Tag Archives: Japan

Review: Downfall and Other Stories by Fumiko Hayashi

3 May

This April I had the pleasure and honour of reading a short story collection written by a Japanese writer Fumiko Hayashi and newly translated in English by J.D. Wisgo. The five stories in this collection were beautiful, unique gems that deserve a post of their own, and I simply couldn’t resist sharing some beautiful quotes here.

Childe Hassam, The Sonata, 1911

“Returning to Tokyo after a long summer break, Tanimura left his guest house on the outskirts of the city and moved to another one that he discovered on a backstreet near a school.

Gone were the days of opening a window in the morning and looking out at an oak forest, or listening to the piano played by a beautiful girl in the bungalow next door; now when he opened his window in the evening, the dim lights of the city sparkled and the autumn scenery of Tokyo was an utterly refreshing sight for his eyes, filling his chest with great pride in being able to live in such a metropolis.” (The Tale of the Seishukan Guest House)

It is no secret that I am a massive fan of Japanese literature, there is a certain indescribable sensibility of introspection and sadness, passion from within mingled with external silence, that lingers throughout different novels by different Japanese authors which I just adore! So, naturally, even before I started reading this short story collection, I knew it would be my cup of tea. Fumiko Hayashi (1903-1951) was a Japanese novelist and poet who produced her main works in the 1930s and 1940s. I read that in her work Hayashi often put an emphasis on free spirited female characters and troubled relationships. While I cannot state this with certainty because I haven’t read any of her other works, I can say that this quality shines though in some of these stories. I read these stories slowly, to truly savour them, and after I would read one I thought to myself “oh this one is my favourite”, and then I would proceed to read another one and would end up with the same thought. All five are so unique and beautiful and it’s difficult to chose.

Fumiko Hayashi, 1924

“The Tale of the Seishukan Guest House” is the first story and it has a mysterious mood which I loved. It’s about a young student Tanimura and his stay at the guest house, meeting a beautiful mysterious woman and falling in love for the first time. At times the story had a Kafkaesque mood of mystery, and at times Tanimura’s obsession with a hair strand and his reaction to things was rather amusing. I loved the contrast of Tanimura’s pleasant memories of days back home with the shining lights of the big city, both scary and promising. “Downfall” follows a young woman who moved from the countryside to Tokyo just after the end of the war to find employment, but instead of a secure job and success, she ends up in all sort of crazy situations.

Picture by @gill.hen on Instagram

“Employment” struck a chord with me in particular because the main character is a frail yet mischievous young girl called Sakiko whose idealist, naive view of the world is in contrast to that of her peers who are already planning their lives out; job, career, marriage. Even from the beginning, Sakiko is behaving in a carefree and childlike way, and I feel like that is her form of rebellion against the constricting world of adulthood:

She didn’t understand why she was so angry. Sitting upon the roots of a pine tree, Sakiko gathered pebbles from the ground and screamed out as she tossed them towards the ocean, throwing like a boy. The pebbles only went a short way before falling onto the nearby sand with a dull thud. On the winter seashore, strong gusts of wind blew in occasionally from the distance. Despite there being no clouds in sight, soft beams of light fell from the sky onto the beach, like scattered needles. Sakiko fell down abruptly onto the sandy ground, rolling around and kicking up bits of dry sand like a dog thrashing about. The sand came in contact with her hot body at her neckline, her sleeves, and the hem of her skirt. The sensation of sand accumulating on her sweaty body felt good. Eventually she thrust out her chest and poured dry sand all over it. The sand smelled of salty seawater.

Fujishima Takeji (1867-1943), The Sea at Sunrise, date unknown

I love the conversation between Sakiko and Ken’ichi which shows differences between their characters and I can really understand how Sakiko feels:

“Everyone is going to graduate college, get a job, find a wife without falling in love, have children, and live happily ever after, right?”
“Alright, that’s enough…Saki, inside your head you’re imagining all sorts of things, giving punishments and rewards to people as you desire…I think maybe that, in the end, the most natural way for us to spend our days is just living an ordinary life…You know, I think you’ve been reading far too many books. (…) But when you get irritated, everyone around you does too. Yesterday, you brought in all that sand, remember? I like the innocent Saki much better…and I think simply getting a job, getting married, and living out one’s days peacefully is more than enough…”
“Oh, how dreadful! I can’t stand close-minded young people like you with your dried-up adolescence…”

Dancers resting on the rooftop of the SKD Theatre Asakusa, Tokyo, 1949, Photo by Takeyoshi Tanuma.

“Consolation” had an air of sadness from start to finish and even though the theme of ruined post-war Tokyo and starving, lost, sad individuals was dreary, there were some quotes that stayed in my mind. “The beautiful city of Tokyo has gone through a series of shocking changes, the day-to-day activities of the dejected metropolis shattered into a million pieces, like myriad unfulfilled dreams. Stricken by the terrible memories of a long, hard war, wrinkles marred the faces of every person on the streets, even the younger folk, their vacant expressions a mixture of bitterness and disappointment.” It’s about a sad old man who spends his days finding food, reminiscing about old, better days, and just trying to survive the chaos all around him. I really loved this thought: “For me all that remains is simply living… After everything that’s happened, I have no desire to end my life. I don’t think I’m better off in the grave just because I’m lonely and alone. I’m terribly fortunate that I’ve never thought about anything like that. Spending our days doing nothing but eating steamed potatoes and sleeping like logs, it’s hard to believe us humans are the supreme beings of creation, don’t you agree?

