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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

 

A Few Trips to the Japan Society

So, since I got back, I have been doing a lot of volunteering at the Japan Society, which is arguably NYC’s premiere Japanese cultural outlet. Since I have been eager to find ways to discover Japan in NYC as a way to avoid reverse culture shock and just because I want to keep doing stuff related to Japanese arts and culture, the Japan Society has been an amazing resource.

The Japan Society, unlike the Japan Foundation (which is more political in its endeavors and is the source of many a student grant), is more concerned with promoting art and culture and fostering sites of cultural collaboration through theses mediums. It has now been around for 130 years and is divided into six unique departments.

The first is the Gallery department (1), who has year-round exhibits of all kinds of art, from ancient tea-bowls to contemporary paintings. This gallery is open pretty much every day.

Next there are Film (2), Performing Arts (3), and Talks (4) departments, which offer various opportunities to engage with Japanese culture frequently throughout the year. The film department does  a monthly classic screening, along with special event screenings. The Performing Arts department produces a number of works unique to Japanese culture each year (more on this later) from traditional to contemporary. The Talks department (or more specifically the Talks+ department) offers lecture series on all kinds of topics from popular culture, to political, to artistic.

Next, the Japan Society has an Education department (5), which does family programming, summer workshops for high school students, and an amazing cultural exchange program in which students, and sometimes teachers, from the US and Japan come to visit each other in order to present on current issues.

Last, but certainly not least, the Japan Society has a Language department (6) which offers year round lessons for all levels of Japanese language learners.

I have been trying to ingratiate myself into as many of the Japan Society’s programs as possible, which has meant a lot of volunteering. It has also meant a lot of amazing opportunities.

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The first event I worked on was back at the end of October, for the Performing Arts department- at a performance called Left-Right-Left. This was the second performance in their 5-part Noh Now series in which contemporary projects and collaborations in Noh are being presented. The first I was really sad I missed, it was an opera of Natsume Soseki’s Yume Jūya or Ten Nights of Dream (however, this production was only Four Nights of Dream). Left-Right-Left is the brain-child of Italian choreographer, Luca Veggetti, butoh master, Akira Kasai, Japan scholar extraordinaire, Donald Keene, and several other prominent modern dancers and Noh musicians. Using the plays Okina and Hagoromo as a jumping off point, the group set about creating a modern response to these plays through sound and movement.

I worked both nights this piece was performed, so I got to see it twice, which was a good thing since I am no expert in modern dance. The first showing left me kind of baffled- it was definitely an experimental piece. However, the second viewing was a bit more illuminating and the pieces of Okina and Hagoromo became clearer to me, as did the performer’s unique interpretations of them. I will say one of the most interesting things about this piece was noh musician, Genjiro Okura’s, incredible demonstration of polyphonic singing, in which one voice produces two distinct tones at the same time. I thought it was an interesting way to tie the musical narrative into the dancer’s commentary on the simultaneous nature of youth and the aged.

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The next event I worked was for the Education department, as part of their annual Obake day- which was a kind of Halloween event. If you know me, you know I am passionate about arts education, and I love Japanese ghosts, so I was really jazzed to help out with this one. The event was an impressive, and massive, undertaking in which three floors of the Japan Society were transformed into a family friendly “haunt.” The basement was a haunted house tour, in the theatre level there was a puppet show, and the top floor had a room full of traditional Japanese carnival games. I came the day before to set up and, before I knew it, I had somehow become a cast member in the haunted house tour.

The next day I was playing the role of the tengu in the first room of the haunted house tour. A tengu is a bird like creature popular in Japanese mythology, who typically lives in a forest and causes all types of problems for humans. Sometimes, however, the tengu is depicted as a red faced goblin with a long nose (which was the case in this production). I was responsible for giving the kids and their parents lip about not giving them a magical feather fan, which the group needed to get to their next destination on the tour. Naturally, I get vanquished by some trickery and the kids get my fan. I was rotating with another actor, which was good because the haunted house, unlike the puppet show upstairs, ran constantly throughout the day. All in all, though, it was super fun!

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Finally, this past weekend, I worked all three days of the third performance in the Noh Now series, Rikyu Enoura. This is a new noh performance written by NYC-based visual artist and traditional Japanese theater connoisseur, Sugimoto Hiroshi, and performed by professional Kanze school Noh actors and musicians. Interestingly enough, Sugimoto Hiroshi, who is also an architect, has been designing an observatory for the Odawara Art Foundation for the past ten years, which recently opened. Enoura has significance for more than just Rikyu, apparently.

