Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The city beyond the castle

My first visit to Matsumoto was not fun. I'd landed in Japan a few days earlier and decided to head to the mountains for a spell before beginning my new life as an English teacher. But by the time I reached Matsumoto, whatever bug I'd picked up on the trans-Pacific flight had taken hold of me and I found myself trapped in my cocoon-like hotel room, shivering with fever, gazing out at the alps that ring the city. After 48 hours the bug vanished and I got the chance to stroll around - wide, modern streets, traffic, ho-hum, I thought, just another big, dull town. Matsumoto Castle is well worth seeing as one of the best-preserved feudal castles in Japan, but beyond that my first trip to Matsumoto didn't reveal a lot else to attract out-of-town visitors.

Since then, the Ajimi team has been back to Matsumoto a couple times, abetted by the cheap train fares from Tokyo which make it a good destination for a brief getaway. We discovered onsen towns on the outskirts which it pays to have a least a passing familiarity with Japanese to navigate. Each time we return we find something new to appreciate about the place. First, from an architectural point of view, the city, like Kofu and others, has benefited from being a bit of a backwater compared to Tokyo. There hasn't been quite the lust to knock things down so one can still see traces of bygone styles -- Showa, Taisho, even Meiji- and Edo-era structures -- scattered around the landscape. The city is like a reliquary containing fragments of outmoded commercial architecture. There are lots of woeful-looking buildings containing down-at-heels snack bars and other businesses which have somehow managed to carry on. There are also lots of kura, those rugged, squat buildings where people traditionally stowed their valuables. They're tough to knock down so many people over the years have said the heck with it and adapted them for other uses. (In some communities in northeastern Japan, kura were among the few buildings left after the great Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, probably not the first catastrophe they'd managed to survive.) It all makes for a very interesting visual blend.

So a pleasant afternoon for us in Matsumoto involves walking around looking at odd old buildings. But during our recent visit we noticed that a few more modern structures had been added to the mix. And overall the scale of the city offers more opportunity to appreciate the buildings - they're not packed so tightly together and cloaked with the signage and other forms of visual pollution that characterize buildings in Tokyo. Granted, Matsumoto is still not exactly a hotbed of architectural innovation, but it does offer elements of delight that make for a good afternoon's urban exploration.


Monday, July 18, 2011

When You're Hot You're Hot

When learning any language, one starts with the greetings, moves on to the pleasantries and hopefully, on to conversation. Asking about or commenting on the weather is standard issue for any beginner. In Japanese, one’s taught “ii tenki, ne” (nice weather, isn’t it), or more formally, “yoi tenki, desune.” A classic icebreaker - talking about the weather. One will learn this in most beginning Japanese classes. But “ii tenki, ne” and “yoi tenki, desune” appear to be expressions that are never used. When talking of weather the ritual always goes – and most Japanese will beat you to the punch – “atsui ne” (hot, isn’t it) or conversely “samui ne” (cold isn’t’ it). In our years here, We’ve never heard a single person say the weather was nice. It’s always too hot or too cold. And if we’ve had the opportunity to say something like, “nice weather, isn't it?” we are usually corrected. It’s either hot or cold. It's never at that state of in betweenies. The weather's never "good."

On this sweltering summer day, we’ve been pondering why. Why can’t the Japanese acknowledge a nice day? A couple of thoughts come to mind. One is that in Japan, there are no nice days. A second is that like cherry blossoms, fireworks, beauty, the weather is something temporal and fleeting. The moment of niceness, of perfect temperature, humidity and good feeling passes. And it passes quickly in Tokyo. One moment might be nice. A few seconds later a downpour. So, when talk of the weather happens, usually that moment has passed and the speaker has moved into a new state of coldness or hotness. It's the only honest way to speak about it.

As to our first proposition – no nice days in Japan – there is some precedence. The Japanese take a strange and obsessive pride in the fact that there are 4 seasons (some sources suggest there may be up to 27) in Japan, all with equally bad weather. In Tokyo, where the Ajimi team lives, one can basically write off June through mid-October. The very long and hot summer here, beginning with tsuyu (the rainy season) in June and capped by the rainier typhoon season from September to October, is unremitting in discomfort. When not pouring rain it’s muggy and hot both day and night. So, during the summer months, what else is there to say but “yeah, it’s hot.” Winter, from December into March, can be pretty cold. Granted not so cold as a Chicago winter, but in a land without central heating, plenny ass-freezing. And then there’s the rain. The Seattleite of the ajimi team sometimes misses the dryness of the Pacific Northwest. As for April, May November and the rest of October, always a crap shoot. They can be OK sometimes, but one never knows. It's best to err on the side of complaint.