More than themes of the stories, I enjoyed Hayashi’s writing style. It’s so beautiful yet cuts to the point. I felt like no sentence was unnecessary, and that she never wrote something to show off her writing and bring focus to her skill. Everything was very lyrical and very convincing, she really brought the character’s emotions, personality and struggles of the moment . Sometimes, a single sentence was so beautiful and conveyed so much, for example “It was a beautiful autumn night, the scent of the rain lingering in the air” (The Tale of the Seishukan Guest House), and “With cheerless facial features like those of a Kyoto doll, her pale skin had an oddly miserable appearance.” (Employment) All in all, if you love short stories and Japanese literature, I am sure you will enjoy these shorts stories. You can check out the translator’s word on his blog and Goodreads page.

Beauty in the Everyday – Turner and Okyo (Natsume Soseki’s The Three-Cornered World)

22 Mar

“We owe our humble gratitude to all practitioners of the arts, for they mellow the harshness of our human world and enrich the human heart.”

(Soseki, The Three-Cornered World)

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway, 1844

One of my all time favourite novels is Natsume Soseki’s “The Three-Cornered World” originally published in 1906. It is an oasis of calmness, wisdom and meditative thoughts on nature and art. The story is told in the first person by the main character, a nameless thirty-year old artist, a poet and a painter, who one day sets out on a journey to the mountains, in search of Beauty and the true meaning of art. He stays at a hot spring resort where he is the only guest. One moonlit night he hears a woman singing in the garden. This mysterious beauty, called Nami, captures his imagination, not in a romantic but in an artistic way. The simple plot where nothing much happens is great because the true beauty of the novel can shine through: the poetic, zen-like writing which transports the viewer in a meditative state. The original title of the book is “Kusamakura” which literally means “Grass Pillow”, and the term in Japanese carries a symbolic meaning, implying a journey without a specific destination. Instead of dynamic events and exciting adventures, the narrator ponders on what it actually means to be an artist and the bliss of being in the state of inspiration:

I suppose you could say that the artist is one who lives in a three-cornered world, in which the corner that the average person would call “common sense” has been sheared off from the ordinary four-square world that the normal inhabit. For this reason, be it in nature or in human affairs, the artist will see the glitter of priceless jewels of art in places where the common herd fears to tread. The vulgar mind terms it “romanticizing,” but it is no such thing. In fact, the phenomenal world has always contained that scintillating radiance that artists find there. It’s just that eyes blinded by worldly passions cannot see the true nature of reality. Inextricable entanglements bind us to everyday success and failure and by ardent hopes – and so we pass by unheeding, until a Turner reveals for us in his paintings the splendour of the steam train, or an Okyo gives us the beauty of the ghost.

Kobayashi Kiyochika, View of Takanawa Ushimachi under a Shrouded Moon, 1879

The narrator portrays the artist, himself included, as a person who is here to show others the beauty around them which they would otherwise be unaware of. The artist is the one who, through his art, tells people to stop and take a look at the wondrous, whimsical and beautiful things in the world around us. The narrator chose two interesting artists to illustrate his point; British Romanticist Turner and an eighteenth century Japanese Ukiyo-e artist Maruyama Okyo. I love it when novels reference other things, it’s like a springboard from one source of inspiration to another. Turner’s grandiose and awe-inspiring canvases, filled with golden lightness and dreamy mists, usually portray sunsets or historical events, but in the painting referenced by the narrator, Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway”, painted in 1844, near the very end of the painter’s life, the subject is something completely modern and everyday; a train. Just imagine the excitement, awe and fear with which the Victorians looked at trains. I dare say I look at them at the same way too, even today. Trains are fascinatingly fast and frightening in their speed and yet they also seem vintage in some way because it seems more romantical to travel by train than by bus. Turner captured the train’s speed and cloud of fog with the same brilliance that he had previously devoted himself to historical scenes, which shows that he approached two very different motifs with the same ardour and with the same patient search for beauty that any artist has. Soseki lived in England for two years, just before this novel was published and it’s very likely he had seen this painting in person. I’ve also included here a Japanese artist Kiyochika’s exploration of the train-motif in a more direct way than Turner, but still carrying its own beauty.

Maruyama Ōkyo (1733–1795), The Ghost of Oyuki, 1750

Another example the narrator gives is a painting of a ghost by the artist Maruyama Okyo. The narrator doesn’t mention a specific painting, but with a little research makes it clear that Soseki is referring to Okyo’s famous ink on silk painting which shows the female yurei or the traditional Japanese ghost of his lover Oyuki. It is a poignant portrait of a dead beloved which came from intense sadness and longing, almost a century before Poe wrote of similar themes in his poems and short stories. The ghost-girl Oyuki was Okyo’s mistress who worked in the Tominaga Geisha house and died young. Looking at the dates, I see now that Okyo was just seventeen years old at the time, wow, what a deep, profound and melancholy gesture… This sad event must have shaped his life in one way or another, and it has certainly shaped the way the Japanese, even today, see a female ghost, as a creature in white clothes, pale face, dark hair falling like weeping willow branches and ending in faint, thin lines, and lower body and feet disappearing. So simple, yet so poignant and sweetly melancholy.

Vincent van Gogh, Shoes, 1888

Another example which isn’t mentioned in the novel, but goes with the narrator’s idea; Vincent van Gogh’s “portrait” of his old, dirty, worn out shoes. The motif, when spoken out loud, seems laughable and not even remotely worthy of being painted, but van Gogh painted this pair of shoes with the same passionate approach that he had for his landscape, wheat fields and sunflowers, look at the careful brushwork and wild patches of colour. If Van Gogh didn’t paint his old shoes as his artist mission to show us beauty around us, we would never have known just what beauty lies in them.

