Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

August 22, 2008

"Waiting on the Weather" by Nogami Teruyo (Book review)

Nogami Teruyo was the script supervisor and loyal assistant of Kurosawa Akira (1910-1998). This extraordinary women was at his side from the filming of Rashomon on to the very last. She wrote some of her personal memories down after Kurosawa's death for the Japanese magazine Cinema Club - she could not have done this while Kurosawa was still alive, as he would have told her, she says, "You've got it all wrong!"

That was in the mid-nineties, and the Japanese pieces were published in book form in 2000. Thanks to an initiative of Donald Richie (who also wrote an introduction) this English translation by Juliet Winters Carpenter was published two years ago by Stone Bridge Press. As is usual for Stone Bridge, it is a beautiful book, with illustrations by the author.

To be sure, this is not a biography or a full analysis of Kurosawa's films. It is an intimate human record in which we get glimpses of the genius director and the way he worked. After a first chapter on Itami Mansaku, a director Nogami Teruyo never met but corresponded with as a schoolgirl and who inspired love for film in her (later Ms Nogami would take care of one the sons, Itami Juzo, when he was a young boy) and a chapter on the Daiei Kyoto studios where she started working just after the war, the story about Kurosawa kicks in with Rashomon (1951).

We see the then 40-year old director energetically working with his team. At that time, he was already the perfectionist he would always be. The most interesting episode is how they used to carry around mirrors to reflect the sun while filming in the woods - indeed, the contrasts between black and white in Rashomon are perfect. Fascinating is also the episode about the sudden fire in the Daiei studios where quick action miraculously saved the negatives of Rashomon.

What we get from this book is how different film making was before the invention of CGI. That was "waiting for the weather" - not only waiting hours and hours for sunshine, but also waiting for a particular cloud to move into just the right spot above the roof of a building. When filming the village in The Seven Samurai in the setting sun with the seven samurai in profile in the foreground, the cameraman waited just a few seconds too long, so they had to do it all over again the next day. The ants marching in formation over the ground in Rhapsody in August were real ants and a lot of "ant study" went into that scene. The same is true for the crows that fly up at the end of the Van Gogh episode in Dreams. The film team had to catch actual crows, put them in small cages and open the cages at just the right moment. No wonder Kurosawa took months, and even years, making his films, while Miike Takashi finishes off one flick a week...

Kurosawa ruled his team like an "emperor," and could have fits of terrible anger. He and the people around him had an especially hard time when filming Dersu Urzala under the most primitive circumstances in Siberia. In the course of the filming, Kurosawa went from one bottle of vodka a day, to two bottles. Kurosawa worked well with people who had lesser egos, such as Mifune Toshiro, who despite his macho roles was a rather shy man - a pity Kurosawa dropped him after filming Red Beard, just because he had enough of his style of acting.

Katsu Shintaro originally was to be the lead actor in Kagemusha, but the swaggering, rough-and ready actor immediately clashed with the precise and perfectionist Kurosawa - their relation just lasted one day, the second morning Katsu left in a huff and was replaced with Nakadai Tatsuya. This episode reads like slapstick, but the quarrels with Takemitsu Toru were more serious. Takemitsu, who wrote the music for Ran, was Japan's most important composer of the twentieth century and of course had a great sense of artistic integrity. He did not allow Kurosawa (who, as "emperor" wanted to have his say in every small detail!) to meddle with the music he made. Takemitsu got his way but with much difficulty and never worked with Kurosawa again. On the contrary, he made a pointed remark about the group around Kurosawa who just acted as yes-men and never dared to differ in opinion (in this, he also included Nogami Teruyo): "It's all the fault of the people around Kurosawa!"

But Nogami certainly is no flatterer, she openly shows us the great director in his many moods, also the nasty ones. Her book is a treasure of stories and in the end we only would like to have had more.

Kurosawa left a great number of perfect fims behind. The result of reading this book is that I want to see those films again... perhaps I will start with Rashomon...

August 16, 2008

Book Review: "Kaleidoscope, selected tanka of Shuji Teruyama"

Terayama Shuji (1935-1983) was Japan's infant-terrible of the sixties of the last century. Genius, avant-gardist, iconoclast, photographer, director, playwright, novelist, filmmaker, cultural critic and poet. In his time, his work incited scandal and outrage. Today, he is a cult hero. In his all-too short life, he wrote 200 literary works and made 20 short and long experimental films (the most famous is Denen ni shinisu or "Pastoral: To die in the country"). Terayama was obsessed with the borders between fiction and reality.

