technical innovations, his films are either racist (Birth of a Great Nation) or too melodramatic (the rest). There is no need to watch his movies anymore, unless when studying film history.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

"The Miracle of Morgan's Creek" by Preston Sturges, with Betty Hutton (1944)

The Miracle of Morgan's Creek is a screwball comedy, helmed by comedy specialist Preston Sturges and with Betty Hutton and Eddy Bracken in the main roles. The story is simple. Small-town girl Trudy Cockenlocker defies her cruel father (William Demarest) and joins an all-night send-off party for troops going to the front (this was after all 1944). When Trudy wakes up, she is still drunk from the "lemonade" she was made to drink, and she also remembers vaguely that she got "married," but has no memory of her partner's identity. A morning-after check at the local doctor indeed reveals that she is pregnant.

How to get out of this fix? Luckily, there is dim-witted local boy Norval Jones, who has been in love with Trudy for years and who is more than willing to help her find a way out of her predicament - he is even ready to marry her! Snowballing events keep that marriage out of reach until the end of the film, when he may call himself the proud "father" of a sextuplet - six boys to help the war effort as future cannon fodder - a miracle!

I don't mind that content, but this film is just too ridiculous - I almost stopped watching at the very beginning when in the record shop where she works Betty Hutton is play-backing to the deep voice of a male singer. Awful! The film is too loud, everybody is shouting all the time and running around without going anywhere. The slapstick is stupid - physical comedy of people falling down or hitting their heads. This is dated stuff, and no classic.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

"Casablanca" by Michael Curtiz, with Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart (1942) (Film review)

Casablanca (helmed by Michael Curtiz, a studio system director who apparently could do any sort of film) is set in 1942 in the Moroccan town of that name, when it was a French colony and administered by the Vichy government (in name independent, but in reality cooperating with the Germans). The route for Jews and others fleeing the Nazi's led via Casablanca, then from the air to Lisbon and from there on to the U.S. Casablanca is a like a hot stew with people from many nationalities gathered there and Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains) has difficulty keeping the peace. Suddenly a group of the German military also appears, led by Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt), hunting for the murderers of two German envoys. The center of foreign night life in Casablanca is the American Cafe run by Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), a world-weary man who drinks heavily, does not take sides and sticks his neck out for no one.

And then, "of all the gin joints in all the towns in the world," Rick's old love Elsa Lund (a luminous Ingrid Bergman) walks into Rick's cafe, together with her husband Victor Laslo (Paul Henreid). Laslo is a leader of the resistance and has been in a German concentration camp. He and Elsa need passes to be able to leave Casablanca safely and as it happens, Rick has just such papers secretly in his possession... but he is still angry with Elsa because she left him in the lurch...

This great film gets everything just right. The casting is inspired: Bogart, bruised and disillusioned, but also humane for finally he is roused to action; Bergman, young and more beautiful than ever; but also Veidt (sinister), Rains (frivolous) and Henreid (with a concentration camp scar on his brow) are perfect in their roles, as are the other characters in the smaller parts. In fact, most characters in the film go through a sort of catharsis, realizing what is really important for them in life. They grow into better human beings than they were, and that is what makes this a wonderful film.

The dialogue is spare and cynical, the B/W photography shiny as new, the story is told with economy and most of the emotional effect is created by indirection.

The screenplay was based on a theater play, but worked on day by day by a group of writers and - importantly - Bogart himself when the filming was already in progress. Nobody knew where the story was going (making Bergman really confused, but that exactly fits her role), but in the end the screenplay just got it right, too, including the last words where Captain Renault and Rick walk off to try their luck elsewhere in Africa: "This could be the start of a beautiful friendship."

And for once the Academy Awards also got it right, with Oscars for Best Film, Best Director and Best Screenplay. And then to think that Warner originally intended to make a petty B-film!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Aquariums in Japan (Museums)

The Japanese are extremely fond of fish, either dead or alive. They eat more fish than almost all other nations, and - what I want to address here - they also have the largest number of (often gorgeous) aquariums on earth.

The earliest aquarium dates from 1882 and was located in the Zoo of Ueno - unfortunately, that aquarium is no more.

The oldest one still in existence (and now much enlarged and refurbished) is the Matsushima Aquarium Marinepia near Sendai, which was established in 1927.

[The glass dome of Tokyo Sea Life Park]

The three largest aquariums in Japan are the Osaka Kaiyukan Aquarium, the Toba Aquarium near Ise, and the Tokyo Sea Life Park Aquarium.

The Osaka Kaiyukan is one of the largest aquariums in the world and (based on the "Gaia Hypothesis" by Lovelock) recreates the Pacific Rim volcanic belt and the Pacific Rim life belt. The Toba Aquarium boasts many larger sea creatures as dugongs, otters and porpoise - and besides that 40,000 sea creatures in 700 species, too much to see even in a whole day.

The Tokyo Sea Life Park stands at Tokyo Bay (near Disneyland) and - besides being housed in a beautiful piece of architecture by Taniguchi Yoshio - is famous for its donut-shaped tank where bluefin tunas swim around in endless motion.

Besides that, there are numerous regional aquariums that all have their own specialisms.

The Lake Biwa Museum is dedicated to Japan's largest sweet water collection, and the Chitose Salmon Aquarium specializes in salmon and fresh-water fish of the northern Pacific (and has an observation room built into the river where one can see the live fish through glass).

[Tuna fish in the tank of Tokyo Sea Life Park]

Some aquariums have a special technical prowess, such as the Shimoda Aquarium, which has fish unique to the Izu Peninsula and offers divers the opportunity to swim with dolphins (for a fee). It was also the first aquarium in Japan to be built in the water - it floats on the sea.

The big tank of the Kushimoto Marine Park in Wakayama has a glass roof and faithfully recreates the sealife of the area.

If you don't have either if these qualities, you have to be cunning in the battle for customers.

The Enoshima Aquarium therefore puts on shows of dancing jellyfish where people can go for stress relief.

"Tarzan and His Mate" (1934) (Film review)

Tarzan and His Mate was the second Tarzan film with Olympic swimming hulk Johnny Weismuller and is generally considered as one of the best made after the pulp novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs. It is a lavish production, with huge sets and countless extras and, especially, animals - although there is not a shred of the real Africa here as everything was filmed in California. The trick photography is also nicely done, considering the early year.

The story is simple. In prequel Tarzan The Ape Man, Jane, the daughter of an English hunter, preferred the animal charms of Tarzan to her upper-class fiance. Now the jilted lover Harry Holt (Neil Hamilton) returns with ivory poacher Martin Arlington (Paul Cavanagh). He is loaded with fine clothes and even a gramophone for Jane (Maureen O'Sullivan) and tries to win her back and return together  to civilization. The two men also ask Tarzan to guide them to a giant Elephant Graveyard where they want to stock up on the ivory. You can easily guess the answers to both questions, but there is a lot of swinging, screeching, jumping, swimming and fighting with animals and Africans necessary before the coast is clear again of these invaders.

The film's ideology is staunchly and regrettably colonial. The Africans are presented as superstitious and murderous (in fact, Tarzan's chimpanzees in the film are shown with more kindness); the black luggage carriers are kept in check with curses, whips and bullets. The tree hut of Tarzan and Jane looks like a little white enclave floating high above the real Africa.

