Saturday, August 18, 2012

Bach Cantatas (44): Trinity XI

The eleventh Sunday after Trinity treats the theme of hypocrisy and "falseness of heart" and rejects pomposity and self-righteousness.

There are three cantatas for this Sunday.

1 Corinthians 15:1–10, on the gospel of Christ and Paul's duty as an apostle
Luke 18:9–14, parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector

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)


  • Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut, BWV 199, 12 August 1714

    Recitative: "Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut"
    Soprano aria: "Stumme Seufzer, stille Klagen"
    recitative: "Doch Gott muss mir genädig sein"
    Aria: "Tief gebückt und voller Reue"
    Recitative: "Auf diese Schmerzensreu"
    Chorale: "Ich, dein betrübtes Kind"
    Recitative: "Ich lege mich in diese Wunden"
    Aria: "Wie freudig ist mein Herz"

    "My heart swims in blood"
    Text: Georg Christian Lehms

    Solo cantata for soprano, a lament about existential pain and suffering. The introductory recitative ("My heart swims in blood, since the offspring of my sins in the holy eyes of God make me a monster") sets the mood, after which an intensely grieving oboe leads into a beautiful aria. The subject is still the same: "Mute sighs, silent cries, you may tell my sorrows, for my mouth is shut." Well, that is what music is for. The next recitative introduces a note of hope, and in the ensuing aria God's forgiveness is implored. There is a rich string sound in the orchestra perhaps signifying a note of optimism. After a short recitative follows a chorale setting with obbligato viola in lively figuration. The last recitative introduces a different mood, with a long coloratura on "fröhlich" (joyful), after which the final aria brings the long awaited sunshine. It is the only fast movement of the cantata, a cheerful gigue.

    Rating: A+
    Videos: Dutch Bach Society (All of Bach)

  • Siehe zu, daß deine Gottesfurcht nicht Heuchelei sei, BWV 179, 8 August 1723

    Chorus: Siehe zu, daß deine Gottesfurcht nicht Heuchelei sei
    Recitativo (tenor): Das heutge Christentum ist leider schlecht bestellt
    Aria (tenor, oboes, violin): Falscher Heuchler Ebenbild
    Recitativo (bass): Wer so von innen wie von außen ist
    Aria (soprano, oboes): Liebster Gott, erbarme dich
    Chorale: Ich armer Mensch, ich armer Sünder

    "See to it, that your fear of God be not hypocrisy"
    Text: anonymous; Chorale by Christoph Tietze

    The text of this sombre cantata stays close to the readings for this day, stressing that one should not serve God with a false heart (like the Pharisee in the parable), but pray humbly. The cantata starts with a strictly fugal chorus, almost like a motet, in which the chromatically descending melody symbolizes the "false heart." In the first recitative and agitated tenor aria, hypocrites are castigated in a heavy Lutheran way. After more warnings ("though you are no thief or adulterer, do not imagine that you are angelically pure"), the bass recitative gives the positive example of the tax collector from the parable. The next soprano aria accompanied by two supplicating oboes da caccia constitutes a deeply felt prayer for mercy. There is grandeur in "my sins afflict me" and contrition via an inexorable downward motion in "I drown in deep mire." This is the most direct piece of music of the cantata. Then follows the closure in the form of an effective chorale. Bach would reuse the opening chorus and arias in some of his masses.

    Rating: A
    Videos: -

  • Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut, BWV 113, 20 August 1724

    Chorale: Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut
    Chorale (alto): Erbarm dich mein in solcher Last,
    Aria (bass): Fürwahr, wenn mir das kömmet ein
    Recitativo e chorale (bass) Jedoch dein heilsam Wort, das macht
    Aria (tenor): Jesus nimmt die Sünder an
    Recitativo (tenor): Der Heiland nimmt die Sünder an
    Aria (soprano, alto): Ach Herr, mein Gott, vergib mirs doch
    Chorale: Stärk mich mit deinem Freudengeist

    "Lord Jesus Christ, you highest good"
    Text: anonymous; Chorale "Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut" by Bartholomäus Ringwaldt

    Chorale cantata based on the eight stanzas of Bartholomäus Ringwaldt's hymn "Herr, sei mir armem Sünder gnädig" (1588), a song of penitence related to the tax collector's prayer from the readings. The opening chorus is a superb chorale fantasia with orchestral accompaniment based on the hymn tune. After a string introduction, the next verse of the hymn is sung by solo alto. The ambiguous bass aria is accompanied by oboes d'amore and combines a jolly tune with "trembling, fear, and pain." Next follows a chorale with tropes. The most attractive movement is the lighthearted tenor aria accompanied by virtuoso flute. There is also a rich string cadence on the text "sweet word full of comfort and life." The next recitative is followed by a duet for soprano and alto with such long double melismas that it is almost impossible to perform, after which a straightforward setting of the hymn tune rings out the cantata.

    Rating: A+
    Videos: -

Bach Cantata Index

Wednesday, August 15, 2012



Thin wheat noodles 


A delicious summer dish. Somen are made from thin, dried wheat noodles which are boiled just shortly and then refreshed in cold water. The noodles are served with a chilled dipping broth and finely sliced negi (like the somen refreshed in chilled water). To give a cool feeling, the noodles can be served in glass bowls with chunks of ice.

Thicker cold wheat noodles are called hiyamugi or hiyashi udon. Somen can also be served in hot soup (like hot udon or hot soba) and is then called nyumen, a winter dish. There are also flavored types of somen, for example with green tea powder (matcha somen).

The production of the noodles actually takes place in winter. The dough is stretched with the help of vegetable oil to make very thin strips and then air dried. Small producers dry their noodles in sunlight, as in the Miwa village in Nara, a traditional production center, where on winter days you can see the noodles hanging on racks, a beautiful sight. A famous industrial somen producer in Tatsuno (Hyogo Prefecture) is Ibonoito.

Japanese Food Dictionary

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Bach Cantatas (45): Trinity X

All of Bach’s cantatas for the Tenth Sunday after Trinity are about the prediction by Jesus of the destruction of Jerusalem because of the sinful condition of the city (which, when the Gospels were written, had meanwhile taken place in AD 70, by the Roman emperor Titus), linked to the Lamentations of Jeremiah about the previous destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar in 587 BC - and even further back in mythical-history, to the city of Gomorrah, which despite protests of patriarch Abraham, was destroyed by God because of its sinful way of life. In the area of Germany where Bach lived, the Thirty Years War was just over, and the memory of the destruction caused by that long struggle was still vivid.

There are three cantatas for this Sunday: BWV 46, a great cantata written by Bach a few months after starting work in Leizig in 1723; BWV 101, from the second (chorale) cantata cycle, written in 1724; and BWV 102 dating from 1726.

1 Corinthians 12:1–11, "different gifts, but one spirit"
Luke 19:41–48, Jesus announces the destruction of Jerusalem; Cleansing of the Temple

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)

[Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem (Rembrandt)]


  • Schauet doch und sehet, ob irgend ein Schmerz sei, BWV 46, 1 August 1723

    Coro: Schauet doch und sehet, ob irgend ein Schmerz sei
    Recitativo (tenor): So klage du, zerstörte Gottesstadt
    Aria (bass): Dein Wetter zog sich auf von weiten
    Recitativo (alto): Doch bildet euch, o Sünder, ja nicht ein
    Aria (alto): Doch Jesus will auch bei der Strafe
    Chorale: O großer Gott von Treu

    "Behold and see, if there be any sorrow"
    Text: anonymous; Lamentations 1:12; Chorale by Johann Matthäus Meyfart

    The opening chorus brings an impressive lament of large proportions, based on the Lamentations of Jeremiah (text). Note the wailing recorders, symbolizing tears. Bach reworked this later as the Qui tollis of his Mass in B minor, so he must have been satisfied with it. The lengthy chorus falls into two main sections, like a prelude and a fugue. Interesting is the unusual scoring of this cantata, especially as it was an ordinary Sunday: besides SATB choir and strings, there are pairs of recorders (for the first time used in Leipzig), two oboes da caccia, and a slide trumpet.

    After an interesting recitative addressed to the ruins of Jerusalem, with as conclusion "You did not heed Jesus' tears, now heed the tidal wave of passion that you have built up over yourself," the bass aria pictures dramatically the outbreak of the terrible thunderstorm of God's wrath, offering the trumpet a good opportunity to show off. "Excessive sins ignite the lightning of vengeance," and indeed, the cracks of lightning can be heard in the roaring orchestra. Bach had been forbidden to use operatic music in Leipzig churches, but this is pure opera!