We’ve also noticed an absolutism that seems particular to the culture. Take a hot summer day mediated by nice breezes. We’ve mentioned it with friends and acquaintances. “It’s hot, but there’s a nice wind” will only be met with a blank stare. How can a day be hot and have something cool at the same time? Despite Japan’s subtlety – in cuisine, personal relations, aesthetics, pop culture – it’s a subtlety not born of dialectics or semantics. There can be no mediating factors. Weather is strictly ontological. What is is.

So when in Japan, be prepared. Most times it’s easy to say “atsui ne” or “samui ne.” The conditions will certainly warrant the appropriate response. However, on that day that feels pleasant and nice - just right - just hold your tongue. Someone will surely fill you in on what kind of day it really is.


Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Journey to Onomichi

“Sometimes I don’t have a clue anymore

how to retrace, let alone explain the complexity

of even the simplest thing,

or the history of its influences…”

- Wim Wenders, Journey to Onomichi

Wim Wender’s photo book, Journey to Onomichi, begins with a panoramic shot of the sea near Naoshima – looking out from the town of Onomichi toward misty islands. Away from the city he’s ostensibly looking at. The early morning sky fades up from the horizon, a faint yellow ochre to the dull indigo of Japanese woodblock prints. The technology of the split fountain printer’s technique exists in the sky here.

Next come a pair of close-ups. A twisty leathery vine splits the frame. A mound of lichen encrusted Buddhas are dappled by yellow sunlight.

Then there is the establishing shot. The town itself. The shoreline twists away. The roofs of the house glint in the setting sun, peaking from behind a dead tree, its trunk and branches cutting across the frame. The still and tortured tree appears to be holding up dark clouds, if only for the moment of the shutter’s click, letting the sun shine down on the quiet village.

In 2005, Wim Wenders made a pilgrimage to Onomichi, a town on the southeastern edge of Honshu off the Inland Sea about 50 kilometers away from Hiroshima.

In 1953, Ozu Yasujiro set much of his masterpiece, Tokyo monogatari (Tokyo Story), in this village. The old couple at the heart of the story, Shukichi (Chishu Ryu) and Tomi Hirayama (Chieko Higashiyama), live here. In the film they visit their distant and distanced children in Tokyo and Osaka, only to finally return to their hometown where Tomi dies. The shattered yet upright Shukichi is left to mourn not only his wife’s death, but also the passing of family, tradition, even culture. The story is a simple, but the tragedy is profound. Shukichi is like the lone tree in Wender’s photograph, not only bearing witness, but also bearing the burden of these passings.

Tokyo monogatari* opens with a set of shots that will repeat themselves later in the film. The first is of a stone lantern. In the foreground, the perspective makes it look huge. It towers over the waterfront and distant hills. The next shot shows schoolchildren walking to school, away from the camera. A pair of large gabled warehouse buildings form the backdrop. They are white in morning sun. In the foreground, a couple of sake bottles, one of Ozu’s favorite motifs, and seller’s cart complete the composition. The third shot shows village rooftops climbing up a hill. From this stillness a train cuts though from right to left through the center of the frame. Then we cut to a reverse shot, looking down the hill toward the water. The train cuts through again. Some white laundry hanging in the foreground rustles and blows as the black locomotive passes. The fifth shot shows a Buddhist temple sitting on small bluff. The sixth takes us into the shitamachi where the old couple lives. Worn wood and stuccoed walls and a narrow street where a young woman in a crisp white blouse and conservative dark skirt, holding a briefcase walks away from the camera. The next shot finds us in Shukichi’s and Tomi’s house.

