anne mcknight and two storms

12Jun05

3 June, 2005

On Monday, May 23, I meet up with Anne McKnight at the Kinokuniya in Umeda (which seems to be my new favorite place to meet up with people when I head for downtown). Anne is totally one of the greatest people I’ve ever met — she’s superstar smart, really funny, and she likes avant-garde cinema, experimental improvisational music, and punk rock. She’s the only other person I’ve met in Osaka who knows that OOIOO is one of the greatest bands on the planet. Anyhow, my contact with Anne McKnight is via Mary Knighton, also superstar smart, a great friend, and my predecessor in the position I hold now at Osaka University. Mary is now teaching comparative literature at Todai — Tokyo University — which, as you might expect, is a cut above Handai (Osaka U.) when it comes to jaw-dropping prestige factor. Mary and Anne met while studying in the East Asian department at Berkeley and now both of them have graduated and moved on to great positions — Mary at Todai and Anne at McGill University in Montreal.

Anne is currently staying between Kyoto and Osaka while she does research for a project on Nakagami Kenji, a post-war Japanese writer from the burakumin minority. Theburakumin phenomenon is interesting because burakumin are not ethnically different from other Japanese but are historical outcastes, perhaps somewhat analogous to the Indian “untouchable.” Although the subject ofburakumin is no longer entirely taboo — there was a sizeable burakumin rights movement in the late 60s/early 70s and now they fall under a Japan-wide set of human rights regulations that covers discrimination of all types — discrimination continues to this day. Nakagami, who was an autodidact, spent a good portion of his career fighting for social justice for the baruku-min, and he wrote a series of famous avant-garde novels. Apparently his prose style is incredibly interesting because his influences were so various (I haven’t read any of his works myself).

On our first night out Anne and I decided to get some curry at a restaurant mentioned in a Japanese guidebook about Osaka restaurants. The restaurant was supposed to be located (the careful reader can see where this story is going right away) along Naniwa-suji, a fair walk from the Hankyu Umeda station. In the middle of our walk it began to rain. It was a very dramatic rainstorm with bolts of forked lightning coming very close to the city and releasing massive peals of thunder, the kind that hits the wavelength of your insides. In any case, to make a long story short, I didn’t have an umbrella and, even with the kind help of Anne’s, I got soaked through. Stubbornly I resisted buying a cheapy umbrella until it was pretty much too late. Then we walked up and down Naniwa-suji looking for this curry restaurant which the counterperson at the 7-11 told us was one way and the counterperson at the Lawson told us was the other way. Eventually we just decided to pop into an okanamiyake place that looked lively and smelled delicious. When you’re starving and soaked there’s nothing better than a little nama beeru and some okonomiyake and modernyake (that would beokonomiyake with noodles on top). I think both of our okonomiyake dishes were negi-ebi (green onion and prawn), but lack of variety has never gotten in the way of absolute deliciousness.

The second time we met up there was another good storm. I was on my way to meet Anne in Umeda again, though I was prepared with an umbrella this time. As I was walking through campus, past the soccer field, a few large drops began to fall and so I hoisted the umbrella. The next thing I knew I was in the middle of a white squall. Heavy rain was blowing sideways in sheets and soon the entire soccer field, hundreds of players, was busy running for shelter. Of course, there had been a bit of a festival going on as well, with some barbecuing, and so hapless students were running through the rain pushing smoking barbecues toward shelter. At incredibly high rates of speed I might add. I quickly jumped under the eaves of the library and stood there while the rain turned to hail. Some intrepid young soccer players decided to leave their shelter and rescue as much beer as they could, so a bunch of shirtless guys are suddenly running through the hailstorm with sixpacks on their shoulders. After about fifteen minutes the rain cleared up entirely, the wind stopped, and I continued on to Umeda.

Anne and I popped over to Café Elephant for dinner — a totally great pan-Asian restaurant that you might find in L.A. Great food and gaudy Southeast Asian décor, including an illuminated wall of golden Buddha heads that changes color from green, to yellow, to red, to purple. I think you get the picture. There are a lot of great restaurants on this little street, which is called Chaya-machi, or “Teahouse Street,” apparently because it used to be a teahouse entertainment district. After our stint at Elephant, and a brief stopover at Loft to buy a new wallet, we went to another favorite spot for a drink — the Christon Café, owned by the same people who own Café Elephant. (By the way, the word for wallet in Japanese is “saifu,” which is quite easy to remember because you can just think of it as your little pocket safe.)

The Criston Café, a chain (there are three in Japan), is one of the outstanding places on the planet. It basically looks like the kind of giant LA or NY upscale goth club that you might find in one of the Blade movies, except it’s real. Seriously, the place is three stories and really huge inside and the theme of the club, just in case it has escaped you so far, is Gothic Christian Church. What’s so amazing about the place is that the trappings of Christianity have been adopted purely as style here so even though the aesthetics are intensely religious (a kind of Notre Dame meet the vaults of St. Peter’s kind of feeling) there’s zero religious presence. This place isn’t done up with some half-assed system of “reference” either — there’s a real altar on one wall, huge Venetian glass chandeliers, statues of monks and saints (I assume), Byzantine style icon paintings, various Pietas and other versions of the Virgin, and even some ancient priests’ gowns in a case, which I took to be the real deal. Anyhow, Anne and I sat on the second floor, having drinks next to the Venetian chandeliers. Most of the clientele are younger, in their early and mid-twenties, often dating, but the music is kept to a nice volume level and the prices, well, let’s just say that they’re a miracle.

One final funny story: Over drinks we started talking about Japanese cinema, and I asked Anne if she had seen “That ‘Peepshow’ movie.” She said, “Oh, you mean ‘Peep TV Show’? Yeah — it’s great.” So then we started to talk about the director, who is apparently a really nice guy, and his girlfriend who dresses completely gothic lolita, and how they often stand out in front of convenience stores and the like doing self promotional performance pieces. So then I said, “Didn’t he fall in love with her while he was filming her as the subject of his first documentary?” And Anne replied, “Yes. In fact, I wrote a little bit about that in the PFA catalog a little while back.” Which is when I realized that everything that I knew about “Peep TV Show” I had read in the essay written by Anne in the PFA catalog. It is indeed a small, small world.

Link to Anne McKnight’s article on Peep Show TV at Midnight Eye

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