The film is of course full of animals - I hope they were treated humanely, but most of the fights seem trick photography. Tarzan has to wrestle with every wild animal imaginable, from crocodile to rhinoceros. And we of course have the Cheetahs, the chimps who are his friends and helpers. Most impressive is the scene where Tarzan leads an elephant stampede to stop the poachers from taking the ivory tusks from the graveyard. I have never seen so many elephants together. Or else  the finale of the film, where Jane and the poachers are attacked by a large group of ravenous tigers (while already under attack from "wild aboriginals").

Another "animalistic" element is the sexiness of this film, which originally was surely not made for children. Although it is not shown as such, Tarzan and Jane clearly have an active love life, judging for example from the languid and affectionate way they wake up together in their tree nest. What's more, Jane's costume is enjoyably skimpy and there even is a sort of underwater ballet scene where she swims naked with Tarzan. This was possible in the all too short Pre-Code years of the early 1930s, when narrow-minded moralists didn't have their hand on the throttle yet.

Mitsuba (Japanese condiments)

Japanese condiments are always mild, and that is also true for mitsuba (Cryptotaenia japonica), a herb usually translated as "trefoil" or "Japanese wild chervil." Of course, as in other cases where we found no one on one similarity, we should use the Japanese name and speak about "mitsuba." This name means literally "three leaves," and indeed, one leaf of mitsuba consists of three smaller ones. The deeply-cut leaves are attached to slender green stalks.


Mitsuba is related to parsley and celery. The taste is like mild chervil. Mitsuba is nicely fragrant. The flavor is clean and refreshing.

Mitsuba originated in Japan, but also in China, Korea and North-America. It used to be a wild plant which grew at the waterside in mountainous areas, but it has been cultivated since the Edo period.

The best season for mitsuba is spring (March), but nowadays thanks to hothouse cultivation it is available the whole year. The highest production of mitsuba is in Chiba and Aichi prefectures, followed by Ibaraki and Shizuoka.

Mitsuba is used as a flavoring in soups (miso soup and clear soup) and egg custards (chawanmushi). In those cases, it is coarsely chopped. Whole mitsuba is used on one-pot dishes (nabemono) and tempura. It is also used in salads. Mitsuba may be lightly parboiled, but if too much heat is used, the taste becomes bitter, according to Tsuji (Japanese Cooking, A Simple Art, p. 95).

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

"The African Queen" by John Huston and with Humphrey Bogart and Kathleen Hepburn (1951) (Film review)

The African Queen is an exotic action adventure yarn with two central actors: Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn. Hepburn is Rose Sayer, the strait-laced spinster sister of an English missionary, stranded in the African bush when their mission post is destroyed by the German military in World War I, which also kills her brother. Bogart is Charlie Allnut, the low-life skipper of a ramshackle steamboat, "The African Queen," who takes Hepburn on board to try to flee from German territory.

The film was mostly shot on location by veteran director John Huston. The shoot was a living hell, as Hepburn divulged in a later book. Bogart and Huston were mostly boozing and the others were plagued by dysentery.

The film, which was based on a 1935 novel by C.S. Forrester, is full of various "battles." First we have the battle between the Puritan intellectual and the unsavory, boozing captain. The Puritan wins: she throws the booze overboard and manages to persuade Charlie to prepare for an attack on a German gunboat. After they fall chastely in love, we have the battle with the old boat (Charlie has to manufacture a new screw and propeller without the proper tools) and the elements. There is a lot of sweat, but also pelting rain and swarms of mosquitoes and leeches. And finally we have the battle with the Germans. The attack on the German boat with homemade torpedoes misfires, but when Rose and Charlie are made prisoners and just about to be executed for their attack, the remains of Charlie's boat hit the gunboat and blow it up after all. Charlie and Rose swim to safety.

The problem of this classical film is with realism. The boat trip and the fighting relation between Charlie and Rose are very authentic, but the rug is pulled out from under the realist legs by some unbelievable coincidences in the script. The most blatant one is of course the blowing up of the German gunboat by chance... and by homemade torpedoes. Would they make even a dent in the hull? And where are Charlie and Rose swimming too, alone in the swamp-infested bush, without boat now?

There are also some filmic problems I found rather jarring. In an attack by mosquitoes, the insects have been projected over the scene, but they disappear in an unnatural way. Even worse, a spell of heavy rain has also been projected over the scene and here Huston has cut in some photography of wild beasts stampeding away. The "real Africa" of tourist posters, so to speak, but the problem is that in these unnecessary shots the rain has been projected over footage of animals running away in the bright sunlight! Sloppiness of a great director?

But Bogart and Hepburn keep us entertained. Hepburn was playing herself, as an American from the Puritanical Northeast, but Bogart had to play against type, he had to loose all his usual sophistication, wit and irony. We see him doing his best, although it is never completely natural. But he got the Oscar and not Hepburn.

What makes a lot good, too, is that we have a romance at middle-age here, a rare commodity on film.

Monday, August 15, 2011

"The Prisoner of Zenda" (1938) (Film Review)

Like The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Prisoner of Zenda is a classical adventure film from 1938, this time in B/W and not in experimental color. Although always scoring high points with critics, Zenda seems to me much less "cool" than Robin Hood.

I think the reason can be found in the keyword for this film: "monarchy." Zenda is based on a romantic tale by British pulp author Anthony Hope from 1894 (now mercifully forgotten), about an Englishman who visits a small Eastern European monarchy where he is asked to act as a double for the king.

They look exactly alike, as Rudolf Rassendyll (an understated Ronald Colman) can himself ascertain when he meets Rudolph V when on a fishing expedition. Intrigued, the prince invites him to his hunting lodge and then goes on to get stiff drunk (helped by some powder put in his wine). But the next day is his enthronement ceremony and if Rudolph V doesn't show up, the throne will be seized by his evil brother Black Micheal (Raymon Massey) and his henchman, Rupert of Hentzau (Douglas Fairbanks Jr). Rassendyll obliges and goes in for a day of pomp and circumstance, doing his best not to be exposed as impostor by the brother and other worthies. There is also Princess Flavia (Madeleine Carroll), in the past cold-shouldered by the real prince, but now of course the two fall in love, although that means they will be in for some heart-breaking. Other complications arise when the real king is kidnapped by Rupert and so we rush to the swashbuckling finale in an ancient castle...

The problem of the film is, that its ideology is solidly monarchistic. The various characters keep stressing the importance of king and crown for the well-being of a country (what about some democracy, Hollywood?). It presents monarchy as a fairy tale, although we today know better (in Robin Hood monarchy isn't questioned either, but that film is itself a fairy tale, while Zenda is almost contemporary). The film is full of pomp and circumstance such as the enthronement ceremony and a great ball. But we have seen enough royal marriage pomp on TV to be fed-up with it, let alone need a fake one. In 1938 in the real Europe Hitler was starting to stifle the independence of neighboring countries, but Hollywood dreamed on about thrones and kings and waltzes.

