Monday, April 30, 2012

Tanizaki and Ashiya (Tanizaki Museum)

After the great Tokyo earthquake of 1923, "Edokko" Tanizaki Junichiro, Japan's foremost 20th century author, moved to the Kansai. Fear of another quake and despair at a quick recovery of the metropolis were certainly factors, but in his literary work Tanizaki also was reaching a stage of maturity where he reached out to Japan's tradition, instead of being inspired by Poe, Baudelaire and Wilde, as in his early works. The Kansai, with the old capital of Kyoto, was the stage where that tradition had been played out and therefore the most suitable place to live.

[Garden of the Tanizaki Junichiro Memorial Museum of Literature]

Tanizaki was extremely sensitive to environment - also in the more private sense: he almost continually moved house, seeking the best place for the novel he was writing at that particular time. In the 20 years he lived in the Ashiya-Kobe area, between 1923 and 1943, he moved house more than 10 times! Important not only for his private life, but also for his artistic creativity, was the meeting with Ms Nezu Matsuko, the wife of an Osaka merchant, who divorced her husband to marry Tanizaki.

Matsuko was the second of four sisters of an old family who together became the model for The Makioka Sisters, Tanizaki's largest canvas. She has been called the "embodiment of the traditional Kansai culture." Between 1928 and 1935 Tanizaki published several important novellas that all relate to the Kansai or Japan's traditions. The first was Quicksand, written in the Osaka-dialect, about a complex relation between two women; Arrowroot, a nostalgic trip by two friends into the legend-haunted mountains of Yoshino; The Reed Cutter, about a contemporary traveler who dreams of ancient poetry and courtesans; and A Portrait of Shunkin, in which an older attendant blinds himself for the sake of the blind musician he serves so that she is not shamed by her disfigurement.

Tanizaki also made his first version in modern Japanese of the 11th c. novel Tale of Genji while in Ashiya. Like the Makioka Sisters, which he started writing here, the Genji is a novel with many interesting women characters - and not coincidentally: Tanizaki's life in Ashiya was not only shared by his wife Matsuko, but also by her two sisters and her daughter (from her previous marriage), and Tanizaki probably felt like a Prince Genji among all those women.

After Ashiya, Tanizaki moved to Kyoto, where he lived in a beautiful house near the Shimogamo Shrine. This house became the setting of As I Crossed a bridge of Dreams, a dream about two mothers. He spent his final years in coastal spa town of Atami, as the hot summers of the Kansai became too severe for his condition of high blood pressure.

The city of Ashiya has set up the Tanizaki Junichiro Memorial Museum of Literature to comemmorate Tanizaki's long sojourn in this area (although he lived most of the time in what is now Kobe rather than in Ashiya).

As is usual for literature museums, exhibits consist solely of photos, first editions, text panels, letters and other paraphernalia, so the better your Japanese, the more interesting the museum - there are no English captions. But it is a "must" for Tanizaki fans and the changing exhibitions are quite interesting - I saw one about Tanizaki and his translation of the Genji Monogatari.

The Tanizaki Museum stands next to the Ashiya City Museum, in a residential area. The museum has a traditional garden that is based on the garden of Tanizaki's Shimogamo residence: a pond with carp, and a good view from the veranda.
Tanizaki Junichiro Memorial Museum of Literature, Ashiya. Tel. 0797-23-5852. Address: 12-15 Isecho, Ashiya 659-0052 Hrs: 10:00-17:00; CL Mon (except if NH, then closes Tues), NY, BE Access: 15 min on foot from Ashiya St on the Hanshin line. Exit the station by the exit for the Ashiya City Hall and follow the broad street running along the city hall; keep going straight though a residential district after passing under the highway; finally turn left onto a sort of dyke; after another 5 min you will see the museum on your left, together with the Ashiya Museum of Art and History. (only Japanese)

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Bach cantatas (23): Third Sunday after Easter

The third Sunday after Easter is called Jubilate ("Praise God"), going back to Psalm 66; it is also the first word of the Introit for the Mass on this Sunday. It is an exhortation to universal joy and thanksgiving. The liturgy for this day continues to celebrate the Easter Resurrection, as will be the case on the following two Sundays as well.

1 Peter 2:11–20
John 16:16–23, Farewell discourse, announcement of the Second Coming

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)

[The incipit of the Gregorian chant introit Jubilate Deo]

  • Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen, BWV 12, 22 April 1714

    Chorus "Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen"
    Recitative "Wir müssen durch viel Trübsal"
    Aria "Kreuz und Kronen sind verbunden"
    Aria "Ich folge Christo nach"
    Aria "Sei getreu, alle Pein"
    Chorale "Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan"

    "Weeping, wailing, lamenting, fearing"
    Text and translation

    This early cantata in somewhat archaic style describes the affliction of the disciples who have to take leave of Jesus, as well as the hardship that waits for them during His absence. The moving sinfonia for plaintive oboe and strings sets the mood for the elegiac opening chorus. The first section of this chorus is a passacaglia, a traditional lamenting figure. The only recitative of this cantata, "We must enter the Kingdom of God through much sorrow," is set for alto - with a rising scale used for the "entering." After that follow three arias: alto solo with oboe, in which the tortuous element of the music reflects the "Cross" in the text; bass with two solo violins - here the whole structure is based on the word "following" as expressed by the violins following the bass and each other; the mournful tenor aria is accompanied by the chorale melody "Jesu meine Freude" on a tromba (often replaced by oboe). The chorale "What God does, is well done" closes this moving cantata.

    Rating: A+
    Video: Bach-Stiftung

  • Ihr werdet weinen und heulen, BWV 103, 22 April 1725

    Chor und Arioso B: Ihr werdet weinen und heulen
    Rezitativ T: Wer sollte nicht in Klagen untergehn
    Arie A: Kein Arzt ist außer dir zu finden
    Rezitativ A: Du wirst mich nach der Angst auch wiederum erquicken
    Arie T: Erholet euch, betrübte Sinnen
    Choral: Ich hab dich einen Augenblick

    "Ye shall weep and lament"
    Text and translation

    Based on the Gospel verse for this day, that weeping will turn into joy. That is marvelously expressed in the intricate opening chorus: falling chromatic lines for "weeping and wailing," staccato phrasing for "the world shall be rejoicing," and above it all we hear the shrieks of the piccolo recorder, either of pain or joy. The following recitative-aria pairs continue the antithesis of sorrow to joy. The tenor recitative ends on "sorrows," which is taken up by the alto aria which is accompanied by a wonderfully florid recorder; the next alto recitative ends on "joy" and leads to an exuberant tenor aria with interesting obligato trumpet part. The mood has evidently changed to joy about the future return of Jesus. The cantata closes with the usual chorale, a proper benediction on the words "Was mein Gott will, dass g'scheh allzeit."

    Rating: A
    Video: Bach-Stiftung

  • Wir müssen durch viel Trübsal, BWV 146, 12 May 1726 or 18 April 1728

    Coro: Wir müssen durch viel Trübsal in das Reich Gottes eingehen
    Aria (alto): Ich will nach dem Himmel zu
    Recitativo (soprano): Ach! wer doch schon im Himmel wär!
    Aria (soprano): Ich säe meine Zähren
    Recitativo (tenor): Ich bin bereit, mein Kreuz geduldig zu ertragen
    Aria (tenor, bass): Wie will ich mich freuen, wie will ich mich laben
    Chorale: Denn wer selig dahin fähret or Ach, ich habe schon erblicket

    "We must through much tribulation enter into the Kingdom of God"
    Text and translation

    In keeping with the liturgical character of the day, the text traces a spiritual path from grief to rejoicing. The first three vocal  movements deplore the sufferings in the world, after which the next three depict hope for a better life in the Kingdom of God. This is interwoven with a longing for death. The cantata starts with a lengthy sinfonia and chorus, both based on the lost violin concerto that was also transformed into the BWV 1052 harpsichord concerto. Here the first movement takes the form of an organ concerto. The second movement - also with obligato organ part - is used for the elegiac chorus. The chorus focuses single-mindedly on "troubles," through sustained dissonances on that word. This is followed by an expressive alto aria with violin accompaniment. Rising scales represent the passage to heaven, and the aria is full of "Todessehnsucht." The following recitative is a lament on the persecution in the world, accompanied by long chords on the strings. The soprano aria ("They that sow in tears") is accompanied by flute and two oboes d'amore and illustrates in two sections the opposition of "sowing with tears" and "reaping with joy." Despite the mournful text is has a galant and even sensuous quality. Finally there is a joyous duet for tenor and bass. It may have been derived from a secular dance movement. For the finale chorale the text is missing. The melody is based on "Werde munter, meine Gemüte," and this is paired with various texts in different performances.

