Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Year of the Rooster

2017 is the Year of the Rooster (toridoshi) in Japan (also translated as cock or chicken; the term denotes general barnyard fowl), the tenth year in the cycle of 12 signs from the Japanese (and originally Chinese) zodiac. The Year of the Rooster is represented by the Earthly Branch character 酉. The rooster is the only bird in the zodiac.

[Roosters by Ito Jakuchu - image from Wikipedia]

As is written in We Japanese, it is believed by the Japanese that the rooster has five virtues:
  • Its comb represents civilization
  • Its strong feet denote military strength
  • With an enemy it fights well, demonstrating courage
  • It calls friends out of goodwill
  • Watching for the dawn, it is faithful
In other words, the Year of the Rooster is generally considered as a lucky year and persons born in that year are according to fortune tellers generally intelligent and kind by nature.

[Shokoku - photo from Wikipedia]

Already since the dawn of history, there have been roosters and chickens in Japan. Although Japanese breeds now have been crossbred with western strains, there are also 30 breeds of what is known as the indigenous "Japanese rooster." The majority of these are not raised for meat or eggs, but are kept by fanciers as pets. Here are some of the best known ones:
  • jidori, an indigenous, primitive breed that resembles the red jungle fowl of SE Asia; it has a red body, with black tail and black breast;
  • shamo, developed from a game breed in Thailand; raised for cockfighting. The meat is also of excellent quality. 
  • shokoku, introduced from China in the Heian period; its feathers are silvery, golden or white and it has a long, flowing tail and an elegant posture. Was kept in shrines as a sacred breed.
  • onagadori, a striking, long-tailed breed developed in Tosa (now Kochi Pref.) during the Edo period. It is silvery, white or brown and its tail feathers, which grow longer every year, can reach 8 meters. They are therefore kept in special, elevated cages.
  • chabo, a diminutive chicken with short legs and a large head. Plumage colors vary widely.  
  • minohiki, a decorative breed whose neck and tail feathers are said to resemble a straw raincoat (mino).
  • ukokkei, fowl with a fluffy plumage like silk; can be white or black. Originates in China.

[Onagadori - photo from Wikipedia]

The rooster has played a prominent role in ancient Japanese culture. The bird came from China to Japan via Korea in the Jomon period (10,500-300 BCE). It is represented in haniwa pottery figures from the Kofun period (300-710 CE). The cock also plays an important role in the myth about the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu Omikami. When the Sun Goddess retired to a cave in anger at the violence of her brother, Susano-o, and the world was steeped in darkness, the cock's crow outside the cave made the goddess think that the day had dawned even without her presence (due to a rival?) - and this was how she was lured out of the cave by the other gods. At the Grand Shrine of Ise the cock is regarded as a messenger of the Sun Goddess, and in the shrine's precincts one often comes across freely roaming roosters.

In Japan there are many interesting folk beliefs about the rooster: its crowing at daybreak is believed to drive away the evil spirits of darkness that could roam freely during the night. The rooster has therefore become a talisman against evil spirits. (In Western countries, by the way, the cock is also a symbol of watchfulness, reason why it is often placed on weather vanes.)

In the Heian period, the court held regular cock fights, a sport which later also became popular among commoners. In later periods, certain decorative breeds of roosters were the subject of famous paintings (as the one by Ito Jakuchu above) and woodblock prints. 

What about chicken as food? It appears chicken was eaten in Japan until the Buddhist injunction against meat, which was proclaimed by successive emperors when ascending the throne since the 7th c., increasingly became stronger. So from the 10th century on also commoners virtually stopped eating meat (with the exception of fish), although the Japanese never were a fundamentalist people where religious injunctions were concerned. Besides a Buddhist, I suppose there was also a Shinto reason: meat from dead or slaughtered animals was considered as impure. But from the 16th c. on, this injunction again became gradually looser and after contact with the Portuguese and Dutch some Japanese also started eating chicken. But - like the rare consumption of other kinds of meat - it was more something for sick people in order to regain strength than part of normal cuisine. There was no meat industry in Japan until the Meiji period. In the case of roosters, we should also take into account that this bird was regarded as the messenger of Amaterasu and therefore sacred; even chicken eggs were avoided until the 15th c. (quail eggs were eaten instead). 

After Japan opened its doors to the West, the eating of meat and chicken became more common, but all the same remained relatively small scale. In the Meiji period a chicken cuisine was established in the Kansai. As Japanese chickens were not as rich in meat as Western strains, farmers mostly switched away from indigenous chickens. But the production of chicken meat remained low and it was only after WWII that this bird became a popular dish, after the introduction of American broilers. From that period also date now so popular chicken dishes as yakitori and tori no kara-age. A recent Japanese custom is to eat chicken at Christmas, a "new tradition" brought about in the early 1970s by a successful promotional campaign of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
[Written with information from Japan, An Illustrated Encyclopedia (Kodansha) and We Japanese (an old publication of the Fujiya Hotel), as well as the Japanese and English Wikipedia]

Monday, December 26, 2016

Meyami Jizo, Kyoto

The small temples of Kyoto are very interesting when you happen to stumble upon them, but usually they are not places to seek out on purpose. Meyami Jizo is different - I have often visited this small temple on Shijodori in Kyoto close to Gion with family and friends. The late afternoon or early evening is good time to come by, for when the lamps inside and outside are lit the small temple develops a sort of romantic radiance which it lacks in cool daylight.

[Meyami Jizo Temple, Kyoto]

Officially, the temple is called Chugenji and there is a legend behind its founding. In 1228, the Kamo River was overflowing because of incessant heavy rains. Seta Takamine, the official charged with controlling the river, was able to prevent a larger flood thanks to a divine message from the Bodhisattva Jizo. To express his gratitude, he therefore enshrined a seated statue of Jizo here at a spot close to the river and named it Ameyami Jizo or "Rain Stopping Jizo" - that was the origin of Chugenji.

There is also a theory that the temple was called Ameyami Jizo because people used to take shelter from the rain here - the temple after all stands on the eastern bank of the Kamo River, in the past outside the city proper, and travelers may have been caught by showers in what then was open land.

Anyway, in later times, when the city had grown and it was not necessary anymore to stop the rains or take shelter in the fields, the temple managed to remain in the hearts of the people by a simple but ingenious linguistic shift. "Ameyami" became "meyami," which has nothing to do with rains anymore but everything with eye disease (me is eye en yami is illness). So our "Rain Stopping Jizo" became the "Bodhisattva Who Heals Eye Complaints," a not insignificant task in a premodern society and even of importance today. And of course it was not only a matter of linguistics, people really believed prayers addressed to the Jizo were effective in healing their eye complaints and undoubtedly many stories of miraculous recoveries were passed on from mouth to mouth.

The main hall is occupied by a large, seated Jizo statue, dating from the Muromachi period, so it is younger than the original presumably installed here by Seta Takamine. Note the bald monk's head and the staff he carries as all Jizo statues. The temple also owns a great Thousand-armed Kannon statue in a room on your right when you stand in front of the Jizo hall. Further at the back, also to the right, you will find a jolly fat Daikoku.


And closer to the entrance, on the left, I saw this lovely small Jizo...

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Best Classical Music for Christmas

When hearing the term "Christmas music" you are perhaps in the first place reminded of the tunes that are piped through muzak systems in shopping malls, restaurants and other public places already from November on - tunes you have heard so often that you really don't want to hear them again. But as Christmas was an important feast within the church year, there is also a great and long tradition of beautiful classical music specially composed for celebrating the season.