    The alto recitative, addressed to the individual sinner, then personalizes the threat of destruction: "Do not imagine, o sinners, that Jerusalem alone is full of sin - you will all perish as dreadfully." This is followed by a tender aria in which the righteous are assured that they will be saved by the Shepherd Jesus (note the now pastoral recorder). The aria is scored without basso continuo. The alto aria is the opposite pole of the bass aria and projects a mood of calm instead of fury.

    In the chorale “O großer Gott von Treu” the wailing recorders return to make the circle of lamentation complete.

    Rating: A+
    Video: Bachstiftung

  • Nimm von uns, Herr, du treuer Gott, BWV 101, 13 August 1724

    Coro: Nimm von uns, Herr, du treuer Gott
    Aria (tenor): Handle nicht nach deinen Rechten
    Recitativo e chorale (soprano): Ach! Herr Gott, durch die Treue dein
    Aria (bass): Warum willst du so zornig sein?
    Recitativo e chorale (tenor): Die Sünd hat uns verderbet sehr
    Aria (soprano, alto): Gedenk an Jesu bittern Tod
    Chorale: Leit uns mit deiner rechten Hand

    "Take away from us, Lord, faithful God"
    Text: Andreas Stübel (?); Martin Moller's chorale (1584), on Luther's "Vater unser im Himmelreich."

    Chorale cantata sung on the melody of Martin Luther's Vater unser im Himmelreich - a melody present in all movements except the first aria. The text was adapted from a hymn by Martin Moller describing the horrors of the plague (1584), so obviously it is a rather somber piece. In this penitential song the epidemic is generalized to other threats and crisis situations, which were seen as expressions of God's wrath provoked by human sins.

    The opening chorus is an austere and grave choral fantasia. There are many changes of texture, from a "marching theme" to a "sighing theme."

    The tenor aria is accompanied by a virtuoso flute (or violin). While the tenor prays God to deal kindly with the sinner and expresses the fear of judgement, the flute/violin answers with the hope of grace and forgiveness.

    The recitative for soprano combines an embellished version of the chorale melody with secco recitative.

    The dramatic bass aria raises the question: "Why are you so incensed with us?" God's anger is depicted in the fast accompaniment to this da capo aria.

    The next recitative mirrors the first and the final soprano/alto duet is a melancholy Siciliano with a gentle accompaniment from the flute and oboe da caccia: "Think on Jesus' bitter death." Fragments of the chorale are used to create a musical prayer for mercy.

    The cantata ends with a straightforward harmonization of the chorale.

    Rating: B+
    Video: Musica Amphion & Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam

  • Herr, deine Augen sehen nach dem Glauben, BWV 102, 25 August 1726

    Chorus: Herr, deine Augen sehen nach dem Glauben
    Recitativo (bass): Wo ist das Ebenbild, das Gott uns eingepräget
    Aria (alto, oboe): Weh der Seele, die den Schaden nicht mehr kennt
    Arioso (bass): Verachtest du den Reichtum seiner Gnade
    Parte seconda
    Aria (tenor, flute or violin): Erschrecke doch, du allzu sichre Seele
    Recitativo (alto, oboes): Beim Warten ist Gefahr
    Chorale: Heut lebst du, heut bekehre dich

    "Lord, Your eyes look for faith"
    Text: Ernst Ludwig I von Sachsen-Meiningen

    When Bach started composing his third annual cycle of cantatas in 1725, he had just been composing at the pace of one cantata per week for two years (some 150 cantatas) and not surprisingly, he now allowed his pace to slow down. An added reason was that he wanted to create a new Passion for Easter of 1726 - in fact something he would not realize yet that year. But instead of writing his own cantatas, from February up to Good Friday 1726, he performed 18 cantatas by his cousin Johann Ludwig Bach, who was Kapellmeister at the court of Meiningen. These cantatas had been composed some 10 years earlier on texts which probably had been written by Johann Ludwig's employer, the count of Sachsen-Meiningen. These texts apparently interested Bach, for when he again started writing  his own cantatas, he used a number of them - so also BWV 102. These texts share the feature that they consist of two parts, an Old Testament and a New Testament biblical text, each followed by a recitative and an aria. In this symmetrical structure, the New Testament text stands in the central position.

    The words of BWV 102 are only generally connected to the readings, asking "stubborn and unpenitent hearts" to "make repentance this instant before swift death overtakes one." The errant souls are called upon to convert while they still can. The atmosphere of the whole cantata is pessimistic, which is further reinforced by the lamenting oboes and a martial flute.

    The opening chorus is an intricate choral fugue, rigorous and austere, a good example of Bach's art at its most Lutheran.

    The alto aria with obbligato oboe is nicely dramatic; the arioso for bass with strings shows lots of energy.

    The tenor aria sports an interesting accompaniment by the violin piccolo.

    After that, an extended alto recitative brings on the final chorale "Vater unser im Himmelreich." Even this chorale, where the faithful see the error of their ways, offers little comfort.

    It is a rather grim work, but Bach must have been satisfied with for it was one of four cantatas from which he re-used several parts for his four 'Lutheran Masses' (BWV 233-236). The cantata was later in Hamburg repeatedly performed by Bach's son Carl Philipp Emmanuel, and together with BWV 100 and 101, it was one of the first three cantatas published in 1830, long before the Bachgesellschaft started its extensive publishing project in 1850.

    Rating: A-
    Video: Netherlands Bach Society / Bachstiftung

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

"A Simple Soul" by Gustave Flaubert (Best Novellas)

A Simple Soul (called Un cœur simple or Le perroquet in French) is so well and beautifully written, that one wishes Flaubert would have created more stories like this - unfortunately, his production was very small. He wrote extremely slowly, it has been said that a single page took him five days to finish.

"Simplicity" is indeed the keyword in this story of a servant called Felicité. She is a peasant woman with no education - even illiterate - and also without property, husband or children. Without her mistress, she wouldn't even have a roof above her head. She had a great love when she was young, but the man suddenly left her to marry a well-to-do woman "to avoid conscription." After that, Felicité left the farm and headed to the city to start working as a servant in the house of the widow Mme Aubian. Mme Aubian is no easy mistress, but Felicité is loyal and easily bestows her affections on the two children of the house. In fact, she is utterly selfless and lives only for those around her. This also includes her relatives such as a poor nephew she tries to help.

The sad fact is that all she gives to are unworthy of her generosity and take advantage of her. But she is unaffected by this, for true altruism is a reward in itself. Felicité can deal with anything that comes her way. Her belief in the basic goodness of life makes her happier than those around her - although she also knows sorrow when, one after the other, the daughter of her mistress and her nephew die. At the same time she is no Dostoyevskian holy fool (an inane figure Flaubert loathed) but "stands with both feet in the clay" (as a Dutch saying goes).

In later life, Felicité obtains a parrot (which reminds her indirectly of her nephew who died as a sailor in the tropics) and becomes very much attached to the bird. When the parrot dies, she has it stuffed. She develops a sort of spiritual relationship with the parrot, who becomes the embodiment of her relationship to the divine. At the same time, the love she shows the parrot is symbolic of her lifelong altruism. When she dies, Flaubert invokes the image of the parrot floating above her as a sort of Holy Ghost... It is a wonderful apotheosis.

As usual, Flaubert combines richly observed detail with spare, deceptively simple language. He truly is masterful in this perfectly realized character study. He also shows he was educated as a doctor: like in Madame Bovary he gives eerily detailed descriptions of illness and death.

"A Simple Heart" was the inspiration for the novel by Julian Barnes, Flaubert's Parrot.
English translation at Gutenberg
French original
Flaubert site of University of Rouen (French)

The Japanese Seasons: August

The traditional poetic name for August is Hazuki, "Leaf Month," as leaves are supposed to start falling - Risshu, the "Beginning of Autumn," comes around August 7 or 8. As the heat is at its greatest around this time, sultry and sweltering, it seems more a case of wishful thinking! But in Chinese philosophy, when Yang is at its highest, it already contains an element of Yin that from then on will grow, so it seems suitable - and thinking about autumn may actually bring some coolness. The name for the "lingering heat" after Risshu is "zansho," and this generally continues until early September.

