Japan Cuts 2018 Film Festival at the Japan Society

This past few weeks I  volunteered for the Japan Society Film Department’s annual Japan Cuts film festival, which screens a host of new Japanese blockbusters, avant-garde films, and documentaries. This 10-day festival included 30+ films shown in the Japan Society’s mainstage space, as well as numerous shorts being screened on a loop in the Japan Society Murase room.

Admittedly, I only saw a small cross-section of films- to see them all would have required an insane time commitment and to be honest, for some reason, I get a horrible headache after staring at a screen for more than a few hours, so watching films back-to-back-to-back is hard for me.

That being said, the films I did see ran the gamut of stuff I really liked to things I just plain hated- but I guess that is the point of a film festival, right? So, here’s what I saw-

SATURDAY JULY 21 @10:15PMNIGHT IS SHORT, WALK ON GIRL (夜は短し歩けよ乙女) and DREAMLAND.

Dreamland was a short that preceded Night is Short, by experimental animator Mizue Mirai. There was a blurb before the short saying this was an ongoing project from the 1960s, but since Mizue was born in 1981, I’m not quite sure what that meant. Mizue is known for cell-based animation that, of late, hyper-focused on linear shapes. This was quite clear from the showing, as it might best be described as a game of Q-Bert on acid. Squares and rectangles undulate to the pulsing beat of Scarlatti Goes electronica score, transforming into various cityscapes. As I am no animation expert, I don’t have a lot to say about this one, but it was cool.

maxresdefault

Night is Short, Walk on Girl is filmmaker Yuasa Masaaki’s first feature length in a decade. Yuasa has the distinction of being an animation director for such notable anime as Vampyrian Kids, The Tatami Galaxy, Samurai Champloo and Kaiba. Stateside he has worked on popular shows like Adventure Time. He has won numerous awards for animation and is noted for his wild, unique animation. Night is Short won the 2017 Japan Academy Animation of the Year Award.

Night is Short follows the one-night adventure of second-year college student, Otome, who is on the hunt for the rarest of sake, and her love-struck senpai (senior student mentor), who is determined to win Otome’s hand after a year of failing to make “coincidental” meetings turn into a relationship. What starts off as a very funny chase, with Otome befriending various weirdos in Kyoto’s nightlife and her senpai finding consistent troubles in Otome’s wake, it soon transforms into a ethereal dreamscape. With each new liquor she imbibes, Otome gets into increasingly strange situations– a drinking contest with an old man on a floating train, a chance encounter with the god of used books, and a leading role in a roving guerrilla play trying to avoid the authorities as it pops up throughout Kyoto. While you would think this crazy night might be attributed to the insane amount of booze Otome can put away, the movie doesn’t get truly weird until she sobers up and dedicates herself to curing all of Kyoto, which has strangely come down with a crippling sickness.

Night is Short proved to be fun and full of intriguing metaphor. Part love-story, part coming-of-age comedy, Otome’s happy-go-lucky and steadfast dedication to seeking out the truths she hopes to uncover inspire all those she comes into contact with. The film’s endless supply of memorable characters enrich Otome’s journey and provide an ongoing source of weird comedy– a group of crab-walking professors, a tengu in human form, a man who refuses to change his underwear until he once again meets his true love– just a few of the curious people that make this film a joy to watch. The end of the movie definitely veers into the abstract and it is here where Yuasa is truly engaging his passion for telling stories through the wild animation that he is known for.

SUNDAY JULY 22 @4:15PM- SIDE JOB (彼女の人生は間違いじゃない)

gallery_02

Directed by veteran filmmaker, Hiroki Ryuichi, and starring Takiuchi Kumi (who has appeared in other films as part of past Japan Cuts Series), Side Job‘s subject is the familiar 3/11 disaster, which refers to the 9.1 Tōhoku earthquake that struck Japan on March 11, 2011, and the subsequent tsunami and Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear power plant meltdown. The story follows Iwaki City resident, Miyuki (Takiuchi), who lost her home fleeing from the nuclear meltdown and whose mother was swept away by the tsunami never to be found. She now lives in a small apartment with her father, who is an out of work farmer (due to his land being declared unsafe for farming) that spends all his days gambling in a local pachinko parlor. While by day she works at a local office, Miyuki has a secret. Though her father believes she travels to Tokyo in her free time to study English, she has in fact become a female escort who specializes in “sensual massages.”

As I mentioned, 3/11 is a familiar subject in Japanese film, television, and other media. In fact, I just met a film scholar at the most recent Association For Asian Performance (AAP) this past week whose dissertation was examination of this “genre.” To say I “enjoyed” this film is probably not the best way to put it. We at the front desk were in fact pondering what exactly would be the best thing to say when someone picks up a ticket for a film like this. “Enjoy the movie” seemed inappropriate. I think it might be best to say the film moved me.

While the title (at least the English title) suggests that perhaps Miyuki took her escort job at first as a way to earn money, we quickly learn that the job means a lot more than money. Forced to support a father who is unable to cope with his loss and (as we discover) the victim of a marriage proposal that failed to materialize due to her partner’s own inability to cope with the responsibility of supporting a woman who lost her mother, Miyuki is very much alone. Her several encounters with a woman of similar employ in a bus station bathroom, and the deep friendship that develops between her and her “bodyguard,” demonstrates a woman desperately trying to rebuild basic human connections any way she can. However, her tragedy creates an unimaginable divide which always keeps her at arms length, sometimes by choice, sometimes just because. And yet, the movie is not all sorrow– it ends with a kind of hope, albeit a deeply compromised one, harkening to a common theme in Japanese film, that life is not about happy endings, it is about finding the strength to endure in spite of seemingly insurmountable hardships.

SUNDAY JULY 29@ 12:00PM- DEAR ETRANGER (幼な子われらに生まれ)

p14-schilling-etrangerrev-a-20170831-870x628

Winner of the 2017 Special Grand Prix of the Jury Award in the Montreal World Film Festival, Dear Etranger deals with the thorny issue of being a step-father in contemporary Japan. Makoto, played by the popular actor Asano Tadanobu, is a 40-something salary-man who has been living, remarried, for the past 6 years with his new wife, Nanae (Tanaka Rena), and her two daughters. Makoto himself has his own daughter from the previous marriage and the film begins with him asking his own daughter the complicated question “What if I had a baby with my new wife?” This question turns out to be quite important, as Nanae is in fact pregnant. Along with the issue this raises with his own daughter, the news of a new baby causes a deep rift between he and his adopted teenage daughter, who accuses him of being a stranger living in her home and demands to live with her birth father. This is a more than difficult request as Makoto knows her birth father is an alcoholic abuser and all-around dead-beat.

I had mixed feelings about this one. Asano is definitely an actor with craft, as is the girl who plays his stepdaughter, Kaoru (Minami Sara), does some seriously moving work. From the standpoint of tackling serious issues in male-female expectations in Japanese society, this film also does some interesting heavy lifting. A side-story of Dear Etranger is Makoto’s failing career due to the fact that he has placed spending time with his family above his job. At one point his superior criticizes him for taking all of his vacation days and laments that he had “high hopes” for Makoto when he started. As a result Makoto is transferred from an office job to a shipping plant where is wholly aware this is a move by his employer to encourage him to just quit. The subject of overwork and the salaryman sacrificing all for his job is a familiar problem in Japanese society, particularly as this film challenges the contemporary salaryman to reevaluate his responsibilities as “head” of a family. Asano plays Makoto’s deep desire to subvert the common idea that “job first” should be practiced with a complexity that highlights a pull perhaps many contemporary Japanese fathers feel.

Unfortunately however, this film is clearly a vehicle for Asano. Tanaka’s Nanae is woefully underwritten and she typically falls into the “female needing to be saved” trope. While this works well for helping to define the beleaguered Makoto, it would have been nice if more attention had been given to Nanae as someone who was also going through the difficulty of having to explain to her own children how a child not-of-their-father might fit into the new family structure. As it is, she is written as if Kaoru’s protestations are merely teenage angst and more often than not, she appears confused as to what is going on with her daughter– a kind of naiveté that seems wholly unbelievable considering her past as a battered wife and she, herself, grappling with the social stigma of being a batsu-ichi (one-strike divorcé).

SUNDAY JULY 29@ 2:45PM AMIKO (あみこ) and NAGISA (なぎさ)

Like Night is Short, Amiko was preceded by the short film Nagisa. Nagisa is a 2018 short by Kogahara Takeshi and tells the story of a teenage swim-team boy’s encounter with a mysterious girl who loiters by his pool. Unfortunately, I felt as this smacked of a bunkasai (annual public school culture day) student play in which morose teenage angst gives way to a predicable reveal that a character is dead and we are watching someone’s lament over the deceased’s demise and the subsequent feeling of loss that proceeds it. Not much to say beyond that.

amiko-review-700x300

Amiko is a 66 minute film by 20-year Yamanaka Yoko. It won the 2017 Audience Award and Hikari TV award at the Pia Film Festival and was notably shot for just 2,500 bucks. The story follows a chance encounter of high school misfit, Amiko, and a soccer boy named Aomi. Entranced by Aomi’s cynical view of life, a view that mirrors her own, Amiko pines away for him for an entire year after their one day together, never speaking to him. Then, she discovers suddenly that Aomi has quit the soccer team, dropped out of school, and shacked up in Tokyo with some beautiful upperclassman who had recently graduated. Amiko gathers what money she has and sets out for Tokyo, determined to track down Aomi and get to the bottom of just what the hell is going on.