    Rating: A+
    Video: Netherlands Bach Society / Bach-Stiftung

    Illustration: Gregorian chant; author unknown, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

    Wednesday, April 25, 2012


    Sweet potato. さつまいも、薩摩芋。Ipomoea batatas. Other names are "kansho," "Kara-imo" and "Ryukyu-imo."

    Sweet potatoes originated in Central and South America. The Spanish brought the starchy root tuber to the Philippines, from whence it reached China (Fujian) - and from there is was in 1605 brought to the Ryukyu Islands (now Okinawa). In the seventeenth century (from 1611) it spread throughout southern Kyushu - the tuber fitted very well in the volcanic soil where other plants had difficulty growing. As that was the domain of the Satsuma clan, the potato became known as Satsumo-imo, "Satsuma potato."

    According to another theory, by the way, Satsuma-imo were brought directly to Nagasaki and Hirado, without following the route via Okinawa (there is a record that the British brought sweet potatoes to Hirado in 1615 - multiple routes are indeed likely).

    Although the sweet potato reached Japan a little later than the ordinary potato (jagaimo), it became more popular thanks to its sweetness. After the 1730s, Satsuma-imo reached the Kansai and after that also the Kanto area. They are easy to cultivate and as they provide a lot of carbon hydrates, they were very welcome in times when the rice harvest failed. They were promoted by agricultural scientist Aoki Konyo (1698 - 1769) and instrumental in warding off large-scale starvation.

    Over the centuries, the Satsuma-imo potato has been improved in Japan to become very sweet and soft. The skin is a bright, reddish purple. The inside is white when raw, creamy yellow when cooked.

    Sweet potatoes can be simmered (as in the picture above, where they have been simmered in a sweet sauce containing dashi, soy sauce and mirin or sugar - this is the most common way to use them in the home), baked and fried. In that last case, they are sliced thin, and used as a popular ingredient in  tempura. Baked sweet potatoes are a popular snack in winter (yaki-imo). Daigaku-imo is a snack made from baked and candied sweet potato. Puree from sweet potatoes is used in imo-kinton and in other wagashi, Japanese sweets.

    Satsuma-imo also form one of the ingredients from which shochu, Japanese distilled, can be made (imo-jochu).

    Preservation: store in a cool dark place outside the refrigerator. Keeps for about five days. Look for firm potatoes without brown spots.

    Hiking the Shikoku temple route near Ninnaji in Kyoto

    Next to Kyoto's Ninnaji Temple is a nice hiking route: a small-scale copy of the Shikoku Pilgrimage, laid out on Mt Joju. When I first heard about it, I thought it must be something in a park (sometimes a copy of the famous pilgrimage only consists of 88 stones you have to step on!), but reality was more interesting. The "Omura Eighty-eight Temple Pilgrimage" proved to be a rewarding experience, a (almost) two-hour hike up and down Mt Joju with good views of Kyoto thrown in as a bonus.

    [The typical "temple hall" on the hiking route]

    The route was already set up in 1827 by the then abbot of Ninnaji, Sainin. The link, of course, is Kobo Daishi (Kukai), the founder of Shingon Buddhism and the object of the pilgrimage - Ninnaji also is a Shingon temple and the memorial hall (Miedo) dedicated to Kobo Daishi in fact stands in the north-western corner of the temple complex, where you will also find a gate leading outside. If you turn right here, you will arrive at temple 88, the end of the route. So instead go straight ahead and at the end of the residential road you will see a sign saying Ichiban, No. 1, pointing to the right. That is the start of your hike - bring something to drink as the mountain is happily free from vending machines.

    [The path leads through a deep forest]

    The first half of the hike is the most pleasant. First you climb up in a forest of large red pine trees, after that you go up and down over the ridge on top of the mountain. In spring, wild azaleas are blooming here. Now and then you get great views of Kyoto, lying far down at your feet.

    At the start the path is paved, higher up you have a sand path or some rocky patches, but it is never difficult. Temple no. 52 (if I remember correctly) stands at the mountain top, at 236 meters.

    [View of Kyoto from the mountain]

    The temples are just simple, square wooden sheds, with a bell-shaped window behind which sits a small statue. There usually is a hand bell as used on house altars, so you can make your presence known. The first and the last temple and one in between actually had a house attached to them, the rest were unattended. All halls had a small stone pillar in front announcing the name (on the Shikoku pilgrimage), the number and the name of the main image.

    [Sometimes stone statues sit along the path]

    The path is easy to follow, except one spot after going down from the mountain top. There is a T-junction near the valley, the left fork leading to a construction site. Take the right fork here, although it may seem strange that you have to climb up again - but that is correct, there is another right and again a steep climb and you arrive at the next temple, 52 or 53 (it helps when you can read the Japanese-style numbers).

    From now on the hike is up and down along the side of the mountain through a long valley and this part is not so interesting anymore. The atmosphere is a bit damp and dark and there are no views. Although it is good that the route in the end brings you back to Ninnaji again, near where you started, another possibility is to climb to the top of Mt Joju and then track back.

    [The path on top of Mt Joju]

    I made the hike at the end of the afternoon and only met some residents walking their dogs near the beginning of the path, and health fanatics who were actually running on the mountain top. It can be a bit lonely, so take the usual precautions.

    Once a month from spring to autumn stamps are put out at all 88 halls and you can buy a stamp book for 300 yen at the main hall of Ninnaji (9:00-13:00). Check the Japanese website of Ninnaji.
    Access: Ninnaji is close to Omuro Station on the Keifuku Kitano Line. When coming from central Kyoto, take the Hankyu Line to Shijo-Omiya and there board the Keifuku Arashiyama line; switch to the Keifuku Kitano Line in Katabiranotsuji. When coming from Osaka or Kobe, take the Hankyu Line to Saiin and change to the Keifuku Arashiyama line at Sai Station (1 min. walk); again switch to the Keifuku Kitano Line in Katabiranotsuji. The Keifuku Arashiyama line also connects to the Kyoto subway in Tenjingawa Station (Randen/Uzumasa). It sounds more complicated than it is - in any case, the trains are much faster than the option of taking a bus. 
    Hours: 9:00 to 17:00 (16:30 from Dec. to Feb.) 
    Fee: the grounds are normally free, only during cherry blossom season a fee applies. There is always a fee applicable for the Goten palace buildings, and also one for the museum. The hiking route is always free and open. 
    Judith Clancy's Exploring Kyoto gives a good description of this mini-pilgrimage route. 

    Tuesday, April 24, 2012

    "In Praise of Older Women" by Stephen Vizinczey (review)

    In Praise of Older WomenIn Praise of Older Women by Stephen Vizinczey
    My rating: 3 of 5 stars

    In Praise of Older Women was written in lucid English by Hungarian born author Stephen Vizinczey (1933). Published in 1965, it has since come to be regarded as a small classic of modern literature. It is a sort of "Vita Sexualis" (to borrow the title of a novel by Japanese author Mori Ogai), a "Bildungsroman" with the emphasis on the sexual development of the protagonist. It is subtitled "The Amorous Recollections of András Vajda." In fact, the background details of the narrator’s childhood in Hungary match Vizinczey’s own. The brutality the author experienced at a young age (his father was murdered by a Nazi sympathizer), made him determined that violence and hatred are to be avoided at all cost.

    Happily the narrator doesn't take himself too seriously, so his story is full of humor. As the book describes life in Budapest under both the Germans and the Soviets, it is also much more than only an erotic novel. Neither is the novel in any way "explicit:" it is a tender and beautiful book about relationships and the author is never crude. We could very well call it a study of the psychology of love.

    As a young man, András has a strong preference for mature women in their thirties or forties (therefore the title), rather than giggling girls his own age. The book takes us from Hungary to exile in Italy and Canada, but the most interesting part comes in the beginning. Very funny is the section where as a boy who has fled from Hungary to Austria the narrator serves as interpreter on an American base - he mostly has to help the soldiers get along with the local women. And the best relationship in the book is the first one, in which a married woman living upstairs in his apartment building patiently introduces the young András into the ways of love.

