Friday, March 30, 2012

Ikanago no Kugini

Tsukudani made with sand lances (ikanago, a tiny fish). いかなごのくぎ煮.

A type of tsukudani (salt-sweet preserve). Local food from the Kobe-Akashi area. The tiny sand lances are simmered in a broth of soy sauce, mirin, sugar, ginger and other ingredients until they turn brown. In fact, they look like rusty, brown nails and that is what they are called - "kugini" means "simmered nails."

The tasty product is eaten over rice. Usually eaten around the end of February - early March when the fish is about an inch long. The dish is therefore also a sort of harbinger of spring. The fishes are caught in the Seto Inland Sea. When the season is over, the sand lances delve into the sand where they stay until the next year.

Traditionally, this was a homemade dish, although now one buys it ready-made in the supermarket. It is also a success story of promotion by the fishing industry, for 30 years ago the sand lances were mostly sold cheaply as cattle feed. Since then it has been put on the gourmet map as a typical regional product and the price has soared for "Ikanago no Kunini" is not only eaten in the Kansai, but shipped around the country.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

"Tristana" (1970) by Luis Bunuel (Movie review)

The films of Luis Bunuel are always about power - power over others - and perverse and farcical Tristana  (1970) is perhaps the most explicit illustration of this theme. The film is loosely based on a novel by Benito Perez Galdos.

Tristana (Catherine Deneuve, hauntingly beautiful as ever) is a young woman, who when her mother dies, is entrusted to the care of her elderly uncle Don Lope (Fernando Rey at his suave best) who lives in the beautiful city of Toledo. The innocent and naive Tristana has only lived with her mother and has no experience at all of the world. Don Lope is a respected and distinguished-looking bourgeois gentleman, who has not worked a day in his life, liberal and anti-clerical, but he has one weakness: he can't keep his hands off women (and his views of women are the opposite of liberal).

Although she is repelled by the old man's overtures, in no time the innocent girl has been overpowered by her strong-willed guardian. Every night she is forced to sleep in his bed, and in the daytime she is confined to the house as a virtual prisoner. Says hypocritical Don Lope: "If you want an honest woman, break her leg and keep her home" - a saying that will eventually come true in an unexpected way.

Gradually, Tristana is allowed to go on short walks when accompanied by the housekeeper (Lola Gaos). On one of these outings she meets a handsome young painter (Franco Nero), with whom she falls in love. Finally, she elopes with him, leaving a desolate Don Lope behind.

Two years later, Tristana unexpectedly returns. She has been diagnosed with a leg tumor and the painter, not feeling up to the care the seriously ill woman demands, lets her go (to the scorn of Tristana). Luckily, Don Lope who initially had trouble making both ends meet, has received a considerable inheritance and is able to hire the best medical assistance. Tristana's leg is amputated and she is fitted with a prosthetic one. The beautiful woman now moves around on crutches and is indeed confined to the house.

Strangely enough, Tristana's illness has made her stronger, while Don Lope has visibly become weaker with age - despite his atheism, he even plays cards with the local priest when he feels lonely (the priest, of course, is eventually after the money the Don will leave at his death). The new Tristana does not provide sexual services anymore to the old Don, although she forces him to marry her for respectability - and to keep his fortune out of the hands of the church. Don Lope in his old age sadly enough has finally become the father figure that Tristana craved at the start of the film but that he didn't provide because he wanted her as his concubine. And Tristana mainly uses her position as mistress of the house to humiliate and frustrate Don Lope. When he sits sipping chocolate and playing cards with his friends, she noisily keeps moving up and down the corridor on her crutches. She also derisively gives to others what she keeps from her husband: when the deaf-mute son of the housekeeper leers at her, she teases him by standing on the balcony and showing her breasts (of course below the frame of the film to tease the viewer as well).

And the stage is set for sweet revenge, for now Tristana, vile and vindictive, has all the power. When Don Lope is ill in bed with a severe cold, she "forgets" to call the doctor but instead masochistically opens the window as wide as possible and so finishes him off as punishment for stealing her virginity. Eventually, winner takes all it seems - but in the process, Tristana has lost her soul and she has become as jaded as Don Lope was.

As is usual, this Bunuel film is full of explicit Freudian images. Every scene is packed with visual interest. It also provides an interesting picture of catholic Spain and the hypocrisy rampant in such an ultra-conservative society as well as the marginal position of women in it - of course seen through the anti-clerical and anti-bourgeois eyes of the film maker. But above all, the most wonderful thing in the film is the transformation Catherine Deneuve undergoes from uptight virgin with her hair in braids to the bitchy and mean one-legged woman at the end. A most difficult role that is performed in a fascinating way.
Other reviews of Bunuel films on this site:  Belle de Jour (1967, also with Catherine Deneuve); That Obscure Object of Desire (1977, also with Fernando Rey).
(Reviewed August 2014)

The Best Films of Okamoto Kihachi

Okamoto Kihachi (1924-2005) was born in Yonago, attended Meiji University in Tokyo, and then was drafted for the war in 1943, during the most hellish phase of the struggle. Wanting to become a film director, in 1947 he entered the Toho studios and worked as assistant for Naruse Mikio, Makino Masahiro and others. Okamoto debuted with a film of his own in 1958 and made 40 films during his lifetime. For about half of them, he wrote the scripts himself. He worked in various genres, but became most famous for his period films and his war films, both characterized by over the top violence and a cynical outlook. His earliest films were mainly noirish, hard-boiled gangster movies. His first notable film was Desperado Outpost (1959), a black comedy about the absurdities of war.

Okamoto's international reputation rests on the period films he made in the 1960s. These include the nihilistic Sword of Doom, the severe Samurai Assassin, the humorous, "spaghetti Western" Kill! and The Red Lion, a film showing that authority always ends up exploiting the weak. All these films are intensely violent.

His later films were less succesful and include some curious hybrids as Dixieland Daimyo (1986) about a group of black slaves who have drifted to Japan, and East Meets West (1995), about a samurai sent to the U.S. to prevent the signing of a treaty between both countries.

Okamoto Kihachi worked for Toho where he was constantly eclipsed by Kurosawa Akira and Kobayashi Masaki. Yet he had his own sardonic style and simple message: there is no honor in violence, he says. History is an invention of those in power. Okamoto's heroes are usually outcasts, who have rejected established social codes.

Selection of Films:
  • Desperado Outpost (Dokuritsu gurentai) (1959)
    Bitter tale of a sergeant (Sato Makoto) in Manchuria in WWII who joins a tribe of bandits after his commando has been wiped out by Chinese forces. 
  • Samurai Assassin (Samurai) (1965) 
    Film set in the "bakumatsu period" of the 1860s, about Niiro (Mifune Toshiro), a ronin who dreams of samurai status. He falls in with a group of assassins planning to kill the shogunate's councilor, unaware that the man is his own father. 
  • The Sword of Doom (Daibosatsu Toge) (1966) 
    Nakadai Tatsuya plays a sociopath samurai who is drunken with killing and goes completely berserk. Based on the novel by Nakazato Kaizan, which was filmed several times. The abrupt ending (originally a continuation was planned) in fact fits very well. 
  • Kill! (Kiru) (1968)
    Two ronin - an ex-samurai and an ex-farmer - get caught up in a local officials' complex game of murder and betrayal. Again with Nakadai Tatsuya. 
  • Red Lion (Akage) (1969) 
    Mifune plays a peasant who dreams of glory as a warrior, again in the Bakumatsu period. He is manipulated and cheated on all sides, but what strikes the viewer is the enormous energy Mifune puts in his role. And that red wig is just great!
  • Zatoichi and Yojimbo (Zatoichi to Yojinbo) (1970) 
    Katsu Shintaro as Zatoichi and Mifune Toshiro as Yojimbo face off in one of the later installments of this popular series. Perhaps not the best, but great fun all the same. Don't watch it before first seeing Kurosawa's Yojimbo and at least one or two other installments from the long Zatoichi series, or you will lack the necessary background information..
  • Rainbow Kids (Daiyukai) (1991) 
    Three crooks kidnap the richest woman in the area, but somehow kidnappers and kidnapped seem to reverse roles in this light comedy.
  • East Meets West (1995)
    Sanada Hiroyuki as a samurai trekking through the Wild West in this genre mash-up.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Sakekasu (Sake lees)

Sake -kasu are sake lees used in the Japanese kitchen. At the end of the fermentation process of sake, the moromi is squeezed through a fine mesh. The clear sake will flow out and leave a solid rice substance behind. These "dregs" can be as much as one fourth of total volume.

Happily, these sake lees are not wasted. They are used in the Japanese kitchen as a marinade for fish or meat, made into a sweet rice drink (amazake), or re-used for brewing table sake.

Sake kasu are also used as a pickling agent.

[Sakekasu from Daishichi]

In fact, sake kasu are rich in proteins and very nutritious. They take the form of a thick rice paste sold in plastic bags from which the fragrance of sake still wafts up. Another type is sold in dry form. A more expensive kind are sake lees made from Ginjo sake.

