Friday, April 29, 2016

Best Places to See in the Kobe Area

It may come as a surprise to hear that my present hometown Kobe is a popular tourist destination (more than 22 million annual visitors incl. day trippers)... but these are mainly Japanese tourists and they come in my view for the wrong places (and not only as tourists but also to marry - Kobe is a popular wedding ceremony destination!).

What I mean with the "wrong places" is that Japanese visitors throng to the Ijinkan, the foreigner's houses in Kitano, or to Kobe's Chinatown – both solid tourist traps, without anything of historical value to attract the serious visitor. No wonder that most foreign tourists prefer to remain among the temples of Kyoto.

That being said, there are several extremely interesting destinations in the wider Kobe area (incl. Ashiya, Takarazuka and the Hanshin area between Kobe and Osaka) that are worth giving up your Zen garden for and traveling the short distance to this port city, but these are not very well known (and perhaps a bit specialist in nature). But if you are interested in sake, architecture, literature or art, they are certainly worth your time!

Here they are:

[Kikumasamune Sake Brewery Museum]

1. For sake buffs: Nada Gogo - Sake breweries and brewery museums
Wedged between the green Rokko Mountains and the blue waters of Osaka Bay, the sake area of the Five Nada Districts stretches from Nishinomiya to Kobe (skipping Ashiya), with in all several tens of large and small breweries. Today, it is not such a beautiful area as it has been densely built up in a haphazard way with flats, outlets and warehouses, but you will forget this once you stand inside the breweries which often feature buildings in historical style.

In the Edo-period, it became clear that the Nada area was optimally suitable for sake brewing due to the climate (cold winds blowing down from the Rokko mountains in winter); the water (the famous Miyamizu, the iron-less, mineral-rich water found in certain wells in Nishinomiya); the streams running down from the mountains which made rice polishing by water mills possible; the availability of good rice in the immediate vicinity; and, finally, being at the seaside with good natural harbors which made transport of the sake to Edo (Tokyo) easy.

Several breweries in the area operate small museums that offer visitors a glimpse into the history, traditions and methods of the craft of sake brewing. They also give visitors ample opportunity to find out what makes Nada sake special — and to taste the difference. I will publish a full guide to the Nada Gogo on this blog, so here are just two highlights from among the museums with exhibits of traditional sake brewing tools: those of Kikumasamune and Sawanotsuru, both housed in traditional wooden buildings.

The Kikumasamune Sake Brewery Museum is located in the Mikage district. Kikumasamune was founded in 1659 by the Kano family. One of the largest breweries in Japan, it already started exports to the U.K. in 1877. Its dry-tasting sake is representative of the sake of Nada. In the museum grounds you can see a well (with the traditional mechanism for hoisting up buckets of water) as well as the water mill for rice polishing (in the Edo-period, these mills made a higher rice polishing ratio possible, which led to a clearer taste of Nada sake and therefore an advantage in the competition with other breweries which still used hand-polishing). Inside, the museum illustrates the entire brewing process with such implements as brewing vats, koshiki (steam baskets) and a sake press.

[10 min walk south of Uozaki St on the Hanshin line; 9:30-16:30; CL New Year holidays; free].

[Sawanotsuru Sake Museum]

The Sawanotsuru Brewery, too, is one of Japan's largest brewing companies. It was one of the first Nada brewers to start producing ginjo sakes and is known for its deep-tasting products in the dry Nada-style. The Sawanotsuru Sake Museum was carefully rebuilt after being toppled in the 1995 earthquake. During the reconstruction, part of the site was excavated and an old sake press was discovered, with large ceramic pots set in the ground to receive the pressed sake. Besides a large number of impressive brewing vats and huge sake presses, particularly beautiful is also the replica of a koji room, with the small koji boxes neatly stocked against the wall.

[10 min walk southwest from Oishi St on the Hanshin line; 10:00-16:00; CL Wednesdays, Obon holidays, New Year holidays; free]


[Entrance Yodoko Guest House]

2. For architecture buffs: Yodoko Guest House or "Yamamura Residence" by Frank Lloyd Wright
A private residence designed by world-famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), the only private residence he designed in Japan. Now called "Yodoko Guest House," as its owner is Yodogawa Steel Works, its original name was "Yamamura Residence." The house was constructed from 1918-1924 as a summer villa for the well-heeled sake brewer Yamamura Tazaemon (of the Sakuramasamune Brewery in Uozaki, Kobe).

[Sitting room]

The four floors of the house have been set into the hill in symmetrical steps, so that the house is nowhere taller than two stories. From all levels there are wonderful views of Kobe Port and Osaka Bay. The house has not been built from concrete, but from blocks of soft-textured Oya stone. The design is ingenious, and the decoration inside is marvelous as well, with mahogany framework, characteristic light fixtures and square copper plates with a delicate leaf design. A wonderful and magical place, designed by an architect who was in love with Japan.

[10 min walk from the north side of Ashiyagawa Station on the Hankyu Line. There is a map on the website. Hours: Open on Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday and National Holidays. 10:00-16:00; fee]


[Takenaka Carpentry Tools Museum]

3. Also for architecture buffs: Takenaka Carpentry Tools Museum (Takenaka Daiku Dogukan)
If you have ever wondered with what technical means Japan's temples, castles and palaces were built (and who hasn't?), then it is a good idea to make your way to the Takenaka Carpentry Tools Museum in Kobe. This beautifully furbished museum offers an in-depth overview of carpentry tools, their development and how they were used to build Japan's wooden architecture. The museum owns more than 15,000 traditional tools and various materials concerning their use and development. It was set up by the Takenaka construction company which originated in a carpenter's shop established in 1612. Learn all about the ax (ono) and the adze (chona), chisel (nomi) and gimlet (kiri), saw (nokogiri), hammer (tsuchi) and plane (kanna), carpenter’s square (sashigane) and marking gauge (kebiki) and the all-important and beautiful ink pot (sumitsubo) for marking straight lines on various surfaces. This is the most beautiful tool you'll find in the museum: a thread wound around a wooden spool has a needle attached to its other end. The needle is stuck in the surface and the thread unwound to mark the straight line - as it unwinds, it passes cleverly through a small ink pot.

[3-min walk from Shinkobe St. (map on the English museum website); 9:30 – 16:30; CL Mondays (the following day when Monday falls on a national holiday ), New Year holidays, occasional days; fee.]

[Ishoan]

4. For literature buffs: Ishoan - the residence of Tanizaki Junichiro
Tanizaki Junichiro, Japan's foremost 20th century author, lived from 1923 to 1943 in the Ashiya-Kobe area and Ishoan is the name of the house he rented from 1936 to 1943 (the name means "leaning on pine trees" but the trees are gone as the house originally stood on a slightly different spot). Tanizaki lived here with his third wife, Matsuko, her daughter from a previous marriage and her two sisters in a menage that must have resembled that of the The Makioka Sisters. In this house Tanizaki made his (first) modern-Japanese translation of The Tale of Genji and also started writing The Makioka Sisters. Much of the action in this novel is based on events in the lives of Tanizaki and his family in the late 1930s. I am not talking about the larger plot - the work was not autobiographical but purely a work of fiction - but about the small, seemingly inconsequential details of daily existence that together give life to the novel. The house also has many small interesting details. Note the dining room table which though small, can be extended - an example of the rational simplicity Tanizaki liked. The lamp hanging from the ceiling in the sitting room is a copy of the original and expresses Tanizaki's dislike of the bright lights you usually find in Western-style rooms: as stated in his In Praise of Shadows, he preferred half-dark and shadowy spaces, so the bottom side of this lamp is closed, and the light is only indirect. This house is a magical place!

[450 meters north of Uozaki St on the Hanshin line; or 150 meters north of Uozaki St on the Rokko Liner; or 900 meters south of Sumiyoshi St on the JR line; only open on Saturday and Sunday, now closed for repairs until February 2017; 10:00-16:00; free]


[Tessai Museum]

5. For art buffs: Tessai Museum
The Tessai Museum stands in the grounds of the popular Kiyoshikojin Seichoji Temple (one of the most interesting temples in the wider Kobe area, not because of its statues, architecture or gardens, but because it is a living temple and one of the few that has retained its fusion with Shinto and various folk beliefs). The museum houses a large collection of representative works of the last great Nanga or “literati painter,” Tomioka Tessai (1836–1924), a tradition that found its inspiration in the literati landscape painting of the Southern School (“Nanga”) in Yuan, Ming and Qing China. Important painters of this tradition in Japan had been Ike Taiga, Buson and Urakami Gyokudo.

