Thursday, July 31, 2014

Doctor Glas, by Hjalmar Söderberg

"Doctor Glas" (1905) is arguably the greatest Swedish novel - its author, Hjalmar Söderberg, the novelistic equivalent of August Strindberg. The astonishing novel tells a story of the fatal obsession of a single man for a married woman, of a physician for one of his patients. The story takes the form of a fictional diary that describes four months in the life of Doctor Glas, living in Stockholm somewhere at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Doctor Tyko Glas is a lonely, reserved and introspective man, who is not very fond of other people (including his patients). He is settled in his profession, but has no particular love for it, calling it "the one which suits him least out of all possible trades." Doctor Glas is already over thirty years old, but still unmarried - even more than that, he has "never been with a woman." In fact, the physical aspects of sexual intercourse strike him as rather repulsive. He vaguely desires marriage, but when Miss Mertens, a young woman in town, approaches him pro-actively, he retreats into himself.

This particular summer he is kept occupied with the problems of two of his patients, Mr and Mrs Gregorius. The Reverend Gregorius is a 57-year old minister, a rather nasty and repulsive person in the opinion of Doctor Glas; while Mrs Gregorius is a lovely young woman, about half the age of the Reverend. Mrs Gregorius comes to Doctor Glas with the following problem: her husband's sexual advances have become so odious to her that she can't bear them any longer - can the doctor help her by pretending to the Reverend that his wife suffers from a pelvic disease and that he must avoid intercourse with her for several months, for the sake of her health?

Doctor Glas agrees, but the Reverend is not so easily put off. God has given man the task to procreate, and he is only trying to do his Christian duty (no lust or pleasure involved here!). Moreover, there is such a thing as "marital rights..." (for men, not for women, apparently).

Mrs Gregorius again and again visits Doctor Glas and they devise a new and stronger strategy: this time the doctor pretends with the necessary theatricals that he "discovers" that the Rev Gregorius has a weak heart and must abstain from all strenuous effort - especially intercourse - on penalty of suffering a fatal heart attack. This warning works for a time...

Meanwhile, as summer progresses, Doctor Glas has fallen in love with Mrs Gregorius, who is a strong and interesting personality. But there is one problem: he discovers she has a lover, a handsome young businessman, whom she meets for secret trysts. But Glas can't help himself, his love for his patient becomes stronger and stronger, and he becomes a tortured person, as he must keep silent to her about his feelings and knows his love will never be requited...

The book has some ruminations on abortion and euthanasia, which were modern for the time the book was written and considered as "scandalous," although now they are quite ordinary. But, happily, this is not a novel of ideas, the ideas are there only to bring out the story. For example, when a patient asks Dr Glas for an abortion, he refuses, citing some high moral principles - and he thinks he is vindicated when he hears she has married and born a son... until, cynically, he later learns that the child is mentally retarded. But the hypocrisy of his position (or the measure of his infatuation with Mrs Gregorius) is shown clearly when he imagines what he would do in case Mrs Gregorius would become pregnant from her lover - of course, he would undertake an abortion, for her sake...

In his obsession, Dr Glas finally contemplates one further step, something which Mrs Gregorius has never required from him: to poison the minister with a cyanide pill, which will look like a heart attack... He soothes his conscience by telling himself that this would be part of his duty as a doctor, as it would help alleviate his patient Mrs Gregorius' suffering (and it would rid the world of an odious specimen). Glas is obsessed by the idea to free Mrs Gregorius from the oppressive sexual attentions of her husband, and there is a strong element of personal jealousy and rivalry involved here (the odious older man with the beautiful young woman, beast and beauty). At the same time, Glas knows there is no hope, for Mrs Gregorius sees nothing in him, she just treats him like a trusted adviser, but as lovers go, she prefers quite another type of man...

This all leads to a gripping intense ending, but no final resolution: Dr Glas is alone and will remain alone. "Life has passed me by," he concludes.

The novel is not all darkness. Doctor Glas is also a great flaneur who loves to take daily walks through Stockholm, making the water city almost a second protagonist of the novel. Hjalmar Söderberg has given us lively vignettes of life in the great northern city, and among the friends and acquaintances Doctor Glas meets are characters from his earlier novel, Martin Birck's Youth.

"Doctor Glas" is a searing literary masterwork, still completely fresh and vivid, as on the day more than a century ago that it was written.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Matsumoto Seicho’s "Zero Focus" and Noto

One of the first Japanese novels that I read in the original language was Zero no Shoten (Zero Focus) by popular mystery author Matsumoto Seicho - it is thirty years ago that I found a copy in a secondhand bookstore in Kyoto. I especially enjoyed the atmosphere of the story: after the husband of a young newlywed disappears on what was supposed to be a brief business trip, the young woman, Teiko, travels from the comforts of Tokyo to snowy Kanazawa to search for him. Gradually she unravels the threads of the double life he led...

Years after reading the novel, I saw the film version Zero Focus by Nomura Yoshitaro on Japanese TV. It is a film noir as ever there was one, with strong hints of Hitchcock, and here, too, the atmosphere is great. During a second trip to Kanazawa, Teiko visits the Noto Peninsula, which in the film appears as a snowbound landscape full of dangers. Sheer cliffs tower over raging seas, dilapidated houses cling to rocky slopes, and the snow keeps falling relentlessly. If anything, the last scene where Teiko confronts the murderer on this cliff has been drawn out too long, there are too many flashbacks while she challenges the woman behind the mystery to a confession. But I can easily imagine Nomura Yoshitaro liked this landscape so much he just went on filming here...

[Yase no Dangai Cliff, Noto]

Since then, I have had the chance to visit Noto and finally I could stand on the same cliff as Teiko in that dramatic last scene, 50 meters above the sea: Yase no Dangai. It was a beautiful summer day, and the sea was a calm field of green-blue. No raging waves, no violent storm, no snow. The only things that reminded me of the danger of the place were the many signs warning against suicide. The bodies of people who jump down here from the cliff are carried far away by the tide. Think about the faces of your parents.

[Matsumoto Seicho Poem, Noto]

Matsumoto Seicho also came here, of course, and he left the following poem that has been carved on a stone near Ganmon, a little bit to the south on the same rocky coast:
sagging clouds
alone facing
the raging waves
I feel sadness
first trip to Noto

kumo tarete | hitori takereru | aranami wo | kanashi to omoeri | noto no hatsutabi

Sunday, July 27, 2014

"The Day of the Owl" by Leonardo Sciascia (1961)

On the surface, the Italian novel The Day of the Owl is a first-class thriller, a police procedural in which a murder is solved. But appearances can be deceptive - this is not a genre novel and the author Leonardo Sciascia (1921-89; pronounced "sha-sha") far transcends the bounds of the usual crime novel. His book, written around 1960, is an indictment of the activities of the Italian mafia on Sicily and the roaring silence which at that time protected the gangster organization. The book's final aim is a moral one, rather than pure entertainment.

A man runs to catch a bus in the piazza of a small Sicilian town. A shot rings out, the man falls down. The bus driver tries hard not to notice anything, all the passengers who are already in the bus, quickly get off and disappear. When the carabinieri arrive, they can only question a fritter-seller, who stood near the spot where the man was murdered. "Has there been a shooting?" the fritter-seller asks quasi innocent (although the gun went off more or less next to his ears), like all the others pretending not to have seen anything in order not to become involved. The murdered man is the owner of a small construction company who was too honest to cooperate with the mafia (his brothers and co-owners of course also know nothing), and he has been killed with a lupara, a sawed-off shotgun that was the typical weapon of the mafia.

[A lupara, sawed-off shotgun as used by Casa Nostra for its killings - Photo Wikipedia]

The police officer in charge of the case is Captain Bellodi, a north Italian and an honest, incorruptible man. To Sicilians he is therefore a foreigner, a total outsider. So also his interrogation technique: instead of using force to obtain a confession - the normal method on the island - he intricately questions the suspects and tries to capture them in an inconsistency - like Commissaire Maigret. Initially, Bellodi is up against a wall of silence, but his technique works and he is able to force a breach in the wall which will allow him to find both the criminal and the puppet master behind the scenes.

But politics is against him. We get small chapters with discussions by unnamed politicians in Rome, who carefully monitor the investigation and are afraid Belloni is going too far - the politicians want to protect the man behind the scenes. Their single concern is to keep the truth from coming out. Because, as they say, of course there is no such thing as the mafia on Sicily...

Sciascia's novels, especially The Day of the Owl, showed differently and finally made it possible to discuss the problem of the mafia in Italy. As Sciascia says in the novel: "The only institution that really counts in Sicily is the family... The State is extraneous to them, merely a de facto entity based on force; an entity imposing taxes, military service, war, police..." Law is not rational but "something depending on persons, on the thoughts and moods of this man here, on the cut he gave himself shaving or a good cup of coffee he has just drunk."

This short, beautifully paced novel is a mesmerizing description of the mafia at work and a sharp tale of Sicilian corruption. The title is based on a quote from Shakespeare's Henry VI:
And he that will not fight for such a hope
Go home to bed, and like the owl by day
If he arise, be mocked and wondered at.