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Looking out from the tip of the observatory.

The play follows the story of the forced suicide of real-life tea master, Sen no Rikyu, by infamous Japanese unifier, Toyotomi Hideyoshi.  After 30 years, which is when the play takes place, Rikyu’s spirit wanders, unsettled, in a forest in Enoura, located closely to Hideyoshi’s famous castle in Odawara. Rikyu’s disciple, Tadaoki, who is visiting the area by chance, discovers his master who tells him that, after the austere Rikyu admonished Hideyoshi for building a tea room covered in gold, Hideyoshi got pissed off and demanded Rikyu commit seppuku (ritual disembowelment). Days being what they were back then, Rikyu had no choice, and complied (as the lecture before each performance highlighted, this is merely a dramatization of the story and it is doubtful that the real Rikyu was forced to kill himself for such a minor offense- but the fact of the matter is he did have to kill himself for something). Tadaoki unsuccessfully, to quell his master’s guilt, and the ghost leaves, unappeased.

The performance was really interesting and I can see this becoming a permanent part of the noh repertory. I wasn’t wild about one minor choice in the narrative structure, but I am no noh master, so what do I know?

Next week I will be working for the Film department and the week after that, the Talks+ department. I am really thrilled so much Japanese culture is available to me and so happy that the Japan Society is letting me help out as much as I can!

Catching up and Back to the US

As I have been in the transition process, moving back to the US from Yamaguchi over the past few weeks, I haven’t had a lot of time to reflect on my last days in Yamaguchi. So I figure, now that I have a minute, I should do that!

In the week or so before leaving, I had a very busy day on Sunday, September 10th. Along with helping the Yonemotos with their annual rice harvest (or inekari), I also had to help out with an evening performance of Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen at Rurikoji.

Tarō picked me up at around 8:30am and we headed over to Bunmei’s house, which if you recall, is out in the middle of nowhere. As I have mentioned before, along with being the retainers of the Denemon tradition of Sagi kyōgen, the Yonemotos are also farmers. Along with rice, the Yonemotos farm various fruits, vegetables, and herbs- but I believe the only thing they actually sell is the rice. In the weeks leading up to the 10th, Bunmei had given me quite a few tomatoes he had grown and, I have to say, after eating these tomatoes, it is really hard to eat store bought ones- they are incredible.

Upon arriving I was quickly whisked away to the same place where we had planted back in June to discover fields of ready to harvest rice plants. I knew from asking before-hand that the rice would be primarily harvested with a tractor, however from the boots they gave me and the sickles kept in the back of the truck, I was not surprised to see that I was in for some old-fashioned reaping.

In fact, we harvested the rice through three methods. The first two, as I said were either via a tractor which cuts and separates the rice from its stalks and deposits it into bags on the side of the truck, or by hand with a small sickle. The third way was a combination of the other two as Fumiaki used a push mower type of machine which bundled the rice an spit it out on the side- after which I would gather up the bundles and then feed them into the tractor’s sorting machine by hand.

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Anyone who says being a farmer isn’t hard isn’t really a farmer. We only tilled three out of the (at least) 10 rice fields that the Yonemotos have and it took all day and was exhausting- particularly the work by hand. The reason the machine can’t do it all is because there is always rice around the edges of the field that it misses- however- we did almost an entire field by hand for some reason (the picture above was just the beginning of that task!).

After all the rice is in the bag, the process is still not complete. We then had to lug the 30 kilogram bags to a drying machine, which (of course) dries the rice and separates it from it’s outer husk. Based on what I saw, it looks like the machine takes about a day to completely dry the rice.

We finished with inekari around 5pm, which was just in time to head over to Rurikoji. I wish I could include some pictures of the performance but, unfortunately, they are on my camera and I think I packed the computer to camera cable in a box I shipped but haven’t gotten back yet!

The performance was part of an annual firelight festival at Rurikoji in which there are little lamps that are placed all around that light the paths around the temple grounds. Along with the kyōgen show, there were also kimono demonstrations and tea ceremonies to take part in. Tarō, Fumiaki, and Tsuchimura played the kyōgen, Chidori (Catching Plovers), with Rurikoji’s pagoda as a backdrop, and afterwards Tarō did a kind of talk-back. Interestingly (or perhaps not interestingly depending on how you look at it), Tarō spent more time doing kyōgen demonstrations and answering questions about Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen and his upcoming project, Noh no katachi in Yamaguchi, than the group spent actually performing.