In Japan, you will especially find them in winter, when all breweries are operating. Sake kasu has a distinct umami taste.

[Sakekasu from Daishichi]

"The Devil in the Flesh" (Le Diable au Corps) by Raymond Radiguet

The Devil in the Flesh is a short novel published in 1922 by Parisian literary prodigy Raymond Radiguet (1903-1923). Despite the sensational title, this book is nothing else but a beautiful and very pure love story about young people.

Against the background of the Great European War (WWI), which creates a sort of vacuum of authority for those too young to be involved, a love affair is started between a sixteen-year-old boy (François, the narrator) and Marthe, a nineteen-year old young woman married to a soldier who is fighting in the trenches. They meet secretly in her flat on the outskirts of Paris. At first they try to keep their relation secret, but gradually they grow more and more brazen about it. They go shopping together and go out for walks or boating on the river. Both their families know about the affair, as do Marthe's landlord and the other people living in the flat building. Among their friends it causes a scandal. The only one who is blissfully ignorant is Jacques, the husband, whose letters to Marthe are burned by wife and lover together.

The narrator poses various insights about life and love, which are endearing in their coolness: "It was only now when I was certain that I no longer loved her that I began to love her," or "And yet love, which is selfishness in duplicate, sacrifices everything for itself, exists on lies." The feelings of François seem to be based on paradoxes, but neither he nor Marthe can bear to end the affair. Their passion leads to a climax when Marthe gets pregnant with the child of François (who speculates that he himself is still so young that having a child feels more like having a new brother or sister). She deftly manages to pass off the child as her husband's legitimate child even though everyone around them knows the truth. In the end, Marthe dies just after giving birth, probably because of a cold she caught earlier when François pulled her along to Paris at night, but was too shy to enter a hotel.

There is also humor in the story - one such scene is where the couple living on the floor below Marthe, who apparently are frequently harassed by their loud lovemaking, also in the daytime, arrange a party precisely so that their guests can catch the scandalous lovers in the act - except that François has noticed this and waits with embracing Marthe until the party has finished.

The title "The Devil in the Flesh" seems erotically charged (as in the film Flesh and Devil), but that is because of the translation. "Avoir le diable au corps" only means "to be furious, to quarrel with everyone" or "to be hyperactive" - two things said about teenagers as François. It was the sensational marketing of the novel by its first publisher that gave it a scandalous image, first and for all because of the denial of patriotism, of which there indeed is not a shred in the novel. Radiguet put love above all other concerns and maintains that it is the duty of each individual to follow the prompting of the heart regardless of what others say. The result is one of the most honest and moving love stories ever written.

There also is an autobiographical element in the novel - when he was only 14 years of age (!) Radiguet himself had an affair with an older woman whose husband was away at the front. But of course the story he wove around these elements from his own life is fiction.

The Devil in the Flesh has been adapted several times for television and the screen - most famous is the 1947 version (made after another devastating war) with Gerard Philipe.
My evaluation: 9 points out of 10. A tragedy that Radiguet died at 20 from typhoid fever. Despite his youth, he was active in Parisian art circles where he met Picasso and Gris. Jean Cocteau acted as a sort of mentor for him.  
Audio book and text in French. Article in French. I read the novel as a Penguin Modern Classic.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Zhuangzi (Best Non-Fiction)

The Zhuangzi has always been one of my favorite texts, thanks to the humor, the wild flights of fantasy, the imaginative stories and parables, the poetry of its language. And of course its philosophical stance, which is a combination of relativism and skepticism, bound together by an all-pervading holism. At the same time, it is one of the most influential works ever written in Chinese, both within the Chinese tradition (think of poets as Tao Yuanming, Su Dongpo, Yang Wanli etc, as well as Zen Buddhism) and Japan (Basho!).

[Zhuangzi's Butterfly Dream by Ike no Taiga]

The core of the Zhuangzi may be of slightly earlier date than the Daodejing (around 270 BCE). These are the so-called Seven Inner Chapters usually ascribed to the historical Zhuangzi (about whom virtually nothing is known except that he lived in the last three quarters of the 4th century BCE). Besides that, the book contains writings by anonymous followers of Zhuangzi's school and others who were sympathetic to it (the Outer Chapters 8-22 and Miscellaneous Chapters 23-33).

The Zhuangzi shares the philosophy of the spontaneous changes of the universe, with which the sage should try to be in accordance, with the Daodejing. Zhuangzi considered the moral patterns of the Confucians and other philosophers as artificial constructs of humans. The universe operates according to spontaneous processes and therefore humans should act spontaneously as well (translator Burton Watson calls this freedom). However, humans have the tendency to make artificial distinctions, thus removing themselves from the spontaneous processes of the natural world.

The playful style and fictive anecdotes in the Zhuangzi have the purpose to help readers break out of their habitual and artificial distinctions. That is why we have Confucius renouncing ritual, or he Sage Kings giving up their positions.

The philosophers of ancient China faced the same problem: how to live in a world of chaos and suffering. While the Confucians and others came with concrete action plans, the mystic Zhuangzi said: free yourself from the world.

When a man named Nanrong Zhu came to visit Laozi, to ask for instruction, the Sage promptly asked: "Why did you come with all these people?" The man whirled around but there was nobody behind him. Of course Zhuangzi means here the baggage of old ideas, of conventional concepts of right and wrong that we all carry about. We must first discard these before we can be free. We human beings are the authors of our own suffering and bondage. Zhuangzi sums this up in the image of the leper woman, who "when she gives birth to a child in the deep of the night, rushes to fetch a torch and examine it, trembling with terror lest it look like herself" (Burton Watson, p. 4).

Zhuangzi tries to shock us out of our bondage by paradoxical anecdotes, nonsensical remarks and pseudo-logical discussions. Another deadly weapon he uses is humor - the very core of his style.

Zhuangzi is the philosopher of naturalness, of spontaneity. By just following nature, everything will be best. Applied to politics, this means the world will be ordered automatically, a spontaneous order without need for (too much) government.

In the same way, death is not to be feared as it is only one of the many natural transformations. Without believing in an afterlife, Zhuangzi just tells us to trust nature:
Zhuangzi's wife died. When Huizi went to convey his condolences, he found Zhuangzi sitting with his legs sprawled out, pounding on a tub and singing... [...] (When Huizi admonished him, Zhuangzi answered:) "You are wrong. When she first died, do you think I didn't grieve like anyone else? But I looked back to her beginning and the time before she was born. Not only the time before she was born, but the time before she had a body. Not only the time before she had a body, but the time before she had a spirit. In the midst of the jumble of wonder and mystery a change took place and she had a spirit. Another change and she had a body. Another change and she was born. Now there has been another change and she is dead. It is just like the progression of the four seasons, spring, summer, fall, winter. Now she is going to lie down peacefully in a vast room..." [modified from Watson, p. 191-92]
The most famous story of the Zhuangzi is the "butterfly story" (here modified from the free Legge translation):
Once Zhuangzi dreamt that he was a butterfly, a butterfly flying about, enjoying itself. He did not know that he was Zhuangzi. Suddenly he awoke, and was himself again, the veritable Zhuangzi. But he did not know whether he was Zhuangzi who had dreamt that he was a butterfly, or a butterfly now dreaming that he was Zhuangzi. Between Zhuangzi and a butterfly there must be a some difference. This is called the Transformation of Things.
In China this epistemological story is so famous that it has become idiom ("Zhuang Zhou Meng Die").

The Zhuangzi is such a difficult text, also for Chinese, that you should do yourself the favor of selecting a translation by a specialist in Chinese. The best complete translation, in my view, is still the one by Sinologist and prolific translator Burton Watson, published by Columbia University Press in 1968, which is still available (just as in the case of the Daodejing, there are some terrible "translations" on the market, made by non-specialists who have put their fantasy to work on the basis of older translations - even Penguin Books has "sinned" in this case).
Burton watson, The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu (Columbia UP, 1968) 
Burton Watson, Early Chinese Literature (Columbia UP, 1962) 
The Columbia History of Chinese Literature (Columbia UP, 2001
A.C. Graham, Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China (Open Court Publishing Company, 1989) 
The online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a good article on the Zhuangzi.  
Non-Fiction Index

Monday, March 26, 2012

"You, The Living" (2007) by Roy Andersson

You, the Living (2007; Du Levande) is a Swedish movie by director Roy Andersson infused with dark, dark humor. It is a melancholic mosaic containing about 50 vignettes of life among ordinary people who suffer from the small iniquities of life. They are not so nice themselves, either, being exactly like our contemporaries in their selfishness, narcissism and lack of empathy with others.

The film is shot in washed-out pastel colors and drab interiors. The camera is static and we get only medium and long shots. I was reminded of the films of Tati, also by the quiet flow of the film. Some of the scenes are recurring, such as a brass band rehearsing and finally playing, and a drab bar where each time there is a call for last orders as it is going to close. The vignettes are linked together: a man goes to a barber for a quick trim as he has an important business meeting. He quarrels with the depressed barber who sadistically shaves a "punk" line down the middle of his head and then runs away. Later, the man appears in a meeting with other businessmen, now completely hairless. During the meeting, the chairman has a heart attack and dies. Next we have a funeral ceremony where a woman sings - and in another scene she sings the same song in her bubble bath at home.