Tomioka Tessai was born in Kyoto where he studied Chinese and Japanese classics. He championed traditional ways against the influx of Western ideas, also in painting, and traveled widely in Japan. He mostly lived and worked in Kyoto and was a very prolific painter with a total output of about 20,000 works. The works of his last years, after he had turned 80, are considered his best. Besides the literati style, he also worked in other styles as the “native” Yamato-e style, the folksy Otsu-e style and he made humorous haiga, haiku paintings. He was also a great calligrapher. His best works are large landscape paintings characterized by strong and free brushwork.

The collection is shown in rotating exhibitions of about fifty works each. The museum is a fitting tribute to this eccentric painter and the beautiful works he created.

[15 min walk from Kiyoshikojin St on the Hankyu Takarazuka line; 10:00-16:30; CL Mondays, irregularly for re-installation, summer / winter times, etc., so check in advance at http://www.kiyoshikojin.or.jp/en/tessai/; fee]


[Kosetsu Museum of Art]

6. Also for art buffs: Small museums in the Hanshin area 
The area between Osaka and Kobe ("Hanshin area"), along the various train lines that connect both cities, is characterized by the presence of many interesting private museums, set up by entrepreneurs from Osaka, who also had their residences here. Although they possess interesting collections with rare art works, these museums are easy to miss as they are only open a few weeks each spring and autumn (therefore, be sure to check if the museum is open before going there!). Here follows a brief overview of the best small museums:

Hankyu Kobe line:
Mikage: Kosetsu Museum of Art
Sitting in a quiet street close to Mikage Station, this museum houses the small (about 500 pieces) but fine collection of Murayama Ryuhei (artistic name: Kosetsu), the founder of the Asahi Newspaper. There are Chinese paintings and ceramics, Japanese paintings, Buddhist images, swords, armor, tea ceremony utensils and Korean ceramics. Exhibitions are held twice a year in spring and autumn, when about 50 objects are on view. The quality of this small collection is excellent.
[5-min walk south-east from Mikage station on the Hankyu Kobe Line; 10:00-17:00; only open in spring and autumn, check in advance; no CL during exhibitions; fee; http://www.kosetsu-museum.or.jp/]

Hankyu Kobe line:
Mikage: Hakutsuru Fine Art Museum 
Kano Jihei, president of the Hakutsuru Breweries, founded the Hakutsuru Fine Art Museum in 1931 as one of Japan’s first private museums, housed in a traditional-style building. That building from 1934 is a delight: a two-storied building in Oriental style, its roof and other design features mimicking Momoyama architecture. The main part of the 1,300 pieces strong collection is formed by Chinese art, from bronzes to ceramics and paintings. Japanese items include archaeological treasures, decorated sutras, handscrolls and screens. The museum shows a selection of about 120 pieces in two thematic exhibitions a year. (Note that this museum is different from the sake brewery museum also operated by Hakutsuru and located near Hanshin Uozaki St)
[15-min walk northeast (and uphill) from Mikage St on the Hankyu Kobe Line; 10:00-16:30; only open mid-Mar - early Jun & mid-Sept - late Nov., CL Mondays - check in advance at http://www.hakutsuru-museum.org/; fee]

[Hakutsuru Fine Art Museum]

Hankyu Kobe line:
Ashiyagawa: Tekisui Museum
Tekisui (“Fresh Green”) was the artistic pseudonym of banker Yamaguchi Kichirobei, who founded the Yamaguchi Bank in Osaka, and after his retirement enjoyed his hobby of collecting tea utensils and tea ceremony objects. What adds color to the collection are the other interests of Tekisui: karuta or Japanese playing cards, clay dolls and hagoita or battledores. The collection consists of about 1,500 objects.

[10-min walk from Ashiyagawa station on the Hankyu Kobe Line (in fact, not far from the Yodoko Guest House); 10:00-16:00 (enter by 15:00); CL Monday, summer, winter - check in advance; fee; http://tekisui-museum.biz-web.jp/]

[Kurokawa Institute of Ancient Cultures]

Hankyu Kobe line:
Shukugawa: Kurokawa Institute of Ancient Cultures
A collection of rare artefacts from China and Japan, set up by Kurokawa Koshichi, a financier from Osaka, to administer the collection of art and antiquities of his family. As the name indicates, it is primarily a research facility. Many of the 10,000 pieces owned by the institute are rare and unusual. They are from both China and Japan. In the Chinese section, we find oracle bones, jade and bronzes from the Shang and Zhou Dynasties; belt hooks, roof tiles and tomb slabs from the Han dynasty; and bronze mirrors from all periods. From the Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties we have paintings and calligraphy, as well as inkstones, ink sticks, seals and rubbings. In the Japanese section we find bronze bells from the Kofun period and mirrors and roof tiles from all periods. There is also a large collection of swords and sword ornaments. Then we have a large group of sutras (Nara and Heian) and objects used in Buddhist rituals. Besides calligraphy, we also find paintings by Korin, Hoitsu, Kiitsu and Goshun.

[Take a bus from Hankyu Shukugawa St and get off at Kayando stop, then walk 800 m west (walk back in the direction from which the bus came and take the first road to the right - there is a sign also in English pointing here. Follow this road uphill). Or take a 10-min taxi from Hankyu Shukugawa St; 10:00-16:00; CL Mondays; only open during spring and autumn exhibitions, see website for dates: http://www.kurokawa-institute.or.jp/; fee]

Hankyu Takarazuka line:
Ikeda: Itsuo Art Museum
This museum houses the art objects collected by Kobayashi Ichizo (1893-1957), the founder of the Hankyu and Toho consortia of companies. The emphasis is on works related to the tea ceremony, as well as paintings by Buson and Goshun. Mr. Kobayashi was born in Yamanashi Prefecture and came to Tokyo where he joined the Mitsui Company after university. He founded his own company, the Hankyu Railway at age 34 and went on to establish the Hankyu Department Store and the Toho Movie and Theater Company not long afterwards. He set up several other business organizations as well. In the war years he served as cabinet minister, but a more enduring feat was the establishment of the Takarazuka All Girl’s Revue. From his forties he also took an interest in the tea ceremony and started a large collection of tea utensils, calligraphy and paintings for the tea room, lacquer ware and Buddhist objects. The total collection of Kobayashi Ichizo comprises 5,000 pieces, among which are fifteen important cultural properties.

[10 min walk from Ikeda St on the Hankyu Takarazuka line; 10:00-17:00; CL Mon (except NH), NY, BE (check in advance); fee; http://www.hankyu-bunka.or.jp/]

Hankyu Imazu Line (for Takarazuka)
Kotoen: Egawa Museum of Art
The small Egawa Museum exhibits the collection of Mr Egawa Tosuke, former chairman of thr Kofuku Bank. Set up in 1973, unfortunately the museum experienced some problems in the period after Japan's economic bubble burst, and had to sell off part of its holdings. But there is still enough to see. The collection is focused on paintings (suibokuga and Edo-period literati paintings, such as work by Ike Taiga) and implements for the tea ceremony. A small but fine museum.

[5 min walk from Kotoen St on the Hankyu Imazu line; 10:00-16:00; only open for exhibitions in spring and autumn, CL Mondays; fee; http://www.egawa-mus.or.jp/]

Monday, April 25, 2016

Jean Renoir (Great Auteur Film Directors 1)

Jean Renoir (1894-1979) was born at the same time as cinema, as the son of the famous impressionist painter Auguste Renoir. His interest in painting was limited to marrying the last model of his father, Catherine Hessling, but he started making films because he wanted to immortalize her beauty, thinking moving images a better medium than paint. He made about 40 films between 1924 and 1962. His peak was in the 1930s, although even at that time he was not always recognized; fame came after WWII when he was highly praised by both Francois Truffaut (and other French New Wave directors) and Orson Welles.

In order to finance his first films, Jean Renoir gradually sold his father's paintings from his private collection. In fact, many family members were engaged in the film business: brother Pierre was an actor who played for example the role of Maigret in Renoir's adaptation of Simenon's Night at the Crossroads, brother Claude was a film producer and nephew Claude (the son of Pierre) was a cinematographer who would photograph Renoir's most beautiful films. 