This movie had a lot in common with Night is Short, at least in terms of presenting an outspoken and quirky protagonist who is easy to side with. Sunohara Aira as Amiko is a rebellious spitfire whose balances her charming candid nature with the deep longing of a teenage crush. You want her to succeed so badly– in spite of her sour look on life, there is a earnestness to what she hopes life could be that you really want to pan out. Also, like Night is Short‘s Otome, there are moments when Amiko is able to infect those around her with her nuttiness and create a world uniquely her own. I won’t spoil the end, but it’s really a “rad” ending– that’s the best way to put it. I will also say this movie reminds me A LOT of the 2001 Terry Zwigoff film, Ghost World– if you like that movie, there’s probably something in Amiko for you.

SUNDAY JULY 29@ 7PM- HANAGATAMI (花筐) and HOW CAN YOU KNOW WHERE TO GO IF YOU DON’T KNOW WHERE YOU HAVE BEEN

The final showing of the festival was a 2018 short film by NYU student Toriya Mizuki and the epic 2017 World War II drama by legendary Japanese experimental filmmaker, Obayashi Nobuhiko. How Can You Know Where to Go is a documentary-style 6-minute short in which the filmmaker, Toriya, interviews her grandmother about what it was like to live in Kobe during World War II. The interview is a voice-over while the visual work is animated, utilizing sand to create shapes and figures. I don’t have a lot to say about this short film, it was clearly a pet project by the filmmaker– while there may be film innovation that I, as a non-film scholar would be unaware of, its subject matter was fairly straightforward.

p12-schilling-hanagatami-a-20171207-870x580

Hanagatami is the coming to fruition of a pet project of Obayashi’s 30 years in the making. Already in his mind before he released his debut horror comedy, House (1977), this film combines stage-style acting with Obayashi’s trademark green-screen collage work to create a truly operatic spectacle. The story is an adaptation of Dan Kazuo’s 1937 novella of the same name and follows the story of a group of teenagers before the start of World War II in the coastal town of Karatsu. Toshihiko (Kubozuka Shunsuke) is a wide-eyed optimist who is obsessed with his tough-as-as-nails classmate, Ukai (Nagatsuka Keishi), and their monk-like compatriot, Kira (Mitsushima Shinnosuke). Toshihiko lives in the home of a widow named Keiko (Tokiwa Takako ), who is earnestly attending to Mina (Yahagi Honoka), who is slowly dying of tuberculosis. Romance, rivalries, and suicides occur, all set to a few bars of Bach’s “Cello Suite No. 1,” which plays almost through the entire 169-minute epic. This film won the 72nd Mainichi Award in 2017 for Best Film.

Of all the films I saw, I have to admit, I hated this. The narrative was as compelling as paint drying, the editing was so self-indulgent it was almost unbearable, and to call the acting histrionic is an understatement. I know the idea was to film a “play” of sorts, which explains the unrealistic backdrop and over-the-top acting, and I am aware that the point was to create a kind of pastoral, impressionistic world where strong 2-dimensional characters created a rich tapestry of viewpoints that combine to create a unique view on the pointlessness of war. The film is not short on strong statements, but they are made with all the subtlety of a dump-truck driving into a nitroglycerin plant, giving the entire film an air of self-importance that is so smug it made me consistently angry. To make matters worse, while the hammy acting is clearly a choice, it robs the characters of developing beyond the stereotypes they are playing and, after almost three-hours, I am left basically at the same place as where I began. Perhaps the greatest offense is, in a move made by the most poorly written of scripts, Toshihiko appears at the end of the movie as an old man and proceeds to explain the symbolic role each of the characters in story played, deeply undermining the intelligence of the very patient audience who has endured this bloated mess.

Ok fine, narratively speaking it’s not the best. So then what about the filmmaking aspects? Again, I am not a film scholar, so I am limited in understanding the contribution a film like this is making. However, I will say they green screen technology, which is Obayashi’s trademark, may have been innovative in the late 1980s-early 1990s, but today it just looks bad and it is hard to move past the poorly rendered cherry-blossoms falling cartoonishly in the foreground, or the 3-dimensional actor in front of the clearly 2-dimensional backgrounds of parades, war scenes, etc. Again, I get the point is to present an artificiality, but the low-tech nature of a very dusty filmmaking tool took me out of the movie, it did not absorb me into it– and I did not “get used” to it, it was alienating from start to finish.

I am sort of dumbfounded as to how this won such a prestigious award. But then again, Forrest Gump and Gladiator won Best Picture Oscars in the United States and these films suffer from a lot of the same criticisms as I am hurling at Hanagatami. Ultimately, the jingoism that pervades throughout Hanagatami might well be the reason it was received so favorably– it is full of references to epic Japanese historical, literary, and artistic figures, it hearkens to an illusory past of halcyon days before WW II that Japan so loves, and it makes the universally celebrated point that war is terrible.

Well, that was my time with the Japan Society’s 2018 Japan Cuts Film Festival. I am curious to learn what film was considered the best (I suspect it is probably the live-action adaptation of the anime, Bleach, which I didn’t see)– I hope they publish this info on the Japan Society website! Of course, my opinions are mine alone, and I am sure there are plenty who disagree with me. But in the end, isn’t half the fun of a film festival, dishing about it afterwards?

Advertisements

A Summer of Japanese Pop Princesses

This past weekend I attended the Miku Expo 2018 to see Hatsune Miku perform at the Hammerstein Ballroom. The month before, I saw Kyary Pamyu Pamyu at the Playstation Theater. Arguably Japan’s most famous female pop singers who have achieved international fame I thought I would take a moment to compare these two giants and what it was like to see them live.

First and foremost, it is important to make something clear. The one with the ridiculous name, Pamyu, is a human being. The less ridiculously named Miku, is a hologram.

Some background: Hatsune Miku is the older of the two, having gotten her start in 2007 when the company, Crypton Media, introduced her along with the second generation of the Yamaha Corporation’s Vocaloid program. Miku is a program. Her name literally meaning “First Sound of the Future,” and since her introduction anyone and everyone can create original music, vocals, and dance moves for this 16-year-old digital creation. Miku’s voice was provided by actress Fujita Saki, but Fujita really just provided the phonetic sound of the Japanese alphabet to give the would-be musician/programmer complete freedom over what and how Miku sings what she sings. Moreover, Miku’s typical range resides in an octave so high, no human being could ever sustain it. Miku herself, is more animated than human, modeled after the moe style of Japanese anime, which emphasizes kawaii (cute). As such, Miku has gigantic saucer eyes, bright blue pigtails and is typically dressed in a (albeit severely altered) schoolgirl uniform.

Obviously because anyone can write Miku’s music, it is hard to pin her down. Crypton Media boasts that she has over 100,000 songs and thanks to the youtube-like website, Nico Nico Douga, Miku videos have been produced and shared at a staggering rate. A large part of Miku’s growth is also due to the freeware MikuMikuDance, which enabled those who enjoyed new Miku songs to create 3-D renderings of her showing off original dance moves.

Miku was initially particularly popular with Japan’s hikikomori, (usually male) shut-ins that literally never leave their homes and sometimes rooms. As a result a lot of Miku’s early stuff has serious edge stemming from the frustrations such peoples face. However, her electronica roots appear to be the most influential and her truly popular stuff is something your would hear in a dance club. In fact, if you ever played early versions of Dance Dance Revolution, you may have encountered Miku before and not known it. Miku actually hit Number One on the Japanese Oricon music charts in 2010.

Miku’s life as a live act started in 2009. While she initially started as a part of animation festivals, she quickly became an act in her own right. Helping this along, Crypton Media began heavily marketing Miku to professional artists in 2008 and, as a result, Miku has collaborated with many world class singers and bands. Her English language software enabled overseas audiences to make Miku a truly international phenomenon and since Miku has collaborated with American artists like Pharrell, served as an opening act for Lady Gaga, and appeared on the David Letterman show. In Japan, most recently, she has been collaborating with famous kabuki actors to perform in notable plays. I tried to get tickets for this, but it was a lottery system and I lost!

Today when you see Miku, you see a 10-foot hologram perfectly rendered in three-dimensional glory. It is as if a cartoon character has come to life and is walking around (this same technology has been used to bring artists like Tupac and Michael Jackson back to life as well). Notably, Miku’s songs are almost exclusively fan-written, making a show a collection of those that have found enduring appeal.

Miku isn’t all lollipops and sunshine, however. She is considered by many to be a serious foray into the future of music and inspired by high-arts in Japanese culture. For those of you who are interested, a recent interview with Miku’s creator, Sasaki Wataru, can be found here. Among other things, he talks about the cutting edge collaborations that Miku has inspired among electronica artists and how Miku’s inhuman movement and pallor is a conscious choice inspired by the post-World War II Japanese dance form, butoh, famous for its grotesque imagery and spectral content.