Some other visions of despondence are:

An alcoholic biker woman sits on a park bench scolding her fat and meek buddy. She screams she will never see him again until she finds out he is cooking veal roast for dinner.

A naked Brunhilde wearing a Viking helmet sits riding on a fat man in a bed-scene (in fact, this is the sousaphone player from the brass band). The man's mind is far away, however, for he only keeps complaining that the bank has lost 34 percent of his retirement fund.

A carpet salesman manages to convince a customer to opt for a red instead of a green carpet (he has no green), but then he still loses the sale because a colleague has sold the end off that carpet so that it is too short now.

A psychiatrist comes to work in the morning and complains to the camera that he has spent 27 years of his life trying to help mean and selfish people be happy. He asks what the point is.

A man tries to do the trick of pulling a tablecloth from under the dishes on a long table and ends up breaking the 200-year old tableware. A surreal process with beer slugging judges follows and he is condemned by the audience to die on the electric chair. When he is being led to the chair, looking sad and despondent, he is advised to "think of something else." This all is a dream, told by a man stuck in a traffic jam.

The film starts with a man waking up and telling us he had a nasty dream about a flight of bombers approaching. The last shot of the film is of several planes hovering above a city with a glistening river - it looked beautiful, until I realized with a shock these  planes were the bombers from the dream at the beginning of the film...

As characters in the movie often say: "Tomorrow is another day" - yes, another day with loads of shit. Andersson's is a typical kind of negative humor that could only have been born under those dark, leaden Northern European skies.

Okamoto Kanoko

Okamoto Kanoko (1899-1939; 岡本かの子; real name Onuki Kano) was a tanka poet and novelist  active in the years before WWII. She was born in Tokyo's Aoyama into the wealthy and distinguished Onuki family. From a young age she was carefully tutored in the Japanese classics, music, dance and calligraphy. She became highly accomplished and developed a charismatic personality. She was also precocious in other ways - she had many boyfriends and eloped with one of them.

[Okamoto Kanoko]

When in Middle School she was inspired by her brother Onuki Shosen, who wanted to become a poet. He also introduced her to Tanizaki Junichiro. At age sixteen she started contributing tanka poetry to magazines as the famous Myojo (published by Yosano Akiko and her husband Tekkan). Her style in tanka was influenced by the passionate poetry of Yosano Akiko. Okamoto wrote her whole life tanka and published four poetry collections (a selection has been incorporated in Makoto Ueda's Modern Japanese Tanka).

In 1910 she married the cartoonist Okamoto Ippei whom she had met two years earlier. Their first child, Taro, was born a year later, and went on to become a famous avant-garde artist. Two more children died in infancy. At about the same time, also her brother Shosen and her father died - and her husband offered no support whatsoever at this crucial time. Okamoto had a nervous breakdown which caused her to turn to religion, and she would publish several books and essays on Jodo Shinshu Buddhism and also give lectures on this subject.

Her marriage with Ippei was a very free one, on both sides. Okamoto Kanoko was something of a femme fatale and continued to see other young men and even persuaded her husband to let one of them live in their house.

In other to develop herself further as an artist, in 1929 she moved with her husband and son (plus one of her boyfriends) to Europe. They visited Paris, London and Berlin before touring the United States, and returned to Japan in 1932. Her son Taro stayed behind in Paris to study painting - he would only return to Japan after the death of his mother.

Her first story, Tsuru wa yamiki ("The Crane Falls Sick") was published in 1936 in Bungakkai with the support of Kawabata Yasunari, who was a constant admirer of her work. It is a biographical sketch about the last years of the famous author Akutagawa Ryunosuke, who had committed suicide in 1927. Okamoto met Akutagawa in the summer of 1923 in Kamakura, where he was staying in the same hotel. They had casual meetings and conversations. Four years later she saw him again, ruined by illness and looking like a sick crane. When she heard of his suicide she regretted not having talked to him at that occasion, as she thought she might have saved him. The work, although controversial (Tanizaki opposed its publication in Chuo Koron because of the unflattering portrayal of his sister-in-law, an actress for whom he wrote two film scripts), was a sensation and Okamoto received so many invitations to write from magazines that she worked at a furious pace - she wrote all her fiction, more than 30 short stories and novellas, in only three years time, from 1936 to 1939. In that year she died of a stroke, at the age of just forty-nine.

Okamoto's protagonists are often beautiful and dangerous femmes fatales, as in the work of Tanizaki Junichiro. For Okamoto, women are a life-giving force, like the ocean. The two keywords in her work are obsession and desire. She was not interested in social criticism. Her style is rich and highly rhetorical -it has a classical ring to it that reminded me of another baroque writer, Izumi Kyoka. Although Donald Keene calls her style "overblown," and takes her task for her "improbably similes and glittering neologisms," translator Tanaka Yukiko admires her "passages of unparalleled beauty." John Lewell calls her style "ornate and intense."

Perhaps because of this gaudiness and the difficulty of her prose, Okamoto is not a popular writer in present-day Japan. Only two anthologies of her stories are available as bunkobon. In English, several of her stories have been translated, but unfortunately scattered over different anthologies and scholarly journals. Recently, J. Keith Vincent has published beautiful renderings of two stories (see below) - I hope more will follow, for Okamoto Kanoko deserves it. Why not publish all her fiction in English?

Selected Works:
  • Tsuru wa yamiki ("The Crane Falls Sick," 1936).
    Her first story, a document about the writer Akutagawa Ryunosuke (see above). Aozora Bunko.
  • Konton Mibun ("In a Chaos," 1936).
    Kohatsu, a swimming teacher, faces a dilemma: Kaibara, a man who has supported her and her father financially, wants to marry her. But she prefers another admirer, Kaoru. She asks Kaibara to wait until after an important swimming contest. During the contest, she swims far out to sea... Aozora Bunko.
  • Boshi Jojo ("Mother and Son, a Lyric," 1937).
    A rather narcissistic autobiographical story that examines the passionate love of a mother towards her son who is in Paris to study painting. With almost incestuous feelings she pursues a young man who seen from the back resembles her son. Aozora Bunko.
  • Hana wa Tsuyoshi ("A Floral Pageant," 1937).
    Depicts the relationship between an overpowering woman and a sick man. She is devoted to flower arrangement and at 38 still unmarried. He, from his side, will not marry her because she should devote herself to her art and not nurse a sick man. At a succesful exhibition she receives the news of the death of her lover... Aozora Bunko.
  • Kingyo Ryoran ("A Riot of Goldfish," 1937). 
    Mataichi has spent almost 20 years to breed a rare species of goldfish, which should exceed the beauty of Masako, a young woman living in a house on a cliff above his goldfish ponds he admires from a distance. Success does not come easy, but one passion fuels the other. Finally, he finds a wonderful type of goldfish in an old pond into which he has thrown defective specimens.  Aozora Bunko. Translated by J. Keith Vincent (Hesperus Press).
  • Tokaido Gojusan Tsugi ("The 53 Post Stations on the Tokaido," 1938). This story tells about a compulsive traveler who explores the historical and literary sites along the old Tokaido highway, even when he has to sacrifice his family for his obsession. Aozora Bunko.
  • Rogisho ("Portrait of an Old Geisha," 1938).
    Kosono, an elderly geisha, supports a young mechanic who dreams of becoming an inventor. But when the plans come to nothing, he feels trapped by her. She, however, doesn't release him and in fact seems to be siphoning off his young life force. Aozora Bunko. Translated in the Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories.
  • Sushi ("The Sushi," 1939).
    About an elderly gentleman visiting a sushi shop, not so much because he likes fish, but because it calls up memories of his mother. Aozora Bunko.
  • Shokuma ("The Food Demon," 1939).
    The story of a pauper from Kyoto who teaches himself to be an accomplished chef to escape drudgery. Aozora Bunko.  Translated by J. Keith Vincent (Hesperus Press).
  • Karei ("The House Spirit", 1939).
    A young woman is destined to take over the family restaurant. She believes that submitting to her fate will cost her her happiness, but each time she is drawn back by an unseen hand. Aozora Bunko.
  • Kawa Akari ("The Gleam of the River," 1939).
    A search for Buddhist deliverance. Kinoshita doen't want to marry as he dislikes women after seeing the ugly quarrels between his mother and foster mother. He finds peace as a sailor, sailing around the South Seas.
  • Shojo Ruten ("Vicissitudes of Life," posthumous 1940)
    A search for identity by a young woman facing marriage. Choko's father was a wanderer who was adopted into a distinguished family. She feels she has something from his character and finds it difficult to settle down. Finally, she goes to the ocean in the company of an idiot beggar. 