    View all my reviews


    Taro, dasheen. さといも、里芋。Colocasia esculenta.

    Sato-imo (lit. "village potato," so named in contrast to another type that was found in the mountains) is the corm of a perennial plant found all-over tropical Asia in many varieties. It is believed to be one of the earliest cultivated plants in the world. It probably originated in the eastern Indian peninsula and then spread both eastwards and westwards. According to the Tabemono no Kigen Jiten, it came to Japan from China in the Nara-period (8th c.) - it is mentioned in the Manyoshu poetry collection -, but there are also people who conjecture that taro was already a staple food of the Japanese in the Jomon-period (10,000 BCE - 300 BCE).

    Taro is characterized by a soft, waxy, almost glutinous texture. At the same time, there is no distinctive flavor. Taro has a high liquidity content (84%). relatively little sugar (13%) and is a good source of starch and potassium. In Japan it is considered a propitious food as the corms (oya-imo) have "children" (ko-imo) and even "grandchildren" (mago-imo).

    In traditional preparations, taro is simmered for a long time in flavored broth (for example, dashi and soy sauce with optional extra katsuo flakes; this preparation is called nimono). In this form it can be eaten as a side dish called sato-imo-ni, but the sato-imo is also often individually used in kaiseki, the Japanese haute-cuisine. Sato-imo can also be stewed together with meat or fowl, or added to soups. In these cases it is a useful ingredient as it absorbs the flavor of the broth.

    [Sato-imo-ni, taro's simmered in a broth of dashi, soy sauce and katsuo flakes]

    When using taro, they are first washed to remove soil residue, wiped dry, peeled with a knife (they have a hard skin) and parboiled. The cut surface shows a snowy-white flesh. When this flesh comes in contact with water, it will develop a slightly slimy texture. 

    Preservation: never put fresh taro in the refrigerator, as they are weak for cold. Just store in a dry and dark place, wrapped in a newspaper. When buying, look for hard ones with the soil still attached; don't buy washed ones as contact with water impairs the taste.

    Monday, April 23, 2012

    "Pale Fire" (1962) by Nabokov (Book review)

    Academic publications usually boast a foreword, notes and an index, trappings that are a publisher's nightmare when publications are meant for a wider public. So it is all the more admirable that Vladimir Nabokov published a novel (in 1962, in the U.S.) that consisted not only of these three elements, but also included a 999-line poem. In fact, the poem could even stand on its own as a musing on nature and mortality. But the foreword, notes and index give it real interest, for it is in these that a suspenseful novel is hidden.

    Foreword, notes and index are purportedly written by a man who calls himself Charles Kinbote, a recent immigrant and lecturer at a northeastern American university. He tells about his brief friendship with his neighbor, John Shade, a colleague at the same university and above all, a poet. Shade was murdered just as he had almost finished the present poem (an autobiographical work in four canto's) and Kinbote has absconded with this final opus, to make it fit for publication. The poem, called "Pale Fire," was written in manuscript on a series of index cards (as Nabokov himself used to write his novels), and follows after the foreword.

    As soon as we read the commentary, we notice that it is not a true commentary on difficult passages in the poem at all. The German word "hineininterpretieren" comes to mind: the commentator forces an interpretation on the reader, which clearly has no relation with the poem. That interpretation is the story of Charles the Beloved, the last King of Zembla who has been dethroned by a revolution and fled his palace and country with grave danger for his own life. Commentator Kinbote wants us to believe that that story is "hidden" in the poem (and especially in the discarded lines he quotes now and then). Already early on, we also get the idea that the heavily bearded Kinbote himself is in fact that King in disguise, now seeking a safe haven in the U.S. He desperately wanted the great poet John Shade to make his life story known to the world. John Shade politely listened to Kinbote's stories, but never used them, and his wife Sibyl positively disliked the immigrant who always seemed to be stalking them.

    Another grave thing becomes clear in the notes: a killer called Gradus has been sent by the new regime to murder Charles the Beloved. He is coming gradually closer and closer to the campus. But Gradus is a blundering idiot and in the finale, which is both comical and tragic, he shoots the wrong man, the poet. Kinbote flees to a cheap motel in the American West where he madly scribbles his annotations, trying to prove that the poem is after all about himself, the former King of Zembla.

    The book contains many layers as is usual with Nabokov. For example, there is a strong hint that the murderer Gradus is in reality one Jack Grey, a madman escaped from a nearby asylum. Charles Kinbote himself may also be a delusional madman - there is a hint in the index that he is Botkin, an American scholar of Russian descent. In other words, he may have fabricated the story about operetta-land Zembla. And so on...

    One thing is certain: Pale Fire is a satire on literary criticism - all too often literary critics interpret things into novels that the author has never consciously thought about. In a way, that has also happened with Pale Fire (the subject of more than 80 academic articles and studies), only look at the fierce discussion that various critics have had about the narrator of Pale Fire: do both Shade and Kinbote exist in the world of the novel, or has Shade dreamed up his own commentator - perhaps even from beyond the grave? Or is it the other way round, and is Kinbote (Botkin) a madman who is entertaining us with his lunatic fantasies?

    (In my view, such surmises goes too far. After all, it is Nabokov who has created both Shade and Kinbote/Botkin, and therefore they both exist in the world of the novel. There are also clear echoes from Nabokov's own life as a refugee from the Soviets, and immigrant in the U.S. who taught for many years Russian at small colleges; and above all, Nabokov's father was also murdered by mistake - when trying to shield a liberal politician from a far-right Russian activist).

    But then again, there is nothing wrong with this game and Nabokov has on purpose hidden what he called "plums" in the novel to tease the critics. Pale Fire is a masterwork that cries out to be read many times over.

    Some notes I made:
    • The title "Pale Fire" is based on Shakespeare (Timon of Athens): "The moon's an arrant thief, and her pale fire she snatches from the sun." This line is usually read as a metaphor for creativity and inspiration. But on a lower level, Kinbote is the thief who has stolen Shade's poem and uses it for his own purposes. 
    • Note the mirrors and shadows in the poem, present from the start: "I was the shadow of the waxwing slain / in the bright azure of the window pane." 
    • It is possible to read Pale Fire in a linear manner, but you can also each time jump to the commentary when reading the poem. It is a novel crying out for a hyperlink treatment!
    • Geographical names in the book are mostly fictional, not only the obvious Zembla (a small country subservient to the Soviet Union, so perhaps one of the Baltic countries), but also in the U.S., like the university town New Wye where Shade and Kinbote live and work.
    • Shade's poem is autobiographical. Canto 1 includes his early encounters with death; Canto 2 is about his family and the suicide of his daughter; Canto 3 focuses on Shade's musings on the afterlife, culminating in a "faint hope" in higher powers; Canto 4 concentrates on the creative process - Shade sees poetry as a means of understanding the universe.
    • Kinbote tells three stories in his foreword/notes: (1) that of his interactions with his neighbor Shade in New Wye, (2) that of Charles the Beloved, the deposed King of Zembla (himself), and (3) that about the assassin Gradus.
    • The adventure of the escape of the King of Zembla owes a small debt to The Prisoner of Zenda.
    • The poem "Pale Fire" is the best poem ever written by a fictional author.
    Review by Mary McCarthy, one of the earliest and deepest ones. Criticism at Zembla, the web site of the International Vladimir Nabokov Society. Contains a time line of Pale Fire and many essays, also on other works by Nabokov. 

    Sunday, April 22, 2012

    Flowers: Hanami in the Hirano Shrine

    The Hirano Shrine (founded 794) in northern Kyoto has been a popular blossom-viewing site since the Edo-period, and is especially famous for its yozakura, sakura after dark enjoyed by lantern light. On top of that, on April 10 it celebrates a Sakura Matsuri, with a small procession consisting of a mikoshi, shrine priests and some young people dressed up as samurai and elegant Heian-period ladies. The nice thing is that in the rather narrow grounds of the shrine you stand shoulder to shoulder with the locals taking part in the procession.

    [The torii of the Hirano Shrine among cherry blossoms]

    It is rather more difficult to enjoy the blossoms: the park with 400 cherry trees of 50 varieties next to the shrine has been filled up with ugly wooden platforms and other contraptions, which are for rent to groups wanting to get drunk and eat strong-reeking stuff (like my nemesis, burnt squid). Although it also sports a hearty down-town atmosphere, it is too commercialized for any higher feelings among the blossoms.