[Leonardo Sciascia - Photo Wikipedia]

Leonardo Sciascia (1921-1989) was born in central Sicily. He first worked as a schoolteacher but starting in the 1950s, established himself as a novelist, essayist and controversial commentator on political affairs. Among his many other books are Equal Danger, To Each His Own, and the story collection The Wine-Dark Sea.
The Day of the Owl has been published by New York Review Books. Translated from the Italian by Archibald Colquhoun and Anthony Oliver.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Ten best scenes on the Noto Peninsula (Travel)

"The fancy took me to go to Noto," wrote astronomer Percival Lowell in his travel book Noto (1891) - and off he went, to a place at that time virtually unknown. The man who would later "discover" the canals on Mars and speculate about intelligent life on the red planet (and so inspiring the 20th c. pulpy SF boom about Mars), seems to have enjoyed wild places and inconvenient travel. Unfortunately, Lowell's travel account spends more time telling us about the hazards of the trip to Noto, than about the beauties of the peninsula itself.

[Cliffs on Noto's Sotoura West Coast]

Noto is an axe-shaped peninsula, with a rugged and eroded (but beautiful) west coast and a more indented, sheltered east coast. Most places to see are on the west coast. Noto's charms are low-key but authentic, and the scenery is unspoiled by billboards or pachinko halls - instead you will find sleepy fishing ports, villages huddled together for protection against wind and waves, and a quiet agricultural inland. The best means of transport is a car (can be rented at Noto airport, or in Kanazawa if you travel from the capital of Ishikawa prefecture) - bus service is spotty and the trains only go as far as Wakura Onsen since the unfortunate demise of the line to Wajima. There are also tour buses. Also in the case of public transport the best basis for setting out to Noto is the city of Kanazawa.

Here are the 10 best spots in Noto:
  • 1. Sojiji (officially: Daihonzan Sojiji Soin). Soto Zen temple with attractive halls in a meditatively green garden. The buildings are from the Meiji-period, after a fire destroyed the old ones, but the atmosphere is authentic. The temple was founded in 1321 and stands in the town of Monzen ("before the gate," the town traditionally catering to the needs of a temple). With Eiheiji, Sojiji used to be one of the two head-temples of the Soto Zen School, but after the fire in 1891 the main temple was rebuilt in Yokohama; Noto's Sojiji was also rebuilt and sitting far from the hustle and bustle of the world, still is a strict training center for Zen monks. If you reserve in advance it is possible to stay overnight in the shukubo, take part in a Zen session and have a vegetarian meal [0768-42-0005].
[Sojiji Temple]

  • 2. Wajima Lacquer Art Museum. Wajima is the cultural heart of Noto and its most interesting town, although the (in)famous Morning Market with elderly women hawking everything conceivable is a tourist trap. Most of all, Wajima is a capital for lacquerware (urushi) and you can see the best lacquerware in the Wajima Lacquer Art Museum [0768-22-9788], both the local Wajima Nuri, as well as some stunning modern lacquer art. You can see craftsmen at work in another facility, the Wajima Lacquerware Center [0768-22-2155]. Another place to visit is the Kiriko Kaikan, a hall housing the giant and colorful paper lanterns used in Noto's festivals. Those festivals are held in summer in various places in Noto.

  • 3. Gojinja Daiko. Wild, thunderous drumming by men wearing demon masks and seaweed wigs, said to commemorate a ruse to scare off the army of an invading warlord by villagers pretending to be a huge army. The main festival is on July 31 in Nabune, but all summer you can see short performances in front of the (disused) station of Wajima. (You can see such drummers in action in the samurai film Goyokin by Gosha Hideo - see my post about Samurai Films).

  • [Shimo Tokikuni-ke and its magnificent thatched roof]
  • 4. Shimo Tokikuni-ke and Kami Tokikuni-ke. Two magnificent traditional (Edo-period) farmhouses. The local Tokikuni family claims descent from a Taira clan noble exiled here in the late 12th c. Most impressive are the immense thatched roofs. Shimokuni-ke has a nice garden. Kamikuni-ke is the richer house of the main branch of the family, even sporting a curved entrance gable. Both houses stand close together in Sosogi. [0678-32-0075, Shimo Tokikuni-ke]

  • 5. Myojoji. Nichiren sect temple in a contemplative environment near Hakui. Founded in 1293, the fine buildings date from the early 1600s when the temple was restored by the Maeda clan. Especially lovely is the five-storied pagoda; the best place to view it is from the shoin, with a small traditional garden in between. [0767-27-1226]
[Futuristic structures of the Notojima Glass Museum]

  • 6. Notojima Glass Art Museum. More than the glass, it is in the first place the hypermodern architecture of contemporary architect Mozuna Kikko that attracts visitors to this museum. The plan hints at something cosmical. The exhibition features glass from all over the world, including Japanese artists as the internationally renowned Fujita Kyohei; outside also stand various sculptures. The museum on picturesque Noto Island faces Toyama Bay [0767-84-1175].
  • 7. Coast of Noto Kongo, Monzen and Sosogi. Dramatic views of impressive sea cliffs created by the pounding waves of the Japan Sea. Ganmon is a deep grotto in a rock that projects into the sea; Yase no Gankai, a perilously overhanging cliff 50 meters above the roaring waves. There are also two "wedded rocks" as in Ise. Several narrow inlets sheltered by high cliffs are said to be places where Yoshitsune, when on the run for his brother Minamoto no Yoritomo, hid with his boat. Some of these cliffs will be familiar to viewers of Japanese TV thrillers, where the last scene in which the criminal confesses is often set at such a dramatic point - a convention started by Matsumoto Seicho (in Zero no Shoten, a story in fact set in this area - see my post about this novel).
[The sunset at the coast near Monzen is the most beautiful in Japan]

  • 8. The sunset from the Sotoura west coast, especially from the area near Monzen, is reputedly the most beautiful in Japan. You look right to the west from here and can watch the blazing sun sink into the sea until the last flicker of light is gone. The red light seems to create a path on the waves that leads directly to the Pure Land of the Buddha Amida... (some people seem to take that literally, so at Yase no Dangai there are many signs warning against suicide!).
  • 9. Senmaida ("Thousand rice fields"). In a hillside overlooking the sea tiny, terraced rice fields have been carved out, the smallest (it is claimed) only the size of a hat. They are at their most beautiful in spring when the fields are filled with water.

  • 10. Keta Shrine. One of the greatest shrines of the Hokuriku region, in Hakui. Stands at the seashore near a sacred primeval forest which nobody may enter. Founded in the 8th c., the present buildings date from the mid 17th c. The main hall presents a picturesque scene.
See the English website Tourism Ishikawa for more information about travel in Noto and Ishikawa Prefecture!

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

"The Stranger" by Camus

Where the literary work of other existentialists as Sartre has fallen into relative obscurity, only Albert Camus (1913-1960) is still holding the banner, perhaps due to the circumstance that his books are rather suitable for teaching in universities. I have recently read his famous novella L'Etranger (The Stranger or The Outsider) for a second time and was surprised how outdated this story now is. I wondered how it could still be so popular and a fixed item on every shortlist of best French novels (except for historical reasons)...

Before I explain my opinion, first in a few sentences what the novel is about: Meursault is a young Frenchman living and working in colonial Algeria. He tells his own story, in a sort of minimalist, Hemingway-type "macho" tone. In the first part of the story we follow him as he goes to the funeral of his mother, visits the beach, and meets his girlfriend as well as other people who live in his apartment building. We notice that he does not care for others, nor for his job, and is not interested in anything whatsoever. Finally, he happens to murder an Arab young man, again for no obvious reason (a group of Arab youths has threatened his "pal," a neighbor from his apartment building, who apparently has acted as a "pimp" for the sister of one of them. But there was no reason for Meursault to become involved, as he was anyway indifferent towards this so-called "pal" as well). The second part is about Meursault's trial and subsequent death sentence. He is given the maximum punishment because he shows no regret about his deed (which he is unable and unwilling to explain) and his general behavior before the crime is interpreted as being devoid of normal human feelings. Meursault is not so much an outsider as someone who is truly a "stranger" to his own people.

Back to my criticism. With "outdated" I mean that the following three messages Camus tries to drive home with this book have today become irrelevant (as a philosophical novel, the book is more message than art, and therefore we should also judge it on its messages): (1) the world is meaningless and absurd (a general point of the existentialists), (2) social convention demands that people "play the game" and (3) an indictment of the death penalty, especially by the guillotine (Camus also wrote a famous essay about this topic).

Idea (1) is outdated because we know at least since the middle of the 19th century that there are no gods, that the universe has no higher purpose and that our existence (the evolution of conscious life) is just coincidence. Except for people born in an orthodox religious environment, there is nothing new about this statement anymore. It is a generally accepted fact of science and at least Europe has moved on.

Idea (2) is outdated because social conventions have changed and today people are free to be as egotistic and asocial as they want - as long as they don't hurt others. In case of a criminal trial, this attitude will in most parts of the world not lead to a more severe punishment.