The greatest national festival of August is the traditional, Buddhist-folkloric Bon Festival, held from 13 to 16 August. The festival itself takes place on August 15. Obon is the festival to honor the souls of the ancestors, who are supposed to return to their old homes and partake of offerings for a few days during this period. The festival starts with on Obon market around August 10. Here flowers and other decorations for the event are sold - a good place to see this market in Kyoto is near Rokuharamitsuji Temple. After the ancestors have been regaled with fruits, sweets, cakes, vegetables and flowers, and after a Buddhist service has been held at the home altar (often a Buddhist priest comes by for this), they are sent off again to their dark abode. Lanterns and small bonfires are lit to show them the way back to the netherworld (and these bonfires can take on a gigantic shape as in Kyoto on August 16).

Traditionally, Obon also is a time of family reunions as the living family members will return to their hometowns (now less so, as Obon has also become the period to take summer holidays and many Japanese travel abroad). There are several words connected with Obon. Bon-odori is the name of the dances held in many localities throughout Japan around the time of the Bon festival. The dancers are usually clad in yukata, and the rhythm is slow, fitting to a hot summer evening.

"Toro" is the name for the lanterns used to light the way back for the spirits. Some temples or shrines, such as the Kasuga Taisha in Nara, lit up thousands of lanterns at Obon (called manto-e, a "Ten-thousand Lantern Festival"). Another custom is to set lanterns on graves, as is done in the huge Otani cemeteries of Jodo Shin Buddhism in the Eastern hills of Kyoto. At other locations, lanterns are put afloat on rivers, as happens in Arishiyama.

On August 24, Jizo Bon is held, a Bon festival for children where the Bodhisattva Jizo is worshiped as their guardian. This has the character of a quiet neighborhood festival.

August is also the period that many hanabi, fireworks are held all over Japan. They used to be for the repose of the dead and were therefore linked with Obon, but nowadays they have become purely amusement for summer evenings. The Sumida River fireworks in Tokyo are the most famous.

And, last but not least, August is also the month that the big summer festivals of Northern Japan take place, such as the Nebuta Matsuri of Aomori, as well as the dance festivals of Shikoku such as the Awa Odori in Tokushima.

A good old custom to get artificial shivers is to watch plays or films with ghosts in August - or play the parlor game of telling each other yokai stories. On this blog I have posted a list of the ten best Japanese horror movies to help you shiver!

The main flower for August is still the lotus, which I already discussed in my post for July. Another beautiful August flower is the fuyo (cotton rosemallow or hibiscus mutabilis) with its soft petals, in color white to deep pink.

There is a lot of delicious food in August. Hiyayakko, cold tofu eaten in square blocks with some soy sauce, bonito flakes and chopped spring onions, is so easily digestible that also those suffering from natsubate are fond of it. The same goes for the various cold noodles, not only the somen mentioned in my post for July, but also reimenhiyashi udon and hiyashi champon. Also good against natsubate and an important source of vitamin C is the bitter goya, a vegetable looking like a cucumber but in fact a gourd, that is used for example in stir-fried dishes.

The prime summer fruit - and even a symbol of summer - is the suika, watermelon, said to be good against summer fatigue and full of refreshing juices. Suika are part of the Japanese summer scene since 1640, when they arrived via China. 

Edamame, boiled soy beans in the pod, lightly dusted with salt, are a healthy appetizer with your sake in summer. They are not only delicious, but also help break down alcohol. August is a good time for very cold sake - for example a sake sherbet!


Reimen / Hiyashi Chuka

Chilled ramen noodles

冷麺 / 冷やし中華

Reimen is one of my favorite summer dishes – how hot it may be, or how low my appetite, this delicacy always works its wonder! It always helps to revive me thanks to the sourness of the vinegar in the sauce and the lightness of the thin noodles and the vegetables.


Reimen are boiled, cold noodles served in a sauce of soy sauce and vinegar, and lavishly topped with thinly sliced strips of omelet, ham, cucumber, tomatoes, ginger and sometimes also chicken and pork. The toppings are arranged in a colorful pattern on top of the noodles, the customer has to mix the dish, bringing it up to taste with some mustard.

In fact, the name I use, Reimen, is typical for Western Japan (where I live) – in other parts of Japan this summer dish is called Hiyashi Chuka (“Cold Chinese”), and in Hokkaido the designation Hiyashi Ramen (“Cold Ramen”) is used. Note that this Japanese summer dish is different from the Korean Naengmyeon, which is also pronounced “reimen” in Japanese.

This cold summer dish of Chinese noodles did not come from China, but was invented by a Chinese restaurant in Japan. That was the Chinese restaurant Ryutei in Sendai, and the year was 1937. As other Chinese restaurants, Ryutei always saw its sales dip in the hot Japanese summer, when the Japanese prefer cooler dishes than piping hot ramen noodles. That was all the more regrettable as the annual Tanabata festival brought many tourists to Sendai. So taking a hint from the Ur-Japanese zarusoba dish (cold soba noodles with a soy sauce based dipping), the owner of Ryutei devised a new style of cold Chinese noodles. Interestingly, the cold sauce containing vinegar was not orthodox from a Chinese point of view, as in Chinese cuisine cold dishes with a sour taste are not popular. It was also new for Japan. But reimen soon conquered Japan!

The restaurant in Sendai used different vegetables from today, and therefore other restaurants also lay claim to the crown of being the first, such as Yoshikosaikan, a Chinese restaurant in Jinbocho, Tokyo, where just after the war the vegetables were heaped on the noodles in the form of a small Mt Fuji as still happens today, or Chuka no Sakai in Kyoto which started serving cold noodles with goma (sesame)-sauce in 1939.

Now reimen is so popular that it is served by all Chinese restaurants in Japan, from late spring to early autumn – they always announce the start of the reimen season with banners, flags and posters. Reimen also is a bestseller among supermarket lunches.

Japanese Food Dictionary

Monday, August 6, 2012

Best Japanese Horror Films (Movie Reviews)

In the Edo-period, Japan must have been very ecologically-minded: how else could the custom come up of using ghost stories for a "natural chill" in August? On the other hand, without air-conditioner you have little choice but to create goose bumps in a natural way... The custom has remained - August is still the month that Kabuki exults in plays with ghosts, while in the cinema horror pictures rule the day. As this summer stands in the sign of "energy saving," I suggest you shut off the air-conditioner, open the windows (allowing you the hear the beautiful drone of the cicadas), poor yourself a glass of cool barley tea, pick up a hand fan, and sit down for a summer program of ice-cold horror movies! Even your blogger, a hardcore realist who denies the existence of ghosts and the supernatural, shivered so much he had an unexpectedly low electricity bill...

To help you in your selection, here are the ten best Japanese horror movies (in chronological order). I have left out typical cult films - although these can be extremely chilling! - , because I have treated them in a separate post, Best Japanese Cult Films; and I have concentrated on classical films illustrating typical Japanese examples of the form supernatural horror takes. There is little J-Horror on my list as I believe J-Horror was a ludicrously overhyped phenomenon ("B-films of TV quality"), that has not produced many films of lasting value.