    [The sakura park next to the Hirano Shrine]

    In the shrine enclosure itself there stands only one large cherry tree - planted in palace-style with a tachibana or evergreen orange tree in front of the main hall. And there are some cherries peaking out near the torii gate, an area which unfortunately doubles as a parking lot.

    [Colorfully dressed participants in the procession of the Sakura Festival]

    The Hirano Shrine did only become famous for its blossoms in the Edo-period, when it was incorporated into the culture of Nishijin and other townsmen's districts. Sakura themselves are anyway a relatively recent phenomenon, in the oldest Japanese poetry as the Manyoshu and Kokinshu you find the plum as the most popular early spring blossom rather than the ephemeral cherry. This was also according to Chinese custom.

    [Priests and dignataries of the Hirano Shrine]

    Saigyo was the first sakura poet, wallowing in blossoms, but interestingly Saigyo did not write about sakura when he sang about the Hirano Shrine. He followed custom (laid down in the utamakura "Hirano") to write a festive, celebratory verse about the pine trees of Hirano.

    It goes something like this:
    young and greenthe pine trees of Hiranoagain and again put forthon their branchescountless leaves 
    [wakaba sasu | Hirano no matsu wa | sara ni mata | eda ni yachiyo no | kazu wo sofuran]
    "May the reign of our emperor also flourish like this," is the implication at the end. So here, in the "level field" north of the capital enclosure, grew stately pine trees which were seen as symbolic for the long life and prosperity granted by the shrine deities to the imperial house. Blossoms and squid were still a long way off.
    Access: Bus 205 or 50 from Kyoto Station to Kinugasako-mae. Bus 15 from Sanjo Keihan to the same stop. Within walking distance from Ninnaji, Kitano Tenmangu and Kinkakuji. Grounds free.

    Bach Cantatas (22): Second Sunday after Easter

    The 2nd Sunday after Easter is also known as "Misericordia Sunday" or "Misericordias Domini" after the incipit of the Introit for the church's worship of this Sunday: "Misericordia Domini plena est terra" ("The land is filled with the mercy of the Lord"). The Sundays from Easter to Ascension Day, besides being called the First, Second (etc.) Sunday after Easter Sunday, all have their own Latin names.

    There are three cantatas for this Sunday, all about Jesus as the Good Shepherd, an image that must have appealed to Bach for he wrote wonderful music on this theme. It was also a good excuse to write Arcadian, nostalgic music, a vein popular in the Baroque Age.

    1 Peter 2:21–25, Christ as a model
    John 10:12–16, the Good Shepherd

    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)

    [Good Shepherd,
    attr. Jean Baptiste de Champaigne, 17th c.]

    • Du Hirte Israel, höre, BWV 104, 23 April 1724

      Coro: Du Hirte Israel, höre
      Recitativo (tenor): Der höchste Hirte sorget vor mich
      Aria (tenor): Verbirgt mein Hirte sich zu lange
      Recitativo (bass): Ja, dieses Wort ist meiner Seelen Speise
      Aria (bass): Beglückte Herde, Jesu Schafe
      Chorale: Der Herr ist mein getreuer Hirt

      "You shepherd of Israel, listen"
      Text and translation

      Pastoral, Arcadian music is an important genre in the Baroque and the story of Jesus as the Good Shepherd gives Bach an excellent excuse to write gorgeous bucolic music. The cantata starts with a wonderful chorus ("You Shepherd of Israel"), a simple fugue in the rhythm of a lilting gigue. The tenor aria also continues in a pastoral vein, although darker in tone ("Though my Shepherd may remain hidden"). The bass aria in a gigue rhythm is again first class bucolic music ("Happy flock, sheep of Jesus"), although the aria also gives the faithful a glimpse of the heavenly kingdom after "a gentle sleep of death." The cantata ends as usual with a richly harmonized choral ("The Lord is my faithful Shepherd"). One of Bach's most beautiful cantatas.

      Rating: A+
      Video: Netherlands Bach Society

    • Ich bin ein guter Hirt, BWV 85, 15 April 1725

      Arie B: Ich bin ein guter Hirt
      Arie A: Jesus ist ein guter Hirt
      Choral S: Der Herr ist mein getreuer Hirt
      Rezitativ T: Wenn die Mietlinge schlafen
      Arie T: Seht, was die Liebe tut
      Choral: Ist Gott mein Schutz und treuer Hirt

      "I am a Good Shepherd"
      Text and translation

      BWV 85 is set in a more doleful tone than either BWV 104 or 112. It starts with a bass aria as Vox Christi ("I am a good Shepherd"), emphasizing that a Good Shepherd gives his life for his sheep. The same sentiment is expressed in the acrobatic alto aria (with violoncello piccolo), but now from the point of view of an observer. With the ensuing choral, "The Lord is my Shepherd," we finally are in pastoral territory again. The tenor recitative has a subtle accompaniment, that brings out the various images. The artistic and emotional highlight of the cantata is the pastoral tenor aria with flowing accompaniment "Behold what love does" which doesn't forget to remind the faithful of the fact that Jesus has "poured out his blood on the trunk of the cross." The choral sums it all up: Jesus as protector and faithful shepherd.

      Rating: B
      Video: Bach-Stiftung

    • Der Herr ist mein getreuer Hirt, BWV 112, 8 April 1731

      Chor: Der Herr ist mein getreuer Hirt
      Arie A: Zum reinen Wasser er mich weist
      Rezitativ B: Und ob ich wandelt im finstern Tal
      Arie (Duett) S T: Du bereitest für mir einen Tisch
      Choral: Gutes und die Barmherzigkeit

      "The Lord is my Faithful Shepherd"
      Text and translation

      The beautiful opening chorus ("The Lord is my faithful Shepherd") is accompanied by two horns, adding a sort of heroic character to the pastoral atmosphere. The ensuing alto aria "He reveals pure water to me" is accompanied by a spinning cantabile in the oboe d'amore and has a gloriously flowing melody that seems almost without end. The bass recitative gets serious in singing about the "shadow of the valley of death," but surprising is the duet between soprano and tenor, which is a whiff of church militarism on the words "you prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies." The music marches away with the soloists singing in very high voices. The final chorale again features the horns from the start.

      Rating: A+
      Video: -

      Painting Good Shepherd:
      Attributed to Jean Baptiste de Champaigne, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

    Friday, April 20, 2012

    Akutagawa Yasushi (composer)

    Akutagawa Yasushi (1925-1989; 芥川也寸志) was a Japanese composer and conductor - and the son of the famous author Akutagawa Ryunosuke. It is said that his love of music originated in a Stravinsky record left by his father (who died by his own hand in 1927). Akutagawa Yasushi was born in Tokyo and studied with Ifukube Akira and Hashimoto Kunihiko at the Tokyo Conservatory of Music (now Geidai). He graduated in 1949. In 1953, as a young composer he formed a group, the Sannin no kai ("The Group of Three"), with  Mayuzumi Toshiro and Dan Ikuma.

    Akutagawa was interested in Soviet music, and in 1954 he took the drastic step of traveling to the Soviet Union to meet Dmitri Shostakovich, Aram Khachaturian and Dmitri Kabalevsky - although Japan at that time had no diplomatic relationship with the S.U. He also had his own works performed and published in the S.U. The return trip to Japan was via China and Hong Kong.

    That Akutagawa was influenced by Shostakovich appears for example from his Music for Symphony Orchestra (1950). Other influences were Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Ifukube.

    As a conductor Akutagawa was active in introducing composers as Shostakovich to Japan. He only seldom played his own compositions. As an educator, he devoted himself to train an amateur orchestra, Shin Kokyo Gakudan ("The New Symphony Orchestra"), which he established in 1956. He also served as Chairman of the Japanese Society for Rights of Authors, Composers and Publishers.

    In 1957 he visited Europe and India. A visit to the Ellora Caves led to his composing the Ellora Symphony (1958).

    From 1977-1984 Akutagawa presented a musical program "Ongaku no Hiroba" ("Musical Square") on NHK TV together with Kuroyanagi Tetsuko.

    Almost one year after Akutagawa died, in 1990, the Akutagawa composition award was established in his memory.

    Akutagawa's compositions are mostly festive and optimistic. He was not only a symphonic composer, but also wrote vocal and instrumental works. Akutagawa was also active as a writer on music.