[The Annunciation to the Shepherds, by Abraham Hondius, 1663]

Here are my favorite pieces of classical music for Christmas:

1. Thomas Tallis, "Puer natus est nobis"(1554)
Thomas Tallis is considered as one of the greatest composers of choral music in England. The seven-part Christmas Mass "Puer natus est nobis" was written during the reign of the Catholic Mary Tudor who had restored the Roman rite. The elaborate mass is based on the plainchant of the same name. The cumulative effect of the polyphony with seven voices has an almost hypnotic effect. This substantial music must have been written for a special event and scholars think that it was the visit Philip II of Spain made around Christmas Day 1554 to England to marry Queen Mary. There is also a double meaning to the title of the mass, for English Catholics hoped Queen Mary would soon bear a son. Her reign, however, was as cruel as that of her husband Philip II with his Inquisition: in the 5 years Mary was on the throne, she had 280 religious dissenters burned at the stake - so much for the spirit of Christmas. In 1558 - a;ready ill - she died during an influenza epidemic and was succeeded by her half-sister Elizabeth I, who reversed her policies.

2. Heinrich Schütz, Weihnachtshistorie (1664)
This music was a revelation to me when I heard it for the first time: from the opening sinfonia it is filled to the brim with good will and joyousness. As in Bach's Passions, there is an Evangelist who sings in accompanied recitative and tells the Christmas story, but the work really comes to life through its great lyrical moments. There are eight such interludes, corresponding to moments of direct speech by characters in the story. Each of them is highly individual, from the shepherds to the Three Wise Man and even Herod.

[Nativity scene by Gerard David, 1495]

3. Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Pastorale sur la naissance de N.S. Jésus-Christ (1684)
The French Baroque composer Charpentier wrote various pieces of Christmas music, including a full Mass (Messe de Minuit pour Noël) for Christmas Eve. Charpentier wrote two Pastorals for Christmas - this is the second one (H.483); the other one (H482) is for smaller forces. The Pastoral was popular in France since the 1660s, as a combination of the Bible story with ancient Greek bucolic literature (although the usual love story between shepherd and shepherdess is of course skipped). The Pastorale sur la naissance de N.S. Jésus-Christ consists of seven scenes and follows the story of the shepherds in the fields, the annunciation by the angels and finally the adoration of the child in his straw cradle.

4. Arcangelo Corelli, Concerto No 8 in G Minor "Christmas Concerto" from Twelve Concerti Grossi Op. 6
Several Italian Baroque composers as Vivaldi, Torelli and Manfredini wrote "Christmas concertos" for performance on Christmas Eve, but the very best is the above concerto by Corelli. It has the usual pastoral elements without getting cloying. Instead of the usual fast movement, the concert ends with a Pastoral. In fact, all twelve Op 6 concertos by Corelli are fantastic, so do yourself a favor and listen to them all!

5. Johann Sebastian Bach, Christmas Oratorio (1734)
The Christmas Oratorio consists of six cantatas that were performed consecutively on Christmas Day, Second and Third Christmas Day, New Year's day, the Sunday after New Year and on Epiphany. As I have written in detail about these cantatas in my series about the Bach cantata, I will here only refer to those older posts (starting with the first cantata "Jauchzet, frohlocket" for Christmas Day). Bach's Christmas Oratorio is the best Christmas music ever written and for me Christmas is not complete without listening to this beautiful and joyous music. (Bach wrote more beautiful cantatas for Christmas, these are all discussed in my blog).

[The Adoration of the Shepherds by Guido Reni, 1640]

6. Georg Friedrich Handel, Messiah (1741)
Strictly speaking, Handel's Messiah, although now often played in the Christmas season, is not really Christmas music: it was originally meant for Easter, and the Christmas story only takes up small part of the whole oratorio. But today it has become customary among choral societies to perform the Messiah, just like Bach's Christmas Oratorio, around Christmas. The oratorio starts in Part I with the prophecy by Isaiah, and moves to the annunciation to the shepherds (the only scene based directly on the Bible): the shepherds are introduced by an instrumental Pastorale, the Pifa, which takes its name from the shepherd-bagpipers, or pifferare, who played in the streets of Rome at Christmas time. The music is in swinging time and resembles a lullaby - here we have some real "Christmas music." This part concludes with reflections on the Messiah's deeds. Part II covers the Passion in nine movements including the oratorio's longest movement, an air for alto He was despised. This part is concluded by a scene called "God's Triumph" which culminates in the "Hallelujah Chorus." Part III of the oratorio concentrates on Paul's teaching of the resurrection of the dead and Christ's glorification in heaven.

7. Georg Telemann, Christmas Oratorio "Die Hirten an der Krippe zu Bethlehem" (1759)
This double cantata has been called the "best Christmas cantata after Bach." It is tenderly expressive, imaginative and joyous. The text is by the Berlin poet Ramler, and Telemann's music responds with expressive warmth and irresistible charm. It is work of noble simplicity starting with a harmonization of the Latin carol In dulce jubilo. There are in all twelve movements; of outstanding beauty are the "Shepherd's Song" (with an interesting bassoon part) and the bass aria "Hirten aus den goldnen Zeiten." Trumpets and drums add their luster where necessary in this bright piece of music.

8. Johann Baptist Vanhal, Missa Pastoralis in G Major (1782)
Mass written to performed on Christmas Eve. The pastoral style in 18th c. music is characterized by simplicity and rustic charm; also such devices as a drone bass and a yodeling pattern are employed. Unlike the Baroque number mass, the Missa Pastoralis is cast in six major movements, with a central contrasting section in the long Gloria and Credo movements. There are no arias and set-pieces, but the soloists are employed to delineate new ideas. The use of pastoral elements is sophisticated and effective, promoting a coherent musical unity for the whole Mass cycle. And the melodies are simply very beautiful, too.

9. Joseph Leopold Eybler, Christmas Oratorio "Die Hirten bei der Krippe zu Bethlehem" (1794)
Eybler was a pupil of Albrechstberger and a contemporary of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Besides chamber music works, he mainly wrote religious music. This oratorio has the same title as the one by Telemann, but the text used is a different one and it is longer: there are eighteen movements. The basic mood is cheerful and there are various delightful musical pictures. There are two divisions; at the center of each stands a meditative quartet. Arias placing high demands on the singer prepare for the concluding chorus in each part. The concluding chorus of angels in Part One is a gentle siciliano; the concluding chorus of Part Two has strong dynamic contrasts and ends with a finely crafted fugue.

[Czech nativity scene]

10. Jakub Jan Ryba, Czech Christmas Mass (1796)
This is delicious folksy music, telling the Christmas story in a rural Bohemian setting, in Czech, and that all in the frame of a Mass. The music contains characteristic short melodic motifs and colorful rhythms inspired by Czech folk music. Because of its folk character and simplicity, it was excluded from the Catholic liturgy, but it iwa nonetheless often performed. The mass consists of nine parts. The opening part (Kyrie) begins with a popular verse "Hey Master, get up quickly," with a young shepherd waking his master. The Gloria celebrates the birth of Christ; in the Graduale shepherds assemble people from all lands for a pilgrimage to Bethlehem, where the visitors finally plead with Christ for the protection of all people.

11. Hector Berlioz: L'enfance du Christ (1853–4)
L'enfance du Christ is an oratorio by the French composer Hector Berlioz, based on the holy family's flight into Egypt. Berlioz wrote his own words for the piece. Berlioz described L'enfance as a "sacred trilogy." The first of its three sections depicts King Herod ordering the massacre of all newborn children in Judea; angels warn Joseph and Mary to flee and save their child. The greatest aria of this part is the one by Herod, expressing his inner despair as he is tormented by a recurring dream of a child who will overthrow him. Herod is accompanied by trombones just as Méphistophélès was in The Damnation of Faust. The second part shows Joseph and Mary setting out for Egypt with the baby Jesus. Here we have the most famous part of the oratorio, L'adieu des bergers ("The shepherds' farewell"), which is often performed separately. The final section portrays their arrival in the Egyptian town of Sais where they are given refuge by a family of Ishmaelites. The work concludes with a serene movement for tenor and choir.