Idea (3) is outdated because the death penalty has been abolished in the whole of the EU, making the "old continent" one of the most civilized parts of the world.

And I might add a fourth point where Camus is now outdated, this time through an omission: the fact that the murder central to the book happened in a colonial situation, where the killer was a French colonialist and the victim an Arab youth, is not addressed at all, something which today would be unthinkable.

Of course, the novel is so outdated because it is a novel of ideas. As soon as the ideas have become stale, the book degenerates into a museum piece. I therefore fully share Nabokov's often voiced objections against this type of literature!

But my greatest objection against the book is the character of Meursault - and this is an artistic point. Apparently, Camus wanted to depict an individual free from the bonds of religion and social custom, and brutally honest, but what he has given us is a man who has no inner life and who lives only by his instincts. While trying to depict a radically free individual, Camus has given us a man who is just like an animal, without any humanizing qualities. Meursault is not only unattractive, he is totally uninteresting. Who cares what happens to him?

I believe Camus made a mistake here. Based on his philosophy that the world is meaningless, he has depicted human life as meaningless, too. But he forgets the important point that human life can be given meaning by us - subjectively, when we make the effort - for example, by caring for others, by devotion to a job, by developing oneself, by interest in art and literature. "Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance," as Henry James said. It is up to us to discover the meaning of our lives. For, in this "absurd" universe, isn't consciousness a great wonder?

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Haiku in Hakone: Sheltering from a winter drizzle

passing through this world
is like taking shelter
from a winter drizzle

yo ni furu wa | sara ni shigure no | yadori ka na

Sogi (1421-1502)

Hakone Yumoto is the oldest part of Hakone. Already in the Kamakura period it had developed into a spa town and that is still its major characteristic. Conveniently, it is also a traffic juncture where the Odakyu line ends and the Hakone Railway starts.

[Sogi's poetry stone in Sounji]

At first sight Sounji temple looks rather out of place among the spa hotels and onsen bustle. It was established in 1521 to the memory of a local daimyo, Hojo Soun (1432-1519) and continued as the family temple of the Hojo clan from Odawara. The present structures are more recent, they mostly date from 1790. Hideyoshi camped here in 1590 on his way to attack the Hojo and his army left the place in ruins. The temple stands in pleasantly mossy grounds and exudes a quiet and contemplative atmosphere.

The main gate sits on the Old Tokaido and is a simple gate in a style common in the Kanto area in the 16th c. The plaque with the mountain name of the temple was written in 1632 or 1655 by a Korean ambassador who passed here on his way to Edo. Appropriately, it reads Kintozan or "Golden Bath Mountain," undoubtedly referring to the watery pleasures of Hakone Yumoto. Next follows the Chumon, the middle gate, which is part of the white wall encircling the temple. The temple proper today only consists of the Hojo or Priest's Quarters, the Kuri or Kitchen and the Bellfry. Behind the Hojo (which can not be entered - a pity as it boasts a painting of a Dragon and Tiger ascribed to Kano Motonobu) lies a nice garden, you can just see it from a corner at the back of the building.

To the side of the temple is also a grave monument dedicated to Sogi (1421-1502), the poet who wrote the present haiku and who died here in Hakone, in a temple that was the predecessor of Sounji. Sogi was on the way from Echigo to Mino with two of his disciples, when he fell ill and died on 30th day of the 7th month of 1502.


The poetry stone stands in front of the Main Hall and is crowned by a stone in the shape of a hat - just like the profile of a traveler of old. This is no coincidence as the poet Sogi who wrote the present haiku was an inveterate traveler who spent most of his time on the road and even became a role model for Basho. Sogi was a Buddhist priest and the greatest writer of renga (linked verse) of his time. Born in humble circumstances, he first served as a Zen monk in Kyoto before becoming a renga master in his thirties. He is especially famous for two sequences, Minase sangin (1488; “Three Poets at Minase”) and Yuyama sangin (1491; “Three Poets at Yuyama”), in each of which poets led by Sogi in turn composed short stanzas to form a single poem with many shifts of mood. Later the initial verse of renga (called hokku) developed into the haiku form. Sogi wrote many independent hokku, which were not part of a renga, as well.

To understand the poem, you have to know that winter is a dry season in Japan (at least on the Pacific Coast). In other words, a winter drizzle is the briefest of showers and all too brief, too, is life...
Address: Hakone-machi, Ashigara-Shimo-gun, Kanagawa Prefecture
Access: Hakone Yumoto Station is 15 min. from Odawara Station on the Hakone Tozan Railway. Odawara Station is 35 minutes from Tokyo Station on the Tokaido Shinkansen or 1 hour 30 minutes on the Tokaido Line.
Festival: On November 3 each year the Hakone Daimyo Procession is held, which starts at 10:00 from Sounji.

Bach Cantatas (51): Trinity XVIII

The Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity. The readings if this Sunday concern the dual birthright of Jesus as the son of David and of God. The lines from Matthew also contain the "Great Commandment:" "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind," and also the second commandment, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself."

There are two cantatas for this Sunday.

1 Corinthians 1:4–8, Paul's thanks for grace of God in Ephesus
Matthew 22:34–46, the Great Commandment

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 Sermon on the Mount, Carl Bloch, 1877]

  • Herr Christ, der einge Gottessohn, BWV 96, 8 October 1724

    Chorale: Herr Christ, der einge Gottessohn
    Recitative (alto): O Wunderkraft der Liebe
    Aria (tenor, flute): Ach, ziehe die Seele mit Seilen der Liebe
    Recitative (soprano): Ach, führe mich, o Gott, zum rechten Wege
    Aria (bass, oboes, strings): Bald zur Rechten, bald zur Linken
    Chorale: Ertöt uns durch dein Güte

    ("Lord Christ, the only son of God")
    Text: anonymous; chorale "Herr Christ, der einig Gotts Sohn" by Elisabeth Cruciger

    This chorale cantata starts with a sparkling opening chorus in a lilting meter based on the hymn "Herr Christ, der einig Gotts Sohn" from 1524 by Elisabeth Kreutziger. Although originally an Epiphany hymn praising Christ as the Morning Star (as in Cantata BWV 1), it also has a traditional association with the 18th Sunday after Trinity since the readings of that day deal with Christ's discussion with the Pharisees about the meaning of phrase "Son of David." An unusual element is the flauto piccolo accompaniment twinkling above the musical texture - of course, this symbolizes the morning star which appeared to the Magi above a pastoral landscape. The alto sings the cantus firmus, and not the soprano, to better set off the flauto piccolo. The light and charming da capo aria for tenor which follows after a short recitative is accompanied by a transverse flute (probably the same player as the flauto piccolo in Bach's time - he must have had an excellent flute player for these performances). The flute's ritornello melody provides most of the musical material for this aria. In the pompous, opera-style bass aria we have some musical painting: the words "Soon to the right, soon to the left my erring steps lean" (these are the lurching steps of the misguided soul) are illustrated by using jagged motifs and sudden switches between strings and the oboe choir. The closing chorale is a fine four-part harmonization.

    Rating: A+
    Video: La Petite Bande; Bach-Stiftung

  • Gott soll allein mein Herze haben, BWV 169, 20 October 1726

    Arioso: Gott soll allein mein Herze haben
    Aria: Gott soll allein mein Herze haben
    Recitative: Was ist die Liebe Gottes
    Aria: Stirb in mir, Welt, und alle deine Liebe
    Recitative: Doch meint es auch dabei
    Chorale: Du süße Liebe, schenk uns deine Gunst

    ("God alone shall have my heart")
    Text: anonymous; chorale Nun bitten wir den Heiligen Geist

    Alto cantata, concluded by a chorale. The text sings about the love of God in the first five movements, the commandment to also love one's neighbor is expressed in a short recitative, leading to the chorale, which asks for assistance from the Holy Spirit. The cantata starts with a sinfonia based on the first two movements of Bach's E Major Clavier Concerto BWV 1053 (itself a reworking of a lost oboe concerto) - the keyboard part is here played by the organ (in Bach's own performance this would have been ably played by his son Carl Philip Emanuel). After an extended arioso, we have a gentle and beautiful alto aria "Gott soll allein mein Herze haben" accompanied by the organ and a simple continuo. The second alto aria "Stirb in mir, Welt, und alle deine Liebe" follows after a simple secco recitative. Here we find again a marvelous adaptation from the above mentioned concerto, with the voice attractively woven into the solo organ and the strings. Like the first alto aria, this is truly great music - it has been called a farewell to worldly life, but also a mystic contemplation of heavenly love. A straightforward chorale harmonization on the famous tune "Nun bitten wir den heiligen Geist" brings in the chorus for the first time to close the cantata. Perhaps the most beautiful among Bach's four alto cantatas.