Over the next two weeks I made all the arrangements to leave Yamaguchi and return to the United States, as my research time came to a close. I spent an amazing night with Fumiaki on the Saturday before I left- he took me some of his favorite bars in nearby Hofu. I have no idea how I kept up the drinking with him, nor do I know how I woke up the next morning without a hangover, but somehow, the gods of moving smiled on me.

Two days later the house was empty and I was off to NYC, where I am now living. Anyone who has moved back to the US from a foreign country, especially Japan, knows how weird this is. It’s a kind of reverse culture shock. People wonder why you do everything so slowly, you can’t believe how pushy all the television commercials are, and you have a little trouble knowing whether to go left or right due to the reverse flow of traffic.

I definitely miss Yamaguchi. I miss the simplicity and I definitely miss spending time with the Sagi kyōgen actors and the people of Yamaguchi. But I am excited for this next part of the adventure (I’d like to think of it that way). I love NYC, it’s my hometown. I don’t love looking for a job, however, that part is plain awful- particularly when you have to explain to people how your work with Japanese theater is somehow applicable to their American business. But I am confident the dust will settle soon and things will normalize with time.

So what is going to happen to this blog then? Well, as you might guess, NYC is full of Japanese performance! I have already volunteered to work at every show the Japan Society is doing this year and I have already been to a kyōgen which the Noh/kyōgen Society presented last week. I am also hoping to return to Yamaguchi in November and January to attend their annual shows, if possible. As the title of this blog suggests, life is kyōgen, and that remains true, no matter where I may be.

Rehearsal, September 2 and a Trip to Cat Island

This week was an interesting rehearsal because none of the Yonemotos were in attendance, which gave me the opportunity to see how things are done when the cats are away. Speaking of cats, because I had to make an unexpected trip to Kyoto this past Monday, I took the opportunity to visit the nearby Manabeshima, one of Japan’s 11 Neko-jima, or cat islands.

When I arrived at rehearsal on Saturday, I learned from Tsuchimura that Tarō and Bunmei were going to be absent because they were doing a special performance at the nearby cultural center, called Saikōtei. This is the first rehearsal I have been to in which neither of the Yamamotos were present, so I was curious to see how it would be handled.

As I kind of expected, with the two gone, Tsuchimura, being the senior member, took charge. Since a lot of people showed up late, he began by rehearsing the Busu dance with the actor playing Tarō Kaja and then the traveller roles of Hone Kawa with the three men who played these roles. Unlike the Yonemotos, Tsuchimura seems to be a bit of a detail-oriented task-master, and he spent a lot of his time trying to get actors to understand very minute details of movement and vocal patterns. While the Yonemotos, Bunmei in particular, choose to focus on specific details for the actors to work on after watching the rehearsal of a play in its entirety, Tsuchimura more frequently stopped rehearsal to spot check various moments.

After more people arrived, the group worked on Busu, Miyagino, and Hone Kawa (though again, because Jirō wasn’t there, they could only do parts of Hone Kawa).

I also noticed that without the Yonemotos, the moments in which notes were being given seemed to be more of a group conversation, with many of the actors contributing their opinions on what is correct and what is not. That being said, Tsuchimura was quick to shut a few people down when he didn’t think they were giving helpful advice!

On Monday, as I said, I had to go to Kyoto for some prospective job stuff. I took the opportunity to stay overnight and, the following day, head out to Manabeshima, which is one of Japan’s cat islands, while on the way back to Yamaguchi.

Japan has a serious love of cats. You have probably at least heard of the cat cafe, in which people pay a small fee to enter a cafe where they drink tea and pet various cats. While this didn’t start in Japan, it quickly became synonymous with Japan’s kawaii (cute) culture. Today Japan has over 150 cat cafes and its residents are either cats who are up for adoption or permanent residents of said cafe. In the case of permanent residents, you will often find rare breeds of cats you may not see anywhere else.

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Along with the cat cafe, cats also play a major role in popular Japanese culture. One of Japan’s most famous cartoon characters, Doraemon, is a robotic cat from the future who, using his magical tools such as his dokodemo door (the anywhere door), gets his human partner, a boy named Nobita, into all sorts of trouble. Pizza Hut has the Pizza Cats, who are live cats that supposedly run the chain (badly, because they’re cats, after all) and there are no shortage of famous cats serving honorary positions in train stations and public service locations across the country.