    Some of his best works:
    • Trinita sinfonica for orchestra (1948)
      Strong early work, very rhythmic (Akutagawa had learned from Ifukube's use of ostinato's!). Three parts: Capriccio (allegro) - Ninnerella (andante) - Finale (allegro vivace).
    • Musica per orchestra sinfonica (Music for Symphony Orchestra) (1950)
      His breakthrough work, won NHK prize. Two parts: Andantino (ABA) and Allegro (Rondo).  
    • Triptyque for string orchestra (1953) 
      Again a work that reminds one of Shostakovitch. Performed in New York's Carnegie Hall under conductor Kurt Wöss. Also popular in the S.U. Three parts: allegro - Berceuse (andante) - presto.
    • Prima sinfonia (Symphony No.1) (1954/55)
      Also the first symphony stands strongly under the influence of Shostakovitch and Prokofiev.
    • Ellora Symphony (1958) 
      Primitivistic symphony in the style of Ifukube's Sinfonia Tapkaara. Structured as a sequence of 15 segments. One of Akutagawa's most "experimental" works. 
    • Concerto ostinato for violoncello and orchestra (1969) 
      As a rather somber work, an exception among Akutagawa's compositions. 
    Akutagawa also wrote film music, for example for Kinugasa's Gate of Hell, Ichikawa's Nobi and Yukinojohenge, etc. Interesting in this respect is also his Ballad on a Theme of Godzilla for orchestra (1988), which was dedicated to Godzilla-composer and mentor Ifukube.

    My top three consists of: (1) Trinita sinfonica for orchestra & Musica per orchestra sinfonica (a shared first place), (2) the Ellora Symphony and (3) Triptyque for string orchestra.

    Monday, April 16, 2012

    Flowers: Sakura in Ninnaji Temple

    Ninnaji is famous for its late blossoming yaezakura. Also called "Omuro-zakura," the trees do not get taller than just two meters and the branches hang low, as if you are wading with your feet through blossom clouds. It is interesting to see the pagoda of the temple rising above these blossoms. They have been compared to Otafuku (Okame), a plain but good-natured folksy women, "who also has a low nose" (= a small nose).

    [Ninnaji's pagoda among cherry blossoms]

    Usually they are at their best around April 20. As an imperial temple, Ninnaji has a graceful atmosphere and that is also true for the cherry blossom festival.

    Here are a few poems written about the temple and its sakura:

    [Sakura in front of Ninnaji's Bell Tower]

    drowsy spring
    starts from
    Omuro's blossoms
    (Haiku by Buson) 
    [nebutasa no | haru wa Omuro no | hana yori zo]

    [Ninnaji's inner gate]

    Ninnaji -
    at my feet
    blossom clouds
    (Haiku by Shundei)
    [Ninnaji ya | ashimoto yori zo |hana no kumo]

    [Ninnaji's pagoda]

    spring rain -
    among the maples
    graced by
    young green leaves
    the gate of Ninnaji
    (Tanka by Yosano Akiko)
    [harusame ya | aoki mebae no | utsukushiki | kaede no naka no | Ninnaji no mon]
    Access: Ninnaji is close to Omuro Station on the Keifuku Kitano Line. When coming from central Kyoto, take the Hankyu Line to Shijo-Omiya and there board the Keifuku Arashiyama line; switch to the Keifuku Kitano Line in Katabiranotsuji. When coming from Osaka or Kobe, take the Hankyu Line to Saiin and change to the Keifuku Arashiyama line; again switch to the Keifuku Kitano Line in Katabiranotsuji. The Keifuku Arashiyama line also connects to the Kyoto subway in Tenjingawa Station (Randen/Uzumasa). It sounds more complicated than it is - in any case, the trains are much faster than the option of taking a bus.Hours: 9:00 to 17:00 (16:30 from Dec. to Feb.)Fee: the grounds are normally free, only during cherry blossom season a fee applies. There is always a fee applicable for the Goten palace buildings, and also one for the museum.

    "Titanic" (1997) by James Cameron (film review)

    Yesterday, April 15, it was 100 years ago that the Titanic sank, killing 1,500 of its 2,200 passengers in the chilly waters of the North Atlantic - a disaster that has always figured large in the public consciousness because of its epic qualities - the largest and most luxurious ship ever built, with as passengers the creme-de-la-creme of society, goes down after hitting an iceberg on - of all things - its maiden voyage. It seems a very apt illustration of the saying "Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall."

    In the past I had seen the 1953 movie, and I remembered it as a rather depressing vehicle. That memory is probably the main reason why I never had watched the 1997 movie by David Cameron - with as additional obstacle that this new Titanic was advertised as a sort of spectacular disaster movie, a sort of blockbuster I always try to keep away from. Well, yesterday I had my private "Titanic commemoration" by watching the 1997 Titanic and must say that despite my initial misgivings I greatly enjoyed it. It is the best Titanic movie I know (also better than the British half-documentary A Night to Remember from 1958) and an excellent, flawlessly crafted movie in its own right.

    I believe it is so good for the following reasons:

    • There is an authentic, human story: the love affair between the penniless artist Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) and the 17-year old Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet), who is forced by her mother (Frances Fisher) to marry a rich American - her snobbish fiancee Caledon Hockley (Billy Zane) is also on board which leads to interesting complications and even violence in the end. They are both a sort of prisoners - Jack of his financial circumstances, Rose of her family - and it is great to see them standing on the prow of the big ship looking towards the sea and sky inhaling the fresh air of freedom. 
    • This human story takes the central place in the film. In contrast to the bulk of disaster films, where we have scores of characters who are all followed to their doom or redemption, here we have only Jack and Rose. This allows us to really get to know them, in other disaster films we only see a little bit of many (usually not very interesting characters) and therefore we immediately forget them.
    • The story of Jack and Rose is deftly interlinked with the disaster, for example when Jack has been accused of theft by Rose's fiancee and chained to a pipe on one of the lower decks where, as the ship starts sinking, the water dangerously rises. Rose comes to the rescue!
    • The special effects are wonderful: from the majestic ship itself when it sails out, to the disaster - for example the breaking of the ship in two halves where the lower part finally stands vertically in the water. At $200 million this apparently was the most expensive film ever made until 1997, but the money was well spent. Above all, the special effects are always in the service of the story, never a goal in themselves.
    • And finally, there is an interesting contemporary framing story, of treasure hunters searching the wreck of the Titanic (there is some real footage of the submerged ship here) for a precious diamond which belonged to the Rose of the story - and she still is alive, now 101 years of age but still going strong (played by Gloria Stuart). She visits the treasure hunters to tell her story and that story, shown in flashback, is the major part of the film. This also proves that we are following at least one major character who survived, which makes the film much less suffocating than its predecessors.

    Sunday, April 15, 2012

    Bach Cantatas (21): Quasimodogeniti (1st Sunday after Easter)

    The first Sunday after Easter is also known as "Second Sunday of Easter," "Octave Day of Easter" ("octave" because in the past Easter was thought to continue for eight days, from Easter Sunday until and including the next Sunday) and "Quasimodogeniti Sunday." The Latin "quasimodogeniti" means "like newborn babes" and is the opening phrase of the Introit for the church's worship of this Sunday: "Like newborn babes desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby." (1 Peter 2: 2-3)

    The Biblical account of this day is that of "Christ appearing to the Twelve" and the "Doubting Thomas," an account which indeed is set on the eighth day after the Resurrection. 'Eight days later, his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. The doors were shut, but Jesus came and stood among them, and said, "Peace be with you." Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing." Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe."'

    Epistle: 1 John 5: 4-10 (Faith overcomes the world);
    Gospel: John 20: 19-31 (Christ appears to the Twelve; the "Doubting Thomas").

    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)

    [The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio (1601-1602)]

    • Halt im Gedächtnis Jesum Christ, BWV 67 (April 16, 1724)

      Chorus: Halt im Gedächtnis Jesum Christ
      Aria: Mein Jesus ist erstanden
      Recitative: Mein Jesu, heißest du des Todes Gift
      Chorale: Erschienen ist der herrlich Tag
      Recitative: Doch scheinet fast
      Aria and chorus: Friede sei mit euch!
      Chorale: Du Friedefürst, Herr Jesu Christ.