David Bowie’s Moss Garden and Ukiyo-e Ladies Playing Koto

15 Mar

Chikanobu Toyohara (1838-1912), Koto Player – Azuma

David Bowie’s instrumental piece “Moss Garden”, the second of the three instrumentals on side two of album “Heroes” released in 1977, is a serene, tranquil oasis of light in the desert of darkness which makes the majority of the album’s sound. Situated between the fellow two instrumentals, dark and foreboding “Sense of Doubt” and equally grim “Neuköln”, the “Moss Garden”, strange and serene, is like a ray of sun on a moody, cloudy spring day that appears for a moment and disappears quickly behind the clouds. Bowie plays the traditional Japanese string instrument koto on the track and Brian Eno plays the synthesizer. “Moss Garden” is a delightful five minutes and three seconds of lightness and meditative, ambient ethereal sounds. So, one cannot refer to “Heroes” as to a dark album, why, one eighth of the album is uplifting. And then there’s the song “Heroes” as well.

It’s been quite some time since I discovered Bowie’s Berlin era songs, but this song lingered in my memory, and I think the reason for that is the eastern sound of the koto. I mean, how many rock songs are coloured by far-east sounds like that? Listening to this instrumental piece made me think of all the Ukiyo-e prints where beautiful Japanese ladies dressed in vibrant clothes are playing koto and I found a few lovely examples which I am sharing in this post. A lot of these Japanese woodcut prints (or Ukiyo-e prints) were made by Chikanobu, an artist who worked mostly in the 1880s and 1890s, the last fruitful decades for the art of woodcuts and in his work he mostly focused on beautiful women doing everyday things. I really enjoy the elegant simplicity of the woodcut above; how the background is clear but the lady’s purple kimono stands out and the focus is solely on her and her koto; back to bare essentials. I also really love Hasegawa Settei’s portrayal of lady playing kimono.

Toyohara Chikanobu, Preparing to Play the Koto, from the series Ladies of the Tokugawa Period, 1895

Toshikata Mizuno (1866-1914), Thirty-six Selected Beauties – Playing Koto

Hasegawa Settei, A Japanese woman playing the koto, December 1878

Toyohara Chikanobu (1838-1912), Playing Koto, c 1890s

Toyohara Chikanobu (1838-1912), Koto Player at 11 a.m. – Scenes of the Twenty-four Hours, c 1890s

Moss gardens are a special variety of Japanese gardens, the continuous flow of unending moss coated ground lets the person slowly fall into the dreamy and meditative state, and allows the eye to wander from one variety of moss to the other, the nostrils to inhale the rich, green, primeval scent of this old and grateful plant. I imagine it rich with water after a rainy summer afternoon. “A moss garden presents the opportunity to observe differentiations of colour that have never been seen before. The tactile and optical characteristics of the moss gardens are softness, sponginess, submarine wateriness and unfathomability. They are the exact opposite of the pebble gardens with their appointed paths, boundaries and stone islands.” (Siegfried Wichmann; Japonism)

When life gets overwhelming, one can sit for hours in such a garden and easily sink into a meditative state, thoughts drifting and problems fading. In a similar way, Bowie’s move to Berlin with Iggy Pop in 1976 was his way of finding clarity, anonymity and inspiration: “I had approached the brink of drug induced calamity one too many times and it was essential to take some kind of positive action. For many years Berlin had appealed to me as a sort of sanctuary like situation. It was one of the few cities where I could move around in virtual anonymity.“(Bowie with Rob Hughes and Stephen Dalton for Uncut Magazine) After the very depressing album “Low” released earlier the same year, 1977, album “Heroes” is the first step in the path of Bowie’s search for clarity and perhaps the song “Moss Garden” is the best expression of this new found quite, introspective feeling of serenity.

Keiko Yurimoto (1906-2000), Koto Player, c 1950

Berlin in the seventies was a grey, isolated and divided city with a world-weary self-regard. The youth suffered and junkies filled the subway stations, but a lot of bohemians, artists and musicians were drawn to that bleak, alienated and experimental atmosphere and relished in what the city had to offer. As Bowie said himself: “For many years Berlin had appealed to me as a sort of sanctuary-like situation. It was one of the few cities where I could move around in virtual anonymity. I was going broke; it was cheap to live. For some reason, Berliners just didn’t care. Well, not about an English rock singer, anyway.” He was just another weirdo in the city and everyone left him alone. The product of his fascination with the city were three albums; Low, Heroes and Lodger – today known as Bowie’s “Berlin Trilogy”, by far my favourite era of Bowie’s music. Bowie said himself about the Berlin Trilogy: “My complete being is within those three albums.” (Uncut magazine) Enough said. I don’t really understand or share the wild enthusiasm for Bowie’s glam rock Ziggy Stardust era, I mean those are some great songs, but the Berlin era is the real thing, it sounds as if the mood of the times and the city with its bleakness and political division is woven into the music, to me it sounds like Berlin breathing and living.

George Hendrik Breitner – Girl in Red Kimono

9 Mar

The same thing happens to me this time of the year when the winter is giving way to spring, the first white blooming trees are looming one the horizon in the pinkish but still chill dusk. A certain rare disease whose symptoms are hard to explain suddenly overwhelms my body and soul, leaving me fatigued, dreamy and unable to think of anything else. The disease is called madness for Japonism. My heart aches for cherry blossoms, zen gardens, mystic temples, lanterns, kimono, the vibrancy and the serenity. Unable to fully cure this madness, I can alleviate the symptoms and the only way to do so is to gaze at Ukiyo-e prints and admire their wonderful strangeness and exoticism, soak myself in Whistler’s serene paintings in white and grey and listen to Debussy’s sonata for flute, viola and harp which instantly transports me to an exotic gardens, fragrant and serene where under moonlight the cherry blossoms spill all their naughty secrets to my ears.