What’s the big deal, you might ask, with cats? Well, in a country where having a pet is often a luxury, due to strict landlords and, in the city, tiny living arrangements, having a pet cat (or any animal for that matter) is a difficult and often very costly. If you go to a pet store you might be shocked to see how expensive it is to buy an animal. I saw a chinchilla being sold here in Yamaguchi for 2000 USD! The result of this is cats (if not all cute animals) have a certain mystique about them and people want to soak up all the kawaii they can.

Now cat islands, while they have been around for a long time, are a relatively new fascination- and the Japanese have been keen to capitalize on it. Essentially, these places are small islands in which there are a limited number of residents and a boatload of (typically) feral cat colonies which the residents collectively support. Tourists from around the globe flock to these locations to see parts of Japan not typically visited and to encounter numerous felines. The most famous of these islands is probably Aoshima, in the Ehime prefecture (south west of Yamaguchi), where the cats outnumber the residents 6-1.

Manabeshima is located in the Okayama prefecture, which is northeast of Yamaguchi, closer to Hiroshima. In order to get to the island I had to take a local train from Fukuyama to Kasaoka, then a ferry from nearby Kasaoka port (a five minute walk from the train station), which runs about 8 times daily. Depending on which ferry you take, you get to Manabeshima in either 45 minutes or 1 1/2 hours.

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A school at Manabeshima- Didn’t see any kids though…and yes, that is a graveyard in the upper right hand corner.

Upon arriving I was struck by two things. The first thing was there seemed to be no cats. Secondly the island, although it had a densely packed number of houses, seemed to have no residents. It was like a ghost town. However, it wasn’t long before one cat after another began popping up and, after a few tourists emerged from what I assume was a seafood restaurant, suddenly a bevy of cats materialized. It was then I realized that if I wanted to find the cats of Manabeshima, I really should have brought food. The cats were definitely on the feral side, but some were very friendly and all of them were a quirky bunch, with groups of cats lording over specific areas.

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I also came across an interesting park, called yuuki no minato, which used to translate into ‘port of the spirits.’ While the kanji for yūki used to be 幽鬼, I learned that they changed it in the Edo period to yuki 雪, or snow, because of the locals fear of the mischievous spirits who would hide amongst the rocks and cause trouble for incoming sailors. That being said, everything I saw around the island still called itself ゆうきの港, so maybe the locals have gotten over the fear of the ghouls- or maybe the cats deal with them?

I have never been to Aoshima, so I don’t know how I would compare it to the human-to- cat ratio of Manabeshima- if seeing a plethora of cats is your goal. However, if you want to see a truly unique old fishing village and you don’t mind a mangy cat sneezing on you, Manabeshima is certainly a good choice.

Rehearsal, August 26th

I arrived at rehearsal this past Saturday to find the group swarmed by NHK newsmen, who are working on a big Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen piece for this coming fall. I myself have been involved in this a bit (I was interviewed in January), as a foreign scholar paying attention to what they are doing and writing his dissertation about it is newsworthy (I guess). However, I was unprepared for exactly how much I would be involved today.

The rehearsal started off a bit staged, as Tarō arrived and the group “pretended” to be putting away some of their more treasured costume pieces. I had actually never seen the pieces they took out before. The cameraman spent much of his time focusing on the conversations that occurred between Tarō, Bunmei, Tsuchimura, and Itō as they refolded the costumes and wrapped them back up, but he also would whip around and video we in the “audience,” observing this. I chuckled to myself about the ease of this process. For the purpose of my research, I had to obtain so many permissions and create and utilize approved waivers before even being in the room with the actors- whereas these guys just point and shoot- they didn’t even ask if it was ok.

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Chidori. Tarō Kaja (Yonemoto Bunmei, left) gets caught trying to sneak off with a bucket of sake without paying by the sake merchant (Yonemoto Tarō, right). Centre College, Kentucky, Feb 2015.