What all Japanese horror films have in common is the presence of wronged females (or children in J-Horror) who have become revengeful ghosts, and the presence of a general atmosphere of creepiness rather than big shocks. Sex is not sinful - as in American teenage horror films - but something in which even the ghosts delight.
  • Ugetsu (Ugetsu Monogatari, 1953) by Mizoguchi Kenji and with Mori Masayaku, Tanaka Kinuyo and Kyo Machiko. Draws on two tales from Ueda Akinari’s "Tales of Moonlight and Rain" (Ugetsu Monogatari, 1776), from which it also borrows the title, plus the story "Décoré!" by Guy de Maupassant. During a time of civil unrest, a farmer works hard at pottery to give his wife and young son a better life. His brother-in-law harbors grotesque dreams of becoming a samurai. When they set out to sell pottery in the city, they leave their wives behind. This is dangerous, with armies and loose soldiers roaming the countryside. The wife of the potter is killed, her sister raped and forced to become a prostitute. In the fates of both women the costs of war and oppression are demonstrated; women in Mizoguchi's films are often pitted against a male-dominated world of ambition, aggression and focus on money. While in the city, the potter falls in love with the Lady Wakasa and starts living in her mansion - only to be told she is a ghost. She is beautiful and sinister at the same time, conquering by being distant and strange, a good example of the East Asian motif of the ghostly woman: "a man meets a beautiful woman, spends the night with her in a great mansion and the next morning wakes up on a lonely grave." Her remaining passion has brought the dead woman to life. To protect him from evil, a priest writes a Buddhist incantation on his body (as in the next film, Kwaidan). Although the film is far from a supernatural shocker, these scenes have a haunting quality. The potter returns to his village and is happy to find wife and child at home. But this is also an illusion: the next morning villagers inform him his wife is in fact dead (the same motif as in the first Kwaidan story). He has met another ghost, but now a gentle and forgiving one. In the final scene he prays with his son at her grave. His brother-in-law, in the meantime, has redeemed his wife from prostitution, and they are starting over again as farmers. The cost of experience is high, the cost of war is unbearable. One of the great Japanese films of all time. 
  • The Ghost of Yotsuya (Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan, 1959) by Nakagawa Nobuo and with Amachi Shigeru, Wakasugi Katsuko, Emi Shuntaro, Kitazawa Noriko and Ikeuchi Junko. A truly classical horror film, about the famous story from the Kabuki play by Nanboku Tsuruya, written in 1825. The samurai Iemon asks for the hand of Oiwa; when the father refuses, he kills him and covers up the murder with the help of his evil servant Naosuke, who wants to marry Oiwa's sister Osode. Iemon marries Oiwa, but they are poor and Iemon soon gets tired of wife and baby. Then he has the chance to marry the rich heiress Oume... but first Oiwa has to die... He not only gives her poison, but also invites a sucker to the house, so that he can claim to have caught her with a lover. The film starts like an ordinary jidaigeki from the 1950s, filmed in broad screen and with beautiful colors and solid performances. But there is "horror" here, too: the cruel cunning of Iemon, who with an impassive face kills those he thinks are in his way. He mistreats his wife and later gives her the poison with a cool face. But he gets his deserts when supernatural horror kicks in: the bodies of the disfigured Oiwa and her so-called lover have been hammered to a door and thrown in the river, but they keep coming to the surface, slowly turning around. And then there is Oiwa suddenly hanging down from the ceiling! She has the whitish-blue face of a Japanese ghost and also suitably long black hair. Like most other Japanese female ghosts she is motivated by "urami," spiteful revenge, and it is clear there is no happiness possible for Iemon and his new wife. Other famous versions of the story were made by Mori Masaki in 1956 and by Toyoda Shiro in 1965, but Nakagawa Nobuo tops them all.
  • Kwaidan (Kaidan, 1964) by Kobayashi Masaki and with Mikuni Rentaro, Aratama Michiyo and Watanabe Misako. Stylish supernatural fantasy, but thanks to its conscious theatricality far more artistic than an ordinary horror film. I first saw Kwaidan when I was teaching at Leiden University - a couple of times a year, the Japanese department could get a film via the Japanese Embassy. When after the movie I walked home along the dark, old canals, a church clock struck twelve and I unconsciously shivered... Four separate stories from the works of Lafcadio Hearn: (1) "Black Hair": A samurai divorces his wife to make a better match in another town. Years later he returns to his first wife - she has gorgeous black hair but there is also something strange about her... A very effective shocker. (2) "The Woman in the Snow": In a snowstorm, a woodcutter meets a "snow woman," a ghostly female from folklore, who spares his life and even marries him on the condition that he never tell anyone about her origin. Of course, the woodcutter forgets his promise... (3) "Hoichi the Earless": Hoichi is a blind biwa player, a performer of the Tale of the Heike. He lives in a temple at Dannoura (Shimonoseki), where the last of the Heike with the child-emperor Antoku tragically perished during their final battle. Eventually, he finds himself singing to the ghosts of the very heroes that are the subject of his song, which drains his life force away. The monks try to protect him by writing a holy sutra over his body to make him invisible to the ghosts. But they forget his ears... My favorite among the four stories. (4) "In a Cup of Tea": a writer tells the story of a samurai who keeps seeing a mysterious face reflected in his cup of tea. Later he fights a duel with this elusive opponent. A witty conclusion to a hauntingly beautiful film. 
  • Kuroneko (Yabu no naka no kuroneko, 1968) by Shindo Kaneto and with Nakamura Kichiemon, Otowa Nobuko and Taichi Kiwako. During a period of civil unrest, a woman and her daughter-in-law living in an isolated place are raped and murdered by a group of samurai, who also set fire to the house. After the killers have left, a black cat appears to lick the charred bodies... Afterwards, samurai passing through that area are found mysteriously dead with their throats torn out. We see what has happened to them: they are invited into the house where the two women live, regaled with sake and then killed while making love to the daughter. Meow! This is a combination of the motifs of "urami," grudge, from The Ghost of Yotsuya with the "ghostly woman" from Ugetsu. Then the son and husband, a fierce young samurai, returns from the war and the governor assigns him the duty to quell what is evidently a ghost. He encounters the two women in an eerily beautiful scene. They recognize each other - and although husband and wife still love each other, the women are "cat" demons the samurai has to kill, while from their side they have sworn to kill every samurai who visits their abode. The outcome can only be tragic, although there is also the brief bliss of love. Kuroneko offers no big shocks, but the atmosphere of the film is strangely haunting. Shindo uses the story to show the horrors of unnecessary wars and the terrible choices families may have to make in such a time. Extremely stylized and beautifully filmed in black and white. Shindo plays with light and dark like a Japanese Rembrandt. In the same style, Shindo also made the impressive Onibaba.
  • 100 Monsters (Yokai Hyaku Monogatari, 1968) by Yasuda Kimiyoshi and with Araki Shinobu, Fujimaki Jun and Gomi Ryutaro. In the Edo-period a parlor game was popular where people would gather on a steamy hot August night and tell each other ghost (yokai) stories. A hundred lanterns or candles would be lighted, and after each story one was extinguished. In the darkness that followed on the final story, a ghost was believed to appear... This is an example of the "natural chill" I mentioned in my introduction. Such yokai stories were also gathered in book form, often with illustrations. They range from the eerie (Rokuro-kubi, a snake-necked woman) to the goofy (Kara-kasa, a one-legged umbrella with a freakishly large tongue). Sometimes yokai have taken up abode with humans and help them, as is the case in this film. 100 Monsters tells about an evil developer using yakuza "jiage" techniques to kick poor people out of a nagaya, a long row house - such a nagaya also figures in the famous film Humanity and Paper Balloons. Such forced evictions were a reality in the Japan of the fast-growth period when the film was made. Of course, the yokai who live in a shrine that is first demolished, come to the rescue... Several other yokai stories have been deftly woven into the film, which is a fantasy rather than an outright horror film, although there are some creepy sequences. Ambiguity is maintained so that the appearance of the various monsters could be delusion rather than reality. The finale is a battle between the yokai and the villains, filmed in slow motion - it has a tongue-in-cheek carnavalesque atmosphere touching on the surrealistic. This film with its simple effects is much better than Miike Takashi's The Great Yokai War of 2005, which sinks under the weight of its computer-game CGI effects, and as a story is very childish. The director, Yasuda Kimiyoshi, also made the interesting Daimajin, about a giant statue coming to life and protecting villagers against an evil warlord. 
  • Ring (1998) by Nakata Hideo and with Matsushima Nanako, Sanada Hiroyuki and Otaka Rikiya. Japan's best grossing horror movie is in fact a B-production that has the looks of an ordinary TV film - although I appreciate the lack of CGI or buckets full of tomato juice. The idea is beautifully simple: persons who watch an unnerving, grainy video (and receive a phone call immediately afterwards) die exactly one week later with a freaked-out expression on their faces. Reporter Reiko investigates the "Case of the Cursed Video" with a little help from ex-husband Ryuji. And after Reiko accidentally watches the video, her quest becomes a race against time... The ghost, Sadako, with her long black hair hanging down in front of her face is in the tradition of revengeful females a la Oiwa, the well that plays an important role in the film is also nicely traditional as this was a popular place for suicide in traditional Japan. And the finale is blood-curdling - your TV screen will never be the same! Based on a sentimental and rather forgettable novel by Suzuki Koji. There are two sequels and a prequel, a Korean rip-off and an American remake plus its sequel... all equally worthless. In the not so far future people will not know anymore what a videotape is and then all these films will become incomprehensible. Nakata Hideo went on to make his own (Yotsuya) Kaidan version, which is not very special. 
  • Onmyoji: The Yinyang Master (2001) by Takita Yojiro and with Nomura Mansei, Ito Hideaki and Sanada Hiroyuki. Onmyodo, the Way of Yin and Yang, was a system of divination and magic based on various Chinese superstitions. In the Heian-period, members of the nobility based their daily lives on it - take for example the belief in "lucky and unlucky directions." Practitioners called Onmyoji had important court positions at that time - the most famous one is Abe no Seimei, the hero of our film. Onmyoji had the task to protect the capital from evil spirits. They could also manipulate Shikigami, small "servant ghosts" that could be called up from cut-out paper manikins - in the film, Abe has three female companions who are all Shikigami. The story tells how Abe no Seimei has a contest in magic with a competing Onmyoji, Doson, who is plotting the downfall of the Emperor, while unleashing a horde of yokai... Together with court noble Minamoto no Hiromasa Abe tries to save the court. Interestingly, Abe no Seimei is played with "foxy" looks by Kyogen-actor Nomura Mansei (who also appeared in Kurosawa's Ran as the blind flutist). He plays Abe as an elusive, ambiguous figure, an ironic intellectual - a far cry from the "All-American hero," reason perhaps why the film although very popular in Japan, fell flat abroad. That is a pity for - although with a weaker second half - it is a colorful extravaganza and a good evocation of the belief in the Way of Yin and Yang from ancient Japan. In Japan the film unleashed a many years long "Abe Seimei" fashion, also making the small Seimei shrine in Kyoto popular among the young. After Onmyoji 2, director Takita Yojiro would go on to make the Oscar winning Departures
  • Ju-On (2002) by Shimizu Takashi and with Okina Megumi, Ito Misaki and Uehara Misa. The theatrical cut of Ju-On is a rehash of two straight to video releases. Again we have revengeful ghosts, now a woman and her son (the most creepy little boy in film history) who were brutally murdered by the husband/father. They still inhabit the house where the tragedy took place and are not keen on visitors. So when a social worker visits the haunted house, the two fiendish ghosts lie in waiting for her. The woman has a special way of descending the stairs and the boy just stares... Yes, there is a sequel plus an American remake - this time with the Japanese director at the helm. Ju-On is an effective little shocker that is actually better than the much overhyped Ring
  • One Missed Call (Chakushin ari, 2003) by Miike Takashi and with Shibasaki Ko and Tsutsumi Shin'ichi. What starts as a rather conventional J-Horror movie about a death-messaging keitai - following in the tracks of Ring and ripping off the South Korean Phone - finds its real "Miike" groove in the second half and ends up being weirdly thrilling. Young people mysteriously start receiving voice mail messages from their future selves, foretelling the exact date and time of their death. To save themselves and their friends, Yumi and Hiroshi stubbornly investigate the deadly mystery. The film becomes interesting when Natsumi, the third person to get the death message, agrees to go on a trashy TV show with a cartoonish paranormal expert (a sort of yamabushi priest) that airs at the exact time of her predicted death. It gives Miike a welcome chance for a satirical jab at the exploitation of the public - even their death - by the rating's hungry media. And it is good fun, even though the heads literally roll over the studio floor. But it gets even better when our heroes visit an abandoned hospital and evil rises from its temporary grave, mobile phone in hand - though nonsensically plastic, Miike's furious female phantom does pack a punch. One Missed Call here leaves generic horror for cult territory. It is difficult to assemble the pieces in a rational way, but the murderous rampage is ultimately linked to a case of child abuse - the victimizer used to give her victim a red candy in the mouth, as was also the case with the keitai-dead. In the end she morphs into Yumi, who starts abusing her boyfriend Hiroshi with a kitchen knife - and then drops a red candy in his mouth. We could say that abuse and violence send ripples through society, even to the future, and will be endlessly repeated unless resolutely stopped. 
  • Exte: Hair Extensions (2007) by Sono Shion and with Kuriyama Chiaki, Osugi Ren and Sato Megumi. This film about "killer black hair" is a spoof on J-Horror and the tradition of ghostly females with long, black hair. A dead woman keeps sprouting hair and a goofy hair fetishist decides to make money out if it by selling "hair extensions" to a beauty shop (where Kuriyama Chiaki works as a walking shampoo ad). Being from a dead female with a deep grudge, the hair extensions start killing their wearers in interesting ways. Finally, the film enters cult territory when a sort of hairy womb appears to regenerate the protagonists. Some campy fun, and the death knell for Japanese horror (for the time being). After watching, you will feel as if your mouth is full of hair... 