    Rating: A+
    Video: Bach-Stiftung

Bach Cantata Index

Saturday, July 19, 2014

"The Moon and the Bonfires" by Cesare Pavese (1950)

The overriding sentiments in The Moon and the Bonfires by the poet and novelist Cesar Pavese (1908-1950) are nostalgia and melancholy, as well as bitterness. The narrator - a "bastard" (orphan) who has been brought up by peasants, known as Anguilla, "The Eel" - has twenty years ago left his native Piemonte village to make his fortune in America. He has succeeded modestly and returns a self-made man (although there is something shadowy in the way he made his fortune, which is never explained), but also realizes about America that "the more places you see, the less you belong to any of them," and therefore after WWII has decided to return to his native place in northwestern Italy. But he finds that the world he knew has been eradicated by years of war and political unrest - a drama that is still present: the seemingly so innocent fields still render up a grim harvest of dead bodies of German soldiers or Fascists from shallow graves.

[Santo Stefano Belbo, the Piemonte village which is the location of the novel]

Time among the hills has not stood still, and most people of the narrator's idealized past are now dead. The only remaining link to that past is his old pal Nuno, who still works in the village as a carpenter. When he was in his teens, The Eel looked up to the older Nuno, who was a responsible man and Communist activist. He now finds a weary Nuno who says that after the war things went from bad to worse and that people still live as beasts, "except for the dead." Nuno is also cagy about what happened exactly during the war, and the story of events - of executions and reprisals - that took place in the village only emerges gradually. This is tied to the fates of people of the rich farm at the Mora where the narrator started working and living as a farmhand when he was thirteen - after his adopted father Padrino sold his farm. Here he started idolizing the three beautiful daughters of Sor Matteo, the owner, Irene, Sylvia, and the much younger and rather wild Santino. Now he learns about their sad fates, especially of the youngest one, who as a sort of femme fatale became involved with both the fascists and the partisans and was eventually brutally killed.

Also the present is not without its catastrophes. The peasant now renting the hardscrabble farm where The Eel spent his youngest years, is a violent and sadistic man who uses violence against his sister-in-law with whom he lives after his wife's death, and who also mistreats his son Cino who is lame. The narrator has befriended Cino and tries to help him escape from his despairing situation. Frustrated over the unfavorable conditions in a new contract for his land, the farmer batters his wife to death, and sets fire to the hovel with his aged mother still in it, before hanging himself from a sturdy tree - the boy Cino fortunately manages to escape. Life's horrors go on repeating themselves - the world the narrator has idealized in his memory, is in fact ugly and terrifying.

What remains is the consolation of the sun-drenched landscape, scorched and harsh, but also beautiful. By the way, this countryside has prospered considerably in the last 50 years, mostly thanks to the local muscat grapes and the resultant sparkling wines.

The novel has been written in an elegant and spare style, which is rather understated. The "bonfires" of the title allude to the local custom to light bonfires during important festivals. Later, of course, there are other bonfires caused by the war: the burning of farms, the burning of the corpses of the dead.

[Cesar Pavese - Photo Wikipedia]

Pavese - a graduate from the University of Turin in English literature - was plagued by depression and asthma, and he was singularly unlucky in his relations with women. In the 1930s, he had a girlfriend in Turin who was involved in anti-Fascist activities. He helped her, was arrested, but never mentioned her name and took the blame on himself. As a result he was put in prison and later briefly exiled to Calabria. When he finally could return to Turin, he was told that just the day before she had married another man.

And in 1950 he had a turbulent affair with the blonde American model/actress Constance Dowling (who had also been the girlfriend of Elia Kazan). Pavese never recovered from her rejection and finally took his own life in a hotel room in Turin. One of his last poems was entitled "Death will come and she'll have your eyes."

The Moon and Bonfires was translated by R.W. Flint and is available from The New York Review Books. 
From the same publishing house we also have The Selected Works of Cesare Pavese, presenting a number of short novels: The Beach, a comedy of romantic misunderstandings; The House on the Hill, a novel of war in which a teacher flees through the countryside; Among Women Only, a tale about a fashion designer; and The Devil in the Hills, a road novel about three young men roaming the hills in high summer.

Friday, July 18, 2014

"A Cat, a Man and Two Women" by Tanizaki Junichiro (and other Japanese cat literature)

That the Japanese are great cat-lovers is obvious to any visitor here. This feline infatuation springs not only from the fact that cats are elegant and mysterious, but above all finds its origin in the feeling of iyashi, of peacefulness, that cats impart, and that makes you forget your daily worries. And, of course, as Japan is also the "country of cuteness," you'll stumble everywhere over cat bags, cat mugs, cat plates, and countless other daily items with feline images.

[Cat on a Kobe street - photo Ad Blankestijn]

Although we find some great cats in ukiyo-e - for example those by Kuniyoshi - cats really came into their own as protagonists in modern Japanese literature. The first famous literary cat is the unnamed feline of I Am a Cat (Wagahai wa Neko de Aru) written in 1905 by Natsume Soseki (1867-1916), one of Japan's greatest 20th c. novelists. The satirical story is narrated by a cat living in the household of a teacher of modest means and abilities. From a rather haughty point of view, the cat listens in on the discussions between the teacher and his family and friends: the cat is convinced that his master is selfish and lazy, if not a fool, and that he himself is a sort of special royalty - as cats indeed often think.

The poet Hagiwara Sakutaro (1886-1942) wrote the surrealistic short story The Town of Cats (1935) where a traveler in a strange town suddenly has a vision that all the roads around him are filled with cats - nothing but cats wherever he looks, something he finds horrifying. Obviously, here the cat is not a messenger of peace but rather a harbinger of the uncanny. (Did Murakami Haruki think of this story when he wrote about his own "cat town" in 1Q84?).

The cat also appears in crime fiction, such as in the popular whodunit Neko wa shite ita (1957) by Niki Etsuko (1928-1986), about a series of murders in a clinic where a black cat called Chimi is mysteriously involved. Another, even more famous example is the "Mikeneko Holmes" series ("Holmes, the Tortoiseshell Cat") by bestselling author Akagawa Jiro. The police detective in these popular books cannot bear the sight of blood and has phobias about heights and women, so it is a good thing that an intelligent cat comes to his rescue. Holmes stalks the crime scenes with feline composure, offering hints that lead to the solution and in fact doing all the detective work.

Cats also figure in contemporary novels. One example is Tama ya (Oh, Tama!) by Kanai Mieko, about an afflicted young man, his circle of bohemian friends and a pregnant cat that he is forced to take in. Another feline adventure is The Guest Cat (Neko no Kyaku) by Hiraide Takashi about a couple of freelancers working at home, who are visited by a small cat of the neighbors and end up falling in love with the "guest cat" they call Chibi.

[Cat in a Shinto shrine - Photo Ad Blankestijn]

But the best literary treatment of the feline phenomenon is without a doubt A Cat, a Man and Two Women (Neko to Shozo to Futari no Onna) written in 1935-36 by the masterful Tanizaki Junichiro (1886-1965). This is a charming, comic novella with a female tortoiseshell cat called Lilly as the absolute star. The male protagonist, Shozo, is a weak-willed man who is utterly in love with his cat Lilly - he loves her more than any of the two women who figure in his life. At the beginning of the story he is playing with Lily on the veranda of his house, sharing his mackerel with her and having her leap up to get the fish. His wife Fukuko clearly resents the close bond between her husband and his cat. Fukuko is Shozo's second wife - his young, new wife. The chastened ex-wife, Shinako, has been chased away by Shozo's scheming mother, who also lives in his house (the family has a shop) and in fact rules it with an iron hand.

So when a letter arrives from Shinako offering to take Lily off their hands, Fukuko is very much in favor, as is the mother... and Shozo is such a weak, submissive person that he agrees to give away his beloved Lily (only asking to be allowed to keep her for one more week). But after Lily is gone, Fukuko realizes with a shock it must have been a trick of Shinako: where Lily goes, Shozo also goes - isn't Shinako trying to get her husband back? Didn't Shinako in fact hate Lily? (That may be so, but when Lily comes to stay with her, Shinako develops a deep attachment to Lily and takes good care of her.) What will happen - will Shozo stay with Fukuko or go back to Shinako? I will not give the end away, which anyhow is rather open, but only remind you of the fact that Shozo loves Lily more than his two wives!

This is a humorous story which also provides an interesting glance at life in the Osaka-Kobe area in the 1930s (the story is situated in Ashiya), something which Tanizaki would do on a much grander scale in his masterwork, The Makioka Sisters (Sasameyuki).

But above all it is a very perceptive and touching story about the relation between a cat and the people around her, demonstrating Tanizaki's great understanding of feline behavior (Tanizaki was a great cat-lover himself) - and that all expressed in his usual, beautiful language.

Some Japanese cats in translation:

A Cat, a Man and Two Women by Tanizaki Junichiro has been translated by Paul McCarthy and published by Kodansha International and Harper Flamingo Books in 1990. Unfortunately, out of print today.

I am a Cat (3 vols) by Natsume Soseki has been translated by Graeme Wilson and Aiko Ito in 1972 and is still in print (Tuttle Books).

The Town of Cats by Hagiwara Sakutaro has been translated by Jeffrey Angles in Modanizumu, Modernist Fiction from Japan, by William J. Tyler; another translation called Cat Town will be published in November of this year by the New York Review of Books (by Hiroaki Sato).