[Cornelis Massijs - Arrival of the Holy Family in Bethlehem, 1543]

12. Camille Saint-Saëns: Oratorio de Noël (1858)
Saint-Saens' Christmas Oratorio is somewhere between a cantata and an oratorio: the size is compact, but the structure is that of the larger oratorio. Most of the work is lyrical and contemplative in character. Saint-Saens wrote this work when he was only 23. The work is in ten movements, a prelude followed by nine vocal numbers. The pastoral prelude, for strings and organ, is in "the style of Bach," harkening back to Bach's Christmas Oratorio, evoking images of shepherds tending their flocks in the fields. In the other movements, the vocal soloists take turns representing different characters from the Christmas story. In the Ninth movement the melody from the prelude comes back. The final movement is a hymn of praise of all creation in the presence of God. Saint-Saëns' study of the choral music of Bach, Handel, Mozart and Berlioz had a great influence on the work.

13. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, The Nutcracker (1892)
This ballet, based on a story by the German author E.T.A. Hoffman, is primarily performed during the Christmas season, as the story is set on Christmas Day and features a Christmas party and the exchange of presents - the protagonist Clara receives as a wooden nutcracker carved in the shape of an ugly little man from her godfather, the councilman and magician Drosselmeier. In her dream this nutcracker will come alive as a handsome prince and lead her to his fairyland. I watched this ballet yesterday again after a long time and must say that it very well captures the Christmas atmosphere (or perhaps our idea of the ideal Christmas atmosphere has been influenced by this ballet). It is very popular, major American ballet companies are said to generate around 40 percent of their annual ticket revenues from performances of The Nutcracker alone.

[Adoration of the Shepherds, by Gerard van Honthorst, 1622]

14. Benjamin Britten, A Ceremony of Carols (1942)
A choral piece scored for three-part treble chorus, solo voices, and harp (no orchestra!), written for Christmas. There are eleven movements; the texts are in Middle English. The piece was written in 1942 while Britten was at sea, going from the United States to England. Originally conceived as a series of unrelated songs, it was later unified into one piece with the framing processional and recessional chant in unison based on the Gregorian antiphon "Hodie Christus natus est," heard at the beginning and the end. The first movement is sung by the sopranos alone. The second movement is an upbeat and festive piece intended to welcome the audience as guests coming to celebrate the holiday. The next few songs are about the child Jesus. The 7th movement consists of a harp solo, creating a sense of angelic bliss. Movement 8 has an interesting echoing effect. After a Deo Gracias, the last movement mirrors the first one, this time by exiting the stage.

15. Arthur Honegger, Une Cantate de Noël (1953)
This was the last work by Swiss composer Honegger. The cantata, for mixed chorus, baritone solo, children's chorus, organ and orchestra, is in three parts. The first part describes the chaos in the world before the advent of the Messiah ("De Profundis"). The second part consists of a potpourri of melodies of famous Christmas songs, as Silent Night, etc. The third part is a solemn chorus (Laudate Dominum) ending in a finale by the orchestra which again takes up the dissonances from the beginning of the cantata.

16. John Adams, El Niño (2000)
A two-hour opera-oratorio for five soloists, large adult chorus, children's chorus and sizable orchestra by the American Minimal composer John Adams. It retells the Christmas story, with the first half focusing on Mary's thoughts before giving birth in Bethlehem, and the second half covering the aftermath of the birth, Herod's slaughter of the Holy Innocents, and the early life of Jesus. But Adams presents his material in an unconventional way. Mostly avoiding Biblical texts, he sets the Magnificat, extracts from the Apocrypha, a medieval carol, a mystery play, and several poems by Latin American women authors. His switch to a female, non-European perspective brings unusual nuances to the familiar story. Another aspect is that Adams mirrors the slaughter of the Innocents by Herod (see No 10, Berlioz, above) with an account of a massacre in Mexico City in 1968. A nativity with a sharp contemporary twist.

Classical Music Index

Friday, December 23, 2016

The Ako Incident and the Forty-Seven Loyal Retainers (Chushingura) in fact and fiction

As I wrote in my previous post about the seasonal events of December, the last month of the year is the season that traditionally the story of the Forty-Seven Ronin (also called Chushingura, "the Treasury of Loyal Retainers," after the title of the puppet drama) is performed in the puppet theater and the Kabuki, while on TV both older movie versions are shown as well as newly made TV films. Why December? Because the final act of the story took place on the 14th day of the 12th month of the year Genroku 15 according to the Japanese calendar (January 30, 1703, in the Gregorian calendar). It has become a typically Japanese year-end tradition like playing Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in concert halls around the country. December 14 is also the day of the Gishisai or Festival of the Loyal Retainers at Sengakuji Temple in Tokyo - Sengakuji is the temple where they and (some years earlier) their lord were buried after committing seppuku. On December 14, many people visit their graves and also come to watch a parade of persons dressed up as these 47 loyal retainers. In Ako in Hyogo Prefecture, the location of the castle of Lord Asano, a similar parade is held on that date, as well as at the Oishi Shrine in Kyoto's Yamashina.

[Incense smoke billowing over the graves
of the 47 ronin in Sengakuji, Tokyo]

The story of the Forty-seven Loyal Ronin is based on a historical incident, but also has inspired countless fictional media, from kabuki and bunraku to film, theater, novels and manga. That means it has been snowed under by fictional elements and unfounded interpretations. Below I will first look at the facts as they stand; after that we will consider the fiction in the form of Bunraku / Kabuki plays and 20th c. movies.

The Facts
The Ako Incident (Ako Jiken) occurred when a band of forty-seven former retainers of Asano Naganori (1667-1701), the late lord of Ako, led by chief retainer Oishi Yoshio / Kuranosuke (1659-1703), raided the residence of Kira Yoshinaka (1641-1703), a direct vassal of the Tokugawa shogun, and assassinated him.

The assassination originated in another incident. Asano Naganori had been in charge of ceremonies such as receiving delegates from the imperial court to Edo castle. In the course of that task, on the 14th day of the 3rd month of Genroku 14 (21 April, 1701, in the Gregorian calendar), he drew his sword and lightly wounded Kira, who was the shogunate's chief protocol officer and therefore Asano's superior. Drawing one's sword in the shogunal palace was a capital crime and Asano was ordered to commit seppuku within that same day. His domain was confiscated by the shogunate and his retainers were disbanded and became masterless samurai (ronin).

Back to 1703. After the assassination of Kira, forty-six of the samurai (one had been sent back to Ako before the actual attack) marched to the grave of Asano in Sengakuji temple where they presented the enemy head to the last resting place of their lord. They also notified the shogunate of their deed, awaiting arrest. It took the authorities six weeks of debate before coming up with the judgement that the samurai were to be sentenced to death by seppuku. Thus they committed ritual suicide in March 1703, all forty-six, ranging in age from 15 to 77. Later their ashes were buried in the small graveyard of Sengakuji, next to those of their lord.

[Corner of the graveyard for the 47 Ronin at Sengakuji, Tokyo]

Historical evidence about the incident is scarce. Why did Asano attack Kira in the first place? Why did the masterless samurai assassinate Kira? Why did they wait a year and half to do so?

The meagerness of facts has led to much speculation. Some seek the reason for the original feud between Asano and Kira in romantic competition about a woman; others in economic motifs (Ako was a small fief, but rich thanks to the salt industry), or again in psychological issues (Kira's purported arrogance). 