Based on information about Okamoto Kanoko from Modern Japanese Novelists by John Lewell; and Dawn to the West by Donald Keene.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Bach Cantatas for Feasts on Fixed Days (B): Feast of Annunciation (Mar. 25)

The Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin (Mariae Verkündigung) is celebrated on 25 March. It is the celebration of the announcement by the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary, that she would conceive and become the mother of Jesus the Son of God. 25 March is nine full months before Christmas.

This feast typically fell in the time of Lent when Leipzig observed tempus clausum and music was not performed in the churches. However, when this day coincided with Palm Sunday, the ban was lifted. One such occasion occurred in 1725 and another in 1736. We have one complete cantata for this day, the masterly BWV 1, dating from 1725.

Isaiah 7:10–16, prophecy of the birth of the Messiah
Luke 1:26–38, the angel Gabriel announces the birth of Jesus

Cantata Studies:
Bach Cantatas Website | Simon Crouch | Emmanuel Music | Julian Mincham | Wikipedia | Eduard van Hengel (in Dutch) | Bach Companion (Oxford U.P.) | Bach: The Learned Musician (Wolff) | Music in the Castle of Heaven (Gardiner)

[Annunciation by El Greco]

  • Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, BWV 1, 25 March 1725

    Coro: Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern

    Recitativo (tenor): Du wahrer Gottes und Marien Sohn
    Aria (soprano,oboe da caccia): Erfüllet, ihr himmlischen göttlichen Flammen
    Recitativo (bass): Ein irdscher Glanz, ein leiblich Licht
    Aria (tenor, violins): Unser Mund und Ton der Saiten
    Chorale: Wie bin ich doch so herzlich froh

    "How beautifully the morning star shines"
    Text & translation

    Bach first performed this cantata on 25 March 1725, which in that year was also Palm Sunday. The text of the cantata, however, only refers to the Annunciation and not to the Entry into Jerusalem. It is a so-called choral cantata, here based on the choral "Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern" by Nicolai. The "morning star" is a symbol for Christ. The elaborate orchestra has been reinforced with horns and this is one of Bach's happiest cantatas - fittingly so, when we consider the subject matter.

    In the opening chorus, the sparkle of the morning star is illustrated by two solo violins. The sopranos sing the chorale melody while the other parts weave a fugal web around it. It is a great fantasia in which the future birth of Christ, and the journey of the three kings who follow the star to Bethlehem, is set to a lively dance rhythm. This opening chorus is one of the most inspired movements Bach ever wrote.

    Also the soprano aria with oboe da caccia obligato has a dance-like character. The bass recitative refers to the "morning star" ("a joyful radiance") and is followed by an extended da capo tenor aria, accompanied by two violins to express the "tones of strings" the text refers to.

    As finale, the hymn returns in a festive setting, with a rather independent part for the second horn.

    Rating: A+
    Video: Bach-Stiftung

    Saturday, March 24, 2012

    Japanese floral calendar

    Japan has flowers for every season and that is how the hanagoyomi, the floral calendar, was born, listing the favorite flower or tree for each month of the year.

    Here is one example of such a list (for certain months there are variants although cherries are always linked with April!):

    January - pine (matsu)

    February - plum (ume)

    [Plum trees in Osaka Castle's Plum Garden]

    March - peach (momo)

    April - cherry (sakura)

    [Cherry blossoms in Ninnaji Temple, Kyoto]

    May - azalea (tsutsuji), peony (shakuyaku), tree peony (botan) and wisteria (fuji)

    June - iris (shobu), hydrangea (ajisai)

    July - morning glory (asagao)

    [Lotus flower in Hokongoin Temple, Kyoto]

    August - lotus (hasu)

    September - bushclover (hagi) and other "seven grasses of autumn"

    October - chrysanthemum (kiku)

    [Maple splendor in Kiyomizu Temple, Kyoto]

    November - maples (momiji)

    December - camellia (tsubaki)

    "Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day" (2008) by Bharat Nalluri

    There are times that a full-bodied red wine is most suitable, but also moments that bubbles are best. In other words, sometimes it is good to enjoy a frothy, sparkling romantic comedy like Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, filmed in beautiful period style and magical colors by Bharat Nalluri. This film is in the first place an "actors film," it is the ensemble of Frances McDormand as the solid Miss Pettigrew and Amy Adams as her flamboyant and charming employer Delysia Lafosse - a quick-silvery personality who is subject to ever changing moods and whims - that carries the whole film. Amy Adams reminded me of Jean Arthur or Jean Harlow. Period detail is just as perfect as the casting in this film, including the satin gowns and the fabulous antique cars.

    Miss Guinevere Pettigrew is a middle-aged, straight-laced governess, who keeps getting fired as she can't get along with her employers (she has a wonderful way of arching her eyebrows to put people off) - something rather serious in depression time 1939 London. The employment office refuses to help her any longer, but she overhears a name and address meant for a colleague and quickly heads there.

    As soon as she arrives it is mayhem, for American singer/actress Delysia Lafosse storms around in her pink negligee, trying to balance relations with three different men: the noble Michael (Lee Pace), a penniless pianist; the tough Nick (Mark Strong), who owns the nightclub where Delysia performs and who also pays for her flat and upkeep; and pretty-boy Phil (Tom Payne), a young impresario from whom she seeks a leading role in a new play. With a sturdy hand, Miss Pettigrew shores up the fluttering Amy, sorting out her affairs, and actually enjoying herself like never before as partner in deception. She even has to pretend to smoke cigars to put Nick off the scent when he detects a stub in an ashtray. In recompense she now enters high society herself - getting a very necessary make-over in the process. One running joke in the film is that Miss Pettigrew never manages to eat - people bump into her so that she drops her plate, etc. - so when cucumber slices are applied to the skin of her face, she quickly consumes them.

    At a fashion show she meets lingerie designer Joe Blomfield (Ciarán Hinds), who is involved in an on/off relationship with squeaky-voiced socialite Edythe Dubary (Shirley Henderson). Edythe asks Miss Pettigrew's help to sort things out for her as well, but it seems Miss Pettigrew and Mr. Blomfield feel some magic of their own...

    The whole story takes place in just 24 hours and both leading women of course don't fail to achieve their romantic destines, albeit after a lot of giddy screwball-type confusion. They also draw close to each other, making Miss Pettigrew into a sort of female "buddy" movie. But the film also has its quiet moments - Europe is after all gearing up for the second destructive war in a quarter of a century - and as a whole it is delicate and gentle-spirited rather than a shouting match.

    Great fun, long live the bubbles!

    Friday, March 23, 2012

    "Girl Shy" (1924) by Harold Lloyd

    Girl Shy (1924) is my favorite Harold Lloyd film. Strangely enough, this wonderful romantic comedy is very little known. Except among other film makers, because both Ben Hur (1925) and The Graduate (1973) borrowed from Lloyd (the chase at the end of Girl Shy).

    Harold Lloyd is one of the three great comedians of the Silent Era in the U.S., alongside Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Between 1914 and 1947 he made nearly 200 comedy films. He is best known for his "glasses character", a resourceful go-getter in tune with 1920s America.

    Lloyd performed all his stunts himself and his films always contain extended chase scenes or daredevil physical feats. The one for which he is best remembered today, is the one where he is dangling from the hands of a clock high on a skyscraper in Safety Last! (1923).

    In Girl Shy, Harold Lloyd plays a tailor's apprentice who is always so shy when in the company of women that he starts stuttering (yes, in this silent film you can see him stutter!). His boss each time bows on a whistle to pull him out of it.

    The  many female customers in the shop where Harold works bring him in the greatest confusion. One young lady even asks him to mend a hole in her stocking while she continues wearing it, which he does with averted eyes so that his needle pricks in her leg.

    But this "girl shy" young men also has another, unexpected side: in his free evenings he has written a handbook about how to handle various types of women, such as "the vampire" and the "flapper girl." A manual for lovers, so to speak, written by someone who has never yet made love...

    But that is about to change. On the train into town, going to bring his manuscript to a publisher, Lloyd meets Mary (Jobyna Ralston), a rich girl whose car has broken down. She has a small Pekinese with her, but dogs are forbidden aboard trains. Lloyd helps her hide the animal from the conductor and he even picks it up with a walking stick after it has fallen unto the tracks. He earns Mary's eternal gratitude. The two sit talking so intensely about Lloyd's lover 's manual project, that they don't even notice the train has arrived at the terminal. (Lloyd still stutters, but the train whistle helps him out!).

    They fall in love but Mary already has a suitor, Ronald DeVore (Carlton Griffin), and a very persistent one who doesn't take no for an answer. Due to a misunderstanding with Lloyd, she finally accepts the obnoxious DeVore, but luckily Lloyd discovers that the man is in fact a bigamist.

    At that moment, the wedding ceremony is already starting, so Lloyd races to the rescue in a daredevil ride across Los Angeles to prevent the ceremony from taking place. All the time he has to change vehicles, from horses to a trolley to a police motor cycle to a fire truck... This is the first and also the best race I know on film, it is really hair-raising!

    Harold bursts in just as the minister is about to conclude the ceremony - but he stutters again and is unable to explain anything. So he just carries off Mary. When they are finally together, he wants to propose to her. A passing mail-carrier's whistle helps him out of his stutter, and she accepts.