Oh, Tama! by Kanai Mieko has been translated by Tomoko Aoyama and Paul McCarthy and is available from Kurodahan Press.

The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide has been translated by Eric Selland and is available from New Directions.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Ian McEwan: "The Comfort of Strangers" (Best Novellas)

The Comfort of Strangers was Ian McEwan's fourth book, after the story collections First Love, Last Rites and In Between the Sheets, and the novella The Cement Garden, and like those other early works contains a hefty mix of sadistic violence with a sexual undertone. In fact, it is mean little story very much like James' The Turn of the Screw.

Mary and Colin have a seven-yearlong relationship, but live apart - Mary also has two kids from a previous marriage. They always spend the summer holidays together, and their vacation has now brought them to a city that may or may not be Venice (McEwan probably keeps it vague because he has changed some elements to suit the story). Mary and Colin have grown a bit weary of each other, even their sex has become a mannerism.

One evening, looking for something to eat after all restaurants have already closed, they get lost in the endlessly winding streets and alleys of the ancient city and are picked up by an enigmatic Italian called Robert. Robert has an open shirt, revealing his hairy chest and a gilded razor blade hanging around his neck. He is forceful and insistent, and can't keep his hands off the handsome but weak Colin. About women he has a rather chauvinistic and patriarchal view. He guides them to a bar he owns for a bite and a bottle of wine - the other customers seem all homosexual men.

The next morning he takes them to his apartment, where they also meet his Canadian wife, Caroline, an invalid. Although they are shown great hospitality, Caroline has spied on them while they were sleeping naked; and later, before dinner, Robert will punch Colin playfully - but very painfully - in the stomach.

It appears that Robert is the product of a sadistic upbringing (he tells some weird tales about his domineering father's strictness and his bitterly jealous sisters), while Caroline has an uncomfortable masochistic view of life - she sees men as masters to whom women should yield. Is she an invalid because something went wrong during an SM session with Robert? When Mary and Colin leave to go back to the hotel, they hear a slapping sound behind the just closed door, as if Robert has hit his wife, but they can't be sure about that.

By now, every reader can smell disaster - of course, Mary and Colin should never go back to Robert and Caroline again. But they feel strangely inspired by the meeting and back in the hotel, they make love, sleep, and make love again - for days on end. They also have sadomasochistic dreams...

They have been hypnotized, as it were, by the mysterious other couple, and are like rabbits, sitting still, while the snake bends over them... There is a huge thrill at the end, but I will say no more.

McEwan tells this terrifying story of sadomasochism and ritualized murder in his usual cool and precise style.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Miyako Odori and other dance performances of Kyoto's Flower Towns

There are five  different "Flower Towns" (kagai) or geisha districts in Kyoto.

Gion Kobu - the foremost of Kyoto's Flower Districts, named after the Yasaka Shrine ("Gion-san"). The most traditional of the five. Dance and music training is in the classical Inoue-school. The major public performance is the Miyako Odori in April.

Gion Higashi - originally formed one flower town with Gion Kobu, but became independent in 1881. Follows a different dance school, the Fujima School. Performance called Gion Odori is held in autumn.

Both Gion districts were popular with pilgrims visiting the Gion shrine/temple complex (now Yasaka Jinja); they were also close to the Tokaido which enters Kyoto over Sanjo Bridge, just north of the area.

[Miyako Odori]

Miyagawacho - on the east bank of the Kamo River, between Gojo and Shijo. The riverbank here was from the early 17th century on an area of tea-houses and theaters. The famous Okuni performed the first Kabuki here. Wakayagi School. Kyo-Odori dances are staged for a few weeks in April. Miyagawa-cho is close to Gojo Bridge, and was frequented by pilgrims visiting Kiyomizu Temple.

- along a very narrow street (with a great atmosphere) on the west bank of the Kamo River between Shijo and Sanjo. It developed in the early Edo-period after a new embankment was built here. Symbol is the plover, a bird associated with the Kamo River. Onoe School. The Kamo Odori is held for a whole month in May. Pontocho was close to the Tokaido Highway.

Kamishichiken - Developed in the Muromachi period and is therefore the oldest Flower Town in Kyoto. Was built with wood left over after a reconstruction of the Kitano Tenmangu Shrine, next to which it is located. The name means "Upper Seven Houses." The symbol of the town is a string of dumplings, offered to Hideyoshi when he held his Great Tea Party in the shrine. Hanayagi School. Performance called Kitano Odori in April lasts just a few weeks. Kamishichiken, of course, catered to visitors of the popular Kitano Tenmangu Shrine.

[Gion district with lantern and poster advertising the Miyako Odori]

As you see, all Flower Towns have there public dance performances, held in their own theater. This is of course a modern development. Geiko and maiko only used to perform at small parties, for guests, and not on a public stage. The tradition started in 1872 in Gion, and was a bright idea of Prefectural Governor Hase Nobuatsu and Vice-Governor Makimura Masanao.

At that time, Kyoto was in decline. Three years before the capital had been moved to Tokyo and the new Meiji Emperor and his court had departed Kyoto, leaving an empty shell behind. To promote the city, the Prefectural Government organized an exhibition to showcase the art, culture and industry still thriving in Kyoto. To attract people, the Governor and Vice-Governor requested Mr. Sugiura, the representative of the Gion district and owner of the restaurant "Mantei" (now Ichiriki) to stage a public dance performance by geiko and maiko. Mr. Sugiura asked the help of the master of the Kyomai dance school, Ms. Inoue Yachiyo III, and together they devised a highly stylized group performance based on the "Kamenoko Odori" dance from the Furuichi district in Ise.

[Kamogawa Odori in Pontocho]

A traditional Japanese orchestra and singers were added and in March 1872 the the first Miyako Odori, or "Dances of the Imperial Capital" were performed to great acclaim. This performance become the prototype of all subsequent Miyako Odori of the Gion Kobu (and in a wider sense of the dance performances of the other Flower Towns as well), and the choreography is still the exclusive domain of the Inoue Kyomai dance school - now headed by Inoue Yachiyo V. In 1873 the "Miyako Odori" moved to the more spacious premises of the Gion Kobu Kaburenjo Theater.

[The Jikata singers and shamisen players at the Miyako Odori]

The style of the Miyako Odori is classical and dignified and is the best way to see the country's top geiko and maiko in their beautiful kimono's!

Sunday, July 13, 2014

'Lady Godiva' by John Collier (Stories behind paintings)

Lady Godiva was painted in 1897 by John Collier and is in the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry, England.

[Lady Godiva by John Collier, c. 1897, Herbert Art Gallery and Museum - Wikipedia - Public Domain]

A woman sits on a horse, riding through what looks like a medieval town. The remarkable thing is
that the horse is dressed better than she is - she is only clothed in her long golden hair. Happily the streets are empty.

Who is this medieval streaker?

First, history. Lady Godiva (her Saxon name was Godgyfu) was the wife of Leofric, Earl of Mercia, who died in 1057. Earl Leofric was one of the powerful lords who ruled England under the Danish King Canute. Lady Godiva seems to have been a rich landowner in her own right - one of her most valuable properties was Coventry. Both Leofric and Godiva were known for their generous donations to churches and monasteries - the only reliable records of her and her husband are found in the chronicles of various religious foundations and in charters, where their pious donations are named - unfortunately most of the treasures were afterwards stolen by the Norman invaders.

But despite her illustrious husband, renowned piety, and religious benefactions, without the tantalizing legend of her ride told below Lady Godiva would likely be completely forgotten.

Then, the legend, which first appears out of the blue in the 13th century in a not very reliable account. In the story Leofric has been made into a tyrant; but Lady Godiva felt pity for the people of Coventry, who were suffering grievously under her husband's oppressive taxation. Again and again she appealed to her husband, but he obstinately refused to lower the taxes. When she kept entreating him, he grew so fed up that, either with playful raillery or in a spirit of bitter jesting, he told her that he would do what she wanted "if she would strip naked and ride through the streets of the town." The real joke is, of course, that Lady Godiva took him at his word. She issued a proclamation that everyone should stay indoors and close the shutters before their windows, and then she rode through the town of Coventry, clothed only in her long hair and lovely tresses, which poured around her body like a veil. And thus the Lady Godiva, "with a downcast but not a shamefaced eye, looking towards the earth through her flowing locks, rode through the silent and deserted streets." Her surprised husband kept his word and remitted the onerous taxes.

Regrettably, the story of Lady Godiva's ride is almost certainly a myth. The earliest written record of it comes from one Roger of Wendover more than a century after Godiva's death, a medieval scribe renowned for exaggeration and embellished stories. Historians have looked for the origin of this legend in both pagan fertility rituals and in medieval penitential processions.

Over the centuries, the tale became sentimentalized and more erotically charged, and the victimization of the Lady Godiva became paramount - she must be a virtuous victim, compelled by an unfeeling husband to perform a humiliating act. She became - literally - "the naked truth."

It was left to Alfred Lord Tennyson, in 1842, to codify the tale into the form in which it became known around the world. It then became also popular with various 19th century painters and sculptors.