That doesn't mean there is nothing to enjoy in the film. The photography by James Wong Howe is atmospheric, the pacing is fast and the casting is perfect (David Niven and Aubrey Smith as loyal aides to Colman, to give two more names not mentioned yet). By far the best one is Douglas Fairbanks Jr who plays one of the most delicious and appealing villains from film history, bringing a much needed whiff of irony to the film.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

"Holiday" (1938) by George Cukor and with Kathleen Hepburn and Cary Grant (Film review)

In this comedy helmed by George Cukor in 1938, the unconventional Johnny Case (Grant) unbelievably falls in love with perfect but cold-as-a-diamond millionaire's daughter Julia Seton (Doris Nolan) - he only realizes how filthy rich she is when he visits the palatial museum where she lives with her stern widowed tycoon-father (Henry Kolker), black-sheep sister Linda (Hepburn) and habitually tipsy brother Ned (Lew Ayres). The house is so grand that he mistakes the servants entrance for the front door.

When he enters the house, Johnny first meets Linda, who makes humorous conversation with him and very Eve-like throws him an apple in which he immediately sets his teeth. This determines the course of the story, for Linda and Johnny share their non-conformism, while the dutiful Julia wants Johnny to settle down in the fixed conventional track of the banking business. But Johnny rebels: although he is a successful financial wizard, earning money is not of first importance to him. He wants to retire at 30 and take a holiday with his friends and after that decide what he will do with the rest of his life. He doesn't need a whole heap of money. He'd rather build a life in which he is surrounded by people he loves and keep out those who could hurt him (Julia, for one, is characterized by brother Ned as: "If you were in her way, she'd ride you down like a rabbit"). Time is in a flux, in the late 1930s as today. What do you want to do with your life, and whom do you want to share it with?

The second great element of this witty film is the magical chemistry between the boyish Grant and the coltish Hepburn. As physical types they seem perfectly matched. The vulnerable Linda is almost mentally destroyed by her rich but cold family - she spends most of her time in the former children's playroom, dreaming of happier days. She enjoys talking nonsense or acting out childish, physical jokes with Johnny (it helped that Grant was a trained acrobat). But the film also generates real warmth in the intimate scenes between Linda and Johnny. When Hepburn gets emotional, her eyes blaze and even her famous cheekbones seem to flash.

Holiday flopped as did another Grant/Hepburn film, Bringing Up Baby in the same year. Unbelievable! (In the meantime, that last film has picked up quite some popularity, but Holiday still is a dark horse). Grant/Hepburn's first big success came in 1940 with The Philadelphia Story.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Japanese Customs: The Bon Festival

The Bon festival or "Obon" has an interesting history. Folk-Buddhist in origin, it came from China where Buddhism was heavily colored by ancestor worship and Confucianism before it marched on to Japan.

The festival finds its religious justification in the Ullambana Sutra (probably not an original Indian sutra but written in China). This popular sutra exposes how the Lord Buddha instructs his disciple Mokuren (Maudgalyayana in Sanskrit, Mulian in Chinese) how he can release his deceased mother from her low rebirth as a hungry ghost by making annual food offerings to the community of monks on the 15th day of the 7th month.

The sutra propagates filial piety, which is typically Chinese and Confucian rather than Buddhist (the Buddha after all left both his parents and his wife behind when he set off to achieve Enlightenment). The influential sutra gave rise to the East-Asian practice of honoring the souls of the ancestors in a Buddhist summer festival.

"Bon" is a shortened form of Urabonne (Ulambanna in Sanskrit), which means something like "suffering in Hell." The festival's original purpose was to ameliorate the sufferenings of the ancestors in that fiery place and assure them of a better rebirth - note that the Buddhist hell is rather a form of Purgatory, as it is only temporary. Nowadays, Obon is more seen as a family reunion, both of the living members (who return to their hometowns) and the dead ones, who are wlecomed back to their former homes.

The Bon festival is celebrated all over japan from 13 to 16 August (although some regions keep to the traditional date one month earlier), so that it coincides with the summer holidays. Small bonfires are lit (or lanterns - Obon used to be called the Lantern Festival) to show the way home to the ghosts, who are regaled with fruits, sweets, cakes, vegetables and flowers. The house is cleaned and offerings are set out on the Buddhist family altar (butsudan).

[Bon Market near Rokuharamitsuji, Kyoto]

Near Rokuharamitsuji Temple in Kyoto, a special Bon market is held. On the last evening of Obon, the ancestors are sent off again by another bon fire (okuri-bi) and paper lanterns are floated in rivers (toro nagashi - it is a beautiful sight to see the small lights float down the stream), or set up in graveyards, to guide the souls back to the other world.

The huge bonfires of Daimonji in Kyoto and other cities serve the same purpose. During the festival, many neigborhoods in Japan are covered in the smoke of incense. On the flip side, trains, plains and highways are packed and jammed because of all the people traveling at this time.

By the way, Mokuren of course succeeded in releasing his mother from her status as "hungry ghost" and therefore danced for joy. This is the "folklore" origin of the Bon dance, which is an expression of gratitude to one's ancestors and the sacrifices they made. Qua broader style the Bon dance is based on nembutsu dances but there are different varieties all over Japan. Usually a yagura, a dance platform, is set up. The dancers wear yukata and slowly dance in a circle. The most famous example of Bon Odori is the Awa Odori festival of Tokushima, where a long line of participants dances through the streets of the city.

"The Adventures of Robin Hood" (1938) by Michael Curtiz and with Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland (Film review)

"Innocence" is the keyword for this classic swashbuckler with Errol Flynn as Robin Hood (played with a smile) and Olivia de Havilland as the Maid Marian (beauty incarnate). The film, directed by Micheal Curtiz, is as fresh as an early spring morning. In 1938 people still could take the fight of a band of righteous outlaws against corrupt powers serious in which the villains (Claude Rains as a very mean Prince John and Basil Rathbone as Sir Guy) are pitch-black and their opponents virginal white. Robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. "It's injustice I hate, not the Normans."

Of course the robbers from the Sherwood forest help the rightful king back on his throne and then put down their weapons. Nobody of the heroes dies, only the bad ones get pierced in their bellies by Robin's arrows. Everything is as straight and sincere as can be. There is also some humor thanks to the Sherwood comic duo of Little John (Alan Hale) and Friar Tuck (Eugene Pallette).

Today we would need the irony of a Sam Peckinpah to be able to fully enjoy a film about a subject like this. The violence is muted, the love is chaste. At the same time the energetic and athletic Flynn performs some great stunts, the story is paced fast and keeps one's interest and the final fencing match is as tense as it should be, one of the truly great duels in film history.

There is a second thing that strikes the eye and that are the "stained-glass colors." A color film from 1938, made with the cumbersome but beautiful three-strip method of Technicolor. The green of the clothes of Robin Hood and of the forest, the reds of the flags and banners, the mauve of Marian's gown and, especially, the roses on her cheeks... Colors in film have never been so deep.

And then the third aspect: the music by Oscar-winner Erich Wolfgang Korngold, a classical composer born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire who fled to Hollywood to evade persecution as a Jew. Never has music been so much in tune with the happenings in the film it accompanies. It is also a rousing modern score, and it is fortuitous that in our day Korngold is again being rediscovered as a classical composer as well (he wrote a symphony, a violin concert, several suites for orchestra etc.).