    Thursday, March 22, 2012

    Japanese Masters: Ariyoshi Sawako (writer)

    Ariyoshi Sawako (1931-1984; 有吉佐和子) was a novelist born in Wakayama City, and the native scenery of the broad River Ki and its green valley, leading inland from Wakayama City, plays a large role in her work. Four of her novels and five short stories have been translated, so she can't be called "unknown," but her oeuvre is large (more than 100 novels, stories, plays, essays and travelogues) and it is good to have a look at the total of her endeavors.

    Ariyoshi Sawako spent part of her youth in Java (her parents returned in 1941 to Japan) and was educated at Tokyo Women's Christian College, where she studied literature and theater. The theater - especially the Kabuki - and other traditional performing arts formed her lifelong passion. She graduated in 1952.

    In 1956 Ariyoshi made her literary debut with Jiuta, a story set in the strict world of traditional Japanese music. Jiuta are traditional songs accompanied by the shamisen. A jiuta singer, head of a lineage, has trained his daughter in the hope that she will be his successor, but his hopes are shattered when she decides to marry a foreign husband and move to the U.S. The father-daughter conflict is central to the story.

    In 1959 Ariyoshi studied a year at the Sarah Lawrence College in New York on a Rockefeller scholarship, with the theater as her subject. Back in Japan, she worked for a publishing company and at the same time continued writing highly acclaimed short stories and novels, many of them dealing with traditional Japanese performing artists. This interest in the theater also influenced her style. In her novels, there are frequent dramatic confrontations between the characters and she had a great talent to write lively dialogues. She also wrote plays for the theater as well as scripts for TV.

    Ariyoshi was a prolific and very talented novelist. She often raised social issues and women's issues in her novels. Ariyoshi traveled extensively to gather material for her books; she also wrote travel essays. During her lifetime, she was very popular: nine of her novels were filmed, four others made into TV films. Today, her popularity has somewhat decreased, but she is still studied and her best novels remain in print.

    Ariyoshi was a typical storyteller. Her characters are often propelled by a certain feverishness that also grips the reader, such as the fierce competition between mother and daughter-in-law in The Doctor's Wife, or Okuni's obsession with dancing in The Kabuki Dancer.

    Ariyoshi's numerous novels can be divided into six groups depending on the subject matter.

    First we have novels about traditional performance artists. Besides the above mentioned Jiuta this group includes:
    • Izumo no Okuni ("The Kabuki Dancer," 1969), about Okuni, the woman who in the late 16th century "invented" a new form of dance that was an early incarnation of the Kabuki theater. She performed on a stage along the bank of the Kamo River in Kyoto. The novel vividly depicts the historical background as well as the rivalries in Okuni's troupe. Translated into English by James R. Brandon, who is a specialist on the Japanese theater in general and Kabuki in particular (published by Kodansha).
    • Tsuremai, ("Dance for Two"), about the rivalry between two sisters born into the Kajikawa family of traditional dance. 
    • Midaremai ("Disorderly Dance"), a sequel to the previous novel, which takes the rivalry between the sisters one step further when the Iemoto, the head of the school, dies. 
    • Ichi no Ito ("One String"), about a young woman who falls in love with a man who plays the shamisen in the Bunraku theater.
    • Kaimaku beru wa hanayaka ni ("Let the bell for the curtain rise sound gorgeously"), a mystery novel set in the modern theater world.
    Secondly, novels and stories set in the world of geisha and bar hostesses:
    • Shibazakura ("Moss Pink"), a novel about two geisha with very different characters, the one, Masako, very serious, the other, Shimayo, more frivolous; 
    • Keko ("Flowers and Incense," 1965), about the relations between two geisha living in the years between Meiji and the War, a mother, Ikuyo, who is rather vamp-like, and her daughter Tomoko, who forgives her wild streaks. 
    • Here also belongs The Tomoshibi (Tomoshibi, 1961), a short story translated by Keiko Nakamura in The Mother of Dreams about a kind bar hostess.
    Then we have a group of historical novels.

    • Here belongs in the first place Ariyoshi's most famous work, Hanaoka Seishu no tsuma ("The Doctor's Wife," 1966). Dr. Hanaoka Seishu (1760-1835) was the first in the world to operate a patient under a general anaesthetic (in 1804), with techniques which go back to both Dutch and Chinese medicine. Ariyoshi studied his personal papers for her novel, but the famous doctor is not the main character in the book: that is firstly his wife Kae, and after that his mother Otsugi. The rivalry between these two women for his attention is central to the novel and propels the story forward. While he is still developing the powder called tsusensan (a herbal mixture also containing some poisonous elements) they compete for the "privilege" of being his first human subject to test it. The doctor pretends not to notice the rivalry but benefits greatly from it. Kae goes blind as a result. English translation published by Kodansha. 
    • Another interesting novel in this group is Kazunomiya-sama otome ("Her Highness Prinses Kazu," 1978), the famous story of an imperial princess, Kazu-no-miya, who in the late Edo-period for political reasons was forced to marry the shogun. Ariyoshi poses that it was not the real princess, but a substitute who married the shogun.
    The next grouping is of novels describing the life of women in the time of Japan's early modernization from the late 19th century on.

    • Here belongs Ariyoshi's masterwork, Kinokawa ("The River Ki", 1959), the story of three generations of women (Hana, Fumio and Hanako) living from the late 19th to mid 20th century in the countryside outside Wakayama City on the River Ki. The novel explores their changing attitudes and expectations. The novel shows how Hana, a traditional woman, keeps in the shadow of her husband, a politician, but also how she supports him and uses her resources to promote his interests. English translation published by Kodansha. Two sequels (Arita River, 1963 and Hidaka River, 1965) add two more generations, but have not been translated.
    A next group of novels addresses modern life and its problems.
    • An example is Fushin no Toki ("A Time of Distrust"), about Asai Yoshio, a salaryman who has been married for 15 years to Michiko. Asai has two times in the past been unfaithful to his wife, and when he again falls for a hostess, Machiko, his wife plans a terrible revenge. 
    • Interesting is also Yuhigaoka Sangokan ("Building No. 3 at Evening Sun Hill") that describes the problems of Sonoko, the wife of a salaryman who starts living in company-provided housing in Tokyo. The flat is beautiful, but besides facing problems with the education of her son, Sonoko gets entangled in the web of small-time intrigues and rumor-mongering among the housewives in the compound. 
    • Akujo ni tsuite ("About a Bad Woman," 1978) - the heroine is a business woman who has just past away. The novel consist of 27 chapters in which people who knew her give their memories. She is not at all a "bad woman," but the novel shows how  the same person may be "seen" from different angles - some loath her, others love her. Along the way, we also get the expanation of her untimely death. 
    And finally we have the novels about "social problems."
    • An early example is Hishoku ("Not Because of Color", 1964), about a Japanese woman who moves to New York's Harlem as the "war bide" of an African-American soldier. The novel not only addresses racial discrimination, but also looks at what it means to accept life in another culture. 
    • The most famous book in this group is probably Kokotsu no hito ("The Twilight Years," 1972) which depicts the life of a working woman who is caring for her elderly, dying father-in-law in a very moving way. When Akiko's senile father-in-law is rejected by community services, the responsibility for his care automatically devolves upon her, increasing a domestic and employment workload which she already finds hard to cope with. Ariyoshi correctly anticipated the problems that Japan's rapidly aging society would cause. The book is both funny and heart-warming. English translation published by Kodansha.
    • Fukugo Onsen ("Compound Pollution," 1975) - not a novel but reportage about various forms of pollution. Sold one million copies and shook up the public and the government. From this time on, corrective measures were introduced.
    Concluding we can state that the most striking feature of Ariyoshi's novels is the sheer vitality and resourcefulness of her female characters.

    P.S. Since Kodansha International, the publisher of four of Ariyoshi's novels in English has been liquidated last year by its mother company Kodansha, it is questionable whether these translations will still be available. The best option may be a library. It is sad that there is no Japanese publisher with translations of Japanese literature left on the international scene. As is also the case elsewhere, the Japanese seem to have a singular lack of interest in the propagation of their own culture.  

    Liebelei by Max Ophuls

    Liebelei, made by Max Ophuls in 1933 in Germany, was the first characteristic film of the great director. Like the later La Ronde, it was based on a play by the Austrian author Arthur Schnitzler (see my post on Schnitzler's short stories). Superficially, the story is a rather common melodrama: a young lieutenant, Fritz (Wolfgang Liebeneiner), has an affair with a baroness but falls in love with a musician's daughter, Christine (Magda Schneider). Although he breaks with the baroness, her husband challenges him to a duel. He is killed and the girl commits suicide.