In many ways, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is like Miku. Deeply inspired by kawaii culture, The aura surrounding Pamyu is a veritable Hello Kitty nightmare. Born in Tokyo in the early 1990s, Pamyu spent much of her time dressing in Harajuku fashions, a combination of kooky and cute. After gaining notoriety as a fashion model and blogger, she partnered with mega girl-group, Perfume’s, producer, Yasutaka Nakata, in 2011, and released the international hit “Pon Pon Pon.”

By December of 2011, Pamyu was already in the United States performing. She does not speak english however, though she says she is learning. Interestingly enough, when recently asked to write an album in English she famously stated that she was Japanese and if people wanted to listen to her music, they could do so in her language.

Basically an overnight success, Pamyu has become Japan’s “J-Pop Princess.” She is also considered by many to be the Lady Gaga of Japan thanks to her insanely weird fashion sense and bizarre music videos.

kyary_spooky_obakeyashiki3_s

I saw Pamyu first in June. The Playstation Theater is located in Midtown Manhattan and can host 2,100 people. However, the show was not sold out and there was a fair amount of space in the house. I thought this was interesting as, if I were to see Pamyu in Japan, she would be a speck in the distance, seen over a solid wall of rabid fans. The name of the show was Spooky Obakeyashiki: Pumpkins Strike Back. Obakeyashiki means “haunted house,” and a video before the show began made it clear that the narrative of the performance was that Japanese ghouls had enlisted Pamyu, who they apparently love and relate to, to help them make Japanese monsters more popular overseas.

In other words, there was a play element to the whole thing. Pamyu went from being pushed around by a bunch of monsters to transforming into one herself, all while singing her most popular tunes. Sadly, it became clear halfway through that the singing was canned. There was no band and the rigor of her dancing would have made the singing nigh impossible. However, as the show was very much about the production itself, it was still fun.

Pamyu would occasionally speak to the audience about trite topics like NY pizza and shopping in Soho, utilizing a book of English language notes she kept on stage. But her discomfort with English was clear and, more often than not, she would simply revert to chatting in Japanese (still mostly about trite stuff). Adding to this discomfort was clearly the fact that many in the audience did not necessarily know how to engage Pamyu’s music or spectacle in the way a Japanese audience might (I’ll get to this in a minute). Pamyu spent many a time “teaching” the audience how she would like them to react at certain points in certain songs- something she would undoubtedly not have to do, were she in Japan.

The majority of the people in the audience were older, I think, the average aged person being about 25-30. There were no children that I saw. While most seemed to “know” the songs Pamyu sang, it was clear that they did not know the words. However, there were a few in the audience who had somehow learned the dance moves from the show (maybe they’d seen it on youtube?) and thankfully had the space to do so.

maxresdefault-1

A month later, last week, I saw Miku. Unlike Pamyu, I had to stand in a line that snaked around numerous city blocks before getting in. The Hammerstein Ballroom hosts 2,200 people and it was clearly sold out. Numerous people in line were dressed up like Miku and some of the other “singers” that would be appearing throughout the evening. Upon entering the venue, I met that wall I mentioned earlier, with each member sporting a glowstick. The glowstick is a common part of the Japanese concert-going experience, fans sway and pump their fists in unison at particular moments to a degree so unified that you would swear it was choreographed. There were glowsticks at Pamyu’s show, but far fewer and I wondered if part of her weird relationship with the audience was due to the unorthodox behavior of her audience.

Miku, however, did not suffer from such problems. Glowsticks changed color and moved in agreement. Supporting Miku was a live band who played along to Miku’s (obviously) canned vocals. Unlike Pamyu, Miku spoke easily in English thanks to her programming and the focus of the event was not on a story, but on the music. As the Miku world has expanded since her inception, along with Miku, several other vocaloid characters made appearances as well.

The majority of the people at this show were definitely younger and skewed undeniably male. It was clear that the audience not only knew the songs that Miku and her cohorts were performing, they also knew the words- which were almost exclusively Japanese. As a quick look into Miku’s popularity on youtube demonstrates, Miku’s dance moves are a also subject of fan engagement, you can find tons of people who have recorded themselves mimicking Miku perfectly. However, there was no one really dancing in the audience- most likely due to the lack of space.

Looking back on both of these, I am fascinated by the fact that if one was to declare a winner, at least on paper, between these two, Miku would absolutely come out on top. She packed the house and her fans were clearly engaging with her exactly the way she would like (or at least her programmers would like). However, as an overall experience, personally I would see Pamyu again, but not Miku. This may be due to the fact that I know Pamyu’s songs better, and it’s hard to get into a concert when you don’t really know the music. But I also think it’s because that while a 10-foot living, breathing, cartoon character is an impressive spectacle, its lifelessness becomes apparent pretty quickly- it can’t respond to an audience and you can’t touch it. It is a live show, but it is also not a live show.

While Miku may be the ultimate international pop-star- she is bendable, posable, she literally sings what the people want, and she has the ability to sing anything in any language- she has no free will, her emotions are electronic (which admittedly is a conscious choice on the part of her creators), and there is no chance of her doing anything out of character. To put it another way, McDonald’s is good once in a while and you always get exactly what you are expecting, but you can’t eat it every day, it makes you ill.

 

 

 

Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen at Yamaguchi Prefectural University and Audience Building in the Traditional Performing Arts.

A few weeks ago I headed back to Yamaguchi to catch the Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen show at Yamaguchi Prefectural University (YPU). Now in its 10th (and final) year, the Sagi kyōgen actors brought two plays I have yet to see them perform.

My trip to Yamaguchi was a whirlwind one. I left on Thursday, January 24th for a Sunday the 26th show and left the following Monday. I believe I was actually in transit for the same amount of time as I was in Yamaguchi.

Before leaving, I was surprised to find out that the annual winter production sponsored by Yamaguchi Prefectural University was being stopped after this year. I am not sure why this is. I asked Tarō about it and he just said “why don’t you ask YPU,” so I am guessing this was an unexpected turn of events. This is kind of sad because now the scheduled amount of annual performances shrinks to one (though the group is still performing for schools and cultural events consistently).

Since I arrived on a Friday, I was able to attend rehearsals on Saturday before the show. The first play the group rehearsed was Suminuri, or Black Crocodile Tears. In this play a daimyo is biding farewell to his weeping mistress, when Tarō Kaja realizes she is using a bowl of water to make it appear as if she is crying. Tarō explains this to his master, who doesn’t believe him, so Tarō secretly switches the bowl of water for a bowl of ink. Naturally the daimyo is surprised when his mistress’s face is covered in black marks, so he tells Tarō to give her a mirror as a token of his gratitude. Upon looking into the mirror, the mistress realizes what is going on, but instead of being embarrassed, she becomes outraged and splatters ink on the two men as they run out apologizing.

Ink smeared Jiro

Tarō Kaja offers his master’s present of a mirror to an ink-smeared mistress.

The role of the daimyo was played by Mr. Itō, Tarō Kaja by Mr. Suzuki, and the mistress by Yonemoto Tarō’s brother, Yonmeoto Jirō. This is a fun play and I was reminded of Yonemoto Bunmei’s original kyōgen performed in Fall 2017, Tanuki Damashi, in which black make-up was used as a way to embarrass a deceitful person.

Suehirogari, or An Umbrella Instead of A Fan, was the next play they rehearsed. This is a classic wordplay kyōgen in which a master sends his servant out to buy a suehirogari. Tarō kaja, not knowing what this is, is taken in by a cunning umbrella seller, who explains that the master’s description of the item matches one of his umbrellas perfectly. He also sweetens the deal by teaching Tarō a song and dance to make his master happy. Of course, when the master learns of Tarō’s mistake, Tarō is scolded and Tarō responds by performing the song and dance he was taught. The master is taken by the performance and joins in himself.

Under my Umbrella

Tarō kaja sings the tune he learned from the umbrella man as his master dances along.

Yonemoto Tarō played Tarō Kaja, his father, Bunmei, played the umbrella seller, and Mr. Tsuchimura played the master. This one was definitely a little harder to get into because of all the wordplay, but watching the three senior members of the group is always a delight. This play also reminded of Junko Sakaba Berberich’s 1982 dissertation on the idea of “rapture” in kyōgen as structural component– she argues that the act of being overcome by a joyous need to sing and dance is a key component of many kyōgen plays.

The next day was the performance. The group only performed these two plays. I am not sure why the program was so short (last year they did three plays)– it might have been because they couldn’t get enough actors to do another, or it might have been that the kid’s kyōgen group, who performed last year, was not available.

In place of a third play, the group did a “talk-back” session in which students from YPU presented research they had done on the community’s (particularly the students at YPU) knowledge of Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen. While I understand the reason for doing this, I didn’t think presenting the (if I am being honest, here) predictable results of their research– that no one really knows about Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen– was something that the audience who was actually present needed to hear.

