textural (8)

15Apr17

twinslast sundown of 2016green on redtatami blurTobidashi-kun

All photos taken with an Asus ZenFone 3.


textural (7)

05Apr17

tanuki-o-ramastation to station a divided nationsunset at the gates the bridges of the Yodogawa

All photographs taken with an Asus ZenFone 3.


textural (6)

04Apr17

nightwalksuburban sailsanswersline of protection a night walk

All photographs taken with an Asus ZenFone 3.


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Not too long ago, Mikami Kan (三上 寛) – a folk/blues legend in Japan – came to Osaka to play at Imagination Pika Space as part of the Night of 1,000 Eyes series, curated by the serious and mysterious DJ Mike 1,000 Eyes. I’d seen Mikami Kan play once before in Kyoto in tandem with Jojo Hiroshige of Hijokaidan fame, and it was an incredible noise/blues session full of groans, distortion, and sudden cathartic vocal explosions. The Pika Space show was less explosive but all the more deeper and personal for it. There’s an incredible depth of emotional expression in Kan’s voice, built out of years of understanding what it means to be poor and working class in Japan, what it means to live in society’s edge zones, and what it means to feel the heat at the contact point where beauty and sorrow are welded together. When Kan adopts the voice of a laborer who has come home to a bare-bulb apartment and is enjoying listening to a cheap radio while quietly downing a One Cup Ozeki he gets the tone just right, riding the line between vocalizing the real pleasure of the moment and vocalizing the quiet despair of poverty that keeps such moments of pleasure fleeting and limited.

Mikami Kan has a long history of collaboration with Shuji Terayama, the avant-garde poet, writer, playwright, and filmmaker. The video above features a song that’s based on a poem by Terayama, and below you can see Mikami Kan’s brilliant cameo appearance (starting about 3:30) in Terayama’s famous 1974 fever dream, To Die in the Country.

In addition to Mikami Kan, Plastic Mantra – Jerry Gordon on percussion and cymbal-face and Charles-Eric Billard on sitar and transistors – brought their own special brand of quasi-Indian psychedelic improvisation to the party.

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Opening the session was singer/songwriter Hijiri Ichino (壱の聖) – “the holy saint” – who appeared wearing a black lingerie slip in honor of a role that Mikami Kan played in one of his early film appearances. Hijiri Ichino was inspired to become a singer/songwriter because of Mikami Kan’s music, so you can imagine how ecstatic he was to be not only meeting his idol for the first time, but actually opening up for him.

As usual at Night of 1,000 Eyes events, there were several DJs on the premises, including DJ Tanaka who always made sure things were dialed in just right by consulting the DJ hotline on the red danger phone before dropping the needle into the groove.

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Mikami Kan sings about dreams a lot. Below you can see him perform one of his most famous songs, “Yume wa Yoru Hiraku” (夢は夜ひらく – Dreams Open at Night), a cover of a song that was originally made famous by enka singer Keiko Fuji. Mikami Kan’s version, which alters the lyrics to reflect the deep despair of working-class life and the brief pleasures to be found in booze and girly magazines, was banned from the radio in 1972 when it was released.

In Japanese, just like in English, dreams can be both the visions that come to us in our sleep, and also those visions of the future that embody our hopes and desires. In Mikami Kan’s reworking of the original, a young woman’s dreams of romance are replaced by the dead-end dreams of those who are too poor to have any long-term hopes and instead find distraction in the fleeting pleasures of sake, pornography, and dirt-cheap red lantern eateries. Here’s just one verse, with my own rough translation: “八百屋の裏で泣いていた / 子供背負った泥棒よ / キャベツひとつ盗むのに / 涙はいらないぜ” – Crying behind the greengrocer / a thief who needs to feed his children / if I could just steal one cabbage / there would be no need for tears.”

%e4%b8%89%e4%b8%8a%e5%af%9b%e3%80%80%e3%83%ac%e3%83%bc%e3%82%b3%e3%83%88%e3%82%99“Yume wa Yoru Hiraku” is one of the tracks on Mikami Kan’s 1972 record, Hiraku Yume Nado Aru Ja Nashi (ひらく夢などあるじゃなし), which features cover art by Tadanori Yokoo. Several other Mikami Kan records also feature artwork by Tadanori, but it’s difficult for me to tell exactly which ones are Tadanori’s by just a quick glance at the covers. At least two of the four album covers here are by Tadanori: the one on the upper left is the cover of Hiraku Yume Nado Aru Ja Nashi, and the one on the lower right is the cover for Mikami Kan’s World (三上寛の世界). Tadanori’s pop-inflected psychedelic phantasmagoria is somehow perfectly consonant with the eclectic chaos of the decor at Pika Space, an offering dedicated to the gods of consumer detritus, chance proximity, and the ineffable divinity of the everyday object. The ceiling of Pika Space is positively littered with colorful assemblages of found objects that at times resemble the household altars found in many Japanese homes and at other times more closely approximate the feverish admixture of a Japanese toy collection from the 1970s and and a set of abandoned tea ceremony utensils discovered in a box set precariously on the wall of a trash house inhabited entirely by the yowling ghost sounds of a dozen stray cats. In short, aesthetically quite pleasing.