George Hendrik Breitner, Girl in Red Kimono, Geesje Kwak, 1893-95

Before we properly start with the post, I want us all to take a moment to fully appreciate the gorgeous red colour that Breitner used without shyness on all of these paintings, whether it’s the case of a bold glimmering red kimono with white flower print, or a grey-white kimono with tiny red flowers which look like exploding red stars, so vivacious and so powerful. The red colour on any canvas just transforms things for me, takes them on an entirely new level. It just has a mesmerising effect on me, especially when I think of the delightful contrast between the passionate bold red and the delicate soft pink-white of the newly sprung blossoms.

The main model for all these lovely paintings was a working class sixteen year old girl called Geesje Kwak who had the luck and privilege to be transformed, at least in the artist’s studio and on the canvas, to a beauty from the far east, dressed in fine soft silks and holding a Japanese doll in her hands. This series of Japonism paintings by a Dutch painter George Hendrik Breitner is by far the most beautiful example of the portrayal of kimono in the nineteenth century western art. Breitner was nor the first nor the last painter who was inspired by Japanese art but he was a rare one who focused not exclusively on , but solely on kimono, the vibrancy and the patterns.

George Hendrik Breitner, Girl in a kimono (Geesje Kwak) in Breitner’s studio on Lauriersgracht, Amsterdam, 1893

After Japan started trading with the West in 1854, almost over night the Western market was flooded with Japanese woodcut prints known as Ukiyo-e prints. These vibrant, strange and exotic woodcuts were something completely new to the western eyes and soon enough Japonism became all the rage in the artistic circles and this influence didn’t decrease as decades passed but only grew stronger and even influenced the early twentieth century art movements such as Art Nouveau. The Impressionists were the first group of artists to create works inspired by the far east. Artists such as Edgar Degas, Edouard Manet, Whistler, Vincent van Gogh and Gauguin were all inspired by some aspect of Ukiyo-e prints, whether it’s the perspective, the flatness or the motif.

Breitner, who was acquainted with Japonism during his visit to Paris in 1882, and then again in 1892 he visited the exhibition of Japanese art in the Hague, used a more obvious motif taken from the Japanese art: on more than a dozen canvases in this series he explored the kimono, something that all the ladies in the Ukiyo-e prints are seen wearing. The folds and the shimmer of the silk, the vibrant colours and wild prints all made the kimono an eye-catching and interesting motif to paint. Whistler painted his models in loose kimono-style garments and Monet bought a kimono for his young wife and painted her wearing it in 1876. After the wave of Japonism madness swept him too, Breitner bought a few folding screens and a few pretty kimonos. Now he only needed a delicate flower for a model to wear them and pose for him, and Geesje was in the right place at the right time.

George Hendrik Breitner Girl in Red Kimono Geesje Kwak, 1894

Geesje Kwak. Study for ‘The red kimono’, Photo by Breitner, 1893

George Hendrik Breitner, Sketch for ‘The red kimono’, 1893-95, picture found here.

Little is known about Geesje and we can assume that this mysterious girl would have been forgotten by history if she wasn’t posing for Breitner. She was born as Gezina Kwak in Zaandam on 17 April 1877 and moved to Amsterdam in 1893. She worked either as a seamstress or as a salesgirl in a hat shop. In a right place at a right time, Geesje moved to the street where Breitner’s studio was and soon started modelling for him regularly. Their relationship was strictly professional and Breitner noted down in his notebook the precise hours and duration of her sittings. Before Breitner’s Japanese phase, his passion was the portrayal of the underbelly, the poor and the miserable, and the fact that Geesje was a simple, working class girl appealed to his sense of social awareness. Geesje’s sister Anna also posed for Breitner and you can see her in resplendent red kimono down bellow, but Geesje was the main model.

Geesje would walk around the studio, as in a zen garden, or lounged on the divan, sit in front of the mirror, and Breitner sketched her and even photographed her. It’s a good thing he did because in 1895 Geesje and her sister moved to South Africa where Geesje died in 1899 from tuberculosis at the age of twenty-two. Beauty tinged with sadness is how I see all the gorgeous paintings. The blossoms of spring, cherry, plum or apple blossoms, are delicate and ephemeral, better gaze at them before they vanish, better paint them before they wither. And I feel the same could be said about Geesje, looking at her life in retrospective; it’s a great thing that Breitner painted her while she was alive and captured her delicate beauty in those gorgeous kimono.

George Hendrik Breitner, Girl in Red Kimono in Front of a Mirror, 1894

George Hendrik Breitner, Girl in a White Kimono, c 1894-95

George Hendrik Breitner, Anna (Girl in a Red Kimono), 1894

George Hendrik Breitner, Girl in a white kimono (Geesje Kwak), 1893

George Hendrik Breitner, Girl in Red Kimono (Geesje Kwak), 1895−1896

George Hendrik Breitner, Girl in a White Kimono, 1894

Haunting Melancholy Dolls by Mari Shimizu

15 Dec

“She’s got the whole dark forest living inside of her.”

(Tom Waits)

Some time ago I discovered these gorgeous dolls made by a Japanese artist Mari Shimizu, and I was instantly drawn to their beautiful pale haunting faces, large eyes radiating melancholy and rosebud lips which hide secrets. Mari Shimizu has been creating these dolls for almost twenty years now, having started in 2000, and she is entirely self-taught. The detailing and the inspiration that went into creating each doll individually is baffling! They are all unique and yet they all seem to belong to this one world; half-fantasy and half-macabre. As I gaze at each doll, it seems to me that their eyes, shiny and large like gemstones, jade or sapphire, are gateways to this other world, that of the imagination.