Renoir's humanist films reveal his fondness of all social strata. In the 1930s he endorsed the Popular Front in a series of films celebrating working class solidarity and when the Nazis invaded France, Renoir left the country for the United States (Hollywood), where he became a naturalized citizen. He would never again live in France, although he would return for film making in the 1950s.

Renoir started with some strong experimental work in the age of the silent film (such as Nana based on Zola's novel, or the short film The Little Match Girl based on Andersen), but really came into his own in the 1930s with sound technology. In this decade, he produced his best work and made several of the immortal masterworks of world cinema (The Grand IllusionThe Rules of the Game). Renoir was drawn to shooting on actual locations and experimented with long takes and deep focus compositions and the traveling shot. He expressed his auteurist ideal in the phrase: "My dream is of a craftsman's cinema in which the author can express himself as directly as the painter in his paintings or the writer in his books." 

As his style was very different from that usual in Hollywood (and as Renoir was a strong individualist who didn't fit into conformist American corporate culture), he only made a handful of films in the 1940s, none among his best. The Diary of a Chambermaid is for example marred by lack of focus, political correctness and outright silliness. In the early 1950s, Renoir returned to France via India where he made The River, one of his masterworks and his first color film. 

The films he made in France in the 1950s were very different from his earlier work: instead of realistic films shot on location, these are theatrical films with lots of spectacle and music, such as The Golden Coach, French Cancan and Elena et les hommes. His expert use of color may remind viewers of the paintings of his father. The last twenty years of his life, in the 1960s and 1970s, Renoir almost made no movies anymore and only did some TV work. He died in Beverly Hills but was buried in France. 

Here are his best films:
  1. La Chienne (1931)
    "La Chienne" means "The Bitch" (in both senses), but obviously that would not be a suitable English title, so it is usually left in French. In this comedy-tragedy, Michel Simon (in a superb performance) plays a henpecked office clerk and amateur painter who becomes so smitten with a prostitute (Lulu) that he makes her his mistress. The weak-minded, respectable middle-class man thinks he has finally met real love in this "vulnerable woman" (who is in reality just a low-class prostitute), and refuses to see the obvious: that she and her pimp boyfriend are taking advantage of him. Lulu is really in love with her pimp and only accepts the clerk so that she can cash in on his paintings and so satisfy her boyfriend's need of money. The love triangle in this profoundly humane but unsentimental film finally leads to a very ironic conclusion: when the clerk finds Lulu in bed with her pimp, he kills her in a jealous fit (a great silent sequence in the film), but the pimp gets convicted of the murder and goes to the gallows. La Chienne was remade by Fritz Lang in Hollywood as the nightmarish Scarlet Street, but this remake lacks the irony and wisdom of Renoir. It also lacks its seedy sexiness, which was too much for U.S. censors, who banished the original film until 1975. Full of Renoir's elegant compositions and interesting camera movements and filmed on location in the noisy streets of Montmartre.
  2. Boudu Saved from Drowning (Boudu sauvé des eaux) (1932)
    An outrageous, anarchic farce about a tramp played by Michel Simon in a singular performance: not sentimental in the Chaplin style, but on the contrary, a big, smelly, loutish bum with only one belief, that in complete personal freedom. Boudu is saved from suicide by a Parisian bookseller (a true uppity bourgeois) and ends up taking over his benefactor's home, his wife and his maid/mistress! Never take a tramp into your house! The film also forms a lively document of prewar Parisian society, with interesting location shooting around the Quartier Latin. There are delightful touches, too, as when early in the film, Boudu searches for his dog and seeks help from a police officer - in one and the same take the patrolman ignores him, only to offer his services to an affluent lady in a similar predicament. 
  3. A Day in the Country (Partie de compagne) (1936)
    A lyrical short film based on a famous story by Maupassant (a friend of Renoir's father). The film is only 40 minutes long as bad weather prevented its completion (the negative side of location shooting), but as it can perfectly stand on its own, it was ten years later brought out as a featurette. The film follows a Parisian shopkeeper, his wife, daughter and the shop assistant his daughter is to marry as they spend a Sunday along the Seine, in the countryside. While the two men fall asleep over their fishing poles after a copious lunch, both mother and daughter are (separately) wooed by two strongly muscled rowers and enticed to come to an island in the middle of the river. What happens there (or doesn't happen there) gives insight into the sad lives of both women. A warm and summery film that could have been Renoir's absolute masterwork had he been able to complete it. As it stands, it is the best short film ever made. 
  4. The Crime of Monsieur Lange (Le crime de Monsieur Lange) (1936)
    A whimsical Popular Front film about a likable courtyard world of print-shop workers and laundresses, with a naive hero (Monsieur Lange, a writer of adventure stories), a vivacious and practical heroine (Valentine), and their boss, Mr Batala, as the ultimate cinematic scoundrel, an obnoxious fascist pig, this propaganda piece rises to high art (and is good fun, too). When the bad boss fakes his own death to avoid paying back a loan, the abandoned workers decide to form a cooperative, full of the spirit of "liberté, égalité, fraternité." They have great success with printing Lange's cowboy stories, but then Batala returns "from the dead" to reclaim his publishing company. After an argument, Lange shoots and kills him, and flees with Valentine to escape France by crossing the border into Belgium. At a time that fascism and Nazism were rife in Europe, this film about an "excusable homicide" questions authority and the ethical boundaries one should or shouldn't cross. But Renoir makes also clear that the idea of a socialist cooperative is, like the story, nothing more than a romantic fantasy, albeit a beautiful one.
  5. Grand Illusion (La grande illusion) (1937)
    The title of this (anti-) war movie refers to the illusion that WWI was seen as "the war to end all wars." Forbidden by the Nazis (Goebbels tried to destroy all copies of the film), it tells the story of a group of French prisoners of war in German captivity, with working class hero Jean Gabin sharing a cell with middle-class Jew Marcel Dalio and the aristocratic Pierre Fresnay, under the strict monocled eye of Commandant Erich von Stroheim. The film is as much about class as it is about the prisoners efforts to escape. Initially "class" is stronger than "nation" as the German aristocrat treats his French aristocratic prisoner with special respect, even becoming friends with him. This also shows what an immense watershed the Great War meant for European culture, as it was the end of the class relations described in the film, and the beginning of the epoch of the "commoners." The last part of the film is different from the rest, as we see how Gabin and Dalio trek across the Alps towards freedom, with beautiful long shots in the snowy landscape. Orson Welles much adored this film and picked it as his "desert-island movie." A humanistic film, showing how important compassion is among the senselessness of war.
  6. La bête humaine (The Human Beast, 1938)
    Jean Gabin wanted to make a film in which he could drive a steam locomotive and Renoir made that possible by adapting Zola's naturalistic novel. Gabin plays a solitary train engineer, Lantier, who drives a locomotive between Paris and Le Havre, a man whose tainted blood subjects him to fits of homicidal mania. He falls in love with Séverine (Simone Simon), the sexy wife of the deputy station master in Le Havre, who has helped her husband murder a man who tried to seduce her. Although Lantier was a witness, he says nothing to the police and begins an ambiguous emotional blackmail. One night, Séverine rewards him, but also suggests that he should get rid of her husband. Lantier lies in wait for the man but is unable to do the foul deed. Instead, in one of his fits of madness he ends up killing Séverine and the next day jumps to his death from the speeding train. What makes this hardboiled film noir great are the scenes with the steam locomotives: the film is larded with impressive traveling shots with the camera on the huge locomotive, racing through the French countryside or entering under the roof of a large station, spitting out steam. In a double sense a "steamy movie," this thriller was the greatest commercial success in Renoir's career.
  7. The Rules of the Game (La règle du jeu) (1939)
    Again a scathing critique of the class system, this time in the form of a country house farce "with teeth." A weekend at a marquis' castle in the countryside lays bare some ugly truths about a group of upper middle class acquaintances. Made on the eve of WWII, it shows European society and its disintegrating values as doomed. There is no protagonist, but in this lavish ensemble piece we see the hosts and guests as a group, as the class that was responsible for the hopeless situation of Europe. "The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons" (as the most famous line in this film goes), and those reasons are used to justify acts like murder and suicide. In the center of the film stands a long hunting scene (with Renoir's expert long shots) that reveals the volcano seething below the feet of the characters. Booed and banned (and nearly destroyed) at its premiere, The Rules of the Game was rehabilitated by the New Wave and shown at the 1956 Venice Film festival. It is now generally considered one of the greatest films ever made.
  8. The River (1951)
    Jean Renoir's first Technicolor feature, shot entirely on location in India (with American capital and Indian cooperation - among them future Indian film maker Satyajit Ray), is a bittersweet, Ozu-like account of the growing-up pains of three (colonial) young women, contrasted with the immutability of the river flowing in front of their homes, and full of gorgeous documentary-like color-shots of life in India. Harriet - whose father runs a jute mill - has five sisters and a ten year younger brother. The life of the young woman is shaken up when the charming Captain John, a cousin of the family next door who has lost his leg in the war, comes visiting. Harriet falls in love with him and shows him her secret diary, but he reacts only in a friendly, fatherly way. She later is shocked to see him kiss her best friend - but this is just sport for Captain John, who is really in love with Melanie, the mixed-blood daughter of the family where he is staying. But Melanie finds him stiff and overbearing and senses a big cultural gulf between them. The Captain eventually leaves (still a single man), but not before Harriet - who also feels responsible for the death of her small brother because of a snake bite - has lost the will to live and tries to commit suicide by floating down the river in a small skiff - happily, she is rescued by fishermen. Not only a visual tour de force, but also a very poetic and wise film, enriched by Renoir's subtle understanding of India and its people (a new, non-colonial view; although the story is set in colonial times, Renoir made the film just after India's independence in 1947). The wisdom shows in the retelling of a beautiful Indian legend with the message that things are not always as they seem, and that other persons may see the same things differently, and also in the contrast between the transitory emotions of the protagonists and the unchanging flow of the River, a symbol of everlasting Nature. The River won the International Award at the Venice Film Festival of 1951 and was nominated for the Golden Lion.
  9. French Cancan (1954)
    A loving tribute to art and the theater that reminds me of a painting by Degas come alive. A lyrical film full of movement, color and romance in which Renoir was reunited with Jean Gabin for the final time. Gabin plays a  Belle Époque Parisian nightclub impresario determined to transform the cancan, an outmoded folk dance, into the rage of the city. The spectacle of the dance in the finale, with its crashing waves of color, is justly famous. The lives of the characters in the film and especially their loves, are just as fluid and evolving. The film also demonstrates the difference between show business people and the rest of the world. The female lead is expertly played by Francoise Arnoul. Although The Golden Coach (1953) is also very interesting - Truffaut based the name of his production company, Les films du Carosse, on this film - I prefer French Cancan for its joie de vivre and the fact that its bright, frivolous surface hides a deeper undercurrent. 
    Interesting article on Renoir by Peter Bogdanovich; Orson Welles on Renoir
    With the exception of Le crime de Monsieur Lange, all the above films are available from The Criterion Collection. 
    References: The Rough Guide to Film (Penguin Group, 2007); Have You Seen...? by David Thomson (Penguin Books, 2008). IMDB, The Criterion Collection, Slant Magazine, Senses of Cinema, Bright Lights Film Journal