Thursday, August 11, 2011

"The Three Clerks" by Anthony Trollope (Book Review)

Once there were three civil servants: the serious and reserved Henry Norman; the ambitious Alaric Tudor, busy making a career; and Charley Tudor, his nephew, busy sowing wild oats. There were also three beautiful young women, daughters of a widow, Mrs Woodward: the eldest, Gertrude, who is courted by Henry but rejects him in favor of Alaric, whose ambitions she shares; the soft Linda, who later marries Norman; and Katie, the youngest, who is forbidden the company of the wild Charley, until he reforms himself...

But as usually in Trollope it is not the love story that makes the book in the first place interesting. It is the picture of the civil service based on Trollope's own time with the Postal Service; the story of Alaric's ambitions that lead him to deal in stocks with foreknowledge and even spend money that has been entrusted to his care to play the stock market; and the fate of Charley who almost falls into the trap of a girl in a not very proper establishment.

The Three Clerks was published in 1858, and is also notable - to lovers of Trollope - for the first appearance of the barrister Mr Chaffanbrass.
Available as a free eBook from Gutenberg.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The French Lieutenant's Woman, by John Fowles

Sarah Woodruff (Meryl Streep), dressed in a black hooded gown, staring out across the stormy waters at the end of The Cobb in Lyme Regis, has become a classic scene in modern cinema and also a symbol of a doomed love affair.

[The Cobb in Lyme-Regis]

This is also how the novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969) by John Fowles starts. Gentleman-amateur archaeologist Charles Smithson and his beautiful but spoiled fiancee Ernestina Freeman take a walk on the Cobb, and driven by curiosity, Charles accosts the mysterious woman standing at its end. He later finds out her name, Sarah Woodruff, a governess who had an illicit affair, it is rumored, with a stranded French ship captain, but who was left in the lurch by her lover when he again departed for France. In Victorian eyes, she is a "fallen woman," taken in out of charity as companion (Sarah has a beautiful voice which is important for Bible readings) by the strictly Christian Mrs. Poulteney, who is more cruel than a Nazi camp guard.

Thirty-two-year-old Charles is a "gentleman," the probable heir to a nobility title, and with enough wealth to travel abroad and never having to work (work is vulgar to him). Ernestina is the handsome daughter of a wealthy draper; marriage with her will bring Charles a fortune, although he feels he has to stoop down to the level of trades-people - her father is a successful businessman, who dotes on his daughter, but in Charles' eyes a real gentlemen doesn't have to work. 

On his fossil hunts, Charles happens to meet the enigmatic and troubled Sarah, who likes to walk alone in deserted areas, although that has been forbidden by her mistress. Charles gets interested in her - already during their first encounter, he is struck by the passion in her face. She is not a demure, doll-like girl like his fiancee, the ideal of Victorian society, but a real person with a strong individuality (she is like a contemporary woman trapped in the Victorian age). She is also good in seeing through other people, and from the first she must have understood Charles' unhappiness with his fiancee, although he himself is also a rather repressed and at times very formal Victorian.

During stealthy meetings in the Lyme Regis Undercliff, Charles hears Sarah's story and gradually love develops between them. But then Sarah is observed when she comes out of the Undercliff, and is instantly dismissed by Mrs Poulteney. Charles gives her money to travel to Exeter, where he promises to join her. After things between Charles and Sarah have reached the boiling point in the small room of an inn in Exeter, he breaks his engagement (although that means he will be ostracized by Victorian society), but then, strangely, Sarah disappears... For many years he looks for her, searching even in America, but when they meet in the end, what will be the conclusion?

[Poster of the eponymous film]

This is not just a period novel, or a love story. What makes the book so interesting, is that Fowles tells his 19th c. plot from a 1960s point of view, with the necessary ironic distance. Like 19th c. novels, there is a chatty narrator who intrudes on the story, but the modern element is, for example, that he also gives interesting details about life in Victorian England and the intellectual climate of the times. Fowles even dedicates a chapter to a discussion about sex in Victorian England, such as that one in every 6,000 houses in London was a brothel - the Victorians took sex seriously by not talking about it, but they were very busy doing it. In addition, Fowles offers its reader three different endings for the novel. The author even appears in the story as a bearded gentleman and by turning back his watch 15 minutes, undoes a happy conclusion that sounded unrealistic. Even so, the story remains real and plausible, which proves Fowles' great art. (Of course, only the last ending is real, the other two are more like discarded drafts).

There are also interesting subplots. The major one concerns Charles' servant Tom, who pursues his own love interest with Mary, the maid of Ernestina. Here there is no repression at all, the so-called "lower classes" had a rather free sex life and usually didn't marry until the physical aspect of the relation had been tried out - just like in contemporary times. Tom is an ambitious Cockney - there is submission in words, but not so much in deed, as Tom actively plots to get money from Charles - if necessary by contortion - to be able to set up his own shop in London.

It makes the book an engaging parody of the Victorian novel. But The French Lieutenant’s Woman is much more than that. Fowles places is characters in a long historical perspective. Sarah Woodruff embodies the very qualities that the 19th century tried to repress: passion and imagination. The novel is about life, about finding a place for yourself, about freedom and emancipation. Sarah is a very complex personality: in the end we understand she has been manipulating Charles and has lied to him about the French captain (with whom she never had a real affair). There is the strong suggestion that she has used the weak and idle Charles as a means to obtain her own freedom. Did she ever love him? We will never know - in the end, Sarah does her own thing, leading a Bohemian life as an artist, and rejecting Charles because marriage would bring new shackles. Of course this is much better than the usual Victorian ending, "Reader, I married him."

By the way, Fowles' novel started a new trend in English literature, that of the "Neo-Victorian novel." Some writers who followed in his footsteps were A.S. Byatt (Possession, Morpho Eugenia), Sarah Waters (Tipping the Velvet, Fingersmith) and Michel Faber (The Crimson Petal and the White). All in their own way, these novels broke the veil of the conventional Victorian historical novel, by writing from a radical contemporary perspective.

A great book about the values of life, written with irony and intelligence. During 1981, director Karel Reisz and writer Harold Pinter adapted the novel as an eponymous film. The contemporary perspective was brought in by not only filming the novel, but also telling a story about the filming of the novel and letting the two actors who play Charles (Jeremy Irons) and Sarah (Meryl Streep) have a love affair on the set. The multiple endings are brought in by having both stories end in a different way (in the film, different from the novel, the Victorian lovers in the end find happiness, but not so the contemporary actors). It is beautiful and elegant film, with excellent performances.

Photo of The Cobb:
Malcolm Etherington, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Honganji History (Kyoto Guide)

There are two huge Honganji temples just north of Kyoto Station, Nishi (West) Honganji facing Horikawa Avenue and Higashi (East) Honganji facing Karasuma Avenue. The history of both these temples goes back to one and the same establishment, a chapel set up to the memory of Shinran, the founder of the Jodo Shin denomination to which these temples belong.

[The place near the Nishi Otani Cemetary, Higashiyama, Kyoto, where Shinran's body was cremated]

The Teachings of Shinran
Interestingly, Shinran - although now honored in the largest temples of Kyoto - was against temples. Shinran (1173 - 1262) was a disciple of Honen, who was considered a Buddhist radical, as he preached that salvation could be obtained by countless times reciting the Nembutsu, the phrase "Namu Amida Buddha" ("I take my Refuge in the Buddha Amida"). One did not need to train for many years in a monastery, one did not need to learn difficult esoteric rites or read piles of sutras. Honen finally brought Buddhism within reach of the daily life of ordinary people. But Shinran proved to be even more radical than his teacher.