Although best known as a playwright (see for some translations and an analysis Unspeakable Acts listed below), Terayama was also an excellent poet. He started writing tanka in his teens and even won an award for emerging tanka poets. His tanka are unique in that they are not based on his own experience, but should be seen as fiction, as scenes from a play or a film. He did have complex emotions, however, as he was an only child whose father had not returned from the war, and whose mother - he claimed - had abandoned him. He grew up with family in Aomori and as his uncle owned a movie theater, he saw countless films until he moved to Tokyo in 1954.

Terayama's first tanka collection was published in 1958, when he was 22. After his third collection, published in 1964, he switched definitively to the theater - in 1967 he set up his own experimental theater company. His films and theater productions went on to win several international prizes.

The Hokuseido Press has published a beautiful book with 201 translations of Terayama's tanka poems. They have been expertly translated by Kozue Uzawa and Amelia Fielden and both Japanese and English versions are included in the book. It is a lavishly illustrated publication. (The Hokuseido Press is a publisher of language text books. In the past, they have also published the haiku books by R.H. Blyth, a series I would like to see in print again!).

To give an impression of Terayama's haiku, here are a few characteristic ones from Kaleidoscope:
I come to believe after all
I look like
my dead father,
shaving my face
on the day swallows appear

[naki chichi ni | kakute nite-yuku | ware naran ka | tsubame kuru hi mo | hige sorinagara]

let's sever
my stinky blood relationship
the winter axe is placed
upside down
in a sunny spot

[namagusaki | ketsuen tatan | hiatari ni | sakasa ni tatete aru | fuyu no ono]

on my wall I stick
the corpse of a winter butterfly -
this should be
the family crest
of a deserted child

[waga hei ni | fuyu-choo no kabane wo | haritsukete | sutego-kakei no | mon to suru beshi]

Kaleidoscope was published to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Terayama's death. These forceful tanka are warmly recommended to all poetry lovers.
Kaleidoscope, Selected Tanka of Shuji Terayama, selected by Kozue Uzawa, translated by Kozue Uzawa and Amelia Fielden (The Hokuseido Press, 3-32-4 Honkomagome, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo, 2008). Unfortunately, the book is not listed on Amazon, so I give full contact details for the publisher. I found  my copy in the foreign books section of Junkudo in Temmabashi, Osaka.

Unspeakable Acts: The Avant-garde Theatre of Terayama Shuji And Postwar Japan by Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei (Hawaii University Press, 2005)

There is a Shuji Terayama Museum in Misawa, Aomori.

August 2, 2008

"The Roof Tile of Tempyo" by Inoue Yasushi (Book review)

When I studied at Nanjing University in 1979-80, at one time the university organized a trip to a nearby city, Yangzhou. I think it was in the early spring of 1980. Especially the Japanese students (three "Mitsubishi boys", young salarymen from the large trading company studying Chinese for a posting to China) were told to join as this was supposed to be a special China-Japan friendship event. Interested foreign students were herded into a white minibus and off we were, transported to Yangzhou over an only partially finished highway. We stopped at the Damingsi Temple and joined the huge crowd of Chinese streaming inside. Finally, we reached a Memorial Hall, and inside we found a small but very fine statue of a blind monk, Jianzhen... and then we were pushed outside again by the surging crowd. The statue was on loan from a  temple in Japan.

It was only a few years later, after coming to Japan and visiting Toshodaiji in Nara, the temple of the statue, that I realized the importance of this event. Jianzhen (688-763), called Ganjin in Japan, was a Chinese priest who after many hardships had managed to journey to Japan to establish an orthodox Buddhist lineage in that country and introduce the correct monastic rules. Toshodaiji was the temple the Japanese government built for him, and the statue I saw in China was a life-like image, made just after his death (in Toshodaiji, it is not normally on view). One can also visit Jianzhen's grave in Toshodaiji. Since then, I have repeatedly visited Toshodaiji, which is one of the most beautiful temples of Nara. The original 8th c. Golden Hall still exists, as does the wonderful set of wooden statues carved by the Chinese artisans who followed Ganjin to Japan.