Some of them are inspired by Alice in Wonderland, some are vampire-like, with delicious little fangs and faded lavender coloured Rococo-style gowns, others are skeletons with rich inner lives, and I mean literary so; their insides, instead of organs, have a whole other vivid crazy world inside them; nude maiden riding a horse of Fuseli-inspired fantasy, anything goes. Mari Shimizu wasn’t into the whole pink, sugary, kawaii aesthetic that Japan is famous for (that isn’t the only aspect of Japanese culture, I know, but it seems a lot of foreigners are drawn to the cuteness and childlike stuff that Japan offers, from mangas to Lolita clothes).

Her imagination wanted to go to greater depths and greater lengths, and looking at these dolls you can notice a whole scale of inspiration that went into it, from Western art and fairy tales and stories, and she said in an interview here that she especially likes Renaissance and Victorian eras which would explain some of the themes behind these dolls, Death and the Maiden, a popular motif in the Middle ages and the Renaissance, and Alice in Wonderland: “Alice in Wonderland is fascinated by being an absurd drama with a girl as the main character, depicted in an era when human activities are automated in the industrial revolution. I interpret that the innocent and pure existence of a girl is a story that fights adult absurdity over time. Human emotions and growth are inherently absurd.  It is animals and nature that tell us the truth, not formulas.  Alice in Wonderland is drawn through the eyes of a girl whose world is still undifferentiated, and she can listen to animal conversations and freely change the size and presence of objects.  It is a theme that always has new discoveries that break our fixed concept.” (in the artist’s own words)

Henri Fuseli, The Nightmare, 1791

Autumnal Lolita Styles

24 Nov

Lolita dresses don’t come just in pink or white and aren’t necessarily restricted to springtime, here are some beautiful autumnal Lolita styles!

Pictures found here.

Bat and Moon in Japanese Ukiyo-e Prints

22 Jun

Yamada Hōgyoku, Bat and Moon, 1830

I recently discovered this simple yet charming woodblock print of a bat and the moon by a Japanese artist Yamada Hogyoku. As you may already know, I am quite a fan of Japanese Ukiyo-e prints, they are so interesting and exotic to my western eyes, but also I love bats (and vampires too) so seeing this handsome bat on a Japanese print made my heart flutter. I am in a phase of melancholy reminiscing these days and seeing this bat made me think of the bats I saw two summers ago in my small home town. July was nearing its end, dusk was setting, bright pink and purple, as I was descending down from the old graveyard in the hills, and there, by a beautiful and large weeping willow tree, I saw them in all their splendour; bats dancing in the air, chasing one another, fluttering their delicate wings, dark as the night, delicate and fragile, and so beautiful. I stood there amazed at the sight and nearly had tears in my eyes from seeing that beauty. I had seen bats before that day and after too, but that moment stayed etched in my mind because it was just perfect, just like a scene out of a novel; the pink dusk sky, the weeping willow, the warm and long July night that was upon me. I remember it as if it happened yesterday; the bouquet of wild flowers I carried in my hand, the dress I wore, the hat with long dusty pink ribbons. And indeed, I felt as if I were a heroine of a novel!

Seeing this woodblock print made me daydream of those wonderful summer nights which I know were beautiful, but I also know I have idealised them in my imagination, just as I do with each moment of my life that passes. I wish to see a bat again soon and feel that ecstasy filling my body and soul, and I wish to fly away with them, to some more joyous place, I wish to be as free as them! I’ve also included two more Japanese woodblock prints with the same motif. What I admire the most about these artworks is the simplicity; on the first one by Hogyoku the moon is barely visible, so light and ethereal it is, and the bat is captured in a seemingly swift determined way, edgy and sharp, with a gradient colour scheme, from greys to a deep black. I think it would be much fun to recreate these prints in watercolours. And now, to end, here is a poem called “Bat” by D.H.Lawrence who seems less enthusiastic about the beauty of bats:

At evening, sitting on this terrace,

When the sun from the west, beyond Pisa, beyond the mountains of Carrara

Departs, and the world is taken by surprise …

 

When the tired flower of Florence is in gloom beneath the glowing

Brown hills surrounding …

 

When under the arches of the Ponte Vecchio

A green light enters against stream, flush from the west,

Against the current of obscure Arno …

 

Look up, and you see things flying

Between the day and the night;

Swallows with spools of dark thread sewing the shadows together.

 

A circle swoop, and a quick parabola under the bridge arches

Where light pushes through;

A sudden turning upon itself of a thing in the air.

A dip to the water.

 

And you think:

“The swallows are flying so late!”

 

Swallows?

 

Dark air-life looping

Yet missing the pure loop …

A twitch, a twitter, an elastic shudder in flight

And serrated wings against the sky,

Like a glove, a black glove thrown up at the light,

And falling back.

 

Never swallows!

Bats!

The swallows are gone.

 

At a wavering instant the swallows gave way to bats

By the Ponte Vecchio …

Changing guard.

 

Bats, and an uneasy creeping in one’s scalp

As the bats swoop overhead!

Flying madly.

 

Pipistrello!

Black piper on an infinitesimal pipe.

Little lumps that fly in air and have voices indefinite, wildly vindictive;

 

Wings like bits of umbrella.

 

Bats!

 

Creatures that hang themselves up like an old rag, to sleep;

And disgustingly upside down.