    Interesting is the way this story has been filmed:
    • Take the long scene where Fritz accompanies Christine home after he has just met her. Almost in silence, they walk through a snowy Vienna. This was an early "talkie," but Ophuls has the good sense to use words sparingly here. Almost imperceptibly, as they walk on, Christine’s face begins to reflect happiness as she awakens to love. Silence can be more pregnant than words. 
    • A remarkably long shot is also present in the love scene of Christine and Fritz. Filmed at an outside location, they glide in a sleigh through a realistic snow-covered wood, pledging eternal romance:   "I swear that I love you, for all eternity." 
    • There are two interesting, contrasting waltz scenes set close together: at a café, the two lovers waltz to music from a coin-operated Victrola, feeling as if they are in heaven - and at the Baron's mansion, a full orchestra blazes forth as Fritz mechanically dances with the Baroness, a woman he is no longer interested in. 
    • A recurring threatening figure is that of the Baron with his monocle, just watching, icily.
    • A great final sequence is the one where Fritz' friend Theo, his girlfriend Mizzi and Christine's father sit opposite Christine at the entrance of her chamber, trying to inform her about her lover's death. Christine is shown in close-up and we see that she realizes what has happened, and also starts to think that Fritz perhaps never loved her as he has died in a duel for another woman (an understandable misunderstanding). Her face finally expresses pure desolation. 
    The theme of the film (and the in its time very popular play) is universal: misplaced male honor - in poultry terms, I would call this the "cock syndrome." In this setting that leads to a duel, today it could give rise a different form of revenge. Fritz' friend Theo tries to break through this fixed, violent pattern and have the top brass call off the duel (without success). The words he uses here were very courageous for the time and place the film was made, Germany 1933: "Every shot not fired in self-defense is murder!"
    Based on the play "Liebelei" by Arthur Schnitzler. 
    Other films by Max Ophuls reviewed in this blog: Letter from an Unknown WomanCaught - La Ronde - The Earrings of Madam de... 

    Wednesday, March 21, 2012

    "Zabriskie Point" (1970) by Antonioni

    Zabriskie Point, made by Michelangelo Antonioni in 1970 when he received a large budget and a lot of freedom to do as he wanted from one of the major Hollywood studios, is named after the eroded badlands in Death Valley, an old lake bottom and the lowest point in the U.S. (Zabriskie Point in its turn received its Polish sounding name from the manager of the borax company that mined the area in the early 20th c.)

    The strangely eroded badlands and barren mountains of Death valley look great in Antonioni's film and that is saying it all: it has been superbly filmed, with striking color combinations, great "on location" landscapes and sweeping choreographic movements. It is pure eye candy, not to speak about the explosion at the end which is the most beautiful filming ever of such an event, with a blooming fire and a scattering of interior things into the stark blue sky.

    For the rest, the film is an indictment of American consumption society, from the viewpoint of the student demonstrations taking place in 1968 all over the developed world. The film is full of colorful billboards advertising products nobody needs. There is a lot of jargon talk among the students, Marx was still seen as a viable road in those long ago days. One student, Mark (Mark Frechette), decides action is needed and buys a weapon. When the police break into the university campus where the students are squatting down, an officer is shot. It may have been a bullet from Mark's gun.

    He steals a small plane and flees, flying into the desert. There his path crosses that of Daria (Daria Halprin), a young woman working for a real estate company and on her way to the desert home of her boss Lee (who may be her lover) for a conference about a new housing development. She drives a wonderful 1952 Buick. He teases her by flying low over her car, then lands. They travel on in Daria's car because Mark has to buy gasoline for the plane. When they reach Zabriskie Point, they get out excitedly for some sightseeing. Finally they make love in the desert, almost merging into the sand - you have trouble discerning whether a certain round shape is Daria's hip or a desert hill. And their love bears fruit for all of a sudden the whole desert is filled with embracing couples, an orgy of strange flowers.

    Mark decides to return the stolen plane. When he lands, the police shoot him dead as a cop killer. Daria hears the news on her car radio and is shattered. In the meantime, she has reached the futuristic place in the desert where her boss lives and stands at a distance. That resort is also part of consumption society, sullying the clean desert. With disgust, Daria "wills" an explosion (I have no better word, but this can't be anything else than a fantasy in her head) and there the fire blossoms into the sky...

    Antonioni films the same blast repeatedly in close-ups. We see refrigerators spilling their contents, clothes flying from closets and books fluttering in the breeze, this all against the background of a deep blue sky. Never has an explosion been filmed in such detail, as if it were a ballet, accompanied by music from Pink Floyd. Antonioni has created the most beautiful, extended explosion ever (and that says something as there are lots of blasts in Hollywood pictures). This finale alone is worth seeing the film...

    This is an art film. It is beautiful, but don't look for a story. Also don't look for any acting capabilities in the Adam and Eve of the story - Antonioni had enough budget to get big stars, but he must have wanted unknowns with innocent faces as his protagonists. As director he keeps the reigns tight enough to make it work. It is the lights and shapes that count, and the shifting desert sands...

    Tuesday, March 20, 2012

    "Eyes Wide Shut" (1999) by Stanley Kubrick

    Eyes Wide Shut is Stanley Kubrick's rendering of Arthur Schnitzler's haunting Dream Story, a film that has wrongly been dubbed an "erotic thriller" by the marketeers of the studio (not by Kubrick himself, who tragically died of a heart attack before the film came out). In fact, the film is wholly un-erotic, despite the scenes of nudity it contains - the orgy at the center of the story is more like a satanic dance of death. And neither film not book is a thriller - one should rather speak of a "psychological mystery," about unfulfilled longings and fantasies which bring tension to a marriage. Bill (the Fridolin from the novel, and also a medical doctor; played by Tom Cruise) is so jealous of a phantom - a naval officer his wife (Alice, in the novel called Albertine; played by Nicole Kidman) confesses she was once captivated by - that he keeps cruising the city until he has committed some sort of sexual revenge.

    Like in the novel, he does this, finally, by gatecrashing an orgy where everyone is masked, until he is chased out, while a mysterious woman pledges to take his guilt upon her.

    The biggest difference between film and original story and its greatest weakness is that Kubrick has added the figure of Ziegler, the wealthy patient of Bill who gives the party at the start where both Bill and Alice flirt with other partners - until Bill is urgently called up in his capacity of a doctor. For one party was not enough for Ziegler: while his guests were dancing downstairs, he had a private "dance" with a hooker upstairs, but she needs medical attention after she takes an overdose of drugs.

    And at the end of the film Ziegler calls Bill to his house and sternly warns him not to pursue his investigations into the secret group that held the orgy the previous day. Ziegler himself is a member, and he tells how Bill was found out: because he arrived in a taxi while all the real members came in their limo's.

    Ziegler also divulges that the girl who saved Bill at the orgy was the hooker who overdosed at his party. She is indeed dead, but not because she has been punished for helping Bill - that was only staged. She has died afterwards because she took another overdose...

    Although he on purpose leaves some room open for doubt, in this way Kubrick gives a neat explanation for all the mysteries. Too neat - he explains away the mystery that Schnitzler on purpose left intact. The novella is so haunting exactly because there is no rational explanation, because all could well be a dream. That important aspect is somewhat lost in the film.

    Some other changes, while we are at it:
    • In addition to relocating the story from Vienna in the 1900s to New York City in the 1990s, Kubrick changed the time-frame of Schnitzler's story from Mardi Gras to Christmas. Happily, there are no Christmas songs blaring through the speakers, Kubrick must have used this season because it allowed him to have every set suffused with the dreamlike, hazy glow of colored lights... a filmic way to call up a dreamlike atmosphere. 
    • The character of Bill Harford is fundamentally more strait-laced than his counterpart, Fridolin. Bill sleep-walks through life with no deeper awareness. 
    • In the film, when Bill visits the prostitute ("Mandy"), he kisses her - contrary to the novel - and then is shocked into reality by a call from his wife on his mobile phone. This makes him leave. The next day, he makes a second visit to the room of the prostitute and then meets her room mate who tells him Mandy has tested positive for AIDS.
    Some things which work particularly well in the film (while not present in the novel):
    • the color scheme and the fairy-tale lights.
    • the Venetian masks worn by the revelers at the orgy.
    • the transposition of the evil world to that of the extremely rich - the real pornography in the film is that of money. Christmas has purely become a feast of consumption. But behind the glittering facade lurk  exploitation and death.
    On the other hand, enough from the novella has been left intact, to make this a rather faithful Schnitzler adaptation. Schnitzler's marital drama from the turn of the century still has strong relevance today, because it is about how unconscious desires, feelings and fantasies can endanger a basically stable situation.

    Vernal Equinox Day (Shunbun no Hi)

    Shunbun no Hi or the "Vernal Equinox" (when day and night are of equal length) is a Japanese national holiday established in the Meiji-period "so that people could commune with nature and show their love for all living things." It is usually celebrated on March 20 or 21. Similarly, in September, there is an Autumnal Equinox Day (Shubun no Hi).

    Both equinox days are associated with the Buddhist Higan practices, held traditionally two times a year in the same period.

    [Nishi Otani Cemetery, Kyoto]

    Higan is a Buddhist term literally meaning "Other Shore." Buddhists believe that our worldy life is symbolically divided from the world of Enlightenment by a river full of pain and sorrow. Only those who manage to pass to the "Other Side" can be free from attachments and enter Nirvana.