    Friday, April 22, 2016

    Hyakunin Isshu (One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each): Poem 17 (Ariwara no Narihira)

    Hyakunin Isshu, Poem 17

    chihayaburu
    kamiyo mo kikazu
    Tatsutagawa
    karakurenai ni
    mizu kuguru to wa

    千早ぶる
    神代もきかず
    龍田川
    からくれないに
    水くくるとは

    unheard of
    even in the legendary age
    of the mighty gods
    the waters of the Tatsuta River
    tie-dyed in scarlet

    Or, when kukuru is read as kuguru, the last two lines become:
    ...
    the Tatsuta River in scarlet
    and the water flowing under it


    Ariwara no Narihira (825-880)

    [Scarlet autumn leaves]

    The beauty of the red maple leaves in autumn at the River Tatsuta.

    The River Tatsuta flows through the lowlands east of the Ikoma Mountains south of Nara City. The area is famous for its maple trees and its autumn foliage and figures prominently in classical poetry.

    The present poem was not actually written at the River Tatsuta, but on a screen painting of that river. The custom to write poems on screens with paintings in Yamatoe-style came up at the end of the 9th c. and was quite common in the 10th c. This is made clear by a head-note in the Kokinshu which reads: "Composed on a the topic of autumn leaves flowing down the Tatsuta River, as painted on a screen belonging to the Nijo Empress when she was still called the Mother of the Heir Apparent." In other words, the poem celebrates the success and glory of the Nijo Empress in giving birth to the Heir Apparent, with its reference to the Age of the Gods. The present poem is one of the first such "screen poems" (byobu uta); in the 10th c. both Yamatoe screens and accompanying poems were produced in large numbers.

    "Chihayaburu" is a makurakotoba for the Age of the Gods. "Karakurenai" is scarlet, literally "Chinese scarlet," as this particular color nuance probably came from China.

    The meaning of the last two lines changes depending on whether one reads the verb as kukuru or kuguru. Kukuru is probably the original reading, meaning "to tie-dye." So the waters of the Tatsuta look as if they have been tie-dyed in scarlet - tie-dyeing was a technique that came up in the 8th c., in which cloth was bound, folded or compressed to achieve different colored patterns. This is quite a complex and refined comparison (mitate). But in later centuries (and also in the time of Hyakunin Isshu compiler Fujiwara Teika) the verb was read kuguru which means "to pass under," resulting in the interpretation of blue water flowing under the surface covering of the fallen red foliage. And that is also beautiful.

    [Narihira looking for the ghost of Ono no Komachi,
    by Yoshitoshi (Photo Wikipedia)]

    The courtier and poet Ariwara no Narihira (825-880) was counted both among the Six and Thirty-six Poetic Immortals. He was also thought to be the protagonist of the mid 9th c. Ise Monogatari (The Ise Stories), which formed around a collection of his poems, and was inspired by his many renowned love affairs. The grandson of two emperors (Heizei and Kanmu), he was a model of the handsome, amorous nobleman. Various imperial anthologies contain almost 90 of his poems. Donald Keene has remarked about him: "Narihira combined all the qualities most admired in a Heian courtier: he was of high birth, extremely handsome, a gifted poet, and an all-conquering lover. He was probably also an expert horseman, adept in arms, and a competent official. These aspects of his life are not emphasized in the Tales of Ise, but they distinguish Narihira from other heroes of Heian literature, including Prince Genji." But because of his many love affairs he was also criticized in contemporary records as "unrestrained in self-indulgence." He would perhaps have been the perfect lover for Ono no Komachi, but there is no indication that they ever met, although speculation has always been rife.

    [Also included in Kokinshu 294]
    References: Pictures of the Heart, The Hyakunin Isshu in Word and Image by Joshua S. Mostow (University of Hawai'i Press, 1996); Traditional Japanese Poetry, An Anthology, by Steven D. Carter (Stanford University Press, 1991); Hyakunin Isshu by Inoue Muneo, etc. (Shinchosha, 1990); Genshoku Hyakunin Isshu by Suzuki Hideo, etc. (Buneido, 1997); Ogura Hyakunin Isshu at Japanese Text Initiative (University of Virginia Library Etext Center); Hyakunin Isshu wo aruku by Shimaoka Shin (Kofusha Shuppan); Hyakunin Isshu, Ocho waka kara chusei waka e by Inoue Muneo (Chikuma Shoin, 2004); Basho's Haiku (2 vols) by Toshiharu Oseko (Maruzen, 1990); The Ise Stories by Joshua S. Mostow and Royall Tyler (University of Hawai'i Press, 2010); Kokin Wakashu, The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry by Helen Craig McCullough (Stanford University Press, 1985); Kokinshu, A Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern by Laurel Rasplica Rodd and Mary Catherine Henkenius (University of Tokyo Press, 1984); Kokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1994); Shinkokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1995); Taketori Monogatari-Ise Monogatari-Yamato Monogatari-Heichu Monogatari (Shogakkan, 1994). 

    Wednesday, April 20, 2016

    Best 20th Century Operas (2): Richard Strauss, Salome (1905)

    Richard Strauss, Salome (1905)
    Alex Ross begins his survey of twentieth century classical music, The Rest is Noise, with the shock Richard Strauss' Salome caused with its radical harmonies and its violent story of deviant Freudian sexuality - this opera certainly meant the advent of a new age, just like Pelléas et Mélisande had done in France a few years before. The sensationally innovatory score sent ripples all over Europe. It also rekindled interest in Oscar Wilde, on whose French play the opera was based.