Shinran taught that, provided one had sincere faith in the Amida Buddha, one single recitation of the Name was sufficient. Once faith had been established, nothing else was necessary. Amida had made a vow, the Primal Vow (hongan), to save all mankind ("If all beings who sincerely aspire to be born in my land recite my name and fail to be born there, then may I not attain Supreme Enlightenment"). (This is also the origin of the name of the Honganji temples, "Temple of the Original Vow.")

As Amida had become a Buddha, an enlightened being, the contents of his vow had been proven true. Therefore, Shinran said, it was enough to entrust oneself to the inconceivable power of Amida's vow. Then one would be saved and be reborn in the Pure Land. It would be like "being grasped never to be abandoned."

As humans themselves were powerless, all one could do was to rely on the saving power of that other force, Amida. This type of Buddhism is called Tariki, reliance on the Other Power, and contrasts with, for example, the Zen school that is based on Jiriki, one's own efforts.

For Shinran, only faith was necessary. Shinran therefore saw temples as irrelevant. He was a true radical and allowed priests to marry (as he did himself), and eat fish and meat. His followers would gather in dojo, training places in private homes and barns. These contained no rich temple trappings, no images. The only object on the altar was a wooden plaque engraved with the Nembutsu.

It was a simple kind of Buddhism, without difficult practice, without obtuse metaphysics, without the necessity to understand a deep philosophy. It was the type of Buddhism that strongly appealed to the common people. Shinran took the countryside by storm and Jodo Shinshu grew into the largest Buddhist group.

[Site of Honganji Temple, Osaka Castle. Photo Ad Blankestijn]

From Wooden Shed to Buddhist Fortress
Shinran did not found a temple. In true Congregationalist or revivalist spirit, his followers did not need one. But a cult grew up around his tomb at Otani on Higashiyama. In 1272 here the first Honganji Temple was built, a mortuary chapel, established by his daughter Kakushinni and administered by his descendants. Thus Honganji originated in death rites for Shinran. It functioned as a spiritual center for followers all over Japan, who still came together in their local dojo. But Honganji continued to grow, slowly but steadily, against persecution by other Buddhist groups.

The energetic abbot Rennyo (1415-99) dramatically advanced the power of the Honganji, bringing all followers of Shinran, who had been split into several factions, together under its aegis. Too much success, however, attracted disaster: in 1465 Tendai warrior monks from Mt. Hiei completely destroyed the temple. The Shin believers were driven out of Kyoto and they would have to stay in the countryside for 125 years. This disaster also proved a boon: their following again grew enormously among ordinary people, especially in the Hokuriku region.

Afterwards, the Shin sect came back with a vengeance, now to Osaka. There they built an enormous headquarters, Ishiyama Honganji, right on the spot of present-day Osaka Castle. At that time, the sect had grown so strong that even Japan's powerful warlords could not touch it. The temple, which resembled a fortified town, even withstood an eleven year siege by the all-powerful warlord Oda Nobunaga.

In 1591, the sect gave up the Osaka fortress-temple for a piece of land in Kyoto - present-day Nishi Honganji - offered by the wily Hideyoshi. The only way to vanquish the sect was to appease them and lure them back to the capital. Thus Honganji returned to Kyoto with a vast number of followers.

The temple is still in Osaka as well: after giving up the castle, it moved to what is now Midosuji, Osaka's central boulevard, which was even named after the temple: Mido, the Honorable Hall, was the popular name for the Honganji temple (suji means "street").

Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first Edo shogun, found another means to reduce the power of the sect. He availed himself of a succession conflict in the temple to offer another piece of land in the vicinity to a brother of the abbot, and so Higashi Honganji was born. The sect was effectively split into two parts, although there were no doctrinal differences.

From now on, radicalism was forgotten and the temples grew into establishments like others, patronized by court, aristocracy and warrior families.

Homepage of Richard St. Clair with many interesting Shin Buddhist links. Also contains links to the Three Pure Land Sutras. 
The writings of Shinran have been translated into English and are available on a site sponsored by Nishi Honganji. 
The Tannisho, written by a disciple of Shinran, is another Shin Buddhist classic and is available on the Living Dharma Website in a translation by Dr. Taitetsu Unno.
The Letters of Rennyo, the restorer of the sect, are available on the Shin Buddhist Resource Center.
Shin Dharma Net is a website by Dr. Alfred Bloom, who also has written many books to make Shin Buddhism accessible. The site contains a "Shin Course."
An excellent study of Shinshu Buddhism, its history and ideas from Shinran to Rennyo, is Jodo Shinshu by James C. Dobbins (Indiana University Press, 1989). 
An interesting essay on Rennyo is "Rennyo and the Shinshu Revival" by Stanley Weinstein in Hall/Takeshi, Japan in the Muromachi Age (University of California Press, 1977) 
D.T. Suzuki is famous for his many books on Zen, but he also wrote Buddha of Infinite Light to propagate Shin Buddhism in the West (reprint Random House, 2002). 
Tariki, Embracing despair, Discovering Peace is a discussion of the power of tariki in contemporary life by a modern novelist, Itsuki Hiroyuki (Kodansha, 2001).

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Honen's Moonlight (Walking Waka Tracks)

Gojo-dori, one of the most eye-sore heavy-traffic arteries of Kyoto, is not exactly a place where you would expect to find a poem. On an ugly wall behind which lies a small graveyard, Jodo temple Sainenji has put up a board with a beautiful poem by its founder Honen:

[Sainenji on Gojodori Avenue, Kyoto. Photo Ad Blankestijn]

Here is my translation:
though the moon shines
all over the land
leaving no corner in darkness
it only purifies the hearts
of those who gaze upon it
tsukigake no | itaranu sato wa | nakeredomo | mitsumuru hito no | kokoro ni zo sumu

"An Artist of the Floating World" by Kazuo Ishiguro (Book review)

An Artist of the Floating World (1986), the second novel of British-Japanese author Kazuo Ishiguro, is set in the Japan just after the war (October 1848 to June 1950). The ageing painter Masuji Ono reflects on the life he has led. When young, he drowned himself in hedonistic pleasures and painted mainly geisha. Later, his paintings became famous thanks to his intimate relations with militarists and rightists before and during the war. He not only made propagandistic art, he even became a police informer. Now his reputation is in shreds, like the bombed-out city around him.

The novel is told in the voice of Ono, who is an unreliable and ambiguous narrator. He sometimes seems to regret his past actions, but also obliquely stresses his pre-war values, the admiration he received from others, his considerable technique as a painter.

The novel also describes Ono's family, his daughters Setsuko who is already married and Noriko who is looking for a partner. There are decidedly overtimes of Ozu's films here. Ono also regrets Japan's American occupation and rapid Westernization, and his children's easy acceptance of those two.

The world is rapidly changing all the time (a "floating world"), what is man's role in such a world? Just as Ono was more a hack painter than a genuine artist, so as a human being he seems to have floated on the stream, without making any moral choices. And also now, although he has all the tools to judge his life at his disposal, he again floats on, closing his eyes to reality.
I read An Artist of the Floating World as a Faber and Faber paperback.