    Why was Higan celebrated around this time? That was because of the popular belief that when night and day are of equal length the Lord Buddha will appear to help souls make the crossing to the Other Shore.

    Higan was already observed in Japan in the 8th c., and further institutionalized by Imperial Order in 806.

    In this period, the Japanese usually visit the graves of their ancestors, clean the tombstone, offer incense and flowers. And as the Buddha on this day saves all souls, the visit to the cemetery is considered a joyful event.

    From the old ritual of offering food to the ancestors developed the custom of eating botamochi, a ball of soft rice covered with sweetened bean paste.

    Shunbun no Hi is also the time that the chill of winter finally fades away. Temperatures gradually rise and the colorful riot of cherry blossoms is near...

    Monday, March 19, 2012

    Japanese Masters: Hayasaka Fumio (Composer)

    Hayasaka Fumio (1914-1955) was a composer of symphonic music and film scores. Born in Sendai, he spent his youth in Hokkaido where he became friends with Ifukube Akira. Together they organized the New Music League which held concerts in Sapporo.

    Hayasaka's early works won a number of prizes, such as Dance Antique, which won the Weingartner Prize in 1938. In 1939 he moved to Tokyo, where he started a career as composer of film music. During the next 15 years, Hayasaka would compose almost 50 scores for the biggest names in Japanese cinema, including Mizuguchi Kenji (Ugetsu, Sansho The Bailiff etc) and Kurosawa Akira, all whose films he scored from Drunken Angel in 1948 until his untimely death of tuberculosis in 1955. The collaboration with Kurosawa was especially close and also made Hayasaka's name known abroad via the music for Rashomon which won the 1950 Venice Film festival. His score for Seven Samurai is also famous. Hayasaka also introduced his friend and colleague Ifukube to the Toho studios.

    In these years Hayasaka also continued writing symphonic orchestral and chamber music. In contrast to Ifukube, Hayasaka's style was more late-Romantic. But he, too, sought to build a Japanese-style symphonic music, for example by the use of a pentatonic scale or open fifths. His music generally has a solemn and hieratic quality and is always of a high aesthetic level. Hayasaka's wish to create a new national music was shared by Ifukube.

    When Hayasaka died, his pupil Sato Masaru would continue to write music for Kurosawa's films. Takemitsu Toru commerated his death with his Requiem for Strings (1957). Hayasaka had a great influence on Akutagawa, Mayuzumi and Takemitsu, three other composers who frequently wrote film music.

    Major works by Hayasaka: 
    • Ancient Dance (1938) - amalgates melodic cells and sonorities of Gagaku (Japanese palace music) with structures and timbres from European music, especially Stravinsky - he almost quotes literally from the Rite of Spring. The assertive rhythms are taken from Japanese folk music and remind of Matsuri (Shinto festivals).
    • Overture in D (1939) - already starts in marching rhythm, and grows into a full-grown, solemn march. 
    • Ancient Dances on the Left and on the Right (1941) - further develops the direction Hayasaka took in his Ancient Dance. Starts and ends pp, as if forming part of the endless flow of natural time. 
    • Four unaccompanied songs to poems by Haruo Sato for solo soprano (1944). 
    • Piano Concerto (1948) - his most "late Romantic" composition, a big-boned and expansive work.
    • Autumn for piano solo (1948) - Hayasaka composed many piano works, over his whole lifetime. (His first composition, from 1936, was a notturno for piano).
    • Capriccio for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and piano (1949) - inspired by Tibetan music.
    • String Quartet (1950) - sort of open form structure.
    • Duo for Violin and Piano (1950). 
    • Metamorphosis for orchestra (1953) - good example of the "endless form structure" Hayasaka pursued. A series of motifs in the brass introduce a long recitative played by the strings. The harmony is dissonant and the use of rhythm is free. 
    • Yukara (1955) - symphonic suite in six movements, with texts taken from an epic Ainu saga. Not program music, but rather Hayasaka's musical reactions to the ancient saga. With this work, Hayasaka also wanted to reaffirm oriental values in a time if rising Westernization. The suite is noted for its sparse textures, a contrast with Hayasaka's more lush other compositions. Influence on Akutagawa's Ellora Symphony and Mayuzumi's Nirvana Symphony.
    As top three of Hayasaka's works, my choice would be: (1) Ancient Dances on the Left and on the Right plus Ancient Dance in a shared first position; (2) Yukara; and (3) Metamorphosis for Orchestra.

    Sunday, March 18, 2012



    preserved vegetables, "pickles"


    [Tsukemono mori-awase, a plate with various pickles]

    Tsukemono, also called "Japanese pickles," are in fact preserved vegetables, pickled both delicately or strongly, in various ways (for example, pickled in salt, in rice bran, etc.). In the past, before the advent of the refrigerator, pickling was an important way of preserving vegetables and get the necessary vitamins also in winter. In the past, Japanese families did their own pickling, as some farmers still do. But most Japanese now buy their pickles in the supermarket or depachika; in some some areas as Kyoto and Nara, visitors can buy famous local pickles as a souvenir or as an elegant gift (omiyage). Many localities strive to develop and promote their own tsukemono.

    There are many ways of making tsukemono, but as none of these involves the use of distilled vinegar or acetic acid, we should in fact call them "preserved vegetables", rather than pickles in the Western sense.

    Tsukemono can be fermented, for example when the process involves rice bran, sake lees or koji, but other types made with for example salt or soy sauce are not fermented.

    Tsukemono are an important part of the meal in Japan. Rice is always accompanied by tsukemono and miso soup, a fixed unit (ichiju issai, "one soup and one vegetable") of the meal (and in leaner times, often the whole meal). The dish of chazuke ("green-tea-over-rice") is always accompanied by pickles.

    Pickles can also be used as a snack (otsumami) with sake, or - in certain areas of Japan - with the afternoon tea. I have my own custom of drinking a cup of green tea in the morning accompanied by a pickled plum!

    On menus, such as of the kaiseki cuisine, tsukemono are called "o-)shinko."

    Here are the major types of pickling:
    • With salt (shiozuke). The easiest and most popular method.
    • With soy sauce (shoyuzuke). Mirin is usually added to the soy sauce.
    • With miso (misozuke). The miso is usually mixed with sake. This method is used for pickling whole vegetables, such as pumpkin.
    • With vinegar (suzuke). Japanese vinegar is low in acidity, so like the other types, this is also more a preserved vegetable than a real pickle.
    • With rice bran (nukazuke). Used with salt and chilies. The vegetables are buried in a bed of the rice bran (nukadoko) for a period of several months.
    • With sake lees (kasuzuke). Sake lees are mixed with shochu, sugar and salt. This method of pickling takes a very long time.
    • With koji (kojizuke). Koji is a mold that is cultivated on rice and that is responsible for the sugarification of the starch in the rice as well as the production of other enzymes. 
    Not all tsukemono fit neatly into these categories. The famous senmaizuke from Kyoto consist of slices of turnip (kabu) pickled with salt plus konbu, mirin and chili pepper so that a distinctive umami flavor develops.

    There is no limit on the types of vegetables which can be used for pickling. So we find not only Japanese vegetables,  but also Western vegetables. I recently found pickled (whole) onion in a pickles shop in Kyoto, and it was sweetly delicious!

    It is nice to visit a depachika or pickle shop just to sniff the aromas from the barrels, crocks and jars filled with all types of tsukemono.

    Japanese Food Dictionary

    Saturday, March 17, 2012

    Dream Story (1926) by Arthur Schnitzler

    Arthur Schnitzler is unfortunately not such a familiar name today, but his Dream Story (Traumnovelle, 1925/26) could well ring a bell with many readers: Stanley Kubrick based his film Eyes Wide Shut on this novella. Film fans may also know other stories and plays by Schnitzler. Most famously, Ophuls filmed his "notorious" play Reigen as La Ronde in 1950.

    [Arthur Schnitzler ca. 1900]

    Arthur Schnitzler (1862-1931) was an Austrian playwright and novelist with Jewish roots. He was a practicing medical doctor (although he later dedicated all his time to writing), deeply interested in psychology, but also a bon-vivant of the latter days of the Austrian Empire, and in his day a very famous playwright. Schnitzler's  themes are the eternal ones of love and death. Although he was not a follower of Freud, he knew Freud well and in his work we see a great interest in dream psychology. That is of course also the case, as the title announces, in one of Schnitzler's masterworks, Dream Story.

    A married couple, a bourgeois Viennese doctor, Fridolin, and his wife Albertine, discover that they are both subject to repressed longings. They disclose experiences to each other which almost led to sexual encounters with another partner. The wife also tells about a strange erotic dream she had. Upset by the fear to loose control of the faithfulness of his wife, Fridolin develops an angry mood that also has an erotic component.