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winter triptych

31Mar17

snowcold viewapparition of lightforest and flakes

All photos taken using an Asus ZenFone 3.


your name

30Mar17

It might seem a bit facetious to link Your Name (君の名は), the Japanese animated sensation of 2016, with the trauma and mourning of a documentary like Trace of Breath. Your Name, which I’m going to refer to as Kimi no Na wa from this point on (because it simply feels more natural) is a kind of romantic body-exchange time travel love story that involves one time line in which an entire city and its inhabitants are wiped out by the impact of a comet fragment. Because the main characters successfully learn to communicate with each other across time, this disaster is ultimately averted and the story has a classic happy ending: a story of unendurable loss has, through a couple of plot twists, been transformed into a story of true love.

It’s the alternative timeline that I’m most interested in because the destruction of Itomori, the town that the character Mitsuha is from, resonates so strongly with the sudden and radical destruction caused by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in the Tohoku region of Japan. I’ve already written about how this destruction has been represented in Shin Godzilla, and the comet strike in Kimi no Na wa seems like another obvious example of the cinematic working through of the deep trauma related to the events of 3/11, though in this case it ultimately-ends up taking the form of wish fulfillment. Even so, the parallels with the tsunami that almost totally destroyed such towns as Ishinomaki and Minamisōma are impossible to dismiss. This becomes even more evident once it’s revealed that Itomori itself is built on the edge of an impact crater from a historically much earlier comet strike, a repetition that’s emphasized by its mythic representation as part of a mural on the walls of a shrine cavern that is itself located within the boundaries of yet another impact crater. The repetitive rhythm of disaster portrayed here is an all too familiar pattern within Japan where earthquakes and tsunami are simply considered part of the long-term natural cycle.

It’s not only raw destruction that’s at work here, however. In addition to the incredible loss of life represented by the comet strike, there’s also the loss of local traditions, customs, and history that is at stake — the disappearance of an entire way of being. This is figured in two ways in the film. In the first case, Mitsuha is given a strip of cloth by her grandmother that she wears in her hair as a ribbon. At one point in the film she hands this ribbon to Taki, the person who she exchanges bodies with in the film, and it is this act that ultimately allows them to meet up in Tokyo in the future timeline at the end of the movie. The ribbon here is obviously a metaphor for human connection – perhaps including the idea of being bound together by fate – but there’s something else going on as well. The ribbon is made using traditional techniques that have been handed down through the generations for hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of years. Mitsuha’s hometown of Itomori gets its name from the kanji 糸守, which can be translated as “thread protector.” In other words, the town itself is named for the traditional craft that ties people together not only in a metaphorical sense, but also in a very corporeal sense as the methods for making this cloth are passed down directly from parent to child through the generations. In the timeline where the city is destroyed by the comet, the craft of making this thread dies as well.

The second way in which the disappearance of locally grounded cultural practices is figured in the form of a ritual surrounding kuchikamizake that Mitsuha participates in. Mitsuha’s family is responsible for carrying on a sake-making ritual in which young girls (representing purity) chew rice in their mouths and spit it into a ceramic sake flask. This flask is later deposited in the shrine cave in the middle of the ancient impact crater where it will ferment and become sake. It is a ritualistic and repetitive gift to the gods that represents continuity. The ritual is held at night at the local shrine and Mitsuha’s school mates come to witness the ritual, but primarily in order to tease her about it in a classic “Eww! Gross!” kind of fashion. In the timeline where the comet strikes, this ritual obviously comes to an end; however, the lack of interest with which the ritual is viewed by Mitsuha’s schoolmates suggests that the ritual itself has already lost its place as a central form of meaning-making within the local community. This, of course, is indicative of the ongoing movement of population within Japan from rural to urban areas and the gradual disappearance of traditional rural folk festivals as the people responsible for carrying on these traditions either pass away or move away. In a Japan Times article that deals with the fading or rural folk tradition, Hideo Nagata of the Japanese Festival Network points out that the disappearance of traditional festivals also means the disappearance of local community. In Kimi no Na wa, Mitsuha longs to leave Itomori and move to Tokyo, which is precisely what she ends up doing in the final redemptive timeline of the movie. Though the city of Itomori is saved from destruction in this timeline, we’re left to wonder what will happen to the festival traditions and community practices of Itomori as the young people of the area relocate to Japan’s major urban centers.