This part of the program made me think about the complexities of getting new audiences into Japan’s traditional performing arts, in general. One might go so far as to say all theatre faces this problem and I wonder if the choice to position education as the preferred tactic to foster theatre growth is perhaps part of the issue.  In the case of a Japanese traditional performing art like kyōgen, it is quite common for there to be an “educational” part of the program in which an actor comes out and explains what kyōgen is, its history, etc. While this is (probably) useful for new audience members, those who are regulars have to sit patiently through these lectures/demonstrations with the understanding that this is a necessary evil for the art form to expand its audience.

However, what happens, particularly in Japan’s traditional performing arts, I’ve found, is that there is an underlying rhetoric of “this is a valuable tradition which must be preserved because it is part of our shared heritage.” The problem with this, in essence, is that this approach is asking you to take on an obligation before you establish any kind of emotional connection or pleasure for the art; an implicit suggestion is being made that you should appreciate first and enjoy second.

Of course I am speaking generally and this is not the case all the time. To some degree I am taking a very Western, outsider view of things– anyone who spends time in Japan, or does research on Japanese history, has experienced how much traditional methods and thinking play in contemporary life and how often the reason someone gives for supporting/engaging in a traditional art or practice is that, first and foremost, they “want to preserve tradition.”

But I would argue that those who are doing things outside the norm are cause for consideration. The Shigeyama family has done wonders for growing kyōgen audiences with new plays and charismatic young actors and they are also doing some innovative stuff in the kabuki theater student matinees. I saw this wonderful kabuki production at the National Theater about 3 years ago where, before the day’s play, an actor explained a very basic contemporary scene to the audience and then acted it out in a contemporary manner. Then, he explained some of kabuki’s trademark aspects, put on his kabuki make-up and costume, and proceeded to act out the exact same scene as if it were kabuki.

I think what I am taking issue with is the more typical outreach of traditional performing arts’ outreach practices. The dire, lecture-type, nature of many of these art forms’ efforts to reach new audiences is, to be frank, boring– and I am someone who doesn’t have to be sold on the value of it. It is perhaps an inevitable reaction of those arts which are no longer considered “popular,” to ask us to share their desire to cling to the past- after all it is in the past when they were “popular.” But I think what I like about the Shigeyamas and the kabuki matinees is that they are placing the desire to connect to contemporary audiences ahead of an understandable mission to make you understand why it needs to continue. New audiences in these arenas are growing because they are being given the chance to like something before being deciding, on their own, to appreciate it.

If I may return to the Sagi kyōgen case, there is another dimension which I think needs be considered: privilege. While the Shigeyamas, paid pro kyōgen actors, and the kabuki theater, which has an entire infrastructure dedicated to audience building, can focus on how they want to be perceived, the Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen actors have to contend with the basic need to be seen. It is understandable, therefore, that the students presenting at this “talk-back” session focused on this very issue. One might argue that because the group is consumed by keeping their head above water, there is little time to spend on matters of accessibility.

Additionally, the desire to “preserve tradition” as the driving force behind interest is one I have keenly felt amongst Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen actors. It may be because of this that the traditional lecture-style of introducing people to Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen is utilized. After all, one probably will use the same tactics to draw in new members that drew them in, right?

Mugen Noh Othello at the Japan Society

On the weekend of January 12th, I headed over to the Japan Society to help out with the final production of their Noh-Now series, the Shizuoka Performing Arts Center’s Othello. This production, directed by the Artistic Director of SPAC, Miyagi Satoshi, was an amazing end to the series.

SPAC is a serious arts institution. It is a huge complex founded in 1995 and has been brining world-class theater from Japanese and international artists for over 20 years. Suzuki Tadashi was its first artistic director from 1997-2007, but Miyagi Satoshi took over in 2007 and has been running the show ever since. SPAC is known for its performing arts, as well as its outreach, working with middle and high school students. Its primary focus is reimaging classic works, from Shakespeare to Izumi Kyōka, but it does new works as well.

Miyagi himself has been a theater director for close to 40 years. While he studied aesthetics at Tokyo University, he started a performance group in 1980. In 1990 he founded the group Ku-Na’uka, and has been working with a similar group of actors since (many of the actors in Othello are members of this group). Certainly an “international” director, Miyagi has co- presented, along with Suzuki, Elektra as part of the first Theatre Olympics in Delphi and recently brought a celebrated production of the Mahabharata to the Festival D’Avignon in 2014.

Mugen Noh Othello, SPAC, Takuma Uchida (3)

Micari, as Desdemona

As part of the Noh-Now series, Othello is, as you might infer, a production that tells the Shakespeare classic utilizing the stylistic elements of noh. However, this was not merely a Shakespeare play wearing the mask of noh. In a talk-back after the Friday evening performance, Miyagi discussed how he was intent on making sure that the story he told was one which presented a contemporary conversation with noh aesthetics and techniques, rather than a simple mimicking. In other words, he didn’t want to do a production that was an exercise in copying noh, but rather one that utilized elements of noh to tell a unique story. I definitely appreciated this!

Miyagi also discussed how he didn’t want to tell the story from the point of view of Othello, but rather from Othello’s victim, Desdemona (I wonder if he’s read Vogel’s, Desdemona: A Play About A Handkerchief?). The story begins when a pilgrim from Venice, visiting Cyprus, comes across a group of women carrying heavy jars on their heads. The pilgrim is amused by the women, that is until they solicit him. After accusing them of being base prostitutes, the women reveal their unlucky fate, having been forced by their occupiers to carry heavy jars on their heads by day and sell themselves at night. The pilgrim’s interest in why this has happened reveals a new woman, who reveals herself to be the ghost of Desdemona, the cursed bride of the moor general, Othello, whose decent into madness is the reason for her death and the fall of Cyprus.

This first part of the production follows the plot of a mugen, or supernatural, noh, in which a traveller pursuing information about the place he is visiting comes across a mysterious stranger who reveals themselves to be a ghost. Along with the plot, the play utilizes a noh chorus, who acts as an immediate voice for the ghost, at times, as well as a voice for the ghost’s inner thoughts.

132182

Honda Maki as the pilgrim, marvels at the sights of Cyprus.

The way the chorus chanted and the musical component, however, diverged from noh. The singers/chanters operated much more like a Greek chorus, utilizing overlapping vocals and rhythmic patterns one would not find in a noh play. The musicians used a variety of instruments that included African drums (I think) and a variety of bells and instruments I couldn’t identify. The overall effect of the music, at least from my perspective, was to capture a kind of primal island rhythm that one might find in a Greek tragedy (Cyprus, being southeast of Greece and playing a major role in Ancient Greek history). While Miyagi didn’t mention being influenced by Greek drama in the talk-back, his body of work suggests he has an ongoing interest and passion for the Greek classics.

After Desdemona left the stage, the ai-kyōgen, began. Ai-kyōgen are found in the middle of a noh play, and often retell the story we have just heard in the noh in a linguistically simpler, sometimes comedic way, so the audience can be caught up (if they missed what was going on due to the difficulty of understanding noh’s classical language). In Miyagi’s production, the ai-kyōgen was used to tell the main story of Othello, albeit abridged. In it, we learned how Othello managed to successfully win Desdemona, despite her father’s protestations, and how Iago deceived Othello into thinking Desdemona was having an affair with his friend, Cassio. While it was an ai-kyōgen in name, it didn’t really adhere to an ai-kyōgen stylistically speaking (noh kyōgen kata or vocal patterns) and I thought of this point in the show to almost be a contemporary play. The scenes with Iago and Roderigo were pretty funny and reminded me a lot of a contemporary manzai duo, with Iago being the boisterous boke (or funny man) and Roderigo as the even-keel tsukkomi (straight man).

After the ai-kyōgen it was back to the noh, proper. The pilgrim, having reflected on Desdemona’s story, accuses Desdemona of unfaithfulness, at which point she curses Iago as the true traitor and goes to open the jar she was carrying. This part, the play’s climax, was definitely memorable. Desdemona reaches her hand into her jar and when she retracts it, her entire arm has transformed into Othello’s. The arm, having a mind of its own, proceeds to re-enact Desdemona’s last moments and strangles Desdemona while she reveals to the pilgrim what really happened, how Othello was deceived, and her realization that she had to die.

Desdemona exits the stage with the pilgrim praying for her soul’s release, but it is clear the ghost of Desdemona will be cursed to continue walking the earth.

I have been seeing quite a bit of theater since returning to NYC, but I can definitely say Miyagi’s production has been the most rewarding to date. As I said, Miyagi’s deft conversation with noh, rather than an exercise in copying, enabled me to enjoy a unique telling of a familiar story, while at the same time, allowed me to consider the ways in which noh techniques enriched the experience. Also, Miyagi is not shy when it comes to embracing the theatricality of the stage, and this is particularly refreshing in a world of living-room-theater, superhero melodramas, and talking heads. This was definitely a story that could only be told on the stage and I appreciated that Miyagi made big, bold, choices­–not only with the narrative–with the acting, with the music, and with the ways he chose to engage with noh.

If SPAC’s Othello comes your way, I absolutely recommend it.