Monday, August 8, 2011

"That Obscure Object of Desire" (Cet Obscure Objet du Desire, 1977) by Bunuel (Movie review)

A distinguished gentleman in his fifties has just boarded a train. By bribing the conductor, he borrows a bucket of water and dumps the contents on the head of a young woman who is chasing him. Back in his seat, he tells the other travelers what moved him to this unexpected action. The gentleman is Mathieu (Fernando Rey) and he is madly in love with the young Conchita, who just got the involuntary shower. Although she willfully attracts him, the next moment she tends to push him back even harder. As if she is two different persons, something Buñuel has underlined by having Conchita in the “attracting mode” played by the pert Spanish dancer Angelina Molina and in the “push-back mode” by stylish French actress Carole Bouquet.

Conchita doesn't want Mathieu to have power over her; and Mathieu doesn't want her to have power over him, so he doesn't offer marriage. Their relationship is stuck in the same unholy groove, except that it escalates. Mathieu tries to kiss her, but she flees; he helps her poor mother financially, but she doesn't want to be bought; he tries to make love to her, but discovers she is wearing a chastity belt; he follows her to Spain where she is dancing in a cafe, only to find out she is stripping for tourists; and after he buys her a house she locks him out and under his eyes embraces a young man. But each time she coyly comes back and smooths his ruffled feathers with her charms. The only way to end their terrible attachment would be a big bang, and that is how the film indeed ends...

This is the 30th and last film made by Luis Buñuel (1900-1983), and has been called a summing-up of his work: respectable (or even pompous) middle class characters plagued by strong and sometimes peculiar erotic desires, and therefore revealed as ultimately weak and funny. And a strong dose of social satire coupled with healthy black humor.

Cet Obscure Objet du Desire is also the ultimate film about erotic desire and frustration. The lesson Conchita seems to teach Mathieu is that the ideal woman is elusive. Or to say it in Buddhist terms, that attachment to the senses leads to loss of freedom.

Note: Based on the 1898 novel The Woman and the Puppet by Pierre Louys, a book  popular with film makers. There is a 1929 French silent version; a 1935 film by Josef von Sternberg with Marlene Dietrich (The Devil Is a Woman); and again a 1959 French film starring Brigitte Bardot (La Femme et le Pantin).

That Obscure Object of Desire is available in the Criterion Collection.
(Revised August 2014)

Sunday, August 7, 2011

"The Blue Flower" by Penelope Fitzgerald (Book review)

The Blue Flower is based on the early life of Friedrich von Hardenberg ("Fritz"), who later became famous as the poet Novalis (1772-1801). It covers the 1790s when he was a student of history, philosophy and law, and also when he started his professional career in the Salt Mine Directorate. In this period Fritz meets Sophie von Kuhn. Although she is only twelve, he falls in love with her and they become engaged (the wedding has to wait, her parents demand, until she is fifteen). But she dies before that time of tuberculosis, having endured a terrible operation without anesthetic. Novalis, and many of his contemporaries, would die of the same illness before reaching thirty.

The novel is written in a very spare style, and divided into 55 short chapters. Perhaps thanks to this conciseness, thanks to omitting so much, it eminently manages to evoke a lively image of the late 18th century in Germany, both the material life and the way people thought. It also addresses the question of "what is genius?" The book is told from an omniscient viewpoint and the perspective keeps switching among a large number of characters (if only, because families were large in that period!), so strong concentration is demanded from the reader.

The "blue flower," by the way, is a central symbol of German Romanticism. It stands for love and the metaphysical striving for the infinite.

Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2000) only started writing, after a professional life, when she was past sixty and she has accumulated a small but fine oeuvre, admired by critics - she won the Booker Prize with OffshoreThe Blue Flower was her final novel; it appeared in 1995.
A very clever and intelligent novel that in small but intricately carved vignettes breathes vigorous new life into history. The motto of the book is a dictum by Novalis, "Novels arise out of the shortcomings of history."
I read The Blue Flower as a Mariner paperback.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Listening to the complete Beethoven (7)

Opus 106: Piano Sonata No. 29 in B-flat major ("Hammerklavier") (1818). This colossal sonata has been called a "sonata-symphony." Through bitter struggle, a victory is won over solitude. At the same time it is a struggle of the composer with an instrument that was inadequate for his musical ideas, but exactly from that circumstance comes the superhuman tension of the sonata. The sonata is so difficult that except Liszt, no pianist dared tackle it until the end of the 19th century. The work is in four parts, with the emphasis on the long adagio ("appasionata") and the final allegro risoluto.

Opus 107: Ten sets of variations for Piano and Flute (1820). These ten variations on folksongs are like op. 105, except that they range even further over Europe, also containing Russian and Ukrainian songs.

Opus 108: Twenty-Five Scottish Songs (1818). Twenty-five Scottish songs for voice, mixed chorus, violin, violoncello and piano. A work first published in the U.K.

Opus 109: Piano Sonata No. 30 in E major (1820). Beethoven's last three piano sonatas are spare and enigmatic and formally open. Opus 109 is lyrical and sunny. It starts with a vivace with arabesque-like figuration, alternating with adagio moments, followed immediately by a prestissimo scherzo and then concludes by the longest movement, a set of cantabile variations. No movement is in the place where you would expect it.

Opus 110: Piano Sonata No. 31 in A-flat major (1821). Possibly the most personal (Beethoven's only sonata without a dedication) and moving among all Beethoven's sonatas. It starts with a brief and lyrical moderato, which is followed by a harsh and dark scherzo, and it concludes with a spacious and complex finale. This last movement unusually combines recitative, arioso and fugue. It is pervaded by an ineffable melancholy, plumbing the depths of human despair, until will and energy win the victory in a vast crescendo.

Opus 111: Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor (1822). In two movements, a sonata-form maestoso and variation-form arietta that is twice as long, and a good example of Beethoven's open form of this period. (Contemporaries thought the third movement was missing!). The two movements circle around each other like a double star. It is the attraction of contrasts, minor and major, dark and light, black and white. The conflicts of the one movement are resolved in the other and vice versa. This is the most perfect form for a sonata... In his sonatas, Beethoven has managed to turn a form of home entertainment into a deep personal statement.

Opus 112: Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt (Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage), for chorus and orchestra (1815). A short cantata on a text by Goethe. The first poem is a lament about a ship becalmed (no wind = no movement before the advent of steam!), the second sings about success in resuming the voyage.

Opus 113: Die Ruinen von Athen (The ruins of Athens), overture and incidental music (1811). Overture and incidental music for a play by August von Kotzebue, in fact already written in 1813. In the Turkish March we hear again a rather banal Beethoven. A March and Chorus were added later and are therefore Opus 114. 

Opus 115: Zur Namensfeier (Feastday), overture (1815). Another middle period work with a high opus number. Overture written to celebrate the Name-day of the Austrian Emperor as well as the end of the Napoleonic wars.

Opus 116: "Tremate, empi tremate", vocal trio with orchestra (1802). Another early work. Beethoven thought highly of its popular appeal for he often included it in the concerts of his later years.

Opus 117: König Stephan (King Stephen), overture and incidental music (1811). Again an early work written for a play by Kotzebue, about the legendary Hungarian king.