      "Hold in remembrance Jesus Christ"
      Text and translation

      The text of this cantata is allied to the gospel reading of the story of the doubting Thomas: one of the disciples who is seen as a doubtful Christian with his heart not at peace. Starts with a lively chorus which establishes a joyful Easter spirit, an exhortation to hold on to the memory of the risen Christ. The interesting  piece contains three elements: a marching theme, long held notes on the world "hold" and rising melismas to express the resurrection. This is followed by a tenor aria with obbligato oboe d'amore which expresses conflicting emotions ("My Jesus is risen, why am I afraid?"): joy about the Resurrection, but also doubt concerning its reality. The next recitative-chorale-recitative structure provides a wonderfully dramatic narrative which continues the spiritual vacillation of the tenor aria, built around the Easter hymn "The glorious day has arrived." This is followed by an extraordinary duet between the bass soloist as Vox Christi ("Peace be with you") and the chorus. The strings play a sort of martial music, as if war is waged for the soul of the believer - until in the last part heaven and earth combine in harmony. As this cantata proves, contrapuntal music is perfect for expressing conflicting emotions. The cantata ends with a peaceful harmonization of the choral "O Prince of Peace."

      Rating: A+
      Video: Netherlands Bach Society / Bach-Stiftung

    • Am Abend aber desselbigen Sabbats, BWV 42 (1725)

      Recitativo (tenor, bassoon): Am Abend aber desselbigen Sabbats
      Aria (alto, oboes, bassoon): Wo zwei und drei versammlet sind
      Aria (soprano, tenor, bassoon): Verzage nicht, o Häuflein klein
      Recitativo (bass, bassoon): Man kann hiervon ein schön Exempel sehen
      Aria (bass, violins, bassoon): Jesus ist ein Schild der Seinen
      Chorale: Verleih uns Frieden gnädiglich

      "On the evening of the very same Sabbath"
      Text and translation

      Starts with an extended orchestral sinfonia, instead of an opening chorus. The sinfonia has a concertino woodwind group and may well go back to a now lost concerto. It has lyrical and tender character, and again evokes the joyful atmosphere of Easter. The tenor recitative quotes from the gospel about the appearance of Jesus to his disciples. The long and gentle alto aria takes up the same theme and may well have been based on the slow movement of the lost concerto used at the beginning. This highlight is followed by a duet for alto and soprano in a jerky rhythm ("Do not despair"), and then a bass recitative and aria. In the bass aria we hear the impotent rage of Christ's antagonists in the restless violin figures, while the vocal line expresses the reassurance of faith and the unassertive rhythms in the continuo symbolize persistence and strength. As usual, the cantata finishes with a choral setting. Like BWV 42, this a great and very original work, more impressive than the cantatas Bach wrote for Easter itself.

      Rating: A+
      Video: Netherlands Bach Society / Bach-Stiftung

      Caravaggio painting: Caravaggio, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

    Bach Cantata Index

    Friday, April 13, 2012

    Kyoto Garden of Fine Arts

    Right next to the Kyoto Botanical Garden, another prefectural extravaganza has been laid out: a plaza with walls of cascading water, designed by Ando Tadao in his familiar style of smooth concrete. Called Garden of Fine Arts, it has been built below ground level to keep it from obscuring the adjacent Botanical Garden. One could compare this space to a modernist stroll garden, but instead of rocks and plantings one finds eight works of art here.

    [Kyoto Garden of Fine Arts]

    The art works are copies on ceramic plates and very well done (made by the same company, Otsuka Ohmi Ceramics, as in the Otsuka Museum of Art in Tokushima, but without the high entry fee of that facility). We have water lilies by Monet, suitably on the bottom of a pond; Michelangelo's Last Judgement, a huge work copied life-size; Da Vinci's Last Supper; and Seurat, Van Gogh and Renoir.

    [Kyoto Garden of Fine Arts. Michelangelo's Last Judgement consists of 110 plates and is the same size as the original in the Sixtine Chapel of the Vatican]

    Chinese art is represented by the long scroll painting Qingming Shanghe Tu ("On the River During the Qingming Festival") and Japan with the humoristic Choju Giga (scroll one and two). You will never see the frolicking monkeys, frogs and rabbits as clearly as here!

    The paintings have been transferred to the porcelain plates by photoengraving; after firing the porcelain plates, the brilliant hues match the original work while having the addional advantage of never fading. Here, in the Garden of Fine Arts, they even withstand the elements.

    [Kyoto Garden of Fine Arts, Da Vinci's Last Supper]

    The Garden of Fine Arts was built in 1994 and incorporates some works on porcelain plates made for the International Greenery exhibition of 1990. More interesting than the copies of the paintings on their own, is the combination with the award-winning architecture of Ando Tadao.
    Garden of Fine Arts (Kyoto Furitsu Toban Meiga no Niwa)
    Shimogamo Hangicho, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto 606-0823. Tel. 075-724-2188
    Hrs. 9:00-17:00 (enter by 16:30). Closed Dec. 28- Jan 4.
    100 yen (50 yen in case of combination ticket with Kyoto Botanical Garden)
    The fastest way to get here from Kyoto Station or Hankyu Karasuma is to take the subway to Kitayama Station.

    "Little Buddha" (1993) by Bertolucci (film review)

    Little Buddha, the 19th film by Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci, was neither a critical nor a box office success, but that doesn't say anything about the real qualities of the film, as we shall see. Like many films by this director, it was an international project, with a British producer and international cast, shot in Seattle and Bhutan. The impressive cinematography was by Vittorio Storaro and the music was written by Sakamoto Ryuichi. The title may unfortunately seem to refer to a Chinese restaurant, but that is not the case: this is the life story of the young Buddha, told to an American boy who may be the reincarnation of a Tibetan Lama master (and therefore another "little Buddha" himself).

    Lama Norbu (Ying Ruocheng) travels to Seattle in search of the reincarnation of his teacher, Lama Dorje, and thinks he has found one candidate (later in northern India two more are found) in a Caucasian boy, Jesse Conrad (Alex Wiesendanger). This is not so strange as it seems as Lama Dorje had been engaged in missionary activities in North America. The parents, Lisa (Bridget Fonda) and Dean (Chris Isaak) are wary, but finally agree that Jesse and his father travel to Bhutan where Jesse - with the other two children - has to undergo a test to prove the true reincarnation.

    Lama Norbu gives Jesse a storybook about the life of the Buddha and Bertolucci intercuts the story of Siddharta, who later became known as the Buddha, with the contemporary scenes. The story of Siddharta's search for enlightenment is shot in rich red-golden hues, the Seattle scenes in a cold blue. In the end, past and present are mixed as the three children find themselves actually in the scene with Buddha, watching him as he is overcomes the temptations of Mara while meditating under the Bodhi-tree. His mission fulfilled, at the end of the film Lama Norbu dies peacefully while meditating.

    Central to the film are the characters of the kind Lama Norbu (very ably played by the Chinese actor Ying Ruocheng, who also shone in Bertolucci's The Last Emperor), Siddharta (played by Keanu Reeves with just the right balance) and the three children, who are all able actors. Negative reviews have harped on the weak acting of the father (Chris Isaak) or the fact that it is rather unnatural that American parents would agree to have their child engaged in this way with a foreign religious group. I believe that Bertolucci has done this on purpose, he wanted the focus of the film on the beauty of the timeless story of the Buddha and not on contemporary bickering. For the same reason, he made the parents consciously into rather vague non-entities - their presence is to a certain degree necessary, but they should not interfere with the main story. The focus is wholly on the introduction of Buddhism to a wider audience.

    Bertolucci tells the Buddha's story as if to children, for aren't we all ignorant about this subject? These scenes have disparagingly been called a "Buddhist Sunday school story," but isn't that the best way to present the Buddhist "gospel"? After all, Siddharta's life was very peaceful, there is no violence here as in Jesus' Passion story, so Gibson-like sadomasochistic antics are out of the question.

    Siddharta has been brought up as an Indian prince in a very secluded environment and is shocked when he realizes the unforgiving truth of impermanence: every living being must ultimately perish. After a hundred years, none of us now living will be still around. Siddharta discovers the Middle Way between a worldly life and asceticism and teaches the Four Noble Truths: that all is suffering, that this is caused by our attachment to external things, that such suffering can however be stopped, and what the path is that leads to the end of suffering. The suffering of all living things also leads Siddharta to the development of a great compassion, and the wish to help others, for basically all life is one.