Hanjo at the Japan Society

This past weekend I volunteered at the Japan Society, where the Mishima Yukio play, Hanjo, was being performed as part of the Japan Society’s ongoing Noh Now Series. The play was performed by the SITI Company, a group headed by Anne Bogart, who many an actor might know as the founder of the acting techniques known as Viewpoints. This production, however, was directed another titan of the SITI company, Leon Ingulsrud.

Hanjo actually has an extensive life before the 1955 Mishima incarnation, which was done this past weekend at JS. It was first envisioned and performed as a noh play by none other than Zeami Motokiyo, noh’s founding father. The story, adapted from an ancient Chinese tale, tells the story of a courtesan named Hanago, who one evening fall madly in love with a gentleman suitor. The two agree to reunite and exchange two fans as a symbol of their promise of fidelity. But, wouldn’t you know it, the guy takes his sweet time and Hanago goes mad waiting for him, and begins referring to herself as the discarded “Hanjo.” In a plot quite atypical for a noh play, the two lovers are eventually reunited and the ending is a happy one.

hanjo_XL

In Mishima’s play, on the other hand, Hanago is not so lucky. A modern retelling of the story refocuses the tale by adding a third character to the mix, a wealthy female artist named Jitsuko, who herself has become infatuated with Hanago–mainly the beauty of Hanago’s madness to be exact– and has bought out Hanago’s geisha contract and moved the two of them to a new place. Hanago, ever faithful, goes to the local train station every day in hopes that her lover, Yoshio, will figure out the new location and meet her there. The play begins with Jitsuko fretting over a recent newspaper article, which has highlighted Hanago’s sad plight, in fear that such an article will make its way back to Yoshio who, of course, Jistuko would prefer never shows up. But show up he does, and in spite of Jitsuko’s protestations, the lovers again come face-to-face. However, upon seeing Yoshio, Hanago believes that he is not the man she has been waiting for. In a cruel twist of fate, Hanago’s obsession with waiting has transformed what Yoshio actually is into an imaginary figure who no human could ever hope to be. So a happy ending for Jitsuko, who gets to keep the mad Hanago in her clutches, but an unhappy ending for Yoshio and Hanago (well, maybe not Hanago, depending on whether or not you think she is better off living in her fantasy).

hanjo-e1512317422793

The Mishima play itself is rather short, about 20 minutes in total. However, the SITI company had the three actors take on each role once, making the performance repeat twice. Along with two English speaking men, a Japanese speaking woman performed. In this way, you got to hear the Japanese version as well as English version of all the characters, as well as scenarios where men played the roles of the women.

Admittedly, I didn’t love this performance. I didn’t even like it. I was so overwhelmed by expectation that I, as an audience member, give myself freely over to the aesthetic language of the performance, that I just felt alienated. I wondered why they were doing the play three times in a row if all the actors were just trying to recreate a homogenous product. I wondered why they chose to do the play in both languages. I wondered if the play even mattered if I was supposed to focus on the form.

In retrospect, I believe I have since been afforded some clarity. While all of the issues I raised are valid, wouldn’t I ask the same questions of a noh performance if I were to watch it for the first time? And wouldn’t my answers to these questions provide compelling reasons for how and why I might interact with this type of theater? For example, noh plays are almost always nearly identical (with slight variations depending on the school/family) in their performance, so it is understood that we must focus on the delicate details of seasoned masters to truly experience the play. While noh is performed in “Japanese” it is classical Japanese and often hard for even a native speaker to understand all of it, so the disconnect from language is part of the experience. And finally, often a noh audience knows all the plays, so it makes sense that their attention would be on the form, because they wanted the form to illuminate the story they love in a unique way.

In other words, what I think the SITI Company was doing in presenting the same play three times, was asking us to create in our minds a temporally abridged version of what noh has had 600 years to do. As the play continued, the performance asked us to appreciate, but allow the narrative to fall to the wayside. It asked us to appreciate, but allow repeated choreography fall by the wayside. It asked us to appreciate, but allow the repeated musical patterns to fall by the wayside. And after all is left behind, let an interesting thing happen– let all the little details that are hidden under the surface of the things we recognize come into focus, and use these unique details to allow ourselves to experience a story we may love so dearly (or may merely know the plot of) as if it were brand new–and, to some degree, let the things we thought familiar, renew themselves.

I wish I had a chance to see this play once more with this mindset. I feel as though my Western prejudices tricked me into expecting the play to be something it wasn’t remotely trying to be. While, in the end, the play may suffer from the same fate as a noh performance that one just doesn’t like, I would like to give Hanjo and the SITI Company the chance I didn’t give it the first time around.

A Weekend with Wakao Ayako

This weekend the Japan Society Film Department screened four films starring the legendary film actress, Wakao Ayako. So, I put on my volunteer hat and headed out for the chance to see this siren of 1960s-1970s Japanese cinema do her thing.

TheSpiderTattoo_MAIN

Wakao Ayako in Irezumi (刺青). 1966

Wakao, is relatively unknown in the West, but has starred in a staggering 160+ films since her debut in 1951, when she was contracted by Daiei Film Company as one of Japan’s “New Face” group. She was a frequent collaborator of prolific director, Masumura Yasuzo, as well as Ichikawa Kon. She won numerous legit acting awards throughout the 1960s, but typically appeared in the role of a femme fatale, a role which might be considered the foundation of Japanese film’s sexploitation genre. Most recently, in 2007, she and her husband (architect, Kurokawa Kisho, who died in October of that year) ran unsuccessfully for for seats in Japan’s upper house of Parliament.

On the subject of sexploitation, I think to limit Wakao’s career to this would be a shame. While Wakao was not one to shy away from showing a little skin, which certainly was scandalous at the time, the films the Japan Society chose to screen offered a more nuanced portrait of Wakao’s career, I think, and presented Wakao as an interesting representation of post-war women in Japan (albeit through the eyes of the male directors/screenwriters with whom she worked with).

33763a817bf5f0e60a38ba08094cc3ef.jpg

Wakao (left) and Kishida Kyōko (right) in Manji (卍). 1964

On Friday, as part of the monthly screenings program, Wakao appeared as Mitsuko in the 1964 Masumura Yasuzo film, Manji (卍). Now you may notice that the Japanese name of the movie looks suspiciously like a swastika- This is because the word “manji” is actually a Sanskrit symbol which means “auspicious” or “good luck” and was used long before the Nazis adopted it. In Japan, this symbol can be found on many a map and designates where one might find a Buddhist temple. So if you see it in a Japanese context, don’t worry, Japan is not adopting Nazi propaganda.

The name of the film itself is pulled directly from an alternate name for the Tanizaki Jun’ichirō novel, Quicksand, on which the film was based. On the surface, Manji tells the story of homosexual love between two women. However, if we think about the title of the movie and the web of devotion among both men and women that Mitsuko weaves, love seems to be less the point- it is more a film about zealous infatuation, if not outright deification of Mitsuko– it is from this viewpoint that the swastika’s use, as a religious symbol, makes sense.

The story is told from the point of view of the housewife, Sonoko, who is recounting her sorrows to her father. When Sonoko first sees Mitsuko, who is posing nude for Sonoko’s art class, Sonoko immediately becomes infatuated with Mitsuko and paints her as Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. A rumor begins that the two are involved, even though they have never spoken, one thing leads to another, and the fiction becomes fact. However, in spite of this relationship, Sonoko is repeatedly used by Mitsuko. Eventually Sonoko winds up being convinced to maintain a romantic relationship with Mitsuko that includes both she and her husband, Kotaro, who equally falls under Mitsuko’s spell. Eventually the ménage à trois is exposed by Mitsuko’s jealous ex-fiancé and Mitsuko convinces Sonoko and Kotaro to commit a lover’s suicide with her. However, after the three ingest poison, only Mitsuko and Kotaro die and Sonoko is left to wonder if Mitsuko once again pulled the wool over her eyes and only wanted to spend eternity with Kotaro.

That the main relationship in the story is, arguably, a lesbian one, there is some credibility to the argument for Manji being labelled as progressive (I should add Tanizaki’s novel was published in 1928!) and it is no coincidence that such a film came to be in the “swinging 60s.” But if the plot sounds ridiculous, it is. I think the film can best be described as an over-the-top black-comedy melodrama in which Mitsuko’s unquenchable thirst for worship destroys anyone, man or woman, she comes into contact with. That the poor souls fooled by Mitsuko’s charms ironically compare her to Kannon is equally ridiculous.

Wakao plays the part like a coy, spoiled-child, stamping her feet when things don’t go her way and looking up at her victims with imploring wide eyes that are impossible to resist. This kind of role–the consuming beauty– is a familiar one in Japanese folklore and there are many a tale which warn of being bewitched by a beguiling woman. However, Wakao’s performance makes her admittedly hard to resist, and easy to forgive, even when you know she is at fault.

wildgeese_xl

Satoko (Wakao) is embraced by the Head Priest (Mishima Masao).