There is similar disagreement about the reason for the later attack on Kira's mansion. The modern popular view is that the Ako samurai were motivated by vengeance for the death of Asano, in line with "samurai duty." This is often linked with ahistorical concepts of Bushido - incorrectly, because "Bushido" was an invention from the late 19th century, by the philosopher Inoue Tetsujiro and others; around 1700, Bushido did not exist, the ideology of the samurai was Confucianism (I know this is against popular opinion, but please read the wonderful study Inventing the Way of the Samurai by Oleg Benesch if you still need to be convinced!). Moreover, the action by the Ako ronin was an anomaly: it was the only case in the long Edo-period of a lord being avenged by his retainers! Revenge killings (adauchi) occurred, but only in cases when the killing of a parent had gone unpunished - wholly in line with Confucianism. Confucianism does stress loyalty, but the most important virtue is filial piety, "loyalty to the own parents," rather then to the ruler. 

But even if lord-vassal vendettas had been the rule, the Ako Incident would not have fit the definition, because Kira did not kill Asano. Kira was merely the plaintiff in a case in which the shogunate condemned Asano to death. 

So rather than an exemplary manifestation of samurai behavior, the Ako Incident was unique and anomalous - and that is why it still continues to attract such a lot of interest. Various alternative motivations for the action of Oishi and his fellow ronin have been proposed. By the confiscation of the domain, the Ako retainers had lost their income and position, and perhaps they thought they could regain their former status by demonstrating their prowess via this martial deed. They may also have wanted to distinguish themselves in front of potential new employers. These views are supported by the fact that they did not immediately perform seppuku when offering Kira's head to the grave of their former master - they had no clear course of further action and seem to have waited for the reaction of society. And indeed, the reaction from the authorities took six weeks to formulate, so this was apparently not a clear-cut case.

[The grave of Oishi Kuranosuke]

Fiction - Popular Performance Arts
The uniqueness of the case and the mysterious motivations of its protagonists, soon made this story of the "Tormented Lord" and his "Loyal Retainers" extremely popular as fictional material, although the action had to be transposed back several centuries and the identities of its actors had to be hidden as commentaries and plays about contemporary events and persons were forbidden by the shogunate. Between 1706 and 1892 about seventy Kabuki and puppet plays were written about this hot subject. 

The most famous of these became Kanadehon Chushingura, "Kana practice book Treasury of the Loyal Retainers," an 11-act bunraku puppet play from 1748 (a Kabuki version of the same play also soon appeared; in Kabuki it became customary to perform just a few selected acts and not the whole work). The "kana practice book" in the title refers to the coincidence that the number of ronin matches the number of kana syllables. In this play, the personal relation between Oishi and his lord is the central element; he takes possession of the dagger used by Asano during his seppuku and this becomes his keepsake, almost a fetish; in the end he will plunge the weapon into his lord's enemy. Kanedehon Chushingura also made the loyalty of the retainers a central theme and as the shogunate saw this as a desirable virtue, they allowed the Forty-Seven Loyal Retainers to become popular heroes - in 1703, the historical retainers had rather been seen as a threat to the state as they had upset the order in Edo. The virtue of loyalty was thereby promoted among commoners - samurai, by the way, did not visit Kabuki or the puppet theater, their form of theater was the Noh.

[Graves of the rank and file of the retainers in Sengakuji]

In Kanadehon Chushingura the names of the protagonists have been changed and the story is transported several centuries back. Asano Naganori becomes Enya Hangan, Kira Yoshinaka becomes Ko no Morono and Oishi Kuranosuke Oboshi Yuranosuke. The division of the story is as follows (note the generous addition of fictional elements):

Act I: The Hachiman Shrine (Introduction in which Ko no Morono tries to seduce the wife of Enya Hangan)
Act II: The Mansion of Wakanosuke (Wakanosuke, a colleague of Enya Hangan, wants to kill Morono but is prevented by his retainer)
Act III. The Pine Corridor (The taunted Enya Hangan attacks Ko no Morono)
Act IV: Enya Hangan's Seppuku (The seppuku scene; with his dying breath Enya Hangan asks Oboshi Yuranosuke to avenge his death)
Act V: Musket Shots on the Yamazaki Highway (Kanpei, a former retainer of Enya Hangan who wants to join the vendetta, by mistake shoots a robber and finds a purse with cash)
Act VI: Kanpei's Seppuku (Kanpei mistakenly thinks in the previous scene he has killed his father-in-law and commits suicide)
Act VII: The Ichiriki Teahouse (Yuranosuke pretends to be debauched by making fun in Kyoto's licensed quarter)
Act VIII: The Bride's Journey (Konami, the betrothed of Yuranosuke's son Rikiya, travels to Yamashina)
Act IX: The Retreat at Yamashina (Yuranosuke's wife is against the marriage of her son with Konami, but relents when Konami's father Honzo commits suicide to atone for his act of restraining Enya Hangan in the past)
Act X: The House of Amakawaya Gihei (The ronin test the trustworthiness of Gihei, a Sakai merchant who will transport their weapons to Edo)
Act XI: The Attack on Morono's Mansion (The assassination of Morono, whose head is then carried to Hangan's grave)

Certain elements of this Bunraku / Kabuki play became standard to the story; others proved more extraneous. Central were acts III, IV, VII, and XI.

[The well where the Ronin washed Kira's head at Sengakuji, Tokyo]

In the 19th c. the story of the Forty-Seven Loyal Retainers also was taken up by Kodan storytellers. Kodan evolved out of lectures on historical topics given to high-ranking nobles and samurai. Because of these origins it is usually performed sitting behind a lectern, and using wooden clappers or a fan to mark the rhythm of the recitation. In the Edo-period it became a popular form of entertainment. Kodan storytellers were mainly responsible for further developing the character of Lord Asano. He was turned into a sincere and pure youth (reason why in later films he is usually clothed in light blue), who suffers various humiliations because he refuses to give his mentor Kira a bribe. While in Kanadehon Chushingura Kira's lust for Asano's wife had been the impetus of the tragedy, the role of women became rather insignificant in the Kodan versions of the story and the theme of loyalty among men was further emphasized.   

That submissiveness became even more important in another genre which came up at the beginning of the 20th c., rokyoku or naniwabushi, a form of storytelling with shamisen accompaniment, often about sad subjects. All romantic interludes were cut and complete loyalty was stressed. This also fit the atmosphere after the Russo-Japanese war of 1905, when feudal loyalty was associated with loyalty toward the emperor. 

[Souvenir shop selling replicas of the drum used to sound the attack at Kira's mansion]

Fiction - The Movies
This is also the period when the first film versions of Chushingura were made, often combining episodes from Kabuki and Kodan. Chushingura films were generally box office hits, they served to propagate the ideal of loyalty and self-sacrifice on a massive scale. In total about 70 film versions of the story were made in the 20th c. (mainly between 1907 and 1962), plus about 30 TV versions.

The first Chushingura film based on a Kabuki play was made in 1907, and Japan's pioneer director Makino Shozo shot his first (of many) Chushingura films in 1910, with Japan's first star actor Onoe Matsunosuke in the main role, that of the leader of the 47 Ronin, Oishi Kuranosuke. The whole movie (including the sub-stories) consisted of 130 film rolls, so it rivaled the large films of D.W. Griffiths in length. This is the oldest surviving version of the story, and the oldest surviving print of any Japanese feature film. A completely static camera just films scene by scene from a performance of Onoe's Kabuki troupe. Onoe starred in at least eight other versions of Chushingura, but these were all lost. In contrast to naniwabushi, Makino Shozo tried to attract women viewers by drawing out the parting scene between Oishi and his wife. But "male bonding" remained paramount, as can be seen in the "tender parting looks" exchanged between Asano, on his way to seppuku, and one of his retainers in many later film versions.

Some of the more important prewar film adaptations were the 1928 version by Makino Shozo, called Jitsuroku Chushingura (A true record of Chushingura), made to celebrate the 50th birthday of the director (although the negatives were destroyed by a fire, about an hour of this film has been restored from existent prints); the 1934 Nikkatsu version with Okochi Denjiro as Oishi; and the 1938 Nikkatsu version with Bando Tsumasaburo as Oishi.