    [Salome's Dance by Gustave Moreau - Image Wikipedia]

    The Salome legend itself originates in the gospels of Saint Mathew and Saint Mark. Salome is the daughter of Herodias, who has left her first husband and father of Salome to marry her husband's brother, Herod King of Judea, because he is richer and more powerful. This marriage was considered as unlawful by contemporaries, as Herodias' first husband was still alive; and as she had married her brother-in-law, it was also condemned as incestuous. One man who publicly criticized her was John the Baptist, an ascetic and fierce moralist. He had been arrested and jailed by Herod, but the king was afraid to put him to death as demanded by his wife Herodias, because of John the Baptist's holiness and great popularity.

    On Herod's birthday party, Salome is enticed to dance for her stepfather, after being told that she may ask whatever she wants, even half his kingdom. At the instigation of her mother, she then demands the head of John the Baptist as reward.

    [Salome and the Apparition of the Baptist's Head, 
    watercolor by Gustave Moreau - Image Wikipedia]

    Since the Renaissance, the Salome legend has inspired numerous painters. An important example close to the time of Strauss is Gustave Moreau, whose painting of Salome's dance is also described in Huysman's decadent novel A Rebours (1884), where the erotic intent of Salome's dance is emphasized. Some years before that, Gustave Flaubert wrote a short story, "Herodias" (1877), the last of his Trois Contes; in this story Herodias uses her daughter as an instrument to obtain the head of John the Baptist and so take revenge on her critic. Salome herself is shown as a more or less innocent young girl, as she even forgets the name of the man whose head she has to request. Jules Massenet's rather tame 1881 opera Hérodiade was based on Flaubert's short story.

    Oscar Wilde wrote his very different, heavily Symbolist play in 1892. He wrote it originally in French, as British law forbade the depiction of Biblical figures on stage; it premiered in Paris in 1896. A new element added by Wilde, was that the sixteen-year old Salome takes a perverse fancy to John the Baptist. She shamelessly eroticizes the body of the ascetic preacher and causes him to be executed when he spurns her affections. In the finale, Salome takes up John's severed head and kisses it - the peak of decadence and necrophilia. Another new motif was that Wilde has Herod - who is already tired of Herodias - lust after Salome, his young stepdaughter and niece. When she dances naked for him, he is willing to give her anything she desires.

    [The Climax, Salome and the head of Jokanaan, 
    by Aubrey Beardsley, 1893 - Image Wikipedia]

    Richard Strauss, who after two failed operas in the early nineties, had mainly written large symphonic poems as Also sprach Zarathustra, was inspired by the German translation of Wilde's play by Hedwig Lachmann and decided to set it word for word, only doing some editing and cutting away superfluous passages (as Debussy had done three years previously in Pelléas et Mélisande). He had finally found the right material for a great opera.

    In the first part of the resulting concise 100-minute opera, he concentrates on the confrontation between Salome and John the Baptist, called by his Hebrew name "Jokanaan" in the play and opera. Salome could be called "the symbol of unstable sexuality," and Jokanaan the "symbol of ascetic rectitude (but he was also a ridiculous figure in the eyes of the composer Strauss)," as Alex Ross says. Salome is a bored teenager, but she is also very beautiful - Herod is in love with her, as are several others in his court (in an earlier scene, one of the guards even commits suicide out of frustrated love). But, as Strauss insisted, she is also innocent. Salome hears Jokanaan's voice emanating from the cistern in which he has been imprisoned and she is bewitched by it. She has him brought up by the guards and immediately has a crush on him and tries to seduce him, but he shrinks away from her and even utters a curse.

    In the second part we meet the tetrarch Herod, a man caught in his own base sensuality, a hypocrite and a hysteric. He persuades his stepdaughter to dance the Dance of the Seven Veils, and so she does, to kitschy music. The dance is a striptease, she removes one after another of the seven veils that conceal her body until she stands naked before Herod. She now calls for the prophet's head. Herod tries to make her change her mind, but she refuses. The executioner descends into the cistern prison and returns with Jokanaan's head which he hands her on a silver platter. Salome explodes in necrophiliac bliss (this is after all a love story), dancing with the head and kissing it, while the orchestra blares forth with erotic love music. Herod is so horrified by the spectacle his own incestuous lust has engendered, that he calls on the guards to "Kill that woman!" With a shriek and howl, the curtain falls. The opera ends with eight bars of sheer noise.

    [Salome with the Head of John the Baptist, by Titian - Image Wikipedia]

    The combination of the erotic and the murderous with a Biblical theme, shocked opera audiences from its first appearance, but although Salome was censured in many countries, it also took the world by storm - within two years after its first performance in Dresden in 1905, it was playing in 50 opera houses around the world. Not all performers were comfortable with the role of Salome: some refused to perform the "Dance of the Seven Veils," thus creating a situation where a dancer had to act as "body double." And during the first performance in London, the head of John the Baptist, brought on a silver tray to Salome, was replaced by a (apparently more innocuous) bloody sword. But the twentieth century was underway, and modernity made this opera about extreme sexual obsession not only possible, but also a reflection of the age.  

    Recording watched and listened to: Maria Ewing as Salome, Michael Devlin as Jokanaan, Kenneth Riegel as Herod, Gillian Knight as Herodias; with the ROH Covent Garden conducted by Edward Downes; and with Derek Bailey as stage director; on Kultur Video (DVD). 

    A performance on DVD stands and falls with the singer playing Salome: she must be a dramatic soprano with a strong voice, but also convincingly look like a young woman. That is a difficult combination, but Maria Ewing perfectly fits the bill in this somewhat older recording. With her large luminous eyes, she is a perfect dramatic actress who aptly conveys Salome's journey from curiosity to infatuation and finally total insanity in her amorous pursuit of John the Baptist.  

    Twentieth Century Opera Index


    Friday, April 15, 2016

    Hyakunin Isshu (One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each): Poem 16 (Ariwara no Yukihira)

    Hyakunin Isshu, Poem 16

    tachiwakare
    Inaba no yama no
    mine ni ouru
    matsu to shi kikaba
    ima kaerikomu

    立ち別れ
    いなばの山の
    峰に生ふる
    まつとしきかば
    今かへりこむ

    even if I depart
    and go to Inaba Mountain
    on whose peak grow pines
    if I hear you pine for me
    I will immediately hurry back

    Ariwara no Yukihira (818-893)

    [Pine tree in the mountains (Photo Wikipedia)]

    Regret about the parting from friends in the capital when being sent as governor to the provinces. The poet stresses how difficult it is for him to leave. This poem was probably written during the farewell party held for the poet. 

    The courtier, bureaucrat and poet Ariwara no Yukihira (818-893) was the scholarly older brother (by a different mother) of Ariwara no Narihira (Poem 17) and a grandson of Emperor Heizei, via Prince Abo. He reached the court rank of Chunagon, middle counselor. Four authentic poems have been preserved in the Kokinshu, and four more in the Gosenshu. The present poem was written in 855 when Yukihira was sent to serve as governor of Inaba Province (now part of Tottori Prefecture). Provincial governor was a middle-ranking position, financially not unattractive, but unpopular as it meant one had to leave the bright lights (and career possibilities) of the capital. 

    The poem contains two pivot words (kakekotoba). Mount Inaba (a mountain in Inaba Province, close to the seat of the provincial government) is also a pun on "inaba," "even if I depart." And "matsu" in line four means both "pine tree" and "to wait" - or "to pine." Additionally, the first three lines form a jokotoba (preface) to "matsu." Note that the pine tree standing lonely on the mountain is also a symbol for the loneliness of the poet in Inaba Province.

    [Ariwara no Yukihira in exile on Suma Beach, with the two fishing girl sisters, by Yoshitoshi (Photo Wikipedia)]

    Mostow tells that Yukihira was in the first place known for his exile to Suma (in present-day Kobe), where he presumably had a love affair with two fisher girls, Matsukaze and Murasame. The sisters waited in vain for Yukihira after he had returned to the capital Heiankyo (Kyoto). This story was picked up in the Noh play Matsukaze and also led to a popular change in interpretation of the present poem: instead of reading it as written when Yukihira left Heiankyo to go to Inaba, it was interpreted as written when Yukihira was leaving Inaba, to return to the sisters on the beach of Suma (although this disregards the opening line!). Yukihira's exile in Suma may also have inspired Murasaki Shikibu to have her hero Genji exiled to the same place in the Suma and Akashi chapters of the The Tale of Genji.