Opus 118: "Elegischer Gesang" for four voices and string quartet (1814). The last of the popular works that Beethoven unearthed from his earlier compositions in the 1820s.

Opus 119: Eleven new Bagatelles for piano (1822). In fact, this opus also hides several pieces written earlier (bagatelles 1-5, probably somewhere around 1803). The others were added in the 1820s. Beethoven may have intended to write to sets of six, as was a usual number, but his English publisher brought these bagatelles out as one set of eleven works.

Opus 120: Thirty-three variations on a waltz by Diabelli for piano in C major ("Diabelli Variations") (1823). These 33 variations on a simple waltz theme by Diabelli have been called "the greatest set of variations ever written," comparable to Bach's Goldberg Variations. It certainly provides a microcosm of Beethoven's art of writing for the piano. Beethoven's approach is to take some of the smallest elements of the theme – the opening turn, the descending fourth and fifth, the repeated notes – and build upon them pieces of great imagination, power and subtlety.

Opus 121: Kakadu Variations, Piano Trio No. 11 (Variations on "Ich bin der Schneider Kakadu") (1803). Another older  work, interesting for the contrast between the solemn introduction and the lightweight variations that follow.

Opus 121b: "Opferlied" for soprano, chorus and orchestra (1822). Throughout his life, Beethoven was obsessed with Friedrich von Matthisson's "Opferlied" (Song of Sacrifice). He set the text four times. This is the final version. The text depicts a young man in a oak grove offering a sacrifice to Zeus and beseeching the deity to be the protector of liberty.

Opus 122: "Bundeslied" for voices, chorus and wind instruments (1824). A good humored piece on a text by Goethe.

Friday, August 5, 2011

"Adam Bede" by George Eliot (Book review)

Adam Bede (1859) is the first novel of George Eliot (pseudonym of Mary Ann Evans). The novel is set in 1799 in the rural and close-knit community of Hayslope. The story revolves around a love "rectangle" between the beautiful but vacuous and naive farm help Hetty Sorrel, the young squire Arthur Donnithorne, the sturdy carpenter Adam Bede, and Dinah Morris, Hetty's cousin, a fervent Methodist lay preacher.

Adam is a serious and honest young man, the hero of the story, and as he can't stand on his own legs yet financially, he keeps his feelings for Hetty a secret (and, by the way, she doesn't notice his existence at all). The maiden is then seduced by the squire. Hetty becomes pregnant, flies the village fearing ostracism and abandons her baby in the fields. She is put on trial for child murder... Adam and Dinah, in the meantime, have gradually become aware of their mutual love.

George Eliot is not for nothing famous. She is good in characterizations and has a keen ear for dialogue. But... her style is also very long-winded. She tends to give long descriptions only for description's sake, without building any dramatic tension. Trollope would have done this much better, I thought all the time when reading Adam Bede. And although I am not against authorial intrusions (I love Nabokov, after all), George Eliot goes too far when she uses a whole chapter to discuss the "ideal preacher" - a subject about which I couldn't care less.
I read Adam Bede on Gutenberg. Librivox recording also available.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Location Japan: "One Hot Summer in Kyoto" by John Haylock

Summer in Japan is hot and sticky – after two years of cool (and wet) Dutch summers, I have to face that reality again – and I am not even living in Kyoto at the moment. But nowadays all big city summers in Japan are terrible because of the heat-sink phenomenon, Kyoto is nothing exceptional anymore. So what could be more fitting in all the stickiness than reading a book about Kyoto summers I bought several years ago but which has been sitting unopened on my shelves? I am talking about the novel One Hot Summer in Kyoto by John Haylock, which I rediscovered earlier this month during the ongoing process of unpacking and ordering my removal luggage. It was a great find, an ironic comedy written in polished, economical English.

The story tells about the middle-aged and egocentric (if not arrogant) Peter Meadowes, teacher of English in Tokyo, who borrows the house of an acquaintance to spend the long summer holidays in the ancient capital of Kyoto. Peter is married, but lives apart from his commanding English wife Monika who hates Japan and prefers to stay back home with their children. Peter has a girlfriend in Tokyo, Noriko, who is rather possessive while his own feelings have cooled, so he sees this holiday as a good chance to get away from her as well.

In the Kyoto house he has rented, to his pleasant surprise he encounters an unexpected new woman: the young and seductive Kazumi, who lives there on and off as a sort of unofficial caretaker. He immediately makes advances, but is rebuffed – like water, Kazumi always manages to slip through his hands, although she sometimes also perversely seems to goad him on. She even resorts to flirting with Peter's friend, Bob, another expat professor living in Kyoto – or perhaps she is just pretending to make Peter mad.

Obsessed with Kazumi, Peter's whole Kyoto summer is spent running after her. He doesn't do much else – he is too tired to read (he has brought the collected works of Marquis de Sade) or work on his study about a Chinese Tang poet – he even is too lazy to enjoy the temples and festivals of Kyoto, although we get a good picture of the rhythm of daily life in the ancient capital via the neighborhood sights and sounds that enter the wood-and-paper house. And the descriptions of the steamy hot, wet, sweaty summer are so realistic you don't need a stove when you read this book in winter.

Then the devoted Noriko arrives, Peter cannot escape his love trap, although he even has the boorishness to go on flirting with Kazumi behind her back. But interestingly Noriko also teams up with Kazumi and together they seem to be making fun about Peter in Japanese – a language he still cannot understand despite his long sojourn in the country. After Noriko has returned to Tokyo Peter by chance meets a former student, Miss Goto, a very prim and conservative lady, who is interested in the theater. To make Kazumi jealous, Peter starts going out with Miss Goto and also tries to seduce her.

Then Noriko once again comes to Kyoto, to demonstrate her enduring feelings, and to make things worse, also wife Monika arrives on the scene, on the last leg of a summer tour around the world (she is obviously very wealthy). Monika has a strong personality, is cool and reasoning, totally uninterested in Japanese culture and stands emotionally far above Peter's romantic entanglements.

Things come to a head in a final juggling act and Peter has to make a fundamental choice... The sober end of this "summer farce" will come as no surprise. The pleasure of this novel is in the journey, not the destination.

A Typical Foreigner?
The publisher has written on the book flap: “When making his choice, Peter Meadowes confronts the love-hate relationship that afflicts the typical gaijin - foreigner - in Japan. Remaining in Japan may be impossible, but escaping only creates the desire to return.” One Hot Summer in Kyoto is a delightful comedy, "gloriously ironic" as Richie has called it according to the book cover, but to see Peter Meadowes' predicament as that of "the typical gaijin" goes a bit too far.

Although we should not forget that Haylock has poured his irony into his "hero" as well, Peter Meadowes does not at all look like the "typical gaijin" of today - he is very much of the bygone age of the sixties-to-eigthies (the book was first published in 1980): too stubborn (or lazy) to learn the language, vegetating on a diet of only English newspapers, eating lunches and dinners in foreign hotels, meeting friends in the bars of those hotels, and only "going native" in so far as seeking the "Asian mystique" of Japanese women. Peter physically lives in Japan, but has remained a complete foreigner, sitting on his own island. I am not promoting that people completely give up their own culture, but when you live in a new culture like Japan, you should at least step half-way over the cultural bridge.