[Lady Godiva by Jules Joseph Lefebre,
Musée de Picardie, Amiens - Wikipedia - Public Domain]

Peeping Tom. Interestingly, the Godiva legend is linked with the story of Peeping Tom - for why would Tom peep? Well, Tom was a tailor in Coventry who was the only person on town to disobey Lady Godiva's proclamation. He bored a hole in the shutters so that he might see her pass - becoming the archetypal voyeurist. In a moralistic version of the story, as a punishment for violating the injunction of the noble lady, he was "blinded by the wrath of Heaven" for his temerity in not obeying the order. A wooden effigy of Peeping Tom used to look out on the world from a hotel at the northwest corner of Hertford Street in Coventry - it seems now to stand in Cathedral Lanes Shopping Center. The eyes in this effigy are apparently blank, but that may be because the paint has worn off over the years.

John Collier (1850-1934), the painter of Lady Godiva reproduced at the beginning of this post, was a leading English artist who painted in the Pre-Raphaelite style. His range of subject was broad, but he was especially successful as a portrait painter. He has been praised for his fresh use of light and color.

To conclude with a line from the Tennyson poem:
"Then she rode forth, clothed on with chastity:
The deep air listen'd round her as she rode,
And all the low wind hardly breathed for fear."
[Lady Godiva statue by John Thomas, Maidstone Museum, Kent, England - By Linda Spashett Storye_book - Own work, CC BY 3.0, Link]

The Czech composer Vitezslav Novak (1870-1949) wrote a symphonic poem about the Lady Godiva story - where one would perhaps expect some light music, this work is a deadly serious and at times rather harrowing - but also extremely exciting - tone poem about the fight between Good and Evil.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Bach Cantatas (50): Trinity XVII

The Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity. Both readings for this day emphasize humility and modesty: the exhortation of Paul to the Ephesians for generosity and selflessness, and the parable of the man invited to the rich man's dinner from Luke, which concludes with the words: For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted. This parable also contains the dispute between Jesus and the Pharisees about whether one is allowed to do good works on the Sabbath, or should completely abstain from all activity.

There are three cantatas for this Sunday.

Ephesians 4:1–6, "Admonition to keep the unity of the Spirit"
Luke 14:1–11, "Healing a man with dropsy on the Sabbath"

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)

[Christ Healing, by Rembrandt, 1649]

  • Bringet dem Herrn Ehre seines Namens, BWV 148, 19 September 1723

    Chorus: Bringet dem Herrn Ehre seines Namens
    Aria (tenor, violin): Ich eile, die Lehren des Lebens zu hören
    Recitativo (alto, strings): So wie der Hirsch nach frischem Wasser schreit
    Aria (alto, oboes): Mund und Herze steht dir offen
    Recitativo (tenor): Bleib auch, mein Gott, in mir
    Chorale: Amen zu aller Stund

    ("Bring to the Lord honour of His name")
    Text: Picander

    One of most sunny cantatas Bach wrote, scored with festive trumpets. The text does not directly refer to the readings for this Sunday, but emphasizes that one should honor God on Sabbath. The lyrics are based on a poem by Picander – the first time Bach used a text by this poet. The opening chorus - a work of tremendous vigor - begins with an instrumental sinfonia, presenting the themes, followed by the choir singing two fugues. The dense texture gives the impression of a large crowd singing these ringing words. In the first aria, for tenor, the florid solo violin illustrates both the joy in God and the “running” (Eilen) mentioned in the text in a happy 6/8 rhythm. The recitative for alto is accompanied by long notes in the strings, as if to give extra warmth to the desire for God which is expressed here. In the next aria, also for alto, the mystical unity of the soul with God is given musical form in the unusual scoring for two oboe d'amore and oboe da caccia. When the alto voice starts singing, the continuo is momentarily silent, to express the letting behind of worldly concerns. The closing chorale is a warm harmonization - Bach specified a melody here, but no text has come down to us, so different texts are used by different performers to supplement the lacuna.

    Rating: B+
    Video: -

  • Ach, lieben Christen, seid getrost, BWV 114, 1 October 1724

    Coro: Ach, lieben Christen, seid getrost
    Aria (tenor): Wo wird diesem Jammertale
    Recitativo (bass): O Sünder, trage mit Geduld
    Chorale (soprano): Kein Frucht das Weizenkörnlein bringt
    Aria (alto): Du machst, o Tod, mir nun nicht ferner bange
    Recitativo (tenor): Indes bedenke deine Seele
    Chorale: Wir wachen oder schlafen ein

    ("Ah, dear Christians, be comforted") 
    Text: anonymous; chorale "Ach, lieben Christen, seid getrost" by Johannes Gigas

    Chorale cantata based on a song of penitence in six stanzas by Johannes Gigas (1561) and its associated melody by Justas Jonas. The text shows no close connection to the readings for this Sunday, but expresses a philosophy often found in Bach's cantatas: that believers should bear tribulation with patience (after all, they deserve it, for they are sinners) and look for comfort in the world to come. The opening chorus is a glorious piece of music. It starts with an orchestral introduction, after which the soprano sings the chorale melody as a cantus firmus, doubled by the horn, with the three lower voices more actively employed (the doubling by horn of the soprano voice also has a practical use: the sopranos available to Bach in the church were boy sopranos, with weak and relatively untrained voices). Bach expresses two thoughts of the text, comfort and fear, by contrasting themes that appear simultaneously in the instruments: an assertive theme played by the two oboes and first violins and an anxious one in the second violins and the continuo. The choral lines are separated by instrumental ritornellos. This is followed by a long aria for alto accompanied by hyperactive flute obbligato, expressing both the anxious question "Wo wird in diesem Jammertale vor meinen Geist die Zuflucht sein?" (Where can the refuge of my spirit be found in this valley of woe?) and the trusting answer "Allein zu Jesu Vaterhänden will ich mich in der Schwachheit wenden" (Only to Jesus's paternal hands do I wish to turn in weakness). The recitative contains an arioso on the Gospel words "erhebst" (exalt) and "erniedrigt" (humbled). In the rather unembellished central chorale the soprano soloist (again doubled by horn, as well as by oboes and violins) intones one of the verses of the hymn. The ensuing alto aria again is a straightforward da capo aria but features a beautiful orchestral accompaniment. It is the only part of the cantata set in a major key, making the shift to minor on the words "Es muß ja so einmal gestorben sein" (One day, indeed, one must die) all the more striking. The cantata concludes with a four-part setting of the chorale melody.

    Rating: A
    Video: Bach-Stiftung

  • Wer sich selbst erhöhet, der soll erniedriget werden, BWV 47, 13 October 1726

    Coro: Wer sich selbst erhöhet, der soll erniedriget werden
    Aria (soprano): Wer ein wahrer Christ will heißen
    Recitativo (bass): Der Mensch ist Kot, Stank, Asch und Erde
    Aria (bass): Jesu, beuge doch mein Herze
    Chorale: Der zeitlichen Ehrn will ich gern entbehrn

    ("Who exalts himself, will be humbled")
    Text: Johann Friedrich Helbig; chorale: Warum betrübst du dich, mein Herz

    The text of this cantata is by the court poet Johann Friedrich Helbig (1680–1722), who in 1720 published an annual cycle of cantata texts (Telemann set several of his texts to music, Bach only used this one). The poet takes the final line from the Gospel as his starting point in the first movement, after which he concentrates on the warning of pride, leading to a final prayer for humility. The opening movement is one of Bach's most imposing fugal choruses, a reworking of material from the well-known Prelude and Fugue in c minor BWV 546 for organ. The rising motif played by the oboes illustrates the haughty self-exaltation in the first half of the Gospel text ("Whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased"); a counter-subject moving in the opposite direction is meant to demonstrate humility ("He that humbleth himself shall be exalted"). This complex choral movement, that also by its length dominates the whole cantata, is followed by a simpler soprano aria, again depicting both humility and pride, the latter associated with the Devil - there are some harsh, broken chords here that aptly illustrate arrogance. In the bass aria oboe and violin are equal partners to the bass voice in a prayer for humility. The closing chorale is set for four parts and again expresses utmost humility.

    Rating: B+
    Video: Bach-Stiftung

Bach Cantata Index

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Best Samurai Films

Samurai Film is often compared to the American western, but was in fact much more important for the Japanese: until the early 1960s, at least half of all annual film production in Japan consisted of period films.

In Japan, samurai films are called jidaigeki or chambara. The first category, "period films" usually consists of the more serious and artistic films, while chambara films (so called after the sound swords make when clanging on each other) are often considered as B-films. The problem is that jidaigeki is not a genre - it only points to films of which the story is set before 1868 - this can also be a film version of the court novel Genji Monogatari!

So for "samurai films" we have to look for another defining genre element: the incorporation of a choreographed (sword) fight called "satsujin" or "tate" in Japanese. Besides that, the hero usually is a samurai, a ronin (masterless samurai), or a pre-modern yakuza. In other words, one or more fights, usually with swords, are central to the genre. Films lacking such scenes are not "samurai films."