    By the way, the film introduces Tibetan Buddhism which differs from other types of Buddhism by putting reincarnation central -as seen in the film through the search for a reincarnated master. But in fact, the Buddha never talked about reincarnation (which is a sort of pan-Indian / Tibetan folk belief rather than part of the Buddhist teachings) and most Buddhists today (as in Japan) also do not believe in reincarnation.

    That is my only point of criticism about what is a very beautiful and warm film, a film that takes us right into the heart of the world's greatest religion by illustrating the impermanence of all life and stressing the value of compassion.

    Thursday, April 12, 2012

    "The Third Man" - film and book

    The Third Man is a truly classical film made in 1949 by Carol Reed and based on a script by Graham Greene. As Greene felt film scenarios are too dry, he first wrote a novella for the film, which was later published as a book (together with the short story for The Fallen Idol). The novella is the film's embryo, so to speak, and several changes were made, in the names of the characters, but also more important ones. The novella is enjoyable, but the film is the greater artistic work, so I will limit my discussion to the film.

    As is often the case with Graham Greene, the story is one of deceit and double-dealing - a method Greene uses to bring out the moral ambiguities in which our contemporary world is steeped.

    Pulp novelist Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) has been invited by his old school friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) to come to postwar Vienna (a bombed out city still occupied by the U.S., the Soviet Union, Great Britain and France, and split in four sectors), but he just manages to be in time for his friend's burial. He starts investigating the death of Harry Lime and discovers that there are various mysteries, such as the appearance of a strange "third man" at the site where Harry was run over by a truck. He talks to Major Calloway (Trevor Howard), the investigating officer and a powerful man who considers him as a nuisance. Calloway finally fills him in on Harry's criminal activities: selling diluted penicillin on the black market, which led to the deaths of many patients, including children.

    Holly also meets with Harry's friends and acquaintances, such as Anna (Alifa Valli) who was Harry's lover. Holly himself falls in love with Anna, but she is still so full of Harry that he simply doesn't exist for her. She sees him as a rather weak and laughable figure (he manages to get bitten by a parrot, of all things). And then in nightly Vienna, Anna's cat leads Holly to a startling discovery... Harry Lime is alive, standing in a doorway, bathed in shadow.

    The film was shot on location in Vienna and the city is in fact the real protagonist. Reed spent two months filming in Vienna, only a few extra scenes were shot in the studios in England. Reed's Vienna is a dark and lonely place, very different from the waltzing city of Strauss. Reed had the streets hosed down with water, so that the cobble stones would glitter on the screen. He also flew in four huge searchlights, which helped him cast enormous shadows on the walls of the nightly city. Unforgettable is also the finale in the extensive underground sewer system, or the central scene where Holly and Harry meet each other in the big Ferris wheel on the Prater. This stood in the Russian sector and had just been put back in operation.

    This fairground scene also contains the moral of the film: in the war, millions of innocent people were killed by governments, as so many flies. What is he doing wrong when for money he kills a few of those "dots" himself, Harry says? Isn't this the way of the world, that the strong squash the weak? In other words, Lime serves as the embodiment of the banality of evil and forms a symbol for the moral breakdown after the Second World War.

    To reinforce this story, Reed used expressionistic techniques as chiaroscuro lightning and canted camera angles - almost like Welles had done in Citizen Kane (giving birth to the legend that Welles had been involved in the direction of the film, which was not the case - he only barely showed up for the few scenes in which he figures). Reed also discovered the zither player Anton Karas and had him do all the music for the film. The film's signature tune catapulted Karas to fame and led to one of the first musical "hits" of the postwar period.

    The Third Man became Reed's best film by far, and one of the best films ever made, the result of perfect team work of the director with author Graham Greene, cinematographer Robert Krasker, producer Alexander Korda, screen icon Orson Welles, and many others.

    The novella The Third Man is available from Penguin Books; the film is available in the Criterion Collection

    Flowers: Hanami in the Kyoto Botanical Gardens

    The Kyoto Botanical Gardens are perhaps not what first comes to mind when thinking about a hanami spot. After all, they have to compete with the Philosopher's Path, Arashiyama, Daigoji, Gosho, Ninnaji and other luminaries. But I can report they are surprisingly good.

    [Sakura in Kyoto Botanical Garden]

    Of course there are the sakura - about 500 trees, of the varieties Somei, Yoshino and Shidarezakura. They stand along the paths and in grassy areas and you are allowed to picnic under the trees, although alcohol is forbidden.

    But as this is a botanical garden, you have other flowers as well. I particularly liked the combination of the red tulips at the entrance to the gardens with the backdrop of pink cherries. The Conservatory here was rebuilt in 1992 and resembles the Golden Pavilion, with a typical dome-shaped roof. This is your chance to see some carnivorous plants in Kyoto, or even a full-scale mangrove!

    [Tulips and sakura in Kyoto Botanical Garden]

    The gardens also preserve part of the forest that once stood on the banks of the Kamo River. This is in the north-western part, in the area around the Nakaragi Shrine, a small Shinto temple that was incorporated into the gardens, and that gave its name to the forest. The trees are native to the Yamashiro basin and the forest is surrounded by ponds - a reminder of the regular floods of the Kamo River in past times.The fall foliage is beautiful here, too.

    [Cherry blossom tunnel Kyoto Botanical Garden]

    The Kyoto Botanical Garden is 24,000 square meters large and was laid out in northern Kyoto on the banks of the Kamo River. That was in 1924, as a belated commemoration of the enthronement of the Taisho Emperor. In the years after the war, the grounds were requisitioned by the U.S. army, and housing was put up in these wide spaces for the Occupation troups. After restoration, the Botanical garden was reopened in 1961.

    [Nakaragi no Michi outside Kyoto Botanical Garden, on the banks of the Kamo River]

    The lay of the land is beautiful here: to the east the peak of Mt Hiei dominates the skyline, west flow the clear waters of the Kamo River. The gardens stretch all the way from Kitayama-dori (where the northern entrance is) to - almost - Kitaoji-dori and the Main Entrance. There are 120,000 plants, divided over an Ume (Plum) Grove, Camellia Garden, Japanese Iris Garden, Bamboo Garden, but also a European-style garden with a rose garden and a sparkling fountain.

    As a bonus, outside the gardens, on the riverbank, runs the Nakaragi no Michi, a path under cherry trees on the high embankment that makes it possible to enjoy the river scenery.
    Kyoto Botanical Garden (Kyoto Shokubutsuen)
    Address: Hangi-cho Shimogamo, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto 606-0823. Tel. 075-701-0141.
    Hrs. 9:00-17:00 (Conservatory: 10:00-16:00). Closed Dec 28-Jan 4.
    200 yen (additional 200 yen for Conservatory). 250 yen combination ticket with Garden of Fine Art.
    The fastest way to get here from Kyoto Station or Hankyu Karasuma is to take the subway to Kitayama Station - the northern entrance is right next to the station. The Main Entrance is serviced by city bus 1 from Demachi-Yanagi (Keihan).
    Post based on a visit made in April, 2009 

    Wednesday, April 11, 2012

    Sake (fish)

    Salmon. サケ、鮭。Oncorhyncus keta. Also known as "chum salmon."

    Pacific salmon is silvery in color, the length is usually 60-70 cm, and weight about 3 kg. The fish can be found in the seas around Japan, and travels upstream of rivers for spawning in Tohoku and Hokkaido. This occurs between September and January. For food, however, the salmon from the high seas is preferred, and these are best in May and June.

    Despite the Japanese predilection for sashimi, fresh salmon is not part of the traditional Japanese diet - sushi with salmon are a recent innovation. Most salmon is salted after it has been caught (shiozake) and then grilled. In this form it is a perennial breakfast  favorite. It is also used in nabemono (one pot dishes eaten in winter as Ishikari-nabe), and can be steamed with sake (rice wine) as sakamushi.

    The salted roe of the salmon is considered a delicacy and is marketed under the name ikura.

    "The Spy Who Came In From The Cold" - book and film

    The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is a bestselling novel written in 1963 by John Le Carré (real name David Cornwell, *1931). It tells the tale of a burned-out spy in the years that the cold war was very real in Western Europe and many people feared it would turn hot. Soviets troops were massed at the East-German border, only a 7 or 8 hour drive from Amsterdam, Brussels or Paris. In 1961, the Berlin Wall was built. The action of the novel takes place before the advent of the swinging sixties, in a period that was a sort of extension of the dour fifties and that I can only see in monochrome. People wore thick, dark overcoats. They lived in tiny apartments with few belongings. Modern amenities were still out of the reach of ordinary people.