On Sunday, I returned to the Japan Society for a triple-feature of Wakao’s collaborations with filmmaker Kawashima Yuzo in newly restored 4K versions. First up was Wakao in the role of Satoko in the 1962 film, The Temple of Wild Geese (雁の寺). Based on the 1961 novella by Mizukami Tsutomu, Wild Geese tells the story of Jinen, a downtrodden Buddhist monk in training who is forced to endure the less-than-devout actions of the chief priest of his temple. When the temple’s painter (who painted all the wild geese that give the temple its name) dies, his mistress, Satoko (Wakao) takes up with the head priest. Satoko soon finds herself sympathetic towards Jinen, as both of them have been drawn to their lot in this temple due to the financial misfortunes of their respective families caused by World War II. After an unexpected night of passion between Jinen and Satoko, Jinen becomes cold and angry. One night, after the head priest passes out drunk in the temple’s courtyard, Jinen seizes the opportunity and puts the unconscious monk in the coffin of a man meant to be buried the next day, and the head priest is buried (presumably) alive. Wracked with guilt, Jinen eventually leads Satoko to the grave and confesses.

While Wakao plays a supporting role in this film, it is definitely quite different than the overtly sexy role of Mitsuko. While Satoko is a sexual object in Wild Geese, there is a somber quality to Wakao’s performance, as this is not a choice on Satoko’s part. If one wanted to make the argument that Wakao is more than a sexploitation actress, this film would definitely be fodder for such an argument.

WomenAreBornTwice2

The next film was the 1961 Women are Born Twice or A Geisha’s Story (女は二度生まれる). In this story, a woman named, Koen, is forced into the life of a geisha after the death of her parents during a World War II air raid. Young and inexperienced, Koen happily engages in this life however, and develops romantic relationships with a number of male clients (a behavior not required). However, “luck” smiles on Koen and an older wealthy patron makes it so Koen does not have to work as a geisha anymore, and she becomes his mistress. Time passes and the patron dies, again forcing Koen back into life as a geisha. One night, when an old flame “buys” her for an American business partner, Koen reevaluates her life and realizes that while she had thought the life of a geisha gave her freedom, she has always been reliant on men. She attempts to run off with a young boy who she once slept with, but soon sends the boy on his way and sets about finding her way in life, alone.

I think, of the four films I saw, this one was the most nuanced of Wakao’s performances. While there is an inevitable air of surface sexiness to Wakao’s performance due to the profession of her character, it is the moments where Koen is alone that we get a true sense of the character. In this way, I think Women are Born Twice is probably the most progressive of the four films I saw, with Wakao portraying the complex realities of being a woman with little prospects in post-war Japan and eventually making the seemingly insurmountable decision to live a life in which men do not dictate her future. In a way, this story is like a Japanese version of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.

elegantbeast_alt_xl

The final film of the day was 1962 satire, Elegant Beast (しとやかな獣). This mad-cap comedy tells the story of the Maeda family, who have been lying, cheating, and stealing their way out of poverty since the end of World War II. Trouble for the family begins when the son’s boss accuses him of embezzling over 1 million yen from the production company he works for and the daughter’s rich writer boyfriend says he is throwing her out. Enter the production company bookkeeper, Tokie (Wakao), who admits to having slept with nearly everyone– including the Maeda family’s son– to romance them out of their stolen money in order to build an inn and secure her future. In the end the only thing that can cause trouble, since all of them are criminals so no one can call the police, is if the accountant who cooked the books for Tokie commits suicide. Of course, the movie ends with the Maeda family blissfully unaware of the fact that the same accountant has just jumped off the top of their apartment building as they all plan to escape to the country side for some much needed rest and relaxation.

I thought this was an interesting partner to Women are Born Twice, since the character of Tokie could easily be what Koen might have become, if one were to take a satirical view of her situation. Again, the shadow of WWII looms over this film, which makes the film’s criminals somewhat sympathetic. However, the choice of noh music at the beginning and end of the film suggest that the ghosts of the past continue to inform the present and that the good old days may have been filled with just as many crooked characters as the present. Wakao was only a supporting character in this one and I didn’t really find her performance as interesting as in the other films, but Elegant Beast is certainly a testament to her versatility as an actress.

Overall, I think it is a tie between Manji and Women are Born Twice for me. These two films showcased Wakao’s talent as an actress and her complex appeal as a contemporary Japanese woman who is aware of her sexuality, but struggling with the limited choices that sexuality makes available to her in the post-war period.

 

Katsura Sunshine at the Soho Playhouse

This past Saturday I was given the opportunity to attend the opening night performance of Japan’s only professional non-Japanese rakugo artist, Katsura Sunshine, at the Soho Playhouse. Sunshine is making his New York off-Broadway debut from his home in Ise city, Japan (though I think he may be relocating to NYC). I have seen a bit of amateur rakugo, but this was a great chance to see what a non-Japanese professional brings to the table.

p11-smith-rakugo-a-20141015

Sunshine has been studying and performing this traditional comedic performing art for 10 years now. He is a student of the rakugo master, Katsura Bunshi VI (students take their master’s name), and is currently the only non-Japanese professional rakugo artist recognized by the Kamigata rakugo Association. He originally hails from Toronto, Canada, and has a long love affair with comedic traditions, having spent a lot of time before his life as a rakugo performer translating and adapting Greek comedies by Aristophanes. Before coming to NYC, he recently performed rakugo for a huge crowd at Toronto’s Winter Garden Theater.

What is rakugo, you ask? Well, as I said, it is one of Japan’s traditional comedic performing arts. It has a a 400 year history and was originally established by Buddhist monks as a way to make their sermons more interesting. Soon rakugo spread to the lower classes, however, and took the form we recognize today during the Edo period (1603-1868), with a lone story-teller, called a rakugoka, in front of a small wooden desk and sitting on a zabuton (little square pillow). As the narrator of a bunraku (Japanese puppet theater) does, the rakugoka plays all the roles. The only props he has are a tenugui (hand towel) and a fan, which he transforms into all sorts of items to help him tell the story.

There are many different types of stories that are told, from ghostly to zany to sentimental, but all end with a characteristic ochi, or drop, in rhythm, which we in the west might call a “punch line.” However, the stories themselves are the real focus, with the rakugoka bringing to life a variety of hilarious personalities and improbable circumstances.

But a rakugoka must be more than a skilled storyteller. He must also be a charmer, able to win over the audience with an affable demeanor and wide smile from the moment he enters the playing space. Before each story the rakugoka engages the audience with makura, or original, often personal, anecdotes that somehow lead into the stories.

So how does Katsura Sunshine measure up? Sunshine began the show as oh so many traditional performing arts shows, particularly those being performed for a foreign audience, begin: with a lengthy explanation of what we were going to be watching and offering some of the necessary information required in order to understand the “language” of the performance. While I understand this is necessary, not everyone knows the style when they go to see it (in this case, most of the audience raised their hand when Sunshine asked who was seeing rakugo for the first time), the 30-45 introduction seemed a little much to me. While Sunshine tried his best to make it a chance for more humor, a lot of his schtick fell on tired stereotypes used to explain the difference between Western and Japanese culture, i.e. Japanese is a difficult language to understand for a foreigner, Japanese people say a lot when only a little is expressed if you said it in English, etc.

download

Momotaro and his friends.

Sunshine performed two perennial favorites, Momotaro and Chiritotechin Rotten Tofu. Momotaro tells the story of a boy who won’t go to sleep because his father’s bedtime story of the infamous “peach-boy” Momotaro fairy-tale is far too unbelievable. I had never seen this one before and while I think the premise is funny enough, I found, ironically, the translation to be a bit detrimental to the believability of the story. The boy’s lines were translated with a lot of 10-dollar words that I had trouble believing a little boy would know. While I think the conceit was supposed to be that this was an especially astute little boy, Sunshine’s playing didn’t quite make that point clear and so whenever one of those big words came out of the boy’s mouth I was pulled out of the story a bit.

I have actually seen an incredibly funny version of Chiritotechin Rotten Tofu– it was done as part of a performance of Honolulu’s Bento Rakugo performance at the University of Hawai`i at Mānoa. In this story a man and his friend pass off some rotten tofu as a delicacy in order to trick a mutual acquaintance, who is a snobby know-it-all, into eating it. Sunshine started off a bit slow, but he definitely had me laughing out loud by the end of the story and the ochi, which can often land with a thud (or a waa-waa) rather than a POW, landed as a great cap to the story.

Stories aside, Sunshine confused me a bit. First and foremost was his very strange choice to do everything in the rhythmic pattern of the stories themselves. The makura are intended to be more of a personal conversation with the audience than a performance, and Sunshine’s “Japanese-esque” way of speaking came across as alienating and kind of culturally insensitive. It was almost as if he was putting on a Japanese accent. For the stories, I can understand there is a need to match the Japanese style and perhaps the accent helps with this, but for just talking with us? Now, if Sunshine had spent most of his life in Japan, I might also understand it- people often adopt the accent of their major tongue, even when born speaking another language. But Sunshine has only been in Japan for 13 years and is in his late 40s- there is no reason why he would have a Japanese accent. This point was exacerbated when Sunshine began talking about “we Japanese.” I know for a fact he has no Japanese heritage.