Most of the critics who have concentrated on the body-switching that takes place between Mitsuha and Taki have focused on gender and what it means for one person to temporarily inhabit the body of someone of the opposite gender. In Kimi no Na wa, however, the meaning of gender and gender difference is only explored in a cursory fashion, and mostly in the interest of cheap laughs. I think the more interesting thing about body-switching in this movie is the way in which each of the characters becomes invested in what happens to the other, even though they’ve never actually met. At a level that’s not quite so directly corporeal, this is also what happens when film viewers invest in a character, or when readers of fiction imaginatively inhabit the people that are created in their minds via abstract marks on a page. The power of this kind of connection can be intense, sometimes so much so that these characters take on a quasi-real presence in our lives (you only need to surf a few online fan forums to discover how strong the sense of connection with fictional characters can be felt by some).

But this brings up another question. What if the people being encountered remotely through writing and film are actual people rather than fictional characters? When we meet a person like Sato Teiichi in a documentary such as Trace of Breath, how are we to respond to his ‘character,’ and to the traumatic aftermath of disasters like the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami? What is the responsibility of those who have remotely consumed the stories, sometimes deeply personal, of the survivors of the destruction in Tohoku? I think these are questions that Kimi no Na wa both asks and avoids at the same time, foreclosing the discomfort that arises in those who might not be directly affected by disaster by offering up a redemptive fantasy timeline in which that disaster never actually takes place. The actuality is, however, that in 2011 Ishinomaki and Minamisōma were almost completely destroyed by the tsunami that struck the coast, and there is no one who can ever alter that timeline. And the story of those who survived, and what will happen to the communities that were lost when the wave hit, is yet to fully unfold.


trace of breath

26Mar17

Komori Haruka’s documentary, Trace of Breath (息の跡) tells the story of Sato Teiichi, a survivor of the 2011 tsunami who has returned to the city of Rikuzentakata to reestablish the seed shop that he used to run there. In addition to selling seeds, however, Sato-san has also written an account of his experience of the earthquake and tsunami in English, and he is working on versions in Chinese, Polish, and other languages. It’s a quiet movie that cycles through the four seasons as it follows Sato-san’s daily activities. He talks about seeds and growth, and his hope that his own shop will act as a seed to restore life to an area flattened by the powerful encroachment of the tsunami.

One of the most interesting aspects of the film is its almost complete lack of editorialization. Komori has chosen to let the seed salesman speak for himself, and to let the social interactions that take place during his daily rounds tell the story of not only what has been lost, but also of the strength that community offers to those who have chosen to continue living in Rikuzentakata; there are also glimpses of something else at work as well — perhaps some pure force of will to live, like a green pulse, that pushes the residents forward. The denuded landscape of Rikuzentakata also speaks for itself and the movie contrasts the lived-in particularity of the seed shop with the vacant tracts of land around it. These tracts are being written over by the concrete grid of new construction that will become the infrastructural backbone of the rebuilt area. Because the construction is unfinished and the city still has few inhabitants, the new construction stands in sharp contrast with the seed shop, and you can literally see the architectural temporalities of the city butting up against each other: the seed shop is a trace of the city as it was before while the outline of the city that will come into being around it is just now starting to take it’s shape. The denuded areas that have not yet disappeared under the growth of new inhabitation stand as a kind of in-between temporality, the zero time between then and now.

Nowhere is the sense of a past insisting itself into the empty tsunami-zones of the present more evident than in the scenes in the film that feature the city’s annual traditional festivals. These festivals feature lantern-decked rolling floats peopled with young musicians who play songs as the parade rolls through the city. But though the festival participants seem joyous, laughing and singing, it’s impossible to escape the fact that the parade is traveling through an empty landscape, one that would formerly have been peopled with houses and businesses. Local Japanese festivals are community events and the meaning of the festival resides as much in the connections between individuals that are formed through the process of this shared communal experience as it does in the ritual reproduction of the songs, dances, costumes, and regalia that constitute the most immediate face of the matsuri. This is a festival that is both taking place within the context of a community that no longer exists, and a festival that is at the same time planting the seeds for a future community that has yet to fully coalesce.

The film has been expertly edited by co-producer Hata Takeshi, who has the sense to respect the slow pace of moments unpacking themselves over time. From the outset, the film keeps quiet about the reasons that Sato-san has decided to write about his experience of the tsunami in English. However, as the film closes, Sato-san states that he can only write about these experiences in English, which he does not have a strong grasp of, because to write about them in Japanese would be too painful for him. The intensity of the trauma has created a muteness in his own language.

In one of the last lines of the film Sato states that he has resurrected his seed shop because he is driven by the spirits of the dead, the souls of those who did not survive the tsunami. It is the power he gets from them, he says, that has allowed him the strength to reopen his shop and has given him the ability to write out his account of the disaster in multiple languages.

In addition to an insightful interview with director Komori Haruka, Richard Lloyd Parry’s essential and heartbreaking London Review of Books essay, The Ghosts of the Tsunami, is a must read.

Trace of Breath plays at Osaka’s Seventh Art Theater (第七藝術劇場) in Juso until March 31st.




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