[Gate of Sengakuji, Tokyo]

Renewal in this period came from the popular novel, which had also picked up the 47 Ronin theme. The most famous of these was Ako Roshi or The Ronin from Ako by Osaragi Jiro from 1927. In line wth the liberal trend of the 1920s, Osaragi turned the loyalty of Oishi and his fellow retainers into anger at the injustice of their lord's death sentence, and interpreted the assassination of Kira as protest against a corrupt government. But also in nationalistic accounts of the story, it became common to describe Oishi's times as degenerate. And Osaragi's theme of upright men in corrupt times also appealed to rightists, who saw themselves in a similar position. Osaragi's novel, by the way, had much influence on Chushingura films from the 1950s and early 1960s. 

In 1934 another stage in the development of the 47 Ronin story was reached with the modern Kabuki play Genroku Chushingura by Mayama Seika ("Genroku" is the name of the period in which the incident took place). The author placed emphasis on historical accuracy and took for his central theme the fear of Oishi that his loyalty toward his dead lord could be construed as disloyalty toward the emperor (this theme was of course totally ahistorical, as the emperor in Kyoto did not play any role in the minds of samurai living around 1700). This was a new interpretation and one of the high points of the play is that Oishi is secretly told of the emperor's approval. Overjoyed, he is now determined to act on his decision. Heavily based on the naniwabushi version, Mayama in fact celebrated modern patriotism.

[Oishi's mansion in Banshu-Ako]

This modern Kabuki play became the basis of the film made in 1941 and 1942 by Mizoguchi Kenji. The film shows its wartime origin in its sober and grave dignity. On top of that, Mizoguchi left out the final vendetta in the snow, as well as the tormenting scenes between Kira and Asano, which were Kodan additions. But in this way Oishi's loyalty was made into something unconditional and impersonal, simply directed toward anyone in a higher position. This is most dramatically illustrated when Oishi bows in front of the ancestral altar of Asano and is shot by an overhead camera as if bowing for some kind of god. After the assassination of Kira, he bows in the same way for the proclamation allowing him to commit seppuku. In other words, what we see here is total submission to authority - Mizoguchi has given perfect expression to Japan's wartime ideology. The military had demanded this film from Shochiku because the studio had failed to make a sufficient number of "national policy films." This internalized, ideological version of the famous story, however, flopped at the box office as Mizoguchi had left out the fighting scenes people enjoyed most. Despite the monumental visuals (which have made the film posthumously famous), I find it rather boring and certainly not one of Mizoguchi's best films.

How did the story of the 47 Loyal Retainers fare in Japan's democratic, postwar period? The large number of films on this subject made between 1952 and 1962 demonstrates that, while very few postwar Japanese would support the feudal virtue of loyalty toward a superior, Oishi's devotion to his dead lord was still considered as appealing. Many of the films were based on Osaragi Jiro's novel, and the element of criticism of a corrupt government was strong.

During the Occupation period (1945-1952) feudal subjects had been forbidden in films, so immediately after Japan was free from foreign authority, a veritable flood of such subject matter was released in cinema houses around the country. The popularity of period films remained strong until the early 1960s, when the genre moved to TV and yakuza took the place of samurai on the big screen.

[A restored corner tower of Ako Castle]

Between 1952 and 1962 there were at least nine major productions of Chushingura films: four by the Toei studio, two by Daiei, two by Shochiku and one by Toho. As the Japanese knew this often repeated story by heart, most directors took a certain familiarity with the story-line for granted, although usually none of the famous scenes were entirely cut. In fact, the films made in this period are rather similar and also include literal remakes (sometimes by the same director and with the same group of actors).

Toei was a new studio especially set up to make period films. The company managed to gather many great period film actors under its umbrella and soon grew into the largest producer of films. It made the first film about the loyal retainers immediately after the ban on period films had been lifted, in March 1952 (Ako Castle (Akojo) by Hagiwara Ryo, with Kataoka Chiezo as both Asano and Oishi). The other Toei Chushingura movies were made by one and the same director: Matsuda Sadatsugu (1906-2003), a Toei genre director who was the son of pioneer director Makino Shozo and half-brother of the better-known director Makino Masahiro: in 1956 Ako Roshi (The Ako Retainers), based on the above mentioned "liberal" novel by Osaragi Jiro, with a screenplay by Shindo Kaneto; in 1959 Chushingura, and in 1961 a remake of Ako Roshi. Oishi was played either by Ichikawa Utaemon or Kataoka Chiezo.

In the 1956 version I especially like the scene where Ichikawa Utaemon is finally on the way to Edo for the vendetta; he hides his identity and pretends to be a certain "Tachibana Sakon." But to his consternation suddenly the real Tachibana Sakon appears in front of him (played by Kataoka Chiezo). The confrontation between the two great actors consists of a largely non-verbal "conversation," with as result that the real Tachibana Sakon clears the field to help Oishi.

[Ukiyoe depicting the assault of Asano on Kira
in the Great Pine Corridor of Edo Castle]

Daiei was known for its magnificent period films as Rashomon and Ugetsu, and also the lavish color film The Gate of Hell. The Daiei Chushingura version of 1958, with Watanabe Kunio as director, shines through the large number of actresses taking part (typical for Daiei), albeit in minor roles: Kyo Machiko as a spy on behalf of Kira; Yamamoto Fujiko as Asano's wife; Kogure Michiko as the top-class prostitute (Taiyu) Ukihashi; Awashima Chikage as Oishi's wife; and Wakao Ayako as Orin, a carpenter's daughter who obtains a map of Kira's mansion for the assassins. Hasegawa Kazuo played Oishi and Ichikawa Raizo Asano. A solid classical version that however looses a bit steam after the first 30 minutes. An interesting scene is when Oishi brings Ukihashi, his new "girlfriend" home and asks his surprised wife to kindly clear out of the premises - despicable behavior that is even too much for the Taiyu Ukihashi! But Oishi wanted to demonstrate that he was totally debauched and not anymore interested in vengeance.

The 1962 Chushingura version by Inagaki Hiroshi made for Toho is usually considered as the best of these classical postwar versions. It is a lavish adaptation in two parts (Hana no Maki, Yuki no Maki), with Matsumoto Kojiro as Oishi. Sets and scenery are gorgeous. Lord Asano is presented as the incarnation of sincerity. The film pays much attention to the detailed political dealings between the very large group of characters, sometimes dropping the pace to a crawl, but ends with a riveting, climactic battle scene. Hara Setsuko played her last film role here, as the wife of Oishi. Among the all-star cast was also Mifune Toshiro, for whom a new subplot had been devised.

[Ukiyoe version by Yoshitoshi of the attack on Kira's mansion]

After 1962, only two major films on the subject of Chushingura were made in the rest of the century, simply because the period drama had moved to the new medium of television. That is where many Chushingura adaptations saw the light of day, in fact until the present times. Some major productions are the NHK drama Ako Roshi from 1964 (with Hasegawa Kazuo as Oishi); Dai-Chushingura with Mifune Toshiro by Asahi TV; the same company's 1979 version called Ako Roshi with Nakamura Kinnosuke; and the 1990 Chushingura with Beat Takeshi by TBS, to name a few.