 

Hanging upside down like rows of disgusting old rags

And grinning in their sleep.

Bats!

 

In China the bat is symbol for happiness.

Not for me!

Katsushika Hokusai, Two bats flying, c. 1830-50

Biho Takashi, Bat Before the Moon, c. 1910

Toyohara Chikanobu – Wisteria Tree and Cherry Blossom Party

28 Mar

Today we’ll take a look at two lovely ukiyo-e prints by Toyohara Chikanobu, a nineteenth century Japanese ukiyo-e artist.

Toyohara Chikanobu, Carp Jumping out of the Pond under a Wisteria Tree at the Chiyoda Palace (Chiyoda Ooku Ohanami), 1894, oban triptych

This dazzling ukiyo-e print, Chikanobu’s portrayal of a scene from the court life at the Chiyoda Palace, has been lingering in my mind for quite some time now. What I love about it is the simplicity of elements and the vivacious effect that arose from that minimalism. The print shows three elegantly dressed court ladies enjoying a relaxing and carefree moment in nature. The focus of their, and our, interest is the carp jumping out of the water. And just look at that carp! Not one Western artist would paint a carp in such a detailed and exciting way. Not much is presented in this triptych; three ladies, carps, tree and a pond, but if you gaze at this print for a long time you can feel everything that is going on and feel a part of the scene. Chikanobu captured the exciting moment in nature; the carp jumping out of the water is something that happened for a second and was gone, but here it is presented in all its beauty.

You can almost feel the water splashing on you as the carp rises in the air like a ballet dancer doing her pirouette, lured by the scent of the wisteria tree that is blooming idly above the water. I like the rhythm of the stones in the pond and two light blue lines that Chikanobu painted to suggest the stream of water. The ladies look like pretty flowers themselves, dressed in gorgeous vibrant silks with intricate patterns. Two are observing the scene from the coast, the blossoming trees behind them are filling the monotonous off-whiteness of the background, while the more daring or simply more curious lady in the centre of the triptych is standing on the stone, careful not to let her kimono touch get soaked in the water. She has an interesting pose and a curious face expression, as if she was directly looking eye to eye with the jumping carp.

Toyohara Chikanobu, Cherry Blossoms Party at the Chiyoda Palace (Chiyoda Ooku Ohanami), 1894, Oban triptych

To give you a proof that the court ladies did not spent their days just watching carps jumping out of water, here is another wonderful triptych by Chikanobu which is again focused on the elegant and carefree life at the Chiyoda palace, and its ceremonies. When the carps are asleep in the pond, there are always the blooming cheery blossom trees to provide plenty of entertainment for the eyes hungry for beauty, so why not throw a party to celebrate the ephemeral beauty of the blossoming cherry trees? The first thing that catches our eyes here are the ladies dressed in vibrant red kimono, walking under an equally bright parasol, chatting about something I assume was very important, you know the latest gossips and the way the moon looked round and white last night. The entire scene is framed with the cherry blossom trees whose branches and flowers overwhelm the space. Because of the red colour and the flowers, it can be hard at first to notice a funny scene going on in the background; other court ladies, less sumptuously dressed, are playing the blindman’s buff game. What a contrast between the elegant and upright walk of the red-kimono group to the childlike playfulness of the second group. It seems that some came to the cherry blossom party to look good and show themselves, while others came to have some fun. Meanwhile, a light breeze is coming from the east, can you feel it, bringing the sounds of koto (listen to it here) and slowly, tenderly, blowing off the delicate petals from the branches into the vast unknown of the sky.

Chikanobu (1838-1912) was born into a Samurai family in Edo and started getting seriously involved in making ukiyo-e prints around 1877 and he retired in 1906. His most prolific time were the last two decades of the nineteenth century, 1880s and 1890s; the same time when Vincent van Gogh and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec were painting in Europe and were inspired by Japanese art. They would probably like to meet Chikanobu and exchange ideas about art. Chikanobu’s focus was on portraying women and he also did many actor scenes, which was a whole genre in ukiyo-e prints. In the 1890s he was commissioned to make these triptych showing scenes from the Chiyoda palace in which Chikanobu presented a nostalgic view of the glorious past that was disappearing.

Book Review: Naomi by Junichiro Tanizaki

23 Mar

Secrets, erotic obsessions, love triangles; those are some themes that linger throughout Junichiro Tanizaki’s novels such as “The Key”, “Quicksand” and my favourite “Naomi”. Things always starts so normally, the characters and their lives are seemingly perfect and uneventful, but then things take a darker turn…

Brooke Shields in “Pretty Baby” (1978)

This fascinating tale begins with the main character Joji, a twenty-eight year old man working on a well-payed office job as an electrical engineer, telling us where and how he met a beautiful fifteen year old girl called Naomi who later became his wife. Naomi was working as a waitress in a cafe when Joji noticed her. To him she seemed “a quiet, gloomy child”, he was intrigued by her silence and her face which had western features, later he compares her face to Mary Pickford’s. He befriends her and starts taking her out, to a movie and dinner. Joji grows fond of her company and, at first, innocently wishes to provide her with a better life starting with her education, as Naomi expressed wishes of studying English and music. Coming from the countryside, being a bit shy and focused first on his education and later his career, Joji had no experience with women and wasn’t interested in living a conventional married life.

As Joji says himself: “My original plan, then, was simply to take charge of the child and look after her. On the one hand, I was motivated by sympathy for her. On the other, I wanted to introduce some variety into my humdrum, monotonous daily existence. I was weary from years of living in a boarding­house; I longed for a little color and warmth in my life. Indeed, why not build a house, I thought, even a small one? I’d decorate the rooms, plant flowers, hang out a birdcage on the sunny veranda, and hire a maid to do the cooking and scrubbing. And if Naomi agreed to come, she’d take the place of both the maid and the bird. . . . This is roughly what I had in mind.