What shows in a most telling manner how intensily foreign Peter has remained, is food. Peter has cooking as a hobby, always Western dishes as pastas and goulash, although the results – to judge from the reactions of Kazumi and Noriko, are not that great. We never see him eating Japanese food – also when he visits a restaurant, it is always Western. He likes to drink, but only whiskey, never sake or shochu.

If you cannot eat the delicious food of Japan, you do not belong here, is what he unconsciously seems to tell us.
John Haylock (1918-2006) was a Cambridge University graduate who traveled around the world teaching and writing. He spent fourteen years in Japan, but also lived in the Middle East and Thailand. He wrote about twenty books, of which five are situated in Japan.

Listening to the complete Beethoven (6)

Opus 86: Mass in C major (1807). A rather subdued setting of the Mass. Beethoven aimed for a simple, humble and spiritual style. The Mass in C did not become very popular, but is certainly one of Beethoven's most personal utterances.

Opus 87: Trio for two Oboes and English Horn in C major (1795). A slight older work.

Opus 88: Song: "Das Gluck der Freundschaft" (1803). Song on a theme that was dear to Beethoven.

Opus 89: Polonaise in C major (1814). A piano work in a popular vein, like the student works of the early 1790s.

Opus 90: Piano Sonata No. 27 in E minor (1814). A small sonata in two movements, but a fine and delicate work. The first movement is virtually mono-thematic, the second is not a rondo but a beautiful song-like piece.

Opus 91: Wellington's Victory ("Battle Symphony") (1813). Beethoven in his most popular and banal mood: a battle between national anthems and the like. Already in the 1790s Beethoven wrote lots of military music.

Opus 92: Symphony No. 7 in A major (1812). This symphony permeated by lively and even obsessive rhythms, has been called an "apotheosis of the dance" (Wagner). In its time, the second movement allegretto was the most popular. The finale is full of restless energy and ends with a triple forte. Instead of traveling from "fate" to "victory", this work is a continuous celebration of joy.

Opus 93: Symphony No. 8 in F major (1812). This is a light-hearted, but not light-weight, work, containing many novelties. It is a not a simple case of "back to the 18th century." The second movement has probably nothing to do with the metronome, as is often assumed, but is rather an homage to Haydn's "Clock" symphony.

Opus 94: Song: "An die Hoffnung" (1814). Sophisticated and almost operatic treatment of a song Beethoven also used for his op. 32. Beethoven strives throughout to translate directly in musical terms what is actually being sung.

Opus 95: String Quartet No. 11 in F minor ("Serioso") (1810). A short and compact quartet that takes its name from the tempo designation of the third movement. Beethoven himself seems to have said that the work was written for a small circle of connoisseurs. It is an experiment in compositional technique Beethoven would draw upon again later in life.

Opus 96: Violin Sonata No. 10 in G major (1812). Beethoven's last violin sonata is a large-scale and magnificent work. It is also a work of great calm and ethereal beauty. Beethoven wrote the sonata with the technique of the famous violinist Pierre Rode, who gave the first performance, in mind. The finale is a set of variations.

Opus 97: Piano Trio No. 7 in B-flat major ("Archduke") (1811). This trio has been called the crowning masterpiece of Beethoven's cycle of piano trios. The first movement opens with the piano's statement of a broad, noble theme. The serene slow movement is a series of variations on a hymnlike melody. In the last movement lighthearted passages alternate with heroic outbursts.

Opus 98: An die ferne Geliebte, song cycle (1816). Beethoven's only true song cycle and the first important example of the form. All six poems by Alois Jeitteles concern the feelings of love as translated through nature. Although most songs are cast in strophic form, Beethoven constantly varies and develops his accompaniments.

Opus 99: Song: "Der Mann von Wort" (1816). Beethoven set Friedrich August Kleinschmid's text during a period of relatively low output for the composer. A trifle.

Opus 100: Song: "Merkenstein" (1814). Again a lesser work. The text to the songs was written by Johann Baptist Rupprecht.

Opus 101: Piano Sonata No. 28 in A major (1816). A romantic and bold sonata (in fact the first one for the so-called "Hammerklavier"), with a lyrical first movement, a march instead of a scherzo and a shift of the center of gravity to the long last movement.

Opus 102: Two Cello Sonatas (1815). Two compact sonatas written for the cellist Josef Linke.
No. 1: Cello Sonata No. 4 in C major. A very terse sonata without a proper slow movement. This is clearly a work of Beethoven's epigrammatic later period, rather than his expansive middle period.
No. 2: Cello Sonata No. 5 in D major. The first movement has a singing, dolce, first subject. It is quite a characteristic melody. The last movement is a fugue, the first instance of the contrapuntal thinking that would dominate Beethoven's last years.

Opus 103: Octet in E-flat (1792). A pleasant older work.

Opus 104: String Quintet (1817). An arrangement of the Piano Trio No. 3. 

Opus 105: Six sets of variations for Piano and Flute (1819). Light and cheerful diversions, variations on folksongs. Five of the six songs are from England, Wales and Scotland. The third one is an Austrian song.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

"Mon Oncle (My Uncle," 1958) by Tati (Film review)

A provincial town in the France of 1958. We see an attractive square with somewhat ramshackle houses and bistros, a street sweeper and horse-drawn cart gathering litter. Stray dogs are playing in the square and suddenly run away one after the other, to the suburbs. There a dachshund enters the gate of a modern house. The suburbs are a big contrast to the romantic town: Everything is sterile here, from the modern factories to the super-automated homes. And the inhabitants of course drive big American cars.

This is the home of the Arpels and their young son Gerard. Mr Arpel has a management job in a factory that produces plastic hoses; Madame is the sister of Monsieur Hulot. Everything in their house is automated, from the electric front door, the wonderful kitchen to the ugly fountain in the garden. The furniture is as all avant-garde, better fit for a museum than to sit on. Monsieur Hulot often visits his sister and is good comrades with his nephew. Although he is happy as he is, the Arpels want to reform him by coupling him to the woman next door during a disastrous garden party (that fountain!), or by giving him a job in the factory. The film is an obvious critique of consumerism and modernism.

Mon Oncle by Jaques Tati (1907-1982) is a comedy, but it is almost Zen-like in its quietude. There could be no greater contrast to the capers and gags of Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton, it could be no further removed from the noise of contemporary comedies. People do not fall down or get hit by bricks. They don't chase each other. They almost don't speak - Mon Oncle almost could be a silent film.

The film is built around the character of Mr Hulot, played by Tati himself. Monsieur Hulot has a kind character, but he is also gauche and socially helplessly inept. He always wears a shoddy raincoat, a hat and invariably carries an old umbrella, even in good weather. His trousers are too short and reveal his striped  socks. He also smokes a pipe, which he cleans by knocking the ashes out on the soles of his shoes. He is also very phlegmatic and never gets excited. But above all, he is completely harmless.

Tati's humor is of the quiet and under-cooled type. This film won't have viewers rolling on the floor from laughter. Perhaps you will smile sometimes. But after viewing the film, you will feel in a good mood that lasts for a long time and many images of the film will remain with you.

Tati was born in France from a Russian father, descended from the nobility, and a Dutch mother. Tati made only six full length feature films, in which he always played the leading role of Mr Hulot. He made his films with great care and craftsmanship.