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Bach Cantatas (42): Trinity IX

The ninth Sunday after Trinity treats the theme that since mankind cannot survive before God's judgement, one should forswear earthly pleasures, and turn away from the transient world to God. 

There are three cantatas for this Sunday. Bach's first cantata BWV 105 deals with the impossibility for a sinful person to ever justify himself/herself before God. The chorale cantata BWV 94 focuses on the rejection of all worldly pleasure, money, power and high position. BWV 168 stays closest to the biblical text and is based on a libretto from Weimar court librarian Salomon Franck: centering on the term "accountability," Franck has interspersed his text with numerous accounting metaphors.

1 Corinthians 10:6–13, Warning of false gods, consolation in temptation
Luke 16:1–9, Parable of the Unjust Steward

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 Parable of the Unjust Steward, Marinus van Reymerswaele, c 1540]
  • Herr, gehe nicht ins Gericht mit deinem Knecht, BWV 105, 25 July 1723

    1. Coro: Herr, gehe nicht ins Gericht
    2. Recitative (alto): Mein Gott, verwirf ich nicht
    3. Aria (soprano, oboe and strings, without continuo): Wie zittern und wanken, der Sünder Gedanken
    4. Recitative (bass, strings): Wohl aber dem, der seinen Bürgen weiß
    5. Aria (tenor, corno, strings): Kann ich nur Jesum mir zum Freunde machen
    6. Chorale: Nun, ich weiß, du wirst mir stillen

    ("Lord, do not pass judgment on Your servant") A meditation on faith and redemption. The opening lines of the cantata, by an unknown librettist, come from Psalm 143. This is a mighty chorus that starts with a mournful and harmonically complex prelude, followed by a striding and energetic fugue. Next the alto recitative represents the faithful who beg God not to cast them away. The soprano aria with sentences as "an anxious conscience is torn apart by its own torment" creates a world shaking with fear and doubt. Trembling strings (without bass instruments, to emphasize insecurity) form the basis for the pleading duet between soprano and oboe. The bass arioso as Vox Christi introduces stability and the tenor aria even features a confident trumpet "If I can only make Jesus my friend, then Mammon is worth nothing to me." There is a clear change of mood to optimism here. The final chorale reintroduces the trembling strings from the soprano aria, but with each succeeding stanza the tremolos become less rapid, as if to symbolize the calming of man after conciliation with God. The musical and textual unity of this cantata has been overall praised.

  • Was frag ich nach der Welt, BWV 94, 6 August 1724

    Chorus: Was frag ich nach der Welt
    Aria (bass): Die Welt ist wie ein Rauch und Schatten
    Chorale e recitativo (tenor, oboes): Die Welt sucht Ehr und Ruhm
    Aria (alto): Betörte Welt, betörte Welt!
    Chorale e recitativo (bass): Die Welt bekümmert sich
    Aria (tenor): Die Welt kann ihre Lust und Freud
    Aria (soprano): Es halt es mit der blinden Welt
    Chorale: Was frag ich nach der Welt!