    [Also included in Kokinshu 365]
    References: Pictures of the Heart, The Hyakunin Isshu in Word and Image by Joshua S. Mostow (University of Hawai'i Press, 1996); Traditional Japanese Poetry, An Anthology, by Steven D. Carter (Stanford University Press, 1991); Hyakunin Isshu by Inoue Muneo, etc. (Shinchosha, 1990); Genshoku Hyakunin Isshu by Suzuki Hideo, etc. (Buneido, 1997); Ogura Hyakunin Isshu at Japanese Text Initiative (University of Virginia Library Etext Center); Hyakunin Isshu wo aruku by Shimaoka Shin (Kofusha Shuppan); Hyakunin Isshu, Ocho waka kara chusei waka e by Inoue Muneo (Chikuma Shoin, 2004); Basho's Haiku (2 vols) by Toshiharu Oseko (Maruzen, 1990); The Ise Stories by Joshua S. Mostow and Royall Tyler (University of Hawai'i Press, 2010); Kokin Wakashu, The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry by Helen Craig McCullough (Stanford University Press, 1985); Kokinshu, A Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern by Laurel Rasplica Rodd and Mary Catherine Henkenius (University of Tokyo Press, 1984); Kokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1994); Shinkokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1995); Taketori Monogatari-Ise Monogatari-Yamato Monogatari-Heichu Monogatari (Shogakkan, 1994). 

    Friday, April 8, 2016

    Best Contemporary Crime Novels from Europe

    Here is a look at crime fiction from Europe, a genre characterized by atmosphere and character development above plot. Of course, there have been European authors in the past like Agatha Christie who wrote pure plot puzzles, but this was an aberration which only took place in England - after all, such novels are about just as engaging as the average crossword puzzle. The crime novel as a literary phenomenon about character was created in the 1930s in France by Georges Simenon - a writer who, as Andre Gide said, should have had the Noble Prize in Literature, and whose influence can still be felt today, for his manner was picked up by many different European authors after WWII. Somewhat older "character" authors are for example P.D. James and Ruth Rendell in England, or Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö in Sweden.

    European crime writers in addition learned how to add atmosphere from Americans as Hammett and Chandler (and write in the noir style), but there are two big differences between both cultures: European crime fiction is generally less violent than its American counterpart, which especially in its contemporary form only seems to focus on psychopaths and serial killers. And while in American crime novels the private eye rules supreme as a "lonely wolf" investigator (typical for American culture), European authors (like Japanese ones, as Matsumoto Seicho) prefer the police procedural - most European sleuths are police inspectors who work within the framework of an organization. 


    So what are the best contemporary crime novels from Europe? Or, in other words, who are the most interesting fictional police inspectors from our time?

    1. "John Rebus" by Ian Rankin (so far 20 novels, from 1987)
    My mother had a special link with Scotland and when I was a kid, my parents several times took the family on trips to that wild and melancholic country. Nowadays, my interest in Scottish culture has shrunk to the enjoyment of Scottish whisky, especially the single malt peat whiskies of the Scottish Isles, but recently I also had to add the Rebus novels (and the TV series with Ken Stott based on the novels) by Scottish author Ian Rankin to that small list. Ian Rankin (1960), a graduate of Edinburgh University, who spent the time he should have been writing his Ph.D. on English literature producing his first crime novel Knots & Crosses, has written 20 Rebus novels, winning the Gold Dagger in 1997 with Black and Blue. The stories belong to the genre of police procedural detective fiction, with a decided hard-boiled aspect that has led to them being dubbed "Tartan Noir."

    Set in Edinburgh, the novels depict a stark, uncompromising picture of Scotland, characterized by corruption, poverty, and organised crime, a far cry from the holiday country I saw in my youth. Rebus is a misanthrope made cynical by the job he does. He is a maverick cop who drinks, likes to flout authority and ignore the rules. He struggles with his superiors and colleagues and suffers from internal police politics and office politics. He is a lone wolf, a flawed character, but also someone obsessed with his work. He is happiest when he can sit in hus favorite pub with a glass in his hand.

    The inventive plots show a broad spectrum of Scotland, from business districts to dying mining towns, from nightclubs and prisons to some better-known pubs and streets of Edinburgh (these latter based on real places, there is even an Ian Rankin tourist guide to Edinburgh!).

    Another important aspect, that is also present in the work of the other writers discussed here, is the continual linking between the books, so that we follow Rebus through the various ups and downs in his career and personal life. He has a daughter, but is separated from his wife. His immediate boss at work is a woman, Gill Templer, with whom he had a one-time romantic relationship, and his protege is DS Siobhan Clarke.

    The novels can be read apart, so it may be a good idea to begin with one of the best, Black and Blue, or pick a recent one, such as Saints of the Shadow Bible. You may also want to start with the first one, Knots & Crosses, when Rebus is 40 years of age and a Detective Sergeant working on the case of a serial killer who has been abducting and strangling young girls. Rebus receives anonymous letters containing knotted rope and matchstick crosses…

    2. "Kurt Wallander" by Henning Mankell (12 novels, between 1991 and 2009)
    I have only been to Sweden once, again when I was very young, and only to the Gotenburg area (unfortunately not to Stockholm, which I love because of the early 20th c. novels by Hjalmar Söderberg, as Doctor Glas). Ystad, where the Kurt Wallander novels are situated, is a small medieval town at the southernmost tip of Sweden, close to the large city Malmö. Copenhagen is only 1.5 hrs via the Øresund Bridge, so closer by than Stockholm (which is 5.5 hrs away). There is also a ferry connection with Poland.

    The author Henning Mankell (1948-2015) was born in Stockholm. He had an adventurous youth (traveling around the world and joining the student protest of 1968 in Paris) and first worked in the theater. He was a left-wing social critic and activist, and shared his time between Sweden and countries in Africa, mostly Mozambique. He constantly highlighted social inequality issues and injustice in Sweden and abroad. Also in the Wallander novels the overarching question is: "What went wrong with Swedish society?" But happily, Mankell never gets preachy.

    His protagonist, Kurt Wallander, is a police inspector living and working in Ystad. His wife Mona has left him and he has since had a difficult relationship with his rebellious only child, Linda. Linda later will follow in the footsteps of her father as a police officer. Wallander also has a difficult relationship with his father, an artist who thousands of times just paints the same landscape for money, and who disapproves of the career choice of his son.

    Inspector Wallander drinks too much, consumes junk food, doesn't take exercise and struggles with his anger. He is always very much emotionally involved in the crimes he investigates. Over the years he has also become disillusioned with his work, not in the least because of office politics and the censure by colleagues and bosses of his brusque manner and aggressive tactics (as in the case of Rebus). Mankell puts the character development of Wallander central in the books. We follow his daily life and thoughts about family, or about getting older and his fear of Alzheimer, also when this is not related to the immediate plot - and that is what makes the books so interesting. Like the Rebus novels, they follow Wallander's career and life trough time. These are all passionate and committed books.

    Although the novels can be read separately, it is a good idea to start with the first one, Faceless Killers, in which an elderly farm couple is brutally murdered with as only clue the word "foreign" - Wallander must find the killers before anger towards foreigners boils over...

    3. "Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg" by Fred Vargas (so far 8 novels, since 1991)
    The character of Paris-based Chief Inspector Adamsberg was created by Fred Vargas, the pseudonym of medieval historian, archaeologist and folklorist Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau (1957). She became a two times winner of the International Dagger award. Vargas' police thrillers are a way to relax from her job as an academic and to combine her interests, such as Medieval legends and various types of folklore. The device of imposing fearful old myths and legends (such as werewolves, the plague or the "furious horde of phantoms") into a modern setting often leads to a supernatural background for human fear and paranoia, and results in surrealist scenes (but can also be a bit far-fetched).

    Like the two previous authors, also Vargas leads her readers in the series through the life and career of Adamsberg, his depressed personal relations, and the not always friction-free work relation with his colleagues, such as Inspector Danglard. Where the quixotic Adamsberg takes an indirect approach and relies on his Zen-like intuition, Danglard is the rationalist.

    Vargas breaks every rule of detective fiction and it is sometimes difficult to empathize with her strange characters, but she manages to win her readers by the universalism of her themes. It is best to read her novels in order (one point of criticism is that she assumes knowledge of the previous books and doesn't sufficiently fill in the background of Adamsberg for each individual book) and start with The Chalk Circle Man (L'Homme aux cercles bleus) from 1991, where we first meet Adamsberg and Danglard. A solitary man drawing blue chalk circles at night around stray objects in Paris streets manages to create a media sensation, but Adamsberg senses evil behind the act. When the corpse of a woman is found encircled in chalk, he's proven right...