"Satsujin" sounds like the Japanese for "murder," but is a different word, written with different characters, literally meaning "killing formation." The same character combination is also pronounced as "tate." The usual translation is "staging (or mise-en-scène ) of a sword fight." These mise-en-scènes were initially based on Kabuki, and next borrowed from the more realistic Shingeki theater. But until the end of the fifties they remained quite stylized - it is Kurosawa Akira who liberated the sword fight scenes from convention and started a trend of realistic violence which is typical of the samurai movies of the 1960s. The choreography of such fight scenes was in the hands of specialists.

In this definition, artistic period films such as Ugetsu Monogatari (Mizoguchi), humorous films as Bakamatsu Taiyoden (by Kawashima Yuzo), realistic drama as Humanity and Paper Balloons (Yamanaka), or period horror films as Yotsuya Kaidan, are not samurai films and will therefore left out of the list below.

What are the best samurai films? A selection of ten films:

1. Miyamoto Musashi aka Samurai (Miyamoto Musashi, 1954-56) by Inagaki Hiroshi, with Mifune Toshiro, Mikuni Rentaro and Yachigusa Kaoru. In three films Inagaki follows the exploits of Japan's greatest legendary swordsman, based on the popular novel by Yoshikawa Eiji. The first film is rather sentimental, but Mifune Toshiro shines in an explosive performance. The story improves in Part Two, Duel at Ichijoji Temple and Part Three, Duel on Ganryu Island. Inagaki's epos is the archetypal samurai film, one that everyone who is even slightly interested in the genre, should see. It is also quite well-known outside Japan, thanks to its inclusion in the Criterion series and the winning of an Academy Award. Inagaki was a specialist in Musashi: he made his first Musashi series in the 1940s, so that the present one is in fact a remake of his own film. Much less known is that there exists another great Musashi series, this time five films, made by director Uchida Tomu for the Toei studios in the early sixties with Nakamura Kinnosuke, who also gives a great performance. I found him better as the young Musashi (Mifune looks a bit too mature for the role), and as good as Mifune in the final two films. Unfortunately, by spacing out the tale over five films, the 2nd and 3rd do not have such strong story lines, but on the other hand they do incorporate more elements from the novel and have more space for character development. By the way, you may notice in the Inagaki film that there is an episode where a village that is frequently attacked by armed robbers, hires a group of samurai for protection. That is the story germ that Kurosawa borrowed from the novel and built up into his superb Seven Samurai!

2. Bloody Spear at Mt Fuji (Chiyari Fuji, 1955) by Uchida Tomu, with Kataoka Chiezo, Tsukigata Ryunosuke and Kitagawa Chizuru. This film was the comeback of Uchida Tomu - who already had started his directing career long before the war - , after many years of captivity in the Soviet Union. Bloody Spear is also remarkable for the fact that Kataoka Chiezo, who was Toei's greatest star actor and would later become one of the company's directors, plays a "servant" instead of a samurai master (but of course he is the real hero). And its finale contains one of the most supremely choreographed fight scenes (satsujin) of all samurai film. The story is a sort of picaresque road movie, a samurai and his servant (Gonpachi) who carries a large spear, are on their way to Edo over the Tokaido. On the road, they encounter many colorful people: a traveling singer with her child, a father taking his daughter to be sold into prostitution, a pilgrim, a policeman searching for a notorious thief, and a suspicious man the officer has his eyes on - all these different stories will play out in the film. Gonpachi is also followed by an orphaned boy who wants to become a samurai and who brings some comic relief to the film, for example when a group of samurai sits blocking the road to enjoy the view of Mt Fuji, keeping all travelers waiting, and the boy relieves himself in the tall grass next to their banquet which sets them running off to evade the stench. The point is that the servant Gonpachi is more intelligent and brave than his master the samurai, who also cannot hold his liquor and anyway is rather foolish. This leads to tragedy at the end of the film, when the master gets into a brawl with a group of samurai and is killed by them. Gonpachi arrives too late to save him, but in his fury takes on the group of samurai with only his large spear as weapon... A well-judged blend of comedy and violence.

3. Yojinbo (1961) by Kurosawa Akira, with Mifune Toshiro and Nakadai Tatsuya. Kurosawa made many superb samurai films and it is difficult to choose one here. Seven Samurai is objectively seen probably the greatest film made by this famous director, but I opt here for Yojinbo because of its sardonic antihero played by Mifune Toshiro (take alone the way he scratches his back at the beginning of the film!), setting the tone for the samurai film of the sixties and also heavily influencing spaghetti Westerns (if not giving rise to the genre). It tells the story of an anonymous ronin, portrayed by Mifune Toshiro, who arrives in a small town where competing crime lords vie for supremacy. Locale is established at the start when a dog runs across the screen carrying a severed hand in his mouth. The two bosses each try to hire the deadly newcomer as a bodyguard (yojinbo). But by deftly switching sides, the wily ronin turns the range war between the two gangster groups to his own advantage and manages to rid the terror-stricken village of corruption. The gangsters (and citizens who are in league with them) in both groups are depicted as grotesque monsters made of flesh in this black comedy. By the way, the story of a town torn apart by warring factions and the hero who cynically agitates them further, so that they destroy each other as so much fighting insects, was probably lifted by Kurosawa from a famous American novel: Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett. In 1964, Yojinbo was remade as A Fistful of Dollars, a spaghetti western directed by Sergio Leone and starring Clint Eastwood. In short, Yojinbo is one of the most influential and entertaining samurai films of all time! Finally, I can't leave out mention of two other Kurosawa samurai films: Tsubaki Sanjuro, a sort of humorous sequel to Yojinbo, which has the earliest instance of over-the-top violence that would become characteristic of later samurai films: an impossible "fountain of blood" in the final killing; and The Hidden Fortress, another funny samurai film with two bumbling peasants and a run-away princess, to which George Lucas payed homage in his first Star Wars film.

4. Harakiri (Seppuku, 1962) by Kobayashi Masaki, with Nakadai Tatsuya, Mikuni Rentaro and Iwashita Shima. Stark, deep-cutting film that exposes the moral emptiness at the heart of Bushido, made by Kobayashi Masaki of Kwaidan-fame. It is 1630, there is peace under the Tokugawa government. A suffering ronin who has lost his job as samurai because of the peace, comes to the Ii manor requesting to be allowed to commit ritual suicide on the property - but actually angling for a position and hoping to be hired by them. However, they coolly preside over his cruel and agonizingly painful death - he has to disembowel himself with a bamboo sword, because he has no better left. His father-in-law, a great performance by Nakadai Tatsuya, decides to take revenge by shaming the Ii clan before their retainers. He also comes to the manor requesting to be allowed to commit seppuku (harakiri) - but when preparing himself, he tosses the topknots of three of the major retainers of the Ii clan in front of their leader - he has disgraced two of them who cowardly surrendered, and killed the third one. The clan head now sets his retainers upon the ronin who kills several more of them. His bold defiance of feudal authority - and the ultimate brittleness of the feudal system - is symbolized when he tears apart a yoroi, a ceremonial piece of armor, decorated in the hall of the mansion. How cynical a power the Ii are is emphasized when at the end they don't kill him by the sword, but give up the samurai code and call in a couple of guns... The clan reports all the deaths of its retainers as due to "illness," in order to avoid loss of face for being vanquished by a single ronin. In other words, Bushido was just a hypocritical pretext serving those in power - it did not have any intrinsic value. (Somebody should have told Edward Zwick who in his terrible The Last Samurai reveals himself as a latter-day believer...).
P.S. You can still see the Ii Castle in Hikone (Shiga Prefecture, a day trip from Kyoto); there is also an interesting museum.

5. The Tale of Zatoichi (Zatoichi Monogatari, 1962) by Misumi Kenji, with Katsu Shintaro. The first in a series of 25 (which are evenly good), starring Katsu Shintaro as a blind masseur, gambler and swordmaster. Zatoichi is not a samurai (on the contrary, he is an outcast, the lowest stratum of society), so he is not allowed to carry a sword - he therefore uses a cane sword (shikomi-zue), a sword hidden in his stick. And, although he can not see, he is an expert with the sword, lightning fast in pulling it out of his stick and cutting with it, relying on his ears and other senses: he can cut a candle in two after throwing it into the air, splitting even the wick! (After turning the room into blackness in this way, he will mutter: "Darkness is my advantage.") As a gambler and masseur who travels along Japan's highways, his status is that of a yakuza and he has to pay his respect to the gangster bosses in the towns he passes through. The gambling gives rise to various comic scenes: the other players think they can cheat or win easily as Zatoichi can't see the dice, but they are very mistaken - even more so, when they try to strip him of his earnings... But Zatoichi is also a good and wise man who protects the weak. In each film, he comes across someone who needs his help - often a helpless woman, to serve the love interest of the film, somewhat like the "madonnas" in Tora-san. The set-up is often copied from Yojinbo: two rival gangs making a village unsafe. Although formulaic and based on a fixed template, this is a series full of fun. Some special installments are Zatoichi meets Yojinbo (yes, with Mifune Toshiro) and Zatoichi and the One-Armed Swordsman with wuxia hero Jimmy Wang Yu from the Shaw Borthers Studios in Hong Kong. The original series ran from 1962 to 1973, with in the initial years often three new films a year. After that, the story ran for 100 installments on TV. In 1984 Katsu Shintaro made a single "remake," just called Zatoichi. The present century (where originality in film has become scarce) has witnessed several more remakes by other directors, of which the most important is Kitano Takeshi's pastiche Zatoichi (2003), but of course the original series is vastly superior. Director Misumi Kenji was one of the more interesting specialists in chambara, besides Zatoichi also known for Lone Wolf and Cub (Kozure okami). His films are far better than the average swordplay movie thanks to his depth of characterization, attention to historical detail and the visual flamboyance he brings to the screen.