    ("What need I of this world") Chorale cantata based on the chorale in eight stanzas of the poet Balthasar Kindermann (1664) on a melody by Ahasverus Fritsch. The words of the cantata are only generally connected to the readings, in the theme of turning away from the transient world. The opening chorus is dominated by the concertante flauto traverso - it is almost a flute concerto! But for such a long (30 min) cantata it is also remarkably short, the weight of the piece falls on the arias and especially the chorale recitatives. The dazzling flute music represents "life's treasures" and Bach probably makes it short because "worldliness" is immediately rejected. The sparely accompanied bass aria compares the world to "haze and shadow;" tumbling motives illustrate vanishing and falling, in contrast to long held notes that speak of stability. In the third movement the tenor sings the chorale in rich ornamentation, accompanied by two oboes. Leipzig was a wealthy merchant town and the subjects of Bach's criticism were probably proudly sitting in the church benches: "A proud man builds the most opulent palaces, he seeks the highest post of honor, he dresses himself with the best in purple, gold, in silver, silk and velvet." The flute returns in the alto aria that calls the world deluded: "Even your riches, goods and money are trickery and counterfeit." The delusion is symbolized by using "wrong notes." After another chorale recitative, now for bass, in which the conclusion is reached " If my Jesus honors me: what should I ask of the world!," we have two more arias optimistically describing this new state of being free from worldly concerns. One is for tenor with an attractive string accompaniment and the other for soprano with a delicious oboe d'amore line. They are both set in dance rhythms (Pastorale and Bourrée). The cantata is concluded by the last two stanzas of the chorale, emphasizing "What need I of this world?"

  • Tue Rechnung! Donnerwort, BWV 168, 29 July 1725

    1. Aria (bass): Tue Rechnung! Donnerwort
    2. Recitativo (tenor): Es ist nur fremdes Gut
    3. Aria (tenor): Kapital und Interessen
    4. Recitativo (bass): Jedoch, erschrocknes Herz, leb und verzage nicht
    5. Aria (soprano, alto): Herz, zerreiß des Mammons Kette
    6. Chorale: Stärk mich mit deinem Freudengeist

    ("Settle account! Word of thunder") Inspired by the reading about the unjust steward and based on a text by Salomo Franck, who as the director of the mint in Weimar frequently uses money metaphors - for example in the tempestuous opening aria where the bass (Vox Christi) like an irate bank manager demands us to "settle our accounts" - the "words of thunder" are literally shouted by the bass over the rumbling of the strings. And in the long and didactic recitative by tenor life is depicted as a loan that needs repayment on judgement day. The ensuing tenor aria is accompanied by two oboes d'amore playing in unisono. "Capital and interest, my debts great and small must one day be accounted for." A turning point is reached in the bass recitative of movement 4, referring to the death of Jesus which "crossed out the debt". Next there is an interesting soprano-alto duet in which the bass line represents the "chains of Mammon." The cantata is concluded by a grave and quiet setting of the eighth stanza of Bartholomäus Ringwaldt's chorale "Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut" (1588).

Friday, August 3, 2012

Stories of Ivan Turgenev (2): Lyrical Stories

Lyrical Stories (1855-1870) - In this group belong Turgenev's three masterful love stories: Torrents of Spring, First Love and Asya, the best works he ever wrote. Other stories continue the trend from Turgenev's earlier phase, to portray typical Russian types, such as "indolent young men" or  "superfluous men."

The Three Meetings (1853) The narrator has three chance meetings with a mysterious woman, with whom he has fallen in love - of course without being able to satisfy his desire. The romantic effusions in this story are somewhat atypical of Turgenyev.

A Quiet Backwater (1854) The "quiet backwater" is of course a typical place in the Russian countryside. A young, absent landowner makes his annual visit and is invited by a neighbor - where he meets Marya, a "wild beauty of the steppes" and also Nadyezhda, a sort of mocking Amazon.  In contrast, her brother Veretyev is portrayed negatively as a lazy, indolent character. Told in an objective style, the story reads like the start of a novel, which however does not really come off the ground.

Two Friends (1855) A young landowner has decided to start living on his estate in the countryside, where he befriends a neighbor of the same age. The neighbor, hearing that the landowner wants to get married, introduces him to various houses in the vicinity, but the ladies are rather eccentric and do not pass muster. Finally he meets a simple girl, with a goodhearted smile, who lives with her widowed father. He marries her against counsel, then indeed finds "there is nothing in her." He dislikes living with her and starts traveling abroad where he finally dies. The friend marries the now widowed "simple girl."

Yakov Pasinkov (1856). The narrator is in love with the rather puritanical Sophia, but by chance reads a letter she has written to a friend, and so finds out she really loves another, Asanov. He is so foolish to confront her with this knowledge. A mutual friend, Yakov Pasinkov, helps to smoothen things a bit, but Sophia of course marries Asanov. Seven years later the narrator is present at the deathbed of Pasinkov and learns that he, too, was very much in love with Sophia. This, too, is a tragedy of the "superfluous man."

A Tour in the Forest (1856) The narrator is a hunter, like in the Sportsman's Sketches, who is taken by farmers on a hunt in a deep forest. The most interesting element of this story is the description of the endless, majestic forest.

A Correspondence (1856) Correspondence between a young man and a woman who having to cope both with broken engagements, find intellectual solace with each other. They become quite close and Alexev promises to visit Marya, but that is the last she hears from him, until, more than a year later a letter with an explanation reaches her: Alexev confesses he had madly fallen in love with a beautiful but uneducated dancing girl. He has followed her to Dresden where he now lies dying from tuberculosis. Interesting is Alexev's idea that love is not something pleasant but a malady like cholera, which takes possession of a person against his or her will... Here we see the theme of Torrents of Spring already foreshadowed.

Faust (1856) A novel told in nine letters written to a friend. After returning to his estate, the narrator meets an old acquaintance who has married Vera, a woman he himself had long ago been in love with. Although in her late twenties and with three children, her looks have not changed. The narrator becomes the house-friend of the couple, visiting almost every day. Vera has no knowledge of literature (her mother used to be against poetry), so the narrator starts reading Goethe's Faust with her. Gradually the old feelings of love are rekindled by the tender scenes in Faust. This shocks Vera so much that she falls ill and pines away. The narrator concludes that he should have practiced resignation, and left when he felt his love revive.

Asya (1858). The narrator has come to the beautiful Rhine valley to seek relief from a broken love affair. He finds two other Russians here, brother and sister (in fact a half-sister, she has been born out of wedlock as later is divulged). The narrator is interested in the 17-year old Asya, who has fast changing moods: she can be wild, naive, and coquettish. Although Asya is rather strange and mysterious, he falls in love with her. At a secret rendez-vous, he hears that she also feels love for him. But now, at the decisive moment, he hesitates to set the next step and ask her to marry him. The following morning, when he feels regret and wants to redress things, brother and sister have disappeared from the village and he never finds Asya back - they apparently have mistakenly concluded that the narrator is not interested in marriage as Asya is an extramarital child. Turgenev's first story of resignation. Asya's situation was the same as that of Turgenev's daughter Polina, who was born out of his relation with a serf.

First Love (1860). A 15 year old boy harbors feelings of "first love" for Zinaide, a beautiful, but five years older neighboring girl who has a whole circle of admirers around her, a sort of salon, with whom she plays games, making the men in a dictatorial way do all kinds of silly things. She treats the narrator as her page-boy. When he starts thinking she may have some kind of special feelings for him, and follows her secretly, he discovers she has an unexpected lover: his father! The world of the narrator falls apart. The story is based on Turgenev's bittersweet childhood memories - Turgenev was at age 15 indeed in love with a woman who had an affair with his father.

The Torrents of Spring (1871) - The melancholy reminiscences of a superfluous man, a story of romantic regret. In Germany, the narrator falls in love with a beautiful, pure Italian girl, Gemma. He fights a duel for her with German officers who have insulted her and so wins her love (she was originally engaged to a stiff German "with good prospects"). They decide to marry. In order to make that possible, he travels to a neighboring city where a large Russian community is, to sell his estate. An old acquaintance introduces him to his wife, Polozova, who has an independent fortune. She is a dark vampish woman and after toying with him for a few days, she manages to seduce the narrator, something she had put a bet on with her husband. The narrator is lost in dream of lust and becomes one of a group of admirers she has constantly around her. He never meets Gemma again and after many years returns to Russia, his life in shambles. Then, when finding a keepsake, he remembers Gemma and is consumed by immense regret. By the way, in this story Turgenev satirizes the Germans, who had become arrogant after their victory in the war with France (1870). Turgenev had lived for many years in Baden-Baden, but as the atmosphere had become uncongenial, he now moved to Paris, as did the Viardots.
See my post about this beautiful story.
Find translations of Turgenev's works via Gutenberg or Internet Archive.
Stories of Ivan Turgenev (1): Early Stories;   
Stories of Ivan Turgenev (3): Late Stories.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Best Japanese Cult Films of the 1960s-1970s (Movie Reviews)

The Japanese film scene positively bristles with cult films, especially when seen with a Western eye (which admittedly picks out the cult films for the art house circuit and neglects the majority of ordinary films). From monster films to extreme violence, from pure and unalloyed camp to kinky productions - the Japanese have it all. It even seems that during the last decades most directors were specializing in cult films - the whole oeuvres of, for example, Miike Takashi, Tsukamoto Shinya, Sono Shion, but also many older films by Suzuki Seijun, Nakagawa Nobuo, Ishii Teruo, and so on... So Japan is a paradise for cult. In two posts I will give my selection of the best Japanese cult films.