It was again a year or five later that I first read The Roof Tile of Tempyo by Inoue Yasushi. This historical novel, written in 1958, is a faithful account of Ganjin's tribulations, based on the The Record of the Eastward Journey of the Great Monk of Tang by one of Ganjin's disciples. There is little plot and no drama in this understated novel, but it is imbued with a sense of Buddhist serenity and resignation. Although emotions are kept in check, there is a strong sense of determination in the hearts of the protagonists, both the young monks from Japan who come to China for study and the venerable master Ganjin, who does not give up his endeavor to reach Japan and spread orthodoxy.

The “Tempyo” in the title is the name for an era (729-749) when Japan was engaged in her first attempt to acquire the culture of a more advanced civilization, the Tang empire of China. The young monks who make the dangerous journey to China with one of the Japanese embassies sent in that period, experience this first hand. Some “go native,” others long so much for Japan that they are of no use anymore, but most of them, especially Fusho and Yoei, try to do something that will benefit their country – in this case, bringing back a Vinaya master like Ganjin. Another one, Gogyo, devotes his life to copying a whole library of books still unknown in Japan. The only pathos in the novel is that these scrolls are eventually lost at sea, showing the futility of individual human endeavors.

Why was it important to bring “Vinaya-master” Ganjin to Japan? Because the orthodox transmission of the Law in Buddhism is from master to disciple. That disciple, after passing his tests, is then officially ordinated on an ordination platform, where a certain number of officially ordinated elder priests (three masters and seven attestors) has to be present. By bringing Ganjin with a number of his already ordained followers to Japan, the “orthodox transmission” of Buddhism was finally established on Japanese soil.

The determination Ganjin shows is most impressive. In the eleven years from 743 to 754, Ganjin attempted some six times to travel to Japan. Five times, he is thwarted by unfavorable weather conditions and government intervention (the Chinese at first did not want this important monk to leave). In 748, during the fifth attempt, the ship is blown so far off course that Ganjin lands in Hainan. This journey alone, including the long trek back to Yangzhou, takes a full three years and costs Ganjin his eyesight due to an infection.

In 753 at long last an official Japanese embassy again visits China, and Ganjin now can travel with this group. They land in Kyushu and in 754 arrive in the Japanese capital of Nara, where they are welcomed by the Emperor. A large ordination platform is built at Todaiji and thus, finally, takes place the orthodox transmission of Buddhism to Japan.

Through skillful linking Inoue brings many of the renowned figures of the age on the stage. These are, for example, Abe no Nakamaro, the Japanese poet and scholar who lived most of his life at the court of the Chinese emperor, and Yang Guifei, the most celebrated beauty in Chinese history, who met a tragic fate.

By the way, the "roof tile" of the title is a shibi, an end tile in the form of a mythical sea monster. This tile is sent from China to Fusho after his return - he does not even know by whom. He has the tile installed on Toshodaiji and so it becomes a symbol of the spread of Buddhism from China to Japan.

Inoue Yasushi (1907-1991) was a prolific writer active in many genres: short stories, novels both modern and historical, essays, travel writing and poetry. He wrote more historical fiction about China, such as Confucius and Dunhuang. The Blue Wolf is about Kublai Khan. Fine are also short stories as Loulan. He started his career by winning the Akutagawa prize in 1950 with The Bull Fight.

I feel close to this story because I am interested in both China and Japan, so I like to see cultural bridges built as this novel by Inoue Yasushi has done. And I was once a student too in China, although only for one year and under very different circumstances, but it is easy for me to imagine the wonder with which Fusho and the other Japanese beheld this vast and wonderful country...


P.S. By the way, the first account by a Japanese about China was The Record of a Pilgrimage to China in Search of the Law by Ennin, a Japanese priest from Enryakuji on Mt Hiei who traveled through China from 838 to 847. His travel diary has been translated by Edwin O. Reischauer under the title Ennin's Diary: The Record of a Pilgrimage to China in Search of the Law (Ronald Press, New York: 1955). Ennin did not write about his personal impressions, but rather gives a factual account of religious matters and Chinese life under the later Tang Dynasty. His diary has been called a good source on the practice of popular Buddhism in China.
The Roof Tile of Tempyo by Yasushi Inoue, translated by James T. Araki (University of Tokyo Press, 1981)