(Picture: Kate Moss) “My darling Naomi,” I gasped from the darkness under her sleeves. “My darling Naomi, I don’t just love you, I worship you. You’re my treasure. You’re a diamond that I found and polished. I’ll buy anything that’ll make you beautiful. I’ll give you my whole salary.”

When they start living together in a cozy little house with plenty of light and a rice field growing behind it, things are incredibly dream-like and seen through rose-tinted glasses, like a gentle and precious moment of dusk, just after sun sets, birds are singing softly from a nearby tree and nature is veiled in silence and dreams, your mind is free of all worries in such a moment. These first chapters are so full of idealism and naivety, and describe a seemingly perfect life that one could only dream of; Joji goes to work in the morning, and the obedient and sweet natured girl Naomi goes to her English and music lessons: “Wearing a dark blue cashmere formal skirt over a silk kimono, black socks, and charming little shoes, she looked every inch the pupil. Bursting with excitement at having realized her dream, she went off to her lessons diligently. Now and then I ran into her on my way home, and I could hardly believe that she had grown up in Senzoku and worked as a hostess. She never did her hair in Japanese style anymore; she wore it in braids, tied with a ribbon.

Mary Pickford, c. 1910s

Joji’s intentions are truly innocent at the beginning, he’s not a predator out to take advantage of her, and he notes that under his care she soon became “a truly radiant, vivacious little bird, and the enormous atelier was her cage. May came to a close and bright, early-summer weather set in. The flowers in the garden grew taller and more colorful day by day. In the evening, when I returned home from work and she from her lessons, sunlight streamed through the India-print curtains and played on the white walls as though it were still the middle of the day.” After they would both come home, he would listen to what she’s learned in class and they’d play games such as tag and blindman’s buff.

Their day to day life together is full of sweetness and innocence. Apart from paying her lessons, Joji buys her many pretty dresses and likes to gaze at her as she puts each one on: “Dressed in one or another of these outfits, she’d parade around the house, stand in front of the mirror, and pose while I took pictures. Wrapped in gauzy, translucent clothing of white, rose, or pale lavender, she was like a beautiful large blossom in a vase. “Try it this way; now this way,” I’d say. Picking her up, laying her down, telling her to be seated or to walk, I gazed at her by the hour.

Here is a passage which I loved, about Naomi’s love of flowers:

“The blossoms remind me that she loved Western flowers and knew the names—troublesome English names—of many flowers that I was unfamiliar with. Apparently she’d learned them at the cafe, where she was in charge of the vases. Sometimes we saw a greenhouse beyond a gate as we passed. Always alert, she’d stop and cry happily, “Oh, what beautiful flowers!”

“Which flower do you like best, Naomi?”

“I like tulips best.”

Her longing for spacious gardens and fields, and her love of flowers, may have been in reaction to the squalid alley­ways of Senzoku where she had grown up. Whenever we saw violets, dandelions, lotus grass, or primroses growing on a levee or by a country road, she would hurry over to pick them. By the end of the day, she’d have a great many flowers grouped in any number of bouquets. And she would still be holding them carefully on the way back.

“They’re all wilted now. Why don’t you throw them away?”

“Oh, they’ll come right back if you put them in water. You ought to keep them on your desk, Mr. Kawai.” She always gave the bouquets to me when we parted for the day.”

“While she was my wife, she was also a rare, precious doll and an ornament.”

As it so happens in a Tanizaki novel, slowly and yet out of nowhere, things take a darker turn. A reader can flip back the pages and wonder where it started, but there is no point of downfall; the darkness just crawls in slowly into the story and you get sad that the happy dream cannot last. How can Tanizaki be so cruel and peel the layers of niceness from the characters’s faces and present them in a whole new light? I desperately want to believe in a dream, and Tanizaki rubs my face into the gloomy reality. The more insolent, stubborn and rebellious Naomi gets, the more possessive Joji becomes, led not by sympathy and kind intentions anymore, but by jealousy and wild desire. “Consumed with love”, he describes himself, as Naomi is slowly but surely weaving spiderwebs of secrets and lies even in times that are seemingly innocent. Joji said: “Except for summer vacations, we’d spent all of our time alone together in our “fairy-tale house,” avoiding contact with society at large…” but the truth is that Naomi had befriended some boys without his knowledge, and these connections, although unassuming at first, will turn darker overtones.

They start going out and dancing, and for the first time Joji starts seeing Naomi’s behavior in public, slowly realises how arrogant and rude she is. Joji is conflicted with the realisation that Naomi will never be his ideal woman, that their love wasn’t as innocent as he thought, but that, as she grows up and her body develops, he is more and more attracted to her physically, to the point of the mad delirious desire: “My heart was a battleground for the conflict­ing emotions of disappointment and love. I’d made the wrong choice; Naomi was not as intelligent as I’d hoped. I couldn’t deny it any longer, much as I wanted to. I could see now that my desire for her to become a fine woman was nothing but a dream. (…) But at the same time, her body attracted me ever more powerfully. I use the word “body” advisedly. It was her skin, teeth, lips, hair, eyes—the beauty of her en­tire form—that attracted me. There was nothing spiritual about it. She’d betrayed my expectations for her mind, but her body now surpassed my ideal. Stupid woman, I thought. Hopeless. Unhappily, the more I thought so, the more I found her beauty alluring. (…) I had wanted to make Naomi beautiful both spiritually and physically. I had failed with the spiritual side but succeeded splendidly on the physical. I never expected that she’d be­come so beautiful.