6. Thirteen Assassins (Jusannin no shikyaku, 1963) by Kudo Eiichi, with Kataoka Chiezo. When you Google for "Thirteen Assassins," the results are spammed by Miike Takeshi's 2010 remake of this film - so much so, that the original film by Kudo Eiichi, which is vastly superior to Miike's weak pastiche, does not even show up in the results. Forget about Miike, and watch the tight and impressive original, filmed in stark black-and-white and 'Scope. A film about the arbitrary abuse of power and the violent measures necessary to oppose it. A sadistic daimyo (feudal lord) is guilty of rape and murder, but as he is the Shogun's younger brother, the matter is hushed up - even though one of his own vassals commits ritual suicide to bring attention to the crime. But instead of being punished, the daimyo is even going to be promoted to a higher position, from which he can wreak more havoc. Open punishment is anyway out of the question - it would bring shame on the Shogunate as the criminal is a family member. So in deepest secrecy the council of ministers decides to have the daimyo assassinated. Thirteen men are called together for a desperate mission they know they will not (and will not be allowed to) survive. When the daimyo is on his way from Edo back to his fief in Western Japan, with a large retinue of samurai, the Thirteen Assassins under the leadership of the elderly samurai Shimada Shinzaemon turn a small mountain village into an elaborate maze of booby traps and camouflaged fortifications. The daimyo, however, has been forewarned and a terrible carnage is the result... This is the film on which the reputation of Kudo Eiichi rests, together with two similar movies, The Great Melee (Daisatsujin, 1964) and Eleven Samurai (Juichinin no samurai, 1967). All three films are examinations of the fine line between legitimate and tyrannical authority and shine because of their austere composition, reminding viewers of the ritualistic quality of Harakiri.

7. Sleepy Eyes of Death: Sword of Seduction (Nemuri Kyoshiro: Joyoken, 1964) by Ikehiro Kazuo, with Ichikawa Raizo. A series of 12 eccentric films (of which this one is the best), made by the Daiei Studios between 1963 and 1969, about a nihilistic sword hero, half-Japanese half-Portuguese, "the son of a Portuguese priest who assaulted his Japanese mother during the Black Mass." Total pulp, and rather politically incorrect - take for example the sword technique of Nemuri Kyoshiro, who is skilled in stripping women of their clothes with one swipe of his mighty weapon. This installment features three interwoven narratives on the theme of addiction: a cunning and vile merchant smuggling opium from China, a sadistic princess, the Shogun's daughter, who hides her face behind a Noh mask and enjoys seeing her addicted but purposely drug-starved court ladies writhe in pain, and finally the Christians, practicing a forbidden religion and hated by Nemuri Kyoshiro, who tell him that "the Virgin Shima" knows more about the circumstances of his birth... The fourth film of the series, here Nemuri is fully unleashed as the nihilistic bastard he is - this is perhaps the first Japanese film in which the protagonist cuts down an unarmed woman. It is quite a feat of Ichikawa Raizo that viewers still feel drawn to him - he definitely has lots of charisma. The visuals are bold, with expressionistic camera angles and overt symbolism. Interesting is also the superimposition showing the trajectory of Nemuri Kyoshiro's sword when he performs his famous "full moon cut." A delightfully trashy film, in many ways ahead of its time, in others (the attitude towards women) today way behind the times... Ikehiro Kazuo was one of Daiei's most flamboyant chambara directors. Many of his films were contributions to long running series, such as the present one, where he contributed two more installments. The stylized plots in Nemuri Kyoshiro allowed Ikehiro's imagination free rein, leading to his most memorable work.

8. Sword of Doom (Daibosatsu Toge) (1966) by Okamoto Kihachi, and with Nakadai Tatsuya and Mifune Toshiro. Dark film about a sociopathic samurai who is a murder-machine. Again featuring Nakadai Tatsuya in a fantastic act. He plays a gifted swordsman, living during the turbulent final days of the Shogunate, who kills without remorse and without mercy, a way of life that ultimately leads to madness. Tsukue Ryunosuke was the first nihilistic protagonist in the samurai genre. At the start of the film, he comes across an elderly Buddhist pilgrim who is tired and kneels in front of a stone image, praying for death... and with one swipe of his sword he cuts him down. Tsukue suffers from a sort of "sword-rage," going completely berserk, especially in the final scene in a burning courtesan house, where the maelstrom of killing lasts almost ten minutes. Based on a hugely popular novel by Nakazato Kaizan, which was filmed several times, for example by Daiei with Ichikawa Raizo and by Toei with Kataoka Chiezo. Okamoto Kihachi made the most modern and nihilistic version. The abrupt ending (originally a continuation was planned - the earlier films were all trilogies) in fact fits very well to this essay in absurdist violence. Okamoto Kichachi was a specialist in action cinema and the intensity of his direction conveys with great clarity the theme of how Bushido values could be easily misused as a cover for individual psychopathy.  

9. Goyokin (1969) by Gosha Hideo, and with Nakadai Tatsuya, Tanba Tetsuro and Asaoka Ruriko. Another film in which Bushido is exposed as a hollow platitude to cover the criminal acts of despicable men. The film also shows the sympathy for the underdog which is a recurrent feature in Gosha's work. The cash-strapped Sabae clan has its fief on the lonely and snowy Japan Sea coast, where the ships carrying the gold from the mines on Sado Island (the personal property of the Shogun - the film's title, Goyokin, literally means "Official Gold") pass regularly by. Three years earlier, the clan leaders have sank one of these ships to steal the gold and repair their own finances - and they have murdered the local fishermen who were used to retrieve the loot. Nakadai Tatsuya plays a guilt-ridden samurai who was unable to stop the massacre at that time. Now, the cynical clan government is again planning to sink a ship and steal the Shogunate's gold - and of course, again, kill the villagers they force into helping them. Magobei (Nakadai) wants to stop this at all cost and faces off with the clan's evil chamberlain (Tanba Tetsuro), who wants to use a fake bonfire (which functions as a modern lighthouse) to lure the ship to the jagged rocks and its destruction. Great scenes in snowy landscapes and a riveting climax with the bonfire, around which the eerily masked villagers dance to the tune of huge Taiko drums. A lush and finely crafted film, with striking visuals.

10. Twilight Samurai (Tasogare Seibei, 2002) by Yamada Yoji, with Sanada Hiroyuki and Miyazawa Rie. Beautiful film about the passing of the samurai age. Sanada Hiroyuki plays the poor samurai Seibei who works as clerk for a small han in northern Japan; Miyazawa Rie shines as his love interest Tomoe. Iguchi Seibei is nicknamed Twilight (Tasogare) because he always has to go home at dusk, after work, and never has time to go drinking with his colleagues - like a modern salaryman. This is because of family circumstances: his wife has died and he has to take care of two young children and an aging, almost senile mother. He would like to marry Tomoe, the sister of a friend, but  feels he cannot take a new wife because of his poverty. He is heavily in debt, and dresses shabbily - he tends his vegetable garden to earn some extra cash. This film shows the everyday reality of the lives of many samurai in the poorer parts of Japan, who were part-time farmers. Another point the film makes is that samurai were not the fighting machines the movies have turned them into: they were rather boring government officials, high and low, and worked in the bureaucracy of the clan, or the national one of the Tokugawa in Edo. But in Twilight Samurai, the clan tries to uphold feudalism even when its time is past, which spells tragedy for unheroic but brave and upright Seibei. He is a capable swordsman and when a renegade samurai barricades himself in a house in the town, Seibei is blackmailed by the clan leaders into a last stand for the "honor" of the clan, although he has no desire to fight - he would rather tend his garden and care for his family. The fight in the house is claustrophobic and very anti-heroic - you can physically feel the tiredness and the despair. This film is the best of the three well-crafted and inspired samurai movies veteran helmer Yamada Yoji (of Tora-san fame) has made late in his career. The other two are The Hidden Blade (Kakushi ken oni no tsume, 2004) and Love and Honor (Bushi no ichibun, 2006). Like Tasogare Seibei, these films also focus on ordinary people and Yamada Yoji deftly deflates the cinematic myth of the samurai. In Twilight Samurai (which symbolically is also the twilight of the samurai as a caste) he has shown us the reality of the "last samurai" - a far cry from the false and mawkish myth-making of Edward Zwick's inflated Hollywood product.

There are many more great samurai movies, but I will keep that for another post sometime in the future!