    On one and the same night Fridolin three times flirts with dangerous sexual adventures. The daughter of a patient who has just died hysterically confesses she is in love with him (next to the body of her dead father!), but he refuses her advances. [He probably also misunderstands her, interpreting his own need into her words - all she wants is probably a comforting, fatherly hug.] A young prostitute lures him to her room, but afraid of sexual disease, he only talks to her. Then, in a cafe, he happens to meet an old acquaintance, who earns his bread as third-rate pianist at various parties. The pianist has been invited to play at a private orgy, where all participants have to wear masks (not so strange, anyway, as it is Carnival time). Fridolin is eager to participate in this mysterious adventure and quickly obtains a costume and mask and the pianist tells him the password.

    At the nude ballroom dance party, he meets a beautiful woman who wears a mask but nothing else - and he realizes he is willing to cheat on his wife with this wonderful woman. He notices her ravishingly long black hair. But before anything can happen between them, some men disclose him as a gatecrasher. About to be punished, the masked woman he was interested in, offers to take his penalty upon herself. Then Fridolin is allowed to escape.

    The next day Fridolin searches for the house where the orgy took place, but he finds no trace of the beautiful woman. However, in the hospital he asks a colleague to show him the latest dead. There he sees the body of a woman with beautiful hair who has died of poisoning - but Fridolin is not entirely sure this is the woman he saw at the party as he never laid eyes on her face.

    Finally, Fridolin confesses his adventure (or was it a dream?) to Albertine. Instead of endangering the marriage, the confession works as a catharsis. They both start to understand each other from a new basis.

    Dream Story is situated between conscious and unconscious, between dream, fantasy and reality. Although Schnitzler writes in an objective style, he also exposes the motivation and psychological development of Fridolin and Albertine, and at the same time he manages to impart a mysterious, sometimes even surrealistic atmosphere to his Dream Story.

    Schnitzler's works are not anymore in copyright and can be read freely on the web: see for example Traumnovelle at Faded Page.

    In book form, three volumes with novellas have been published by Rowman & Littlefield (Dream Story is included in Night Games) as well as by Pushkin Press. In addition, Dream Story has been published by Green Integer Books.

    Japanese Gardens: Yoshino Baigo in Ome, Tokyo

    One of the best plum viewing areas close to Tokyo (in fact, part of the metropolis although you would not believe it) is the Yoshino Baigo Park in Ome.

    Ome is a municipality in northwestern Tokyo Prefecture, on the river Tamagawa, and interestingly the very name of this city means "green plum," demonstrating an old link with the "Ume" or plum tree. Not surprisingly, it is an area where traditionally plum trees are grown and where the fruit in pickled form is sold as umeboshi. (Rice with a pickled plum on top is called a Hinomaru Bento, because it resembles the Japanese flag: a red circle on white).

    [Yoshino Baigo, Ome]

    In the form of the Yoshino Baigo Park Ome is also one of the best places for plum blossom viewing in early spring. The good thing is that there is a lot of space here and that the park is in a natural state, not deformed by a playground or miniature trains.

    The name Yoshino Baigo points at several large and small plum tree parks that lie south of the Yoshino Kaido Road. 25,000 plum trees have been planted here, and in season their delicate fragrance comes wafting from all sides through the air. The fame of the area for plum viewing goes back to Edo times, and there are many old trees, too. The best place for flower viewing is the 40,000 square meter large plum tree park (Ume no Koen), where 1,500 trees stand in pleasantly hilly terrain.

    [Yoshino Baigo, Ome]

    The plum tree season is from the end of February to the middle of March. It gets crowded in weekends, but not so much as comparable cherry viewing spots do. If you are hungry from the two hour train ride from Tokyo, buy or bring something to eat in the park. There are no restaurants in the area, but you can stock up on onigiri and canned tea in convenience stores on the Yoshino Kaido; there are also "yatai" stands selling yakisoba and other delicacies around the park in season. Do not enter the park via the main entrance, but rather take a small path to the left just before arriving there, which seems to lead to a graveyard. In fact it brings you to a less busy part of the park, from which you will have an excellent view over the whole area.

    Afterwards, take a leisurely scroll in the area along what has been dubbed "Plum Viewing Road" (Kambai-dori) among farmhouses selling plum trees for your garden as well as pickled plums. From the park, there is a pleasant walking route to the rustic house and garden of popular author Yoshikawa Eiji, of Musashi fame. And still further on, in Mitake, stands the a small museum dedicated to the gentle paintings of Kawai Gyokudo, who often painted the scenery of Ome... or you can climb the mountain to the hoary Mitake Shrine.

    Access to Yoshino Baigo:
    Take the JR Chuo Line from Shinjuku Station to Tachikawa Station and transfer to the Ome Line to Hinawada Station (on Sundays there are some direct trains as well). From Hinawada station, it is a 15 min walk to the Yoshino Baigo plum tree park (follow the road over the bridge that leads straight on to the hills). Entrance free.

    Access to the Yoshikawa Eiji House:
    After seeing the park, follow the signs pointing to Yoshikawa Eiji's museum. You will walk over small roads, among houses and farmhouses interspersed with more plum trees and small parks. The hills should be on your left and the Yoshino Kaido Road on your right. It is only a 30 min walk to Yoshikawa Eiji House & Museum.

    Friday, March 16, 2012

    Classic Fiction: "Effi Briest" (1896) by Theodor Fontane

    If you thought that German literature was heavy and dreary, with sentences often as long as a whole page, then try Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane (1819-1898). This novel is written in supple and fresh prose that has great musical qualities. Fontane taught his countrymen how to write concisely. And the dialogues are so natural you almost believe the characters are real.

    Effi Briest is one of the three great novels of adultery of the 19th century, with Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina. But as I have indicated in my review of Flaubert's masterwork, the real themes in Madame Bovary are the harshness of society and the boredom of life in a small provincial town. Although Effi Briest is a totally different novel, these two themes are prominently present here as well.

    Effi Briest is a very different person from Emma Bovary. She is well-educated and full of humor. Born as only child in an aristocratic family, when she is just 17, her parents marry her off to the 38 year old Baron Geert von Instetten, who of all things had been the unsuccessful suitor of the mother! This is all the more wrong as Effi is not only still a child, but also has a childish character - she should have been allowed to mature before being thrown out on marriage and society. But having become "Staatsanwalt," Instetten now has a high social position and he seems an ideal party to the parents. From Effi's side, there is of course no love, only respect.

    After the marriage and a honeymoon trip to Italy where Effi is dragged from museum to museum, the couple starts living in an old house in Kessin, on the Baltic Sea, a boring small town filled with boring people. Fontane provides realistic descriptions of the dark scenery of this northern German port town. Effi is often home alone when her husband's duties keep him away and, child as she still is, she is afraid of ghosts in the drafty house (there is a legend of a mysterious Chinese). Her husband is a stiff man for whom only his career and standing in society are important. He has no ear for her silly fears. Effi suffers a nervous breakdown, but there are ups and downs, and a daughter is also born.

    Then the debonair major Crampas arrives in the small town and Effi jumps at the chance of pleasant company. She likes physical exercise, and the major joins her for horse riding in the dunes. They flirt, and in a delicate way Fontane indicates that their relation has gone outside of the boundaries of normal friendship. Effi pulls back, but what has happened, cannot be undone, and she feels guilty.

    Happily, there is a change of location: Instetten is promoted to a job in Berlin. Effi feels freer and happier here, the house near the Berlin Zoo is also nicer, and she loves the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the capital, but the affair with Crampas also makes her increasingly reluctant to be together with her husband as his presence makes her feel guilty. When she visits her parents, she finds pretexts to stay away as long as possible from Instetten. She also makes a long visit to a spa to take a cure for her nervous disorder.

    During that absence Instetten purely by chance - for he never suspected anything - finds the love letters Effi has exchanged with Major Crampas. He explodes, his happiness is gone, his only feeling is to punish those responsible for it. He immediately travels to Kessin to fight a duel with Crampas and manages to kill him. He also divorces Effi for adultery, putting all the shame on her. Instetten gets charge of the child, for society regards Effi as a "depraved woman."

    Even her parents treat her harshly: they support her financially, but do not allow her to come back to the parental home, because of the social disgrace. Nineteenth century Germany was a very strict society.  A "fallen woman" was regarded as a contagious disease, nobody wanted to be near her. So Effi lives secluded in a small house in Berlin with only one trusted servant. Later, there is a meeting with her daughter, but after two years the child is completely estranged from her (something the father has taken care of), so this makes her only more unhappy. Her nervous disorder gets worse, and finally her parents relent and put their daughter above their reputation. They allow her to come back to her old home, vaguely feeling their own responsibility in the matter, without however questioning the rules of society. Finally the illness gets more serious again and Effi dies serenely. So ends the novel that shows how society with its petrified moral concepts can crush an individual life.

    Theodor Fontane wrote novels that were completely different from anything written before him in Germany. His influence on 20th century authors, especially Thomas Mann (Buddenbrooks), was enormous.

    Effi Briest was filmed five times - the most famous version was made in 1974 by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, with Hanna Schygulla as Effi Briest.

    The German original is available at Gutenberg, while also several translated versions exist, for example in Penguin Books. This site has a detailed overview of the novel's contents.