After the staged but, the actors set about doing the regular rehearsal. The group first worked on Chidori, which they will be performing at the upcoming production at Yamaguchi’s, Ruriko-ji. A weird thing I noticed, thanks to all my time with these guys, was how Tsuchimura says the into line ” kore wa kono atari ni sumai…” I was often chided for putting emphasis in this way “koRE WA kono atari ni sumai.” As was explained to me, this style of speaking is an Ōkura style of speaking, and in the Sagi Denemon style, there is no emphasis on particular syllables. However, Tsuchimura was saying it the way I do. It seems like a small thing, but as I know Tsuchimura is a kind of a kyōgen connoisseur, it is interesting to see how his experience with other styles has influenced his speech patterns, much in the same way I have been influenced.

I believe I mentioned this before, but when Itō first began studying with Kobayashi Eiji, he was discouraged by Kobyashi from watching other styles of kyōgen for this exact reason. However, this really highlights the idea that Sagi kyōgen should not only be viewed as an art of recognizable stylistic patterns, but also a collective effort of a group of artists who employ varying techniques and are influenced by various circumstances. I think this is a good lesson for engagement with any traditional performing art, as it asks we focus on not just the art, but the artists as living embodiments of the art (I am sure I sound like a broken record about this topic by now!).

Anyways, after Chidori the group did Hone Kawa, which was the first time I was seeing it on its feet. I took a lot of notes on this, as I have never the play before, and was really curious to see how it was staged. My furious note taking was recognized by our friendly camera man however, and I was faced with a lens in my face for much of the practice of the play.

Interestingly, there are only 4 acting configurations that exist in the play. The first is a typical one, with the head priest standing at the shite pillar for a nanori and then moving to the waki pillar (DS left) and calling his acolyte standing at the shite pillar (US right). From here the introduction to the play occurs. The second is both actors DS, with the priest remaining at the waki pillar (now seated on a kazura oke) and the acolyte standing at the sighting pillar (DS right). This positioning was used any time the priest gave directions to his acolyte. The third is when the acolyte was not with the priest and, during this time the acolyte sat center stage, while the priest remained seated at the waki pillar.

It was the final stage set-up that interested me most, however, as this is where at least half of the play occurs and consists of the acolyte meeting various passerbys and employing (incorrectly) the advice the head priest has given him. Interestingly enough, all these moments take place in the US right corner, with the passerby standing at the first pine on the hashigakari and the acolyte standing just US of the shite pillar (suggesting he is inside the temple, while the visitor is outside). The western director in me cringed at this staging as it seems like such a waste of space- there is an entire stage that is being ignored and half the audience can’t see one of the actors. However, the playwright in me understood why such a staging was necessary- it is important to the narrative itself. Most importantly, though, it caters to the rules of kyōgen’s world. If the scene took place in the temple, it would make little sense, as the places already shown determine that one part of the stage is the acolyte’s room and the other, the inner area where the priest resides. To bring a third actor into this space who is not a member of the temple would be confusing.

The third and final play that was practice was Onigawara. I don’t love this play, but I must admit that the two players (Itō and Ikeda) have really been working on it, because their chemistry is noticeably improving.  While Bunmei still had a lot of notes for Ikeda on pronunciation, the play is becoming much more enjoyable to watch and the two actors are clearly beginning to relax and have fun.

After rehearsal I tried to slip out as I was terrified that NHK would want to interview me and I didn’t want to sound like an idiot on television- I may be in the arts, but I have some serious stage fright issues in English, so, having to be on camera speaking Japanese- yipes! As you might have guessed, I got caught, and I had to do an interview. Most of the questions were about my research and why I liked Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen, but I was also asked about my opinions on Yamaguchi and its culture. I made a lot of mistakes, but nothing improves your speaking abilities like the pressure of being on TV. Though, in retrospect, I need to brush up on my use of the passive voice.

Also, the whole concept of being included in this filming is an interesting conundrum as a researcher. On the one hand, I am supposed to remain an objective presence that does not, in any way, influence the process I am observing. On the other, when I am being asked to talk about my work to NHK and being paraded around to various performance venues (I am typically asked to be a translator for them, but it inevitably leads to me sales pitching why I am here), it is arguable that I am affecting a process I am supposed to be outside of. I imagine this is an issue which any researcher faces, particularly when researching something that has little to no previous research that came before it. I want to exclude myself from the narrative- but I think taking such a position is a bit disingenuous. In writing the ol’ diss, I am going to have to think long and hard about an effective way to consider the ways my presence may have had an impact on what I have witnessed over the past year. I don’t think it has created a radical shift in Yamaguchi Sagi kyōgen activities, but it needs to be considered.