Here are the ten best cult films from the 1960s and 1970s (in chronological order):
  • Hell (Jigoku, 1960) by Nakagawa Nobuo and with Amachi Shigeru, Mitsuya Utako and Numata Yoichi. Japanese hell is Buddhist in origin, and although not eternal, punishment is very cruel indeed (based on Chinese corporeal punishments as flaying alive and sawing in pieces). Such a hell was not originally part of the Buddha's teachings, but was added in China before Buddhism reached Japan. Nakagawa Nobuo (of Yotsuya Kaidan fame) was inspired by ancient jigoku-zoshi (hell scroll paintings) he saw in temples. The first hour of the film plays in the normal world, the last 40 minutes is a grand tour of the nether regions - interestingly filmed on a large stage without any props, as the studio (Shin-Toho) was almost broke - but that spareness serves to make it more convincing than cardboard devils would have done. The film tells about the intertwined lives of various people with crimes on their conscience. The protagonist, a rather passive college student, for example feels morally responsible for the death of a drunken yakuza in a hit-and-run accident and for the fact that his girlfriend died in a taxi crash; he has a friend who is a sort of Mephistopheles (there is clear Faust influence in the film), a shadowy alter ego, enticing him to evil. At the same time, the mother and sister of the yakuza are on his tracks to kill him. The father of his girlfriend committed a crime against his comrades in the war; the director of a run-down old people's home almost starves the inmates to death or serves food that has gone bad; a sleazy doctor helps him cover his traces, etc. The bodies keep piling up and finally all arrive in Hell. This is not only a grand-guignol finale, the apex of "ero-guro-nansensu" (erotic-grotesque-nonsense), but Nakagawa imparts a serious message as well: those who are legally innocent, can still be morally guilty - for example by neglect, by passivity and refusal to speak out, by just letting things happen. The film demonstrates that these people are not free from Buddhist retribution... and perhaps should not go completely scot-free in the normal world, either. Jigoku attained immediate cult status upon release in Japan - the critics either loathed it or loved it. 
  • The Embryo Hunts in Secret (Taiji ga mitsuryo suru toki, 1966) by Wakamatsu Koji and with Yamaya Hatsuo and Shima Miharu. One of the most claustrophobic films ever made - almost the whole film takes place in one, tiny room that seems even smaller because of the violence occurring. The meager budget was one of the reasons, this independent film was actually made in Wakamatsu's production office. A middle-aged department-store manager takes a young, pretty employee to his apartment. What starts as a rather straightforward date soon erupts into sinister violence, as after giving her a sleeping pill, he binds her to the single bed and keeps her imprisoned for several days. Periodically he whips her or applies other forms of torture. All the while we hear soothing classical choral music. He asks intimate questions but also talks about his own relations with women, his mother with whom he had an oedipal relationship and who hanged herself, his wife who left him to have a child (he didn't want children). We are shown flashbacks about the past as well. The woman apparently looks like his wife and he tries to make her his slave. But in his dreams he imagines she is tormenting him "just like all the other women in his life." In one such dream, he is shown curled up in the fetal position, crying for his mother, after which the captured woman appears to console him with a lullaby. Here the sadomasochist fuses with the "passive male with a mother complex" who wants to return to the forgetfulness of the womb. Gradually the woman seems to be getting more passive, but that is show, for she is waiting for her chance - at the end she breaks free and takes revenge. The static location is enlivened by dramatic framing and editing and innovative camera angles. Called "fascinating in its austere and brutal poetry," and also "a perverse fairy tale that tries to recapture the world of childhood innocence," this film is extremely difficult to watch. 
  • Tokyo Drifter (Tokyo nagaremono, 1966) by Suzuki Seijun and with Watari Tetsuya, Matsubara Chieko and Nitani Hideaki. The story is a conventional yakuza potboiler, but Suzuki transforms it into a frenzied fantasia with eye-popping visuals, lurid colors, and weird camera angles. And then there is that goofy enka sung by Watari Tetsuya... A reformed yakuza hitman is unable to enjoy his new life as he has to keep on the run from his old rivals who are still eager to assassinate him. Even his beloved boss, a kind father figure, betrays him. The film works as a fierce satire on yakuza ideals (yakuza films were a popular genre in the 1960s) and a revolt against the dumb genre films the intelligent and artistic director was forced to make (he would be fired after his next film). One might call it a struggle for individualism - interestingly, also the story could be interpreted in that way. Tokyo Drifter reaches new heights of surrealism and absurdity in Suzuki's work, the mise en scène is highly stylized: color provides major symbolism throughout the film, such as the psychedelically yellow bar where Matsubara Chieko is a singer, or the final fighting scene on a white stage, with also Watari Tetsuya in white but his opponents in black. Arguably the best film by "enfant terrible" Suzuki Seijun. 
  • Black Lizard (Kurotokage, 1968) by Fukasaku Kinji and with Miwa Akihiro, Kimura Isao and Matsuoka Kikko, as well as Mishima Yukio in a cameo. This deliciously campy film is dominated by Japan's most famous drag queen, Maruyama Akihiro (now Miwa Akihiro, popular in Japan thanks to countless TV appearances), who - at that time in the prime of youth and beauty - gives a shining performance by playing the notorious female criminal "Black Lizard." Based on a 1934 novel by Edogawa Rampo and its theatrical adaptation by Mishima Yukio, who was rumored to be the lover of Maruyama Akihiro. The film's protagonist is Akechi Kogoro, a detective patterned on Sherlock Holmes, who appears regularly in the stories of Edogawa Rampo. The plot is deliciously nonsensical: the Black Lizard kidnaps the beautiful daughter of a jeweler in order to obtain the "Star of Egypt" diamond. Akechi has been hired to thwart her. While they are dueling with their wits, the two adversaries start to respect each other. The finale plays out in the secret lair of the Black Lizard on a remote island, where she keeps an eerie collection of naked human dolls (including a muscled Mishima). Although difficult to obtain (there seems to be no DVD release, I recorded it decades ago from Japanese TV), the film has gained a steady cult following. It is my favorite Fukasaku Kinji film. 
  • Horrors of Malformed Men (Kyofu Kikei Ningen, 1969) by Ishii Teruo and with Hijikata Tatsumi, Yoshida Teruo and Kagawa Yukie. This film is never shown in Japan, not because it is considered too pornographic like In the Realm of the Senses, but because of its so-called "political incorrectness." The film presents people with physical deformations, played by Butoh actors. and that is apparently a no-go zone in Japan (what then about the American film Freaks, where everything is for real. Perhaps sensitivity is so high in Japan because the position of physically or mentally challenged people here seems in fact rather difficult, while in a country like the Netherlands, where people with various handicaps are fully accepted by society, no such hypersensitivity exists. The unavailability of the film in Japan (it has been released on DVD in the U.S.) is a pity, for it is good madcap fun, and the presence of the founder of Butoh, Hijikata Tatsumi, makes it a valuable document. At the same time the film is much tamer than its reputation would let you believe. The first part is the best: a man suffering from loss of memory escapes from a mental asylum. A folk song from the Hokuriku area sounds familiar to him so he travels to Noto. In a newspaper, he sees an obituary of a wealthy estate owner who looks exactly like him - he decides to impersonate the man, pretending to have suffered from suspended animation. This places him into some difficult situations - he discovers he has not only a wife, but also a mistress, and in a picture album he sees at the last moment the man he is impersonating was left-handed. The father is hiding out on an uninhabited island where he performs atrocious surgeries to turn normal human beings into monstrosities ("malformed ones"). The scenes on the island with Hijikata sliding among bare rocks are surrealistic, but there is no horror. Avant-garde theater meets B-exploitation flic. To make things worse, suddenly detective Akechi Kogoro appears as Deus ex Machina (his existence had not been announced earlier in the film) to explain the complicated family relations, and then everything ends with literally a big bang. Malformed Men combines exploitation, perverse family relationships and experimental performance art into one bizarre and sadistic whole. 