    4. "Inspector Salvo Montalbano" by Andrea Camilleri (so far 23 novels, since 1994)
    Andrea Camilleri (1925-2019) has created one of the most popular crime series at the moment with his Inspector Montalbano series. The books have a mischievous sense of humor and a lovable hero in the compassionate, but also cynical person of Montalbano. Interestingly, Camilleri, who studied stage and film direction and worked as a director and screenwriter as well as TV producer for RAI, started writing this series when he was almost 70 years of age, and he has already managed to finish 23 volumes!

    Salvo Montalbano is a detective in the police force of Vigàta, an imaginary Sicilian town, based on Camilleri's  home town of Porto Empedocle, on Sicily's south-west coast. The novels contain a substantial sprinkling of Sicilian phrases. The name Montalbano was selected by Camilleri as homage to the Spanish writer Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, who wrote a series of crime novels about a fictional private detective called Pepe Carvalho. Like Carvalho, Montalbano is a great gourmet, and we even get some interesting recipes.

    These are light and bubbly books, full of Italian sunshine, although the criminals are deadly and cruel and the police officers working for Montalbano not very efficient. In contrast to the previous novels, there is little character development, Montalbano remains the same bon vivant, who never misses a good lunch, or the delicacies prepared by his housekeeper (he lives alone, but has a girlfriend who now and then visits from the Italian mainland). So you could in principle pick any novel, although The Potter's Field excelled by winning the 2012 Crime Writers' Association International Dagger. Generally speaking, I prefer the earlier novels when Camilleri's inspiration was still fresh, so the first novel, The Shape of Water, also forms a good start. These are books that will always put you in a good mood.

    5. "Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson" by Arnaldur Indriðason (so far 15 novels, since 1997)
    These novels with their stony Icelandic settings are bleak and dark books, indeed a form of Scandinavian noir. Author Arnaldur Indriðason (1961) was born in Reykjavik and after taking a history degree, worked as a journalist and freelance writer. He wrote the first book in the series with detective Erlendur in 1997, and has gone on to become the most popular writer of Iceland.

    Enigmatic Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson, at roughly 50, is a brilliant police officer, but also a gloomy and thoroughly anti-social figure who jealously guards his privacy. He keeps stubbornly brooding about his cases and is haunted by the ghosts of the past. The stories reflect the silent, glacial progress of Erendur's battle with his own inner storms. Decades ago, he got divorced, and his son and daughter still can't understand how he could abandon them. His daughter, Eva Lind, suffers from a drug addiction, his son is an alcoholic. Erlendur's investigations also provide rich insight into Icelandic culture, old and new, from the criminal justice system, racism and immigration to genetic diseases. Interestingly, the characters in the novel also show little respect for the police and are often shown lying to them. It is the background atmosphere more than the plots which is interesting.

    The novels can be read separately, although here, too, they make up something like a life story (in fact, the first two novels have not yet been translated into English), good ones are Jar City (the earliest one translated into English) and Voices. However, compared to Rankin and Mankell, Indriðason writes more superficially and never digs very deep, resulting in books which are enjoyable, but not much more than that.

    6. "Pathologist Quirke" by Benjamin Black (so far 8 novels, since 2007)
    These books are not police procedurals, but a series about a consultant pathologist in the Dublin city morgue. They have been set in 1950s Dublin, and were written by Irish literary author John Banville (1950) under the pseudonym "Benjamin Black."

    John Banville is known for his precise prose style, Nabokovian inventiveness and for the dark humor of his (often immoral) narrators. He won the Booker Prize with The Sea in 2005. In 2007, Banville wrote his first crime novel, Christine Falls, set in buttoned-up 1950s Dublin as the author remembered it from his early youth, "a poverty-stricken but also beautiful city, dingy and ramshackle with a melancholy beauty." Benjamin Black's Dublin is full of fog, coal grit, whiskey fumes and stale cigarette smoke. His protagonist is a troubled man, who is hard-drinking and intolerant, in many ways a damaged person - more at ease among the dead bodies in his pathologist's lab than among other humans. He lives alone, and his depression is made worse by his longing for his dead wife's sister, or the difficult relation with his daughter Phoebe.

    Banville was inspired to write these novels by Georges Simenon - not the Maigret books, but the "romans durs," such as Dirty Snow, Monsieur Monde Vanishes or Tropic Moon. Banville felt these were masterpieces of existential fiction, far better and less self-consciously literary than anything by Sartre or Camus.

    They inspired Banville to try his hand at crime fiction and he has eminently succeeded. Here, again, we have a life story of the protagonist, especially in the first few novels of the series, so it is best to read them in the order of publishing, starting with Christine Falls.
    [Written with some input from the Wikipedia articles about these authors and detectives]

    Wednesday, April 6, 2016

    Hyakunin Isshu (One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each): Poem 15 (Emperor Koko)

    Hyakunin Isshu, Poem 15

    kimi ga tame
    haru no no ni idete
    wakana tsumu
    waga koromode ni
    yuki wa furitsutsu

    君がため
    春の野に出でて
    若菜つむ
    わが衣手に
    雪はふりつつ

    for your sake
    I went into the springtime fields
    to pick young greens
    while on my robe-sleeves
    the snow kept falling

    Emperor Koko (830-887, r. 884-887)

    [Fields in early spring at the foot of Mt Nijo, Nara]

    A poem sent with a gift of young greens.

    Picking young greens in the fields and eating these was a romantic custom of the palace that formed part of the New Year festivities. It was considered to guarantee good health in the new year and is the predecessor of the modern custom the eat Seven Herb Porridge (nanakusa-gayu) on January 7. In the modern case, small amounts of seven different herbs are added to the porridge and these may well have been similar to the greens picked in the Heian period: nazuna or shepherd's purse, hakobe or chickweed, seri or water dropworth, gogyo or cudweed, hotokenoza or henbit, suzuna or turnip and daikon or white radish.

    [The modern Nanakusa herbs]

    The poet, Emperor Koko, was the third son of Emperor Ninmyo and placed on the throne at the age of 55 by the Fujiwara regent Mototsune to replace Emperor Yozei (see Poem 13). It was in his reign that the politically powerful system of the Fujiwara regency was instituted. He has 14 poems in imperial anthologies. 

    The Kokinshu includes a head note for this poem, stating that it "was sent together with young greens to someone when the emperor was still a prince." The addressee is unknown. Sending such greens formed a wish for good luck and longevity to the receiver in the new year.

    [Same poem in Kokinshu 21]
    References: Pictures of the Heart, The Hyakunin Isshu in Word and Image by Joshua S. Mostow (University of Hawai'i Press, 1996); Traditional Japanese Poetry, An Anthology, by Steven D. Carter (Stanford University Press, 1991); Hyakunin Isshu by Inoue Muneo, etc. (Shinchosha, 1990); Genshoku Hyakunin Isshu by Suzuki Hideo, etc. (Buneido, 1997); Ogura Hyakunin Isshu at Japanese Text Initiative (University of Virginia Library Etext Center); Hyakunin Isshu wo aruku by Shimaoka Shin (Kofusha Shuppan); Basho's Haiku (2 vols) by Toshiharu Oseko (Maruzen, 1990); The Ise Stories by Joshua S. Mostow and Royall Tyler (University of Hawai'i Press, 2010); Kokin Wakashu, The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry by Helen Craig McCullough (Stanford University Press, 1985); Kokinshu, A Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern by Laurel Rasplica Rodd and Mary Catherine Henkenius (University of Tokyo Press, 1984); Kokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1994); Shinkokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1995); Taketori Monogatari-Ise Monogatari-Yamato Monogatari-Heichu Monogatari (Shogakkan, 1994).

    Sunday, April 3, 2016

    Best Cherry Blossom Spots in Kyoto

    Where can you find the best hanami spots in Kyoto?

    Here are my five favorite cherry blossom locations:

    [The canal in Okazaki Park]

    1. Okazaki Park, Keage Incline and Tetsugaku no Michi
    This is my favorite walk because of the great variety of scenery, the many, different cherry blossoms, and the combination of "industrial archaeology" with ancient temples. For starters, in Okazaki Park (which is easily reached from Jingumichi St on the Tozai subway line) you have a nice scene of cherry trees along the canal which runs next to Niomondori, south of the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art. (In April, boat rides on the canal are available).