The two feature films - the only ones remarkable in the last five and half decades - are Akojo Danzetsu (The Fall of Ako Castle), by maverick yakuza film director Fukasaku Kinji (Toei, 1978), with Nakamura Kinnosuke (Oishi), Chiba Shinichi and Watase Tsunehiko; and Shijushichinin no shikaku or Forty-Seven Assassins made in 1994 by veteran director Ichiwaka Kon. Fukasaku's film sparkles in the mob scenes, like his Battles Without Honor and Humanity film series, but for the rest his treatment of the story is remarkably conservative. More interesting is the film by Ichikawa, featuring Takakura Ken as Oishi, and based on a novel by Ikemiya Shoichiro, which provided a fresh perspective on the old story. For example, it starts in medias res, the story of Asano's seppuku is told in flashbacks; Takakura Ken's Oishi is cool and stoic, in contrast to the emotional performances by Kataoka Chiezo or Hasegawa Kazuo; he falls in love with a young woman (Miyazawa Rie) who joins him while he is lying low in Yamashina and even bears his child (no playing around with geisha or taiyu here) - therefore Oishi is torn between a new beginning or a violent finale to his life; Asano is not taunted by Kira for private reasons, but becomes the victim of an economic power struggle with the strong Uesugi clan (more convincing); Kira has defended his mansion with ninja-like traps, what leads to a riveting fight scene. Is the last major film version also the best? Contrary to other critics who are generally more negative about this film (they find that it is too far removed from the classical story), it gets my vote - together with the classical Inagaki version.
Partly based on information from Archetypes in Japanese Film by Gregory Barrett and Inventing the Way of the Samurai by Oleg Benesch, as well as Japanese Classical Theater in Films by Keiko I. Macdonald. 

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Hyakunin Isshu (One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each): Poem 24 (Sugawara no Michizane)

Hyakunin Isshu, Poem 24

kono tabi wa
nusa mo toriaezu
Tamukeyama
momiji no nishiki
kami no mani mani

このたびは
幣もとりあへず
手向山
紅葉のにしき
神のまにまに

on my present journey
I couldn't bring sacred streamers
to Offering Hill
so perhaps this brocade of autumn leaves
is to the gods' liking...

Sugawara no Michizane (845-903)

[Brocade of colored leaves at Kiyomizu Temple, Kyoto 
- photo Ad Blankestijn]

A poem about the beauty of the autumn leaves at Offering Hill - a beauty typical for this place and its kami. It is a characteristic Kokinshu poem containing a witticism based on a pun between a placename (Tamukeyama) and the conceit of autumn leaves as brocade.

In the Kokinshu this poem is accompanied by a headnote which says: "Composed at Tamukeyama, when the Suzaku Retired Emperor made a trip to Nara." The Retired Emperor Suzaku was Emperor Uda (867-931; reigned 887-897); the trip in question, an elaborate excursion to Nara and Sumiyoshi, was made in 898.  

"Tabi" in the first line is a pivot word that refers both to "this time" and "at this trip," so I have translated it as "on my present journey." 

"Nusa" in line 2 refers to a wooden wand used in Shinto rituals which is decorated with many shide (zig-zagging paper streamers). They are usually white, but can also be gold, silver, or a mixture of several colors - as here where they are so to speak made of the autumn colors.  

[A nusa with white shide in the Kenkun Shrine in Kyoto
- photo Ad Blankestijn]

"Toriaezu," normally "unable to take properly," here means "unable to bring." Japanese commentators usually debate the why: could the poet not bring a proper offering because of the suddenness of Emperor Uda's excursion? This is very unlikely, considering the elaborateness of the procession. Or does Michizane mean that he could not bring a private offering as it was a public trip? 

"Tamukeyama," "Offering Hill," is not the famous Tamuke Hachiman Shrine in Nara's Todaiji, but Tamukeyama was a general name for hills where travelers made offerings to the gods for a safe journey. The poem's Tamukeyama would then perhaps be somewhere between Kyoto and Nara. 

To compare autumn leaves (koyo) to brocade (nishiki) was conventional. "Manimani" is "to the liking of."

[Kitano Tenmangu Shrine Kyoto 
- photo Ad Blankestijn]

Sugawara no Michizane (845-903) was an exceptional scholar of Chinese literature, an accomplished poet, as well as an important politician. He was born into a family of scholars, which in his time meant that they were specialists in the Chinese Classics, Dynastic Histories, etc. After passing the civil-service examination in 870, he entered the Japanese court. In 886 he was appointed governor of Sanuki Province on the island of Shikoku. Sugawara returned to Kyoto in 890 and next was promoted to a number of important posts by Emperor Uda, who used him to counterbalance the influence of the powerful Fujiwara family. By 899 he was made Minister of the Right (Udaijin), the second most important ministerial position, by Uda's son, the Emperor Daigo. But Emperor Uda had by now abdicated, and Michizane had lost his precious support. Emperor Daigo favored the Fujiwara, and in 901 Fujiwara Tokihira, Sugawara's rival, convinced the emperor that Sugawara was plotting treason. Sugawara was banished from the capital and demoted to a minor administrative post in Dazaifu on the island of Kyushu. 

[Dazaifu Tenmangu in Dazaifu, Kyushu
- photo Ad Blankestijn]

Following Sugawara's death there two years later, a series of calamities (storms, fires and violent deaths) were attributed to his vengeful spirit. To placate that spirit, Sugawara was posthumously reinstated to high rank; in addition, the Kitano Tenmangu Shrine was built in Kyoto where Michizane was worshiped as the deity Tenman Tenjin. Tenjin was originally a god of thunder related to agriculture, but since Michizane became Tenjin, this deity was transformed into the patron god of study, poetry, calligraphy and the performing arts. 

Michizane's writings include a history of Japan (written in Chinese) and two collections of Chinese poetry. There are also numerous local Tenmangu shrines throughout Japan - of which some, such as those in Osaka, Dazaifu, and Hofu are very famous - at which schoolchildren buy amulets for luck during the period of school entrance examinations in the spring. 


[Bull statue in Kitano Tenmangu, Kyoto 
- photo Ad Blankestijn]

Michizane is associated both with bulls and plum trees. Bulls because, according to legend, during Michizane's funeral procession, the bull pulling the cart bearing his remains refused to go any further than a certain spot, where later the Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine was built. Like other Shinto deities who employ animals as spirit messengers (Inari shrines have the fox, Hachiman shrines pigeons, Kasuga shrines deer, etc.), so the bull became the typical animal of the Tenmangu shrines and one often finds fine bull statues in the shrine grounds (always lying down, as Michizane's bull refused to continue on its way).

Plum trees (ume) became associated with Michizane because he was very fond of this tree, often eulogized in Chinese poetry, and wrote a famous poem from exile in which he lamented the absence of a particular tree he had loved in his garden in the capital. According to legend, that tree then flew to Dazaifu where it still stands in front of the shrine. Tenmangu shrines often have a park with plum trees. 

[Plum blossoms in Kitano Tenmangu, Kyoto 
- photo Ad Blankestijn]


[Kokinshu 420]
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, December 16, 2016

Best Twentieth Century Operas (5): Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Die tote Stadt (1920)

Die tote Stadt (The Dead City) by Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) is the last of the great fin-de-siecle Viennese operas, first performed in 1920 in Vienna and Hamburg. The city in the title refers not to Vienna, but to Bruges in Belgium, as the libretto written by Korngold with his father, the music critic Julius Korngold, was based on a major (but now forgotten) novel by the Belgian Francophone author Georges Rodenbach (1855-98). This book, entitled Bruges-la-Morte, is a melancholic story about an obsessive love over the grave: a man is obsessed with the memory of his deceased wife and tries to mold a dancer, who uncannily resembles her, after his wife, with tragic results (note that the same idea was later taken up in the film Vertigo by Alfred Hitchcock!).

[Scene from the opera, 2015 Graz - Photo Wikipedia]

Bruges-La-Morte is the iconic Symbolist novel. The movement in poetry, music and the visual arts, developed by Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Verlaine, centered on the idea that the truth in art could only be represented indirectly (thus discarding Realism and Naturalism). This could be done by writing in a metaphorical and suggestive manner, thus endowing particular images or objects with symbolic meaning. It is an art which is elusive and shuns direct utterance. It seeks half-tones rather than strong colors. But it is also characterized by a certain mysticism and a preoccupation with death, with swans and lilies, and an obsession with woman's hair (as in the Symbolist opera Pelléas et Mélisande by Debussy, where Mélisande's abnormally long hair, longer than her whole figure, is fetishized). The same hair fetish occurs in Die tote Stadt (see below).