Another curious thing- and definitely related to the choice of accent- was the speed at which Sunshine spoke. It can best be described as manic. Now, I took a look at some of his master, Katsura Bunshi VI’s, work to see if this was a stylistic thing and, yes, to a degree, Bunshi is definitely a fast talker. However, Sunshine performed as if he was under some serious opening night jitters and, as a result, things often felt hurried or forced, as if he was making sure he didn’t miss anything. Again I looked up some videos, this time of Sunshine, to see if perhaps it was indeed opening night nerves, but I was surprised to see that this is actually his style.

I am being incredibly critical, I know, and I do want to cut Sunshine some slack. As my time with Japan’s traditional performing artists has taught me, the impetuousness of youth (in performance and actual age) manifests in a variety of ways. While Sunshine’s master is decidedly more at ease on stage and even when he is speeding along, it all seems natural, he is also a man who has been a professional rakugoka for a much longer time. Ten years seems like a long time for a performer- particularly in the west where a comedian who has been working for 10 years is already considered a veteran of the art form- but for a Japanese traditional art like rakugo, Sunshine is still the youngest of performers and has to put at least another 20 years on hist belt before he is really a seasoned professional. Additionally, Sunshine’s circumstances are that of one trapped between two cultures and tasked with the immeasurable task of using humor, perhaps the most personal part of any culture, to bridge that gap.

That being said, the put-on accent and Sunshine’s decision to include himself in “we Japanese” remain questionable choices.

Of course, I am a tough one to please when it comes to comedy, so please don’t take my word for it- go see Katsura Sunshine for yourself while he’s in town. I will be interested to see (if Sunshine does indeed relocate back to the west) how he grows as rakugoka and I look forward to the maturation of his career.

A Billion Nights on Earth at the Brooklyn Academy of Music

Last night I was given the opportunity to head over to the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) and take in the family show, A Billion Nights on Earth, at BAM’s Fishman space. I was interested in the production because I am a long time arts education person and love family theater, but also because the description said the production employed kabuki theater techniques. Unfortunately, the production was less magical than I hoped it would be, but provided some solid examples of ways to put the theatricality into theater.

billion-2

Winslow and his father make it to 81st street and decide to do some dancing.

The play is an original piece conceived by accomplished theater director/designer/ performer, Thaddeus Phillips, and designed by artist and musician, Steven Dufala. These two have a laundry list of experiences in the New York and have won countless awards. The story of A Billion Nights on Earth is about a young boy named Winslow, who’s father just wants him to go to bed. Winslow is having trouble sleeping, however, because he’s left his favorite bed-time pal, Whale, at the 81st St. train station. After going to the kitchen for a glass of milk, Winslow opens the refrigerator to discover a portal to another world where he and his father, who chases after Winslow, embark on a mission through snow, space, and the high seas on a quest to recover Whale.

The production design ambitiously meets the intriguing plot with a number of larger-than-life choices, utilizing inflatable animals, an oversized left-over Chinese food take-out box, and shadow puppetry. The set, much like some kabuki sets, is comprised of a series of sliding set pieces which enable Winslow’s entire house to move left and right with ease, as well as transform into various parts of the house. Additionally, huge swaths of fabric wielded by stagehands mutates the stage into arctic tundra, rolling waves, and outer space. The lighting creates a mysterious unity to the various places Winslow travels to, with his father in tow, and provides fun practical effects like the glow of a campfire or the light bulb in a rotating microwave. All of this is coupled with a soundtrack that plays a huge part in creating the emotional narrative of the piece.

Sounds pretty good, right? Well, in theory, yes, all of this sounds amazing. However, A Billion Nights on Earth is a probably best described as a series of fantastic ideas with nothing really holding them together and an execution that (accidentally) displays this particular theater’s limitations rather than showcasing the allure of its borrowed international stage techniques.

First and foremost, the narrative is woefully lacking. While the plot itself is intriguing, we never really get a sense of whose story the play is telling. At first it seems to be about Winslow’s quest to find his stuffed animal, but late in the play, the focus shifts, and it turns out to be a story about the father’s lost inspiration in his job as an architect. This would have been a wonderful reveal had the father’s character been established from the start to be a burnt-out builder but, narratively speaking, the father never really develops beyond the stereotypical Disney Channel doofus trying to keep up with his son’s youthful sense of adventure.

This lack also is indicative of a larger problem with the script which is that it just doesn’t provide enough dialogue to let the characters develop. Many times during the 55 minute piece, I watched the actors pantomime in earnest, trying to relay a message to each other (and the audience) as to what they were feeling and thinking. Why make this choice when you have established that words can be used?

Whatever the answer is, the result of this lack of dialogue made all the script’s heavy lifting be done by the play’s soundtrack. Here another problem arose. Have you ever listened to a song, been incredibly moved by it, and then had another person listen to it, only to find that they don’t relate to it in the same way? This is exactly what was at play with the soundtrack of A Billion Nights. While certain music choices did achieve a clear message, many of the music choices seemed like they wanted to tell me something, but I had no idea what that something was.

A further result of these illusive choices was that the rhythm of the whole piece was choppy. Scenes abruptly went to black and silent as the locations changed. While this suggested that each scene was a kind of vignette, meant to be taken on its own, the narrative worked against this idea, asking us to keep everything together as a developing whole.

I will say, in one of the play’s many descriptions, it suggests that A Billion Nights on Earth is meant to be a story open to interpretation, but with its middling narrative presence, I didn’t feel like I was free to make the story what I wanted it to be. Perhaps it would have been more effective in doing so if the production simply removed all the dialogue and let the sound do all the work?

img_2096

Winslow comes across a giant milk carton upon entering the refrigerator.

Moving on to the staging, while I loved the ambitiousness of it, many of the choices left me puzzled due to their sheer impracticalness. Going back to the kabuki set design choices- I feel like the choice was made to use the style without taking into account why kabuki uses it. In other words, kabuki’s sliding set is used to create new scenes, but it is also used to make effortless transitions. The realities of using it on a stage not equipped for such feats of theatricality made the larger movements clunky and often the audience was left watching as stage hands manipulated specific pieces here, and tied ropes there, in order for the transition to occur. They say a second of stage transition is like a minute of real time for the audience- we were often left with “minutes” of time while transitions occurred. Also, the use of giant inflatable props could have been really moving, but because they took a good 30-60 seconds (at least) to inflate completely, audience members (and actors) were often left sitting there waiting for a half-inflated whale to finish filling up.

While waiting for the props to inflate, I wondered about the play’s limited use of shadow puppetry. Why not use shadow puppetry, which has the same ability of growing big and small in the matter of an instant, at places like these? Certain shadow puppetry traditions, such as Thailand’s Nang Yai, even employ giant puppets that do double duty as physical presence characters and shadow figures (if having an physical presence was the goal).

Another description of the piece, which was from a youtube video made by the Philadelphia company, FringeArts, where it debuted, talks about Thaddeus Phillips’ strength as a visual artist. From this perspective I understand why the giant inflatable animals were chosen. But I also wondered if Phillips’ fascination as an adult artist with the process of watching an inflating set piece outweighed the fact that kids have an incredibly short attention span. If I was getting impatient waiting for a ballon to inflate, or a set piece to change, I wondered how the kids (there were a few) in the audience were dealing with it.

These awkward transitions also wreaked havoc on play’s rhythm as well. There is so much that could have been going on while these things happened, but the choice to just let them happen, without giving us something else to look at, was a curious one.

I’m not sad I saw A Billion Nights on Earth. For all of the play’s faults, I can at least be glad that there are theater companies investing the kind of money it takes to make something as ambitious as this. In my experience, when it comes to family theater, the cheapest solution is usually the “right” solution and the result is a lot of amazing feats of theatrical wonder have to be left to the imagination of the audience. If nothing else, A Billion Nights makes a compelling case for how important it is for theater to harness the tools that can be found in theatrical traditions all over the world to make theater a unique and magical experience. It doesn’t have to just be the method. In fact, it probably should be less of living rooms and more of A Billion Nights on Earth.

Boozing it Up, Japan Style

This past Tuesday I again headed to the Japan Society, this time to assist their Talks+ Department, who were offering visitors an in depth look at the world of the less well-known Japanese spirit, shōchū. Along with a talk by shōchū sommelier, Stephen Lyman, guests were invited to taste about 15 different brands of shōchū in a reception afterwards.

shochu1

What’s is shōchū, you ask? Well, that was kind of the whole conceit of the evening, as this beverage was billed as “Japan’s best kept secret.” Shōchū is an alcoholic beverage which is stronger than wine or sake (pronounced, “sa-kay” NOT sa-kee, sake is a beverage, saki is a number of things, including a small peninsula and/or the real name of the the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ arch enemy), but usually weaker than whiskey or vodka. As explained by Lyman in his talk, shōchū can be made with a number of ingredients including rice, barley, sweet potatoes, buckwheat and about 40 other things. Lyman also added that it “it can’t be made from sugar, except when it can” noting two versions of shōchū made from sugar cane.

Now, I know you are saying- wait- isn’t sake rice wine? How can shōchū be made of rice as well and not be sake? Also, both shōchū and sake are brewed, making the distinction between them even more difficult to a newbee (like me!) to Japanese spirits. The main difference, however, is that shōchū is distilled, whereas sake is only fermented.