Photo found here.

Lies upon lies, intrigues upon intrigues, as Joji’s life turns into a nightmare, all that he believed is a lie and the girl he loved doesn’t exist; the Naomi he loved and desired was a fantasy created by his idealistic mind. The real Naomi is a puzzle never to be unraveled. Because the story is told from Joji’s point of view, and we may conclude that he is a good observer, but still we don’t know what is going on in her mind and her heart. This is the thing which intrigues me the most about the novel! And this is the same thing I wondered about Nabokov’s Lolita, the parallels can be made between these two novels obviously. Joji states with sadness about the difference between the Naomi he’d met that rainy afternoon at the cafe and the Naomi that she’d become: “She’d been much more appealing in those days than she was now. In­genuous and naïve, shy and melancholy, she bore no re­semblance to this rough, insolent woman. I’d fallen in love with her then, and the momentum had carried me to this day; but now I saw what an obnoxious person she’d become in the meantime.

The novel starts with as a dream and ends as a tragicomedy because Joji is aware of the truth and yet he admits finding Naomi physically irresistible. He consciously chooses to live a lie; a fool manipulated by this femme fatale: “Naomi wasn’t a priceless treasure or a cherished idol anymore; she’d become a harlot. Neither lovers’ innocence nor conjugal affection survived between us. Such feelings had faded away like an old dream. Why did I still feel any­thing for this faithless, defiled woman? Because I was being dragged along by her physical attractions. This degraded me at the same time it degraded Naomi, because it meant that I’d abandoned my integrity, fastidiousness, and sincerity as a man, flung away my pride, and bent down before a whore, and I no longer felt any shame for doing so. Indeed, there were times when I worshipped the figure of this despic­able slut as though I were revering a goddess.

Art by LETHE.

A fascinating novel, not very long, but very intriguing from beginning to the end, with short chapters and flowing lyrical writing. I totally recommend it, I think it’s better than “Quicksand” and “The Key” which I read also.

Edogawa Rampo: Vision of a Wraith-like Waitress as Salome

13 Mar

Two weeks ago I read a few stories from a short story collection “Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination” by Edogawa Rampo (1894-1965), considered the first modern Japanese writer of mystery. His birth name was Taro Hirai, but he seemed to love Edgar Allan Poe’s writings so much early in his career that he even derived his own pen name from the Japanese pronunciation of Edgar Allan Poe. The story that struck me the most was “The Red Chamber”, originally published in April 1925, in which the main character and a narrator is a very bored eccentric individual who joins a strange club and starts killing as a way of curing his boredom, although the killings are more just planned accidents. I feel bored quite often, and I was in one of my everything-is-boring phases when I started reading this story so I could connect with the main character in this regard and here is something he tells us about himself: “I believe (he said) that I am in my right mind and that all my friends will vouch for my sanity, but whether I am really mentally fit or not, I will leave to you to judge. Yes, I may be mad! Or perhaps I may just be a mild neurotic case. But, at any rate, I must explain that I have always been weary of life… and to me the normal man’s daily routine is – and always will be – a hateful boredom.

At first I gave myself up to various dissipations to distract my mind, but unfortunately, nothing seemed to relieve my profound boredom. Instead, everything I did only seemed to increase my disappointment the more. Constantly I kept asking myself: Is there no amusement left in the world for me? Am I doomed to die of yawning? Gradually I fell into a state of lethargy from which there seemed to be no escape. Nothing that I did – absolutely nothing – succeeded in pleasing my fancy. Every day I took three meals, and when the evening shadows fell I went to bed. Slowly I began to feel that I was going stark raving mad. Eating and sleeping, eating and sleeping – just like a hog.

Jean Benner, Salome, c. 1899

The feeling of intense boredom and aggravation of the repetitive flow of day to day life is something very relatable, especially this line: “Nothing that I did – absolutely nothing – succeeded in pleasing my fancy.” Oh how I know the feeling!

But there is another fragment of the story which I found interesting, something related to art. In the last few pages the story takes place in a cafe where the main character and his friends from the club are talking, when all of a sudden he noticed a waitress and his reverie begins: “Suddenly, on the surface of the silk curtains near the door, something began to glitter. At first it looked like a large, silver coin, then like a full moon peering out of the red curtains. Gradually I recognized the mysterious object as a large silver tray held in both hands by a waitress, magically come, as if from nowhere, to serve us drinks. For a fleeting moment I visualized a scene from Salome, with the dancing girl carrying the freshly severed head of a prophet on a tray. I even thought that after the tray there would appear from out of the silk curtains a glittering Damascene broad-sword, or at least an old Chinese halberd. Gradually my eyes became more accustomed to the wraith-like figure of the waitress, and I gasped with admiration, for she was indeed a beauty! Without any explanation, she moved gracefully among the seven of us and began to serve drinks.

As I took the glass I noticed that my hand was trembling. What strange magic was this, I pondered. Who was she? And where did she come from? Was she from some imaginary world, or was she one of the hostesses from the restaurants downstairs?

Aubrey Beardsley, Illustration to Salome by Oscar Wilde, 1893

Salome is truly a fascinating femme fatale figure that appeared on many canvases, from Renaissance to fin de siecle, and it is equally thrilling to imagine her dancing seductively, dresses in shiny robe, adorned with jewellery and perfume… and to imagine her being so daring as to ask for the head of St John the Baptist, and hold it on a tray, how cool is that!? This was a very vivid passage of a story, very memorable.