  • Blind Beast (Moju, 1969) by Masumura Yasuzo and with Funakoshi Eiji, Midori Mako and Sengoku Noriko. A blind sculptor kidnaps a young fashion model and keeps her in his Dali-esque cavernous studio, where each wall is covered in plaster sculptures representing parts of the female anatomy - huge breasts, legs, lips. On the studio floor lie two gigantic nude torsos, serving as a sort of couches. It is the artist's dream to sculpt the perfect female form - his sense of touch is very well developed, he has also worked as a masseur - , the only problem was to find a suitable model. The young woman has been kidnapped with the help of the sculptor's mother, who also acts as prison guard, stopping the fashion model when she tries to escape. But when the sculptor drops the ominous words "my mother is the only woman for me," she shrewdly uses her charms to drive a wedge between son and mother. She succeeds admirably and with mum safely under the kitchen floor, the artist is sort of sexually liberated, so that he can find the inspiration for his ideal masterpiece. From her side, the woman has started to love him, too. They loose themselves in ever more transgressive sex, finally cutting off each others limbs and dying in ecstasy - a story that with its strange sado-masochistic relationship reminds one of In the Realm of the Senses. Visually inventive, this is another tale of madness and obsession after an original story by Edogawa Ranpo. A true classic of erotic horror. 
  • Double Suicide (Shinju: Ten no Amijima, 1969) by Shinoda Masahiro and with Nakamura Kichiemon, Iwashita Shima and Komatsu Hosei. Based on the puppet play by Chikamatsu Monzaemon from 1720. The film starts with modern bunraku actors preparing for the play; we also hear a phone call about preparations for the film. After the credits the film switches to real actors, but the puppeteers (kuroko) remain present, as if still manipulating the characters of the story. We are even shown the anguish of the puppeteers, who are unable to change the tragic course of the story. This is not a gimmick, but rather symbolizes the fact that humans are seldom free - certainly not in Edo-Japan, but aren't we even today often manipulated by social pressure? The paper merchant Jihei falls in love with the courtesan Koharu, but can't afford to redeem her from the brothel. In the Edo-period, where all marriages were arranged, this was the only situation where love could freely occur, but it was socially frowned upon - different from just a visit to a courtesan - as it could lead to the destruction of one's finances and family. Jihei therefore is torn between giri (the rules of society) and ninjo (his passion), which the film shows as mutually exclusive. An ironic twist is, that his wife, who doesn't want to loose him, desperately tries to raise money for him so that he can buy Koharu free - she is even willing to sell all her kimonos. Incidentally, both courtesan and wife are played by Iwashita Shima, as if to show that men always pursue the same type of woman. As wife, the actress has applied ohaguro, black tooth-dye, which was done by all married woman in the Edo-period but is seldom shown in films as it looks rather eerie to us. Finally the two lovers conclude a double suicide pact to escape the rigid rules of Japanese society. Their last lovemaking takes suitably place in a graveyard. Shot in austere black and white, this is strictly an avant-garde movie. Walls and even floors are covered with images from woodblock prints. The artificiality also serves to distance the audience in a Brechtian fashion. 
  • School of the Holy Beast (Seijugakuen, 1974) by Suzuki Norifumi and with Takigawa Yumi, Yamauchi Emiko and Watanabe Yayoi. A highlight of the Japanese exploitation cinema, by Suzuki Norifumi, the most intelligent (Tokyo University graduate) director of the genre. A young woman hears her mother died of suicide in a convent so she takes up the habit and goes undercover. In the convent she discovers a stinking pit of sin run by a dictatorial Mother Superior with a sinister hairy priest. Vice, violence and flagellation rule the day: "God has given us the whip!" Suzuki filmed his B-stories on an A-level, widescreen and with startlingly beautiful use of color and space. Beauty and cruelty are also mixed in the most famous scene where the naked protagonist is bound with barbed wire and flagellated with thorny roses - the red petals, mixed with her blood, fly off the stems and float through the frame. Nunsploitation as you have never seen before! There are no religious taboos in Japan so Suzuki could pull out all blasphemous stops. Religion is revealed as hypocrisy, the nuns and priest derive lascivious pleasure from the suffering of others. Why would a Japanese make such a film, considering the very minor position of Christianity in the country? Although Catholicism had been very successful in the 16th c., especially in Kyushu, it was eradicated in the 17th c. as a danger to the state - the Tokugawa shoguns had seen correctly that conversion was followed by colonialism elsewhere in the world. To prove they were not Christians Japanese were forced to trample on religious images (fumi-e) - in the film this custom recurs in a rather interesting way. In other words, an anti-Christian rhetoric was cultivated in the Edo-period, and this has never completely died out. Moreover, Nagasaki was the center of Christianity in 16th c. Japan (even completely ruled by the Jesuits), so Suzuki brings out the irony that it became one of the two cities destroyed by the atomic bomb dropped by a Christian nation: the priest in the film has been in the atomic blast which has burned the skin on his back and therefore he now sees God as a monster. 
  • Pastoral: To Die in the Country (Den'en ni Shisu, 1974) by Terayama Shuji and with Suga Kantaro, Takano Hiroyuki and Hara Sen. Terayama Shuji was one of Japan's most important avant-garde poets of the postwar period. He was also active as director and this dreamlike film, about his own youth, is his masterwork. The location is the remote Shimokita Peninsula of Aomori Prefecture, around Mt. Osore which in folklore marks the entrance to hell. Blind mediums called itako summon the souls of the dead here. The film tells about an adolescent boy trying to escape his overprotective mother and the traditional values of the superstitious countryside, but also pays attention to budding eroticism - he is in love with the married woman next door - and to his brush with the frightening world outside in the form of a visiting circus. People are larger than life: most characters have white faces like in Kabuki, gossiping women wear sinister eye patches, a dwarf inflates the body of a fat circus lady with the help of a bicycle pump. The clocks in the village are chiming incessantly. Halfway through the film, we suddenly meet the protagonist as a middle-aged man, who lives in Shinjuku, and is making a film about his youth. He returns to his native village and confronts his own younger self. In the film he is making he has pretended things were more beautiful than in reality (the boy escapes with the woman next door). Now he shows events in another way, but there is no guarantee this is more real. Can one change one's past? Are all memories of one's youth true? Are we perhaps unconsciously beautifying our own biographies? 
  • In the Realm of the Senses (Ai no korrida, 1976) by Oshima Nagisa and with Fuji Tatsuya and Matsuda Eiko. A highly controversial film about an obsessive sexual relationship, that still is forbidden in Japan in its uncensored form, but also a serious study of possessive love. Although the two protagonists do not much else but engage in sex, the camera is never voyeuristic on behalf of the audience - this not a "pink movie." Instead, the filming is cold and clinical and this explicit film is in fact the least erotic movie you can imagine. Based on a shocking incident from 1936, in which a woman called Abe Sada killed her lover by erotic asphyxiation and then cut-off his penis. Abe was imprisoned after a frantically reported court case and released after six years. She became both a symbol of a woman dangerous to men and a feminist icon. The film leaves the biographical details out and concentrates on the power dynamics in the love relation between the servant Sada and her master Kichi. Initially, Kichi is aggressive and Sada passive, but gradually as the "bullfight" (the "korrida" of the Japanese title) progresses, these roles are reversed. In the end, Sada makes love to Kichi with a knife between her teeth. Sadomasochism increases but is only indirectly willed - the intention is rather the indefinite prolongation of pleasure. Each episode of the film - set in the rooms of various inns as a sort of theatrical spaces - centers on a different sexual encounter or game, such as a mock marriage in the presence of a group of geisha that develops into an orgy. The film is different from Oshima's previous work as there seems no overt political intention here. However, while the protagonists are huddled together under their futon, outside soldiers are shown marching to the war front as Japan is sinking into fascism. The obsession of the country meets the obsession of the lovers: while Sada and Kichi pull each other down into a morbid and death-obsessed "love" tunnel without exit, so also the country is sucked into a spiral with destruction as only possible outcome. It is not an easy film: I found it just as claustrophobic and difficult to watch as The Embryo Hunts in Secret. But one can't deny its cult status.