The initial setting is the same in both novel and opera. The main character is Hugues (called Paul in the opera), a young widower who, distraught at his wife's death several years before, has moved to Bruges. Bruges (in Flemish: Brugge), once the major trading city of Belgium (and today a bright tourist attraction), in the 19th century had become a dead town, dreaming of the past amid the mystic peace of its churches and cloisters, and for Hugues/Paul the desolate cityscape with its dark and stagnant canals symbolizes his own mood. There he sits brooding among the relics of his beloved dead wife (called Marie in the opera) – her clothes, her letters and portraits, and most importantly, a length of her long blond hair kept almost religiously in a crystal casket.

[Scene from the opera, 2015 Graz - Photo Wikipedia]

In this way, he has erected an altar of sorrow and remembrance to his wife. Hugues/Paul has no occupation and rarely leaves the house. His only activity is a daily walk through the deserted and dusky streets of the old town, under the shadows of the ancient walls, listening to the bells of the many churches, often longing himself for death, hoping to meet his beloved in a new life beyond the grave. It is a situation halfway between reality and dream. The memory of his wife monopolizes his every thought and deed. In fact, he is in the thralls of a morbid and unwholesome cult.

But then chance brings an ambulant opera troupe to the city, among whose members is a dancer named Jane Scott (Marietta in the opera), who bears an uncanny resemblance to his dead wife, especially as regards her long, yellow-gold hair. Hugues/Paul seeks contact with the dancer and is surprised to discover that even her voice is similar to that of his deceased wife. Confused, he transfers the feelings for his dead wife to the new Jane/Marietta, and dreams to renew an ideal union. He imagines that the dancer has been brought to him by the intervention of supernatural forces.

Here novel and opera libretto part company. In the novel, Hugues courts Jane and is briefly happy, although his romance with her is in fact scandalous (in the 19th c. operatic dancing girls were virtually prostitutes). She becomes his kept mistress, and he rents a room in the suburbs for her where he pays daily visits; he also has her give up her profession. But of course, no two people are similar and Hugues soon discovers that the character of the new woman is very different from that of his deceased partner: for one thing, being who she is, she is far coarser. She mocks him when he asks her to wear his dead wife's dresses, as these have become too old-fashioned. His infatuation also has become the scandal of the town and sets numerous tongues wagging. The final scene plays out in Hugues' house. An annual religious procession, the Procession of the Holy Blood, will make the rounds of Bruges and also pass by Hugues' windows, so Jane begs to be allowed to visit his house to watch the event. Jane comes for the first time to his house, and is interested in the portrait of his wife (“She looks like me”), without realizing what she is seeing. When finally she dares touch the precious coil of hair, just when the procession is passing, and jokingly winds it around her neck, Hugues in a frenzy strangles her.

[Paul and Marietta in a scene from the opera, 2015 Graz - Photo Wikipedia]

Perhaps because the novel was considered too scandalous for bourgeois sensibilities, in the opera the relation between Jane/Marietta and Hugues/Paul is presented as a vision, a dream brought about by Paul's ecstatic mood upon seeing a woman who looks like his dead wife. Although in his dream he sees her true character as she appears surrounded by her many lovers, she still manages to fascinate her weak admirer, conquering him with a beautiful Lute Song. When she later visits his home, full of the relics of his dead wife, she wants him to embrace her just at the moment when the religious procession (as in the novel) passes by. Paul is appalled at her lack of piety. Next Marietta snatches up the relic, the golden strand of the dead woman's hair, winds it around her neck, and begins to dance. Frantic with rage as Marietta desecrates what he holds most sacred, Paul flings himself upon her and strangles her with the strand of hair. Here the vision ends. Paul wakes up only to see Marietta stand in front of him - in reality, she has only now for the first time arrived at his house - but he sends her away as the vision has cured him of his infatuation. He even decides to leave Bruges, the dead city.

The opera consists of beautiful, elusive music and is the supreme masterwork of the then only 23-year old composer. Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) was an Austro-Hungarian composer who astonished the musical world as a composing wunderkind. Mahler proclaimed him a genius at age nine (!), after which he started lessons with Alexander von Zemlinsky. Korngold wrote orchestral music, piano music and chamber works, besides songs and operas.

Die tote Stadt was a great hit, and it made a triumphal tour around the world – until the Nazis forbade it as Jewish music, while the immediate postwar generations were only interested in twelve-tone music. The lavish Straussian music brings out the tension between sexual desire and ideal aspiration, decay and death, and shifts from gloomy orchestral interludes to high-soaring song.

Forced out of Austria by the rise of Nazism, in 1934 Korngold moved to Hollywood where he became a pioneer in composing film scores - along with  Max Steiner and Alfred Newman, he is one of the founders of film music. His serious music (which includes a beautiful Violin Concerto) was considered out of vogue at the time he died, but is now experiencing a reawakening of interest, and Die tote Stadt is also again staged in opera houses today.

The opera Die tote Stadt by Erich Korngold is available on DVD (Dynamic) with Stefan Vinke as Paul and Solveig Kringelborn as Marietta/Marie, the Orchestra e Coro del Teatro La Fenice with Eliahu Inbal as conductor and choreography by Pierre Luigi Pizzi.
Twentieth Century Opera Index



Thursday, December 15, 2016

Hyakunin Isshu (One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each): Poem 23 (Oe no Chisato)

Hyakunin Isshu, Poem 23

tsuki mireba
chiji ni mono koso
kanashikere
waga mi hitotsu no
aki ni wa aranedo
    
月見れば
千々に物こそ
悲しけれ
わが身ひとつの
秋にはあらねど

when I view the moon
I feel the sadness
of a thousand things
yet it is not autumn
for me alone

Oe no Chisato (fl. 889-923)

[Oe no Chisato]

When viewing the moon, the poet experiences the sad feelings brought about by autumn. 

The idea that autumn was a season of sadness (and, for example, not of joyful harvesting) was introduced by Chinese poetry and had become conventional in the early Heian-period (in the course of the 9th c.). It was often combined with feelings of loneliness. 

It is perhaps not coincidental that the present poet, Oe no Chisato, was one of the most famous poets in Chinese of his day; he also created a bridge between Chinese and Japanese poetry by writing the Kudai Waka in 894, where he composed 110 waka poems each based on a line of Chinese shi-poetry. 

Although not part of the Kudai Waka, also for the present poem a Chinese origin has been suggested: in the Yanzilou sanshou, three jueju by Bai Juyi (772-846) which were also included in the Japanese anthology Wakan Roeishu. The first of these was probably alluded to by Oe no Chisato and is as follows:

滿窗明月滿簾霜
被冷燈殘拂臥床
燕子樓中霜月夜
秋來祇為一人長

The bright moon fills my window, frost fills my curtains
My blanket is cold, the lamp's last light brushes my bed. 
In Swallow Tower, the frosty moonlit night,
Since autumn came, is for me alone drawn-out.

[Bai Juyi]

Bai Juyi wrote these poems about Panpan, a singing girl who after her patron (a minister) died, remained true to him and never married - she continued living alone in a tower called Swallow Tower on his estate. Although the poem by Oe no Chisato was in later times read as a lament by the poet himself, from this link with Bai Juyi it is clear that the speaker of the poem was intended to be a woman, the singing girl. Oe however turns the meaning of the last line on its head: Where the Chinese says that "since autumn came, the frosty moonlit night is long for me alone," Oe maintains in contrast that "it is not autumn for me alone."

Oe no Chisato was a nephew of Yukihira (poem 16) and Narihira (poem 17). He was a Confucian scholar and waka poet and flourished around 889 to 923. Ten of his waka were included in the Kokinshu.