    The "hero" of Le Carré's espionage novel is Alec Leamas, a disillusioned middle-aged man working for the British Secret Intelligence Service. Disgraced because of the poor performance of his Berlin Station, and afraid of being filed away in an administrative retirement job, he accepts a last dangerous mission: he has to pretend to defect to East Germany and with a false story topple the head of the East German Intelligence Service. Leamas' world consists of lies, but unfortunately for him, there are always bigger liars: his bosses in the Service cynically use him as a pawn in a larger game, which costs the life of the only person in the world he cares about.

    The early sixties with their East-West dichotomy seem a very straightforward place, as in those other spy fictions, the two-dimensional James Bond fantasies by Ian Fleming. But in fact, the chillingly realistic world of John Le Carré is very different from those vulgar spy fictions. Above all, it is startlingly contemporary in its ambiguities: to Le Carré, morally there is no major difference between "us" and "them" as both East and West in the name of national security practice the same expedient amorality. In other words, our own governments are just as cynical and devoid of ethics as those of our opponents, with at most a difference in degree.

    Le Carré paints a devastating picture of human frailty and duplicity, his message is unremittingly dark and nihilistic. This, together with the skill with which the book is written and composed, lifts The Spy out of genre fiction to the level of serious literature.

    The film (by director Martin Ritt) has been properly shot in black-and-white to do justice to my monochrome memories. It is a vehicle for Richard Burton, who acts forcefully with just the right amount of world-weariness and disillusionment - a great characterization. The film follows the plot of the book without any major deviations. Again, a valuable counterweight to the James Bond fairy tales with their silly action sequences which were just then starting to attract film goers. It may be difficult to stomach, but The Spy shows how the world really was... and is.

    Tuesday, April 10, 2012

    Bach Cantatas (20): Easter Tuesday

    Easter Tuesday is the third day of Easter. In Bach's time, important church festivals were celebrated on three consecutive days instead of two. There are three cantatas for this day.

    Acts 13:26–33, sermon of St. Paul in Antiochia
    Luke 24:36–47, the appearance of Jesus to the Apostles in Jerusalem

    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)

    [Raphael, 1499-1502]


    • Der Friede sei mit dir, BWV 158, after 1723

      Rezitativ Bass: Der Friede sei mit dir
      Arie Bass und Choral Soprano: Welt, ade, ich bin dein müde
      Rezitativ und Arioso Bass: Nun, Herr, regiere meinen Sinn
      Choral: Hier ist das rechte Osterlamm

      "Peace be with you"
      Text and translation

      Solo cantata for bass voice. Could well be a fragment of a larger work - normally there would have been one more aria before the chorale. On the other hand, it is also satisfying as it is. The center of the cantata is formed by the bass aria woven around a soprano chorale. This chorale is accompanied by a singing violin (originally for violino piccolo). Textually, the cantata is one of Bach's frequent meditations on the necessary readiness to leave the world.

      Rating: B+
      Video: Netherlands Bach Society / Bach-Stiftung /

    • Ein Herz, das seinen Jesum lebend weiß, BWV 134, 11 April 1724

      Recitativo (alto, tenor): Ein Herz, das seinen Jesum lebend weiß
      Aria (tenor): Auf, Gläubige, singet die lieblichen Lieder
      Recitativo (alto, tenor): Wohl dir, Gott hat an dich gedacht,
      Aria (alto, tenor): Wir danken und preisen dein brünstiges Lieben
      Recitativo (alto, tenor): Doch würke selbst den Dank in unserm Munde
      Coro: Erschallet, ihr Himmel, erfreuet dich, Erde

      "A heart that knows the living Jesus"
      Text and translation

      Reworking of a secular, congratulatory cantata for New Year. The text sings the praises of the risen Christ. It is full of adulatory phrases of the type also used to sing the praises of worldly lords. Starts with a tenor recitative that leads into an alto arioso. Very pleasant is the ensuing tenor aria, which goes quite high ("Auf, auf!"). Next follows a fine duet for alto and tenor with a wonderful string orchestral introduction, in the style of the Brandenburg Concertos. The cantata ends with soloists and chorus gloriously answering the tenor aria.

      Rating: B+
      Video: Ars Lyrica Houston

    • Ich lebe, mein Herze, zu deinem Ergötzen, BWV 145, 1729

      [Chor: Auf, mein Herz, des Herren Tag]
      Arie (Duett) T S: Ich lebe, mein Herze, zu deinem Ergötzten
      Rezitativ T: Nun fordre, Moses, wie du willt
      Arie B: Merke, mein Herze, beständig nur dies
      Rezitativ S: Mein Jesus lebt
      Choral: Drum wir auch billig fröhlich sein

      "I live, my heart, for your delight"
      Text and translation

      An oddity, as this cantata survives only in a 19th c. manuscript prefaced with an opening chorus by Telemann. Bach's original opening must have been lost. The substance of this cantata are therefore the two arias (one a duet for soprano and tenor and the second for bass), both  thoroughly pleasant pieces of music. The first is a dialogue between Jesus and the Soul, the second has the character of a passepied. The text calls on the believer to be mindful of the salvation that Christ's resurrection has brought.

      Rating: B
      Video: Bach-Stiftung

      Monday, April 9, 2012

      Bach Cantatas (19): Easter Monday

      Easter Monday is the second day of Easter. There are two cantatas for this day.

      Acts 10:34–43, sermon of St. Peter
      Luke 24:13–35, the road to Emmaus

      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)

      [Lucas Cranach, 1558]



      • Erfreut euch, ihr Herzen, BWV 66, 10 April 1724

        Coro (and alto, tenor): Erfreut euch, ihr Herzen
        Recitativo (bass, oboes, strings): Es bricht das Grab und damit unsre Not
        Aria (bass): Lasset dem Höchsten ein Danklied erschallen
        Recitativo, Arioso (alto, tenor): Bei Jesu Leben freudig sein
        Aria (alto, tenor, solo violin): Ich furchte zwar/nicht des Grabes Finsternissen
        Chorale: Alleluja

        "Rejoice, ye Hearts"
        Text and translation

        Goes back to a secular cantata written in 1718 - Bach had little time for new Easter cantatas in 1724 as he also composed the St. John Oratorio for performance on Good Friday that year. But no music could better fit the occasion. At the beginning of this joyful cantata stands a large-scale, multi-sectioned opening chorus in festive mood. The da capo bass aria in dancing motion is accompanied by an oboe figure that sticks in memory. The ensuing recitative and duet are a dialogue between Hope (that Christ is the Messiah) and Fear (because of the disappearance of Jesus' body). This is in fact the only part in the cantata text that directly relates to the readings for this day. A confident setting of the chorale melody closes this joyous hymn of praise.

        Rating: A+
        Video: Bach-Stiftung

      • Bleib bei uns, denn es will Abend werden, BWV 6, 2 April 1725

        Chorus: "Bleib bei uns, denn es will Abend werden"
        Aria (alto): "Hochgelobter Gottessohn"
        Chorale: "Ach bleib bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ"
        Recitative: "Es hat die Dunkelheit an vielen Orten"
        Aria (tenor): "Jesu, laß uns auf dich sehen"
        Chorale: "Beweis dein Macht, Herr Jesu Christ" ("Reveal your strength, Lord Jesus Christ")

        "Abide with us, for it is toward evening"
        Text and translation

        The theme of this cantata is based on the Gospel reading for this day, St. Luke's account of the two disciples evening walk to Emmaus with the risen Christ. At the start stands a wonderful chorus in which two chordal sections in madrigal style flank a double fugue. There is also a lot of word painting: the descending theme evokes approaching nightfall and the recurring phrase "Bleib bei Uns" is given urgency by repetition. As a whole, this chorus has an elegiac character, a moving statement of fear and isolation. The warm, consoling alto aria is accompanied by an oboe da caccia, and forms a plea for Christ's continuing presence. The somber colors again symbolize the approaching darkness. Next the soprano sings a solo chorale, "Ach bleib bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ," with a prominent violoncello piccolo. Then follows a tenor aria with string accompaniment, a very insistent piece that brings back the atmosphere of the opening chorus ("Let the light of Your word shine brightly upon us"). Among the many recycled Easter works Bach composed of necessity, this is a striking new cantata.

        Rating: A+
        Video: Netherlands Bach Society