    [The Keage Incline]

    Follow Niomondori east; just before the crossing with Shirakawadori you will see the Lake Biwa Canal Museum and in this area you'll also find a staircase where you can go down to the starting point of the Incline, a hydro-electric engineering project from the Meiji-period that was to bring water from Lake Biwa to Kyoto for irrigation and electricity generation). Follow the Incline all the way up, past the boats, and you will walk between the cherry trees that have been planted on both sides of the Incline. At the very end, above Keage Station, is a park with a statue of the young engineer Tanabe Sakuro, who was in charge of this project; here you can also have a picnic if you have brought a bento. This finishes the first leg of the walk and you can return by going down to Keage Station (Tozai line); when you still have stamina left and want to continue, pass through the tunnel below the Incline and enter the grounds of Nanzenji.

    [The Philosopher's Path, Tetsugaku no Michi]

    There are occasional cherry trees here, but the nice part of the walk is Tetsugaku no Michi (the Philosopher's Path, named after Kyoto University professor Nishida Kitaro who liked to stroll here), starting past Eikando temple, where in 1922 cherry trees were planted along the stream by painter Hashimoto Kansetsu who lived here in the neighborhood. The path is a bit narrow, so avoid the weekends. Near the northern end of the path, you will find a few interesting temples. Reikanji (a nunnery with an excellent collection of dolls) and Anrakuji (a temple with an interesting legend about two disciples of Honen and the palace ladies they converted) have special openings (Reikanji the first week of April, Anrakuji on Saturdays during the first ten days of April) and Honenin, which always has part of its garden open, in addition opens its Main Hall and Abbot's garden to visitors during the first week of April. A nice bonus to the sakura along the Philosopher's Path.


    [Cherry blossoms and pagoda in Ninnaji Temple]

    2. Ninnaji Temple and Hirano Shrine
    Ninnaji is famous for its late blossoming yaezakura, so plan this as your late-in-season hanami. Called "Omuro-zakura," the trees do not grow taller than just two meters and the branches hang low, so it feels as if you are wading through low hanging blossom clouds! It is also interesting to see the pagoda of Ninnaji temple rise up from these blossom clouds. (If you like Buddhist art, also have a look at the wonderful sculptures in the Ninnaji Museum).

    [Blossoms and stone statues in Rengeji Temple]

    Don't forget to drop by at Rengeji, a small temple to the east of Ninnaji, which has some interesting stone statues sitting amid the blossoms.

    An easy way to get to Ninnaji is to take the Keifuku Electric Railroad to Omura Ninnaji Station.

    [Heian court ladies during the Cherry Blossom Festival of the Hirano Shrine]

    If you can plan your visit to Ninnaji on April 10, you can take the Keifuku Line to its terminus, Kitano Hakubaicho, and then walk north along Nishiojidori until you reach the Hirano Shrine (on the east side of Nishiojidori after passing the crossing with Kamitachiuridori). The Hirano Shrine is famous for its yozakura, which are lighted up in the evening, but the best event to see here is the Cherry Blossom Festival (Okasai) on April 10, which features a mikoshi procession of people dressed in Heian court dress - the colorful costumes make a nice contrast with the blossoms. It starts at 10:00; the mikoshi return in the early afternoon, so you can also first go to Ninnaji.


    [Cherry blossoms and tulips in Kyoto Botanical Garden]

    3. Kyoto Botanical Park and Nakaragi no Michi, on the bank of the Kamo River
    The 24,000 sq.m. large Kyoto Botanical Park stands in northern Kyoto, along the banks of the Kamo River, and incorporates an original piece of woodland. There are 500 cherry trees, of the varieties Somei, Yoshino and Shidarezakura. They stand along the paths and in grassy areas and you are allowed to picnic under the trees, although alcohol is forbidden. But as this is a botanical garden, you have other flowers as well. I particularly like the combination of the red tulips at the entrance to the gardens with the backdrop of pink cherries.

    [Nakaragi no Michi alongside the Kamo River]

    The best way to enter the botanical gardens is the north exit, as this is immediately next to Kitayama Station on the subway line. Again, there is an interesting bonus: next to the north gate stands the Kyoto Garden of Fine Arts, a plaza with walls of cascading water, designed by Ando Tadao in his familiar style of smooth concrete, where eight famous paintings of world art have been copied on large ceramic tiles.

    And finally, take a stroll along the path running between the botanical gardens and the Kamo River, called "Nakaragi no Michi" - here, too, are some beautiful cherry blossoms. There are benches here, so you can sit down and enjoy the river scenery (and finally break open your cup sake).


    [Cherry blossoms and boats in Arashiyama]

    4. Arashiyama (and Seiryoji)
    Arashiyama (or Ranzan in Chinese-style reading, as found in the names of hotels and restaurants) means "Storm Mountain" so at first sight it would not seem one of the most scenic spots in Kyoto, but that is only the name of the 381 m. tall mountain that rises up steeply on the right bank of the Hozu River here. Arashiyama is a popular cherry blossom spot, and the old-fashioned Togetsukyo Bridge spanning the river here can get crowded, but as it happens the nicest blossom viewing spot is from the extensive (and not crowded) Kameyama Park (on the east bank). From the hill at the back of the park, you have a great view over the steep gorge of the Hozu River, where the sakura hang as pink clouds on the mountain slope. The trees were planted here at the order of the 9th c. Emperor Saga, who had them brought from the sacred groves in Yoshino.

    [Gorge of the Hozu River]

    The beauty is in the valley with its steep wooded cliffs, the river with the flat-bottomed boats that carry tourists via the gorge from Kameoka, the old-fashioned Togetsukyo bridge that spans it, the temples and their gardens, and the quiet countryside behind it all.

    [Kyogen performance in Seiryoji]

    And again we have a bonus: Seiryoji Temple, where on April 3, 9 and 10 the Saga Dainenbutsu Kyogen is held, a unique ancient religious theater performance, started by the Buddhist monk Enkaku in the hope of seeing his deceased mother again. The performances which begin at 13:30, 14:30 and 15:30 are free. In the same period, the birth of the Buddha (which took place on April 8) is celebrated at Seiryoji. In addition, the treasure hall with great statues is also open. Don't forget to see the Chinese-style Shaka statue in the main hall.

    Seiryoji is 15 minutes by foot from JR Sanin Main Line Saga-Arashiyama Station; Arashiyama can be reached from the same station, or from the Arashiyama Hankyu and Keifuku stations.


    [Weeping cherry tree in Shojiji]

    5. Oharano with Shojiji and Shoboji temples
    Finally, a "hidden spot," that is to say, a hanami spot where you will find very few other visitors and almost certainly no tourists. In Oharano, in Kyoto's Western Hills, you will find a cluster of temples: Shojiji, Hobodaiin, Shoboji and the Oharano Shrine. Shojiji is nicknamed "hana no tera," "Blossom Temple," and features a cherry tree presumable planted by the poet Saigyo when he was head of the temple (in reality, it is a descendant of that tree). Saigyo is known for the many poems he wrote about cherry blossoms, and also for his wish to die under a cherry tree in the blossom season - a wish that seems to have been fulfilled to the letter. Shojiji also has some good weeping cherry trees, and an interesting array of Buddhist statues in its small museum. Even more interesting statues - a very sensual Boddhisattva statue - can be found in neighboring Hobodaiin.

    [Single blossoming tree with borrowed scenery in the modern garden of Shoboji]

    But for more blossom beauty, you'll have to walk to another temple in this area, Shoboji. Sit down on the veranda and observe the garden, which incorporates the Eastern Hills lying on the horizon as borrowed scenery (shakkei). It was a masterful stroke of the garden designer to plant just one slender cherry tree right in the middle of this scenery, as a foreground to the borrowed landscape. The rocks in the (modern) garden form a sort of intermediaries that lift the eyes above the low garden wall and then on towards the distant mountain scenery.

    The temples in this area, far from the path trodden by tourists, are very quiet, making this the ideal place to enjoy cherry blossoms.

    You can reach these temples by first taking the JR to JR Mukomachi Station or the Hankyu line to Hankyu Higashi-Muko Station, and then either a bus to Minami-Kasugamachi (after which it is a 15-min walk) or a bus to Rakusaikokomae (20-min walk). There is about one bus per hour.