[Kokinshu 193]
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, December 7, 2016

Kanzake - the season of warm sake

Years ago when I started making promotion for sake, the main "enemy" was the wrong image of the brew caused by the piping hot sake served in all too many restaurants, not only abroad, but also in Japan. For this hot sake, the cheapest kind of regular sake was used, the one with additions of sugar and flavorings, which after imbibing may cause a headache the next day - so a beverage not really successful in winning friends for sake. In Japan, I mostly used to meet this beverage at bonenkai (year end parties) when restaurants try to keep prices as low as possible and party goers drink as much as possible to steep the past year in forgetfulness... I have heard this stuff designated as "jet fuel" and that is a very apt evaluation!

[Sake warmer (yukanki) made from Shigaraki ware. Hot water is poured into the large pot, then the tokkuri is placed in it until the sake has the right temperature. In this way, you can warm your sake at the table!]

So in order to position quality sake as something radically different from this fuel-type sake, we mainly promoted sake as a beverage that had to be drunk cold, and that was right as we were often dealing with ginjo-type sake. Serving cool is after all the right way for (most) ginjos and daiginjos, nigori sake, shiboritate, sparkling sake, unpasteurized or half-pasteurized sake, and so on. But there is also sake which is delicious when drunk warm!

These are in the first place junmai sakes (junmai-shu); and also honjozo and regular sake (yes, there is also quite drinkable regular sake (although I prefer junmai-shu), as long as you check the label and stay away from those to which sugar and flavorings have been added!). And as a general rule, sakes made with the kimoto and yamahai methods are particularly suitable for drinking warm (sometimes even the ginjo's).

[Daishichi junmai kimoto "CLASSIC" is an excellent sake to drink warm]

But an important point here is: what is warm? As you can see from the fact that I on purpose use the more neutral term "warm" instead of "hot," many sakes - especially the better junmai sakes - should be drunk lukewarm, something between 40 and 45 degrees Celsius, so a comfortable temperature that lies just above body temperature. At this temperature sake gets a heart-warming roundness and friendliness. Sakes which cold or at room temperature may have seemed a bit "difficult" or "harsh," at this temperature open up and show a most amiable character.

So the term "hot sake" is not really very good and I propose we start using the more fitting Japanese term "kanzake." "Kan" 燗 itself already means "warmed sake" or "warming up sake;" "kan wo suru" means "to warm sake" and "kanzake" is the normal term for "warmed sake."

Another point is how to warm your sake. The best way by far is bain-marie: just put the tokkuri with the sake in a container with hot water (not boiling or on the fire) and use a kitchen thermometer to check the temperature of the sake inside.

Kanzake is also the time to use your tokkuri (earthenware or porcelain sake bottle) and choko (sake cups). These are very nice for kanzake, but not very suitable for cold sake (a ginjo or daiginjo should have more space to breath and develop its aroma, so here a glass like a wine glass is best; and I like to drink my junmai-shu when cold from earthenware or glass cups that are larger than the usual choko). Collecting such tokkuri and choko from different areas of Japan (which all have their own type of earthenware) is great fun, even more so when using them for your winter kanzake!

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

"The Other Side" by Alfred Kubin (Book Review)

In my overview of the Austrian novel, I forgot to include one very interesting book, The Other Side by Alfred Kubin, a great example of European fantastic fiction.

One day, the anonymous narrator of the story receives a surprising visitor, who has come to give him the following message: "Claus Patera, absolute master of the Dream Kingdom, has sent me as his agent, to invite you to move to his country." As Claus Patera was an old school friend of the narrator, he accepts the invitation and travels with his wife to Pearl, the capital of the Dream Kingdom, which is situated somewhere deep in central Asia. But the dream is soon the become a nightmare... this is not a Shangri-la story.

When this decadent, expressionist novel, with the German title Die andere Seite, appeared, it was greeted enthusiastically by Expressionist and Surrealistic artists, not least of all by Kafka himself.

The author Alfred Kubin (1877-1959) was a Symbolist and Expressionist graphic artist, who wrote this fantastic novel set in an oppressive imaginary land - his only literary work - in 1908. Born in Litoměřice, in the Bohemian part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Kubin studied painting in Munich, where he became interested in the prints of Max Klinger. In 1911, he joined the Expressionist Blaue Reiter group. He is known for his dark, spectral fantasies, often grouped into thematic series of drawings; he also illustrated books by Poe, Hoffman and Dostoevsky - illustrations he originally made for The Golem by Gustav Meyrink were in fact used for The Other Side. Kubin was also a life-long friend of Paul Klee.

Kubin started his career just when Freud published “The Interpretation of Dreams,” and it is clear he made a careful study of dreams himself. His black-and-white drawings have been called "a guide into the shadowy corners of the unconscious." The same is true for The Other Side, where the Dream Kingdom becomes the setting for a hallucinatory vision of a society founded on instinct over reason. The novel culminates in a dizzyingly surrealistic apocalypse. What started as a utopia, soon becomes a dystopia and then a terrible cataclysm - the narrator is the only one who escapes to tell the tale.

Kubin wrote this novel in only twelve weeks, working day and night, when he suffered from a blockage to draw. Finishing the novel left him with new confidence as an artist.

There is little plot in the novel, although it starts out as an adventure story; the main element is the description of the dream city Pearl and its collapse.

The city of Pearl is protected by a great surrounding wall. The whole town consists of old houses, transported here from all over the world, and filled with antique furniture. The inhabitants also dress in the clothes of a previous generation. All have been summoned here by Patera because of some psychological quirk, such as hysteria, or a mania for gambling, or a physical peculiarity such as a hunchback or a huge nose.

There is no sun in this grey city, but only a filtered twilight. The narrator finds employment as illustrator to a newspaper, but fails to contact his school friend Patera, who hides behind an impenetrable bureaucracy, as the ruler in Kafka's The Castle. His rule is challenged by a newcomer, an energetic American millionaire, Hercules Bell, and finally the struggle between these two factions will take down the city in blood and nightmare. The narrator - whose wife has died miserably - barely escapes with his life.

How should we read The Other Side? There are various possibilities:

- As a satire on the Austro-Hungarian state: for example, the description of the city as wholly consisting of antiquarian buildings and objects could be seen as a critique of a country that is severely behind the times. Interestingly, the ruler, Claus Patera, rules his country via the dreams of the people, and via hypnotism. The name Patera = Pater = Father suggests authoritarianism and also Austro-Hungary was governed by an emperor who was a father-figure and who was getting more and more antiquarian with his advancing high age. Kubin's description of the absurd bureaucracy is reminiscent of Kafka's in The Trial and The Castle, two novels also inspired by nightmarish elements in the Habsburg state.

- As a satire on reactionary, idealist utopianism evident in German thought in the early 20th c. Everybody in the dream-realm is under a sort of irrational spell, but it is not easy to see what that spell exactly is.

- The novel also contains a satire on American capitalism, in the figure of the above-mentioned Hercules Bell, who challenges Patera with industrialization and modernization, but who also brings insecurity, deracination and destruction.

Although written in a matter-of-fact style, the novel is filled with an atmosphere of gloom, doom and threat. Kubin aptly uses dream symbols and dream situations, such as the scene of a blind mare galloping along a tunnel in the dark, threatening the narrator. The Other Side is a wild ride, filled with memorable visions.

The culmination of the novel is a great literary feat, an apocalypse with plagues of insects, mountains of corpses and orgies in the street. The houses literally decay and fall apart, the city is overrun by all sorts of wildlife, dissolving into the primal and decadent. In the end Patera and Bell merge into a terrible double monster, that then gradually dissolves. Kubin was not for nothing in the first place a painter and we see here echoes of such art works as Pieter Brueghel's The Triumph of Death. It all ends with a downpour of filth, entrails, body parts and carcasses of beasts and men.