All alcohol is fermented, which is a process by which sugars are are turned into alcohol. In fermentation of both sake and shōchū, the brewers first need to convert starch into sugar (since the base ingredients of these Japanese products are not sugary grapes, as would be with wine). Through a process called “saccharification” brewers add add a specific fungus known as koji to water, activating this Japanese yeast. There are three types of koji (white, yellow, and black) and each will alter the flavor of the final product. The mixture is then mixed with a mash of the base ingredients (sweet potatoes, rice, barley, etc) and after 6-10 days the alcoholic beverages are born.

While sake is a beverage meant to be consumed immediately with no further processing, shōchū continues on through a distilling process, which can be just once or several times. This process separates impurities from the beverage and, as a result, the drink becomes a lot stronger. As Lyman explained, the distillation process can be as high tech as use of a fancy machine, or as simple as a sock tied around a hose. Either way, once the distillation process is complete, the shōchū is aged. Lyman has had a shōchū as old as 40 years, but he said the typical aging is 1-3 years.

Interestingly enough, while we in the West have all probably heard of sake, shōchū remains a mystery despite the fact that shōchū is a much more common drink. I am not sure why this is the case, but I bet it has a lot to do with how versatile the drink is. Pretty much anywhere you go in Japan, from the largest city to the smallest town, there is a local shōchū brewer who is making a unique shōchū from locally sourced ingredients. This means if you go to a place in Japan that is famous for oranges, you are going to find an orange-based shōchū. And if you go to a place that is famous for fugu (that poison puffer fish!), chances are fugu has somehow made its way into the shōchū.

Anyways, after the talk the very large crowd descended upon a variety of shōchū tasting stations placed across the first floor of the Japan Society. I was placed at a table serving three types of shōchū on the rocks (though many a drinker demanded it neat). Two were from Kumamoto (which makes sense since the island of Kyushu is the shōchū capital of Japan) and were made from rice and plum, respectively. The third was from Niigata and was brewed from barley. I couldn’t drink any of them (though I was certainly offered), but based on the reactions of those who were tasting, the rice one, which was the highest alcohol content, tasted like whiskey, whereas the plum one tasted like a liqueur and the barley one like beer. They all went pretty fast, so I can’t say one was more popular than the other. At the other tables, shōchū was served similarly to ways you might find sake served, either on the rocks, neat, diluted with water, or heated.

Along with the tasting, folks were given a notepad identifying each shōchū and encouraged to take notes on their flavor profiles. As I was the one slinging the suds and dressed head-to-toe in a black on black suit and tie, I was asked a lot of questions about shōchū I couldn’t answer!  Fortunately, I was standing next to the distributor of the particular brands of shōchū in front of me, so I stayed out of trouble.

Even though I couldn’t drink any of the shōchū, I really enjoyed learning about how it is made and realizing how much tasting a shōchū might give you insight into a local area in Japan!

Barbara Hammer and Ogawa Shinsuke

This Fall, venues across NYC are coming together to celebrate the work of pioneer filmmaker of queer cinema and visual artist, Barbara Hammer, and the Japan Society Film department hopped on board with a showing of Hammer’s 2000 film, Devotion: A Film About Ogawa Productions. As I have tried to be a regular around the Japan Society, I was excited to volunteer for the Film department for this event.

Devotion_xl

Ogawa (center) is flanked by members of Ogawa Productions.

Let me be clear before I continue: I am not an expert on film, nor am I an expert on Hammer’s body of work. With regards to Hammer, I’ll let her website do the talking, should you be interested. I will note Hammer is a longtime champion of LGBTQIA issues, feminist issues, and women’s rights. Along with the film screening, she was present for a talk afterwards (which I will get to).

As for her film, Ogawa Productions refers specifically to Ogawa Shinsuke and the collective of filmmakers he led, primarily during the 1960s and 1970s in Japan. Along with their political activism, this collective (well, Ogawa, mainly) is credited for establishing the genre of documentary that we know today. Before Ogawa Productions, the documentary was primarily utilized as an informational resource, without the strong ties to sociology and anthropology that many documentaries today have. Ogawa Productions is perhaps best well known for its Sanrizuka trilogy, which chronicled the 1960s protests by farmers who were forcibly being removed from their land in order for the Japanese government to build Narita airport (Tokyo, if not Japan’s, main airport). Along with filming, the members of Ogawa productions also protested, sometimes chaining themselves to barricades and getting beat up by riot police.

The idea of the collective was simple- to create an ideal environment for filmmaking where no single person was placed above another and the group worked and lived together on a permanent basis with only one goal- to make film.

Hammer’s film itself, however, was actually quite damning of Ogawa and presented an alternate reality. This kind of made sense since the women in the Ogawa collective were literally barefoot in the kitchen (at least according to the film). Along with a critical take on Ogawa’s relationship (or lack thereof) with the women in the group, the film also portrayed Ogawa’s collective as more of a fascist (or cultist) regime, with Ogawa, a self-absorbed narcissist, at the head. In interview after interview, Ogawa Production’s members talked about how Ogawa would openly make clear his expectations that they serve him for life and be willing to “miss their parents’ funerals” and ignore their families. As Ogawa himself died in 1992, and Hammer began work on her film in 1993, unfortunately Ogawa himself was not able to defend himself against the criticisms of his peers, though the way they tell it, they never would have said a word against Ogawa openly if he were alive.

168854654

Why in the world would Hammer, a champion for women’s rights, get involved with this project to begin with, you might ask? Well, as she made clear at the start of the film, what drew her to the collective was first their involvement with the Narita protests, which openly featured newly empowered Japanese wives and mothers, who often found themselves on the front lines of the protests (and, as a result, absorbing the full force of police retaliation). Additionally, as Hammer mentioned in her talk-back, the “collective” was also an appealing idea to her- Hammer said she considers herself a child of the 1960’s.

That being said, the talkback seemed to veer from the subject matter and focus primarily on the difficulty of the process. Hammer discussed how getting people to speak to her about Ogawa Productions was often very difficult and, in some cases, met with extremely aggressive responses. Hammer recounted one time in which her translator was berated to the point of tears by a potential interviewee, who screamed obscenities at her and exclaimed that such a documentary should never be made. The idea that this was a film not be made was a reoccurring theme in Hammer’s experiences, and even after the screening in 2000 when the film was finished, there were still angry members of the group who came just to tell her that.

Additionally, Hammer received a critical letter from a film scholar (whose name I am forgetting, but who basically “wrote the book” on Ogawa Productions) who was disappointed Hammer had not focused more on the positive outcomes of Ogawa’s efforts.

As an outsider I was struck by this story as it highlights a troubling reality when it comes to “sacrificing oneself for art.” In fact, sometimes there are people who the artist sacrifices so he (or she) can thrive. While watching Hammer’s film, I could not help but be disgusted by Ogawa and his megalomaniacal dictatorship. For me, his contribution to film seems to pale in comparison to the psychological abuse he heaped upon a group of people who drank the kool-aid and believed in the cause so much that they were willing to sacrifice themselves to this lunatic (granted, I will say I am swayed by the portrayal of Ogawa by Hammer, who has an arguably skewed viewpoint). However, during the film, those around me laughed as these stories of abuse were recounted- was it nervous laughter? Or was it simply a group willing to concede that times back then were “crazy” and in the art world, sometimes great art can only be produced when there is someone willing to be consumed by the artist? Or, did they know something I didn’t?

I’d like to believe the laughter was more nervous than the other, but who knows? Arguably, everyone who came, came out of deference to two artists- Hammer and Ogawa. While I was obsessed with the abused people, the audience made it clear the artistic process of Ogawa (and Hammer) was the point to be considered. One individual noted how much Hammer’s cinematography mimicked Ogawa’s and asked Hammer if this was a conscious decision. In other words, how Ogawa had treated others was sort of written off because of what he contributed to the film world- it made the how moot. Also, never mind that Hammer’s film strives to make the point that, in spite of this notion of a nameless “collective”, we were still talking about Ogawa and his contributions to film. I found this pretty ironic.

I’m not sure how to reconcile the reality of sacrifice for art in this case. On the one hand, an individual who is free (assuming they are) is free to get involved with someone like (Hammer’s) Ogawa. They make the conscious decision to sacrifice themselves for the cause, even if they know there is a dog on top somehow benefitting from it. On the other hand, perhaps the film critic was right? Maybe Hammer’s film was a collection of disgruntled comments strung together to form a narrative that damns Ogawa when, in reality, there were a lot of positive experiences that got left on the cutting room floor.

I’ll have to ask the Japan Society film department why they chose this film and how they reconcile Hammer’s perspective with their decision to highlight Ogawa Production’s films (after the Hammer documentary, Japan Society screened Sanrizuka: Heta Village 三里塚 辺田部落– the 3rd film in the trilogy- which I couldn’t stay for). As I said, I am no film buff, so I can only respond to what I participated in.

A very interesting day and definitely an exciting part of the Japan Society’s programming!