In Journey to Onomichi, Wenders next takes us on a walk through the city streets of Onomichi nearly 50 years later. Down to the old quay, little changed, still dull concrete. Then to a wall covered with leftover dabs of paint, stickers, tape, looking like an abstract map of chromosomes. The next shot looks downhill, a graveyard in the foreground, a swimming pool in mid-frame, the new city stretching beyond. A visit to a battleship – two shots, one with a woman in a red dress in the foreground, the other with a red bench – and the empty submarine factory give way to a series of photos of architecture. The juxtaposition of old and new. Crass advertisements, traditional blinds, the way Japanese have no compunction of constructing jury-rigged additions to solid clunky buildings. The way traditional buildings crowd the streetscape with bastard modernism. With Curved Street, Wenders finds light reminiscent of Hopper’s, similar to his photos of Butte storefronts. With The House on the Corner a lone building fills a triangular lot with layers, cubbyholes, odd windows and strange architectural detail. The next section takes through a couple of shots of photo-abstraction to interiors. These are definitely not the interiors of Tokyo monogatari. A coffeehouse sofa, caught in the amber light of a mean 60s/70s décor. Four photos of Audrey Hepburn being stared at by a gallery of stuffed animals. A row of multi-colored, but similar Teddy bears seem to be particularly enamored of the iconic star – as are many folks of a certain generation in Japan. Near the end is shot, a road at dusk, leading out or leading into Onomichi? It’s up to the viewer to decide. Two final pictures recap with moody skies, one of a dot of a helicopter going out to sea, the other a panorama of the town, a moody ceiling of dark clouds tempering the afternoon light into a dull bronze sheen, capturing Onomichi like a bas-relief. A final casting of the village into history.

Wenders, who so loves Tokyo monogatari, went to Onomichi to walk the streets, see if he could find the ambiance, the feel of Ozu’s old town and walk away with his own remembrances, photos, still lives, memento mori of a place that he would maybe never see again. Ozu’s Onomichi, from the few exterior shots in his film, is long gone. Like all Japanese cities, what the war didn’t destroy, the economic miracle took care of.

But what Ozu’s film is about is continuum and the rifts that make that continuum difficult or impossible to maintain.

In 1985, I went to pre-Guggenheim Bilbao to take photographs. Partly inspired by Wenders. He was scheduled to shoot a film there in the early 80s, an historical drama about the evacuation of Jews from one of the last open port towns during World War II, as I recall. I could be wrong about the story. It was so long ago and it never got made. I however made my pilgrimage to the place where he would have made the film, documenting city streets, places, graveyards, frontons. A film called Bilbao.

A continuum of something that never happened in my case. In Wenders case, a continuum of a fiction. In Ozu’s, the fiction itself.

When Tomi dies in Tokyo monogatari, the film suddenly breaks from its mooring. It’s as if the tragedy is too much to bear and the film, the audience must cut away. A sequence of shots follows as a mournful tune swells. A covered dock, empty, with a misty hill in the background; the stone lantern, again, but from a slightly different angle; ships, pulled up on shore; the warehouses, but this time with no children; and finally a shot of the train tracks and the laundry. Things change profoundly. A woman dies. Things change subtly. The angles of the shots are slightly different. And things don't change. There are ships, trains, warehouses, docks, the instruments of human commerce. They may have stopped for a moment, in respect to the dead, but they will continue on.

As artists, we not so much heal the rift in the continuum, but perhaps salve the wounds as best we could with our images, our movies and our words. Whether the big events of history, the stories of loss, or the things left undone and broken, with love and care we hope to make this world of concrete and dead trees a bit more human and understandable.

I’ve never been to Onomichi, but Ozu and Wenders took me there. Wenders literally walked its streets, but he never found Ozu’s Onomichi. He found his own. Just as my Bilbao is different than Wenders.

I wonder if Ozu ever dreamed of Bilbao? I’m quite sure, though, if he had made a film called Bilbao monogatari, I’m sure it would probably have taken place in some Japanese furusato, Bilbao far away, pointing back home.

*For a film called Tokyo Story much of it takes place outside of Tokyo. Ozu may be thinking more of the Tokyo-ization of Japan.

- NV

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Spring: Meiji Jingu

A month from now the irises will be in full bloom and the crowds will descend on the gardens of Meiji Jingu. But for now, it's an island of peace and mid-spring green (and the occasional poodle).

Monday, April 18, 2011

Loli Gagging

Yesterday was a fine, shining Sunday so we headed down to Yoyogi Park. The sakura blossoms had all blown away in the recent high winds but there was plenty more going on to catch the eye. To our delight, it was Wan Wan Festival weekend! We stumbled across this food and fashion extravaganza for dogs and their owners a few years ago and were pleased to see it was as well-attended as ever. Overalls seem to be what the well-dressed bow wow is wearing this season, and whippets appear to be giving French bulldogs a run for their money as this year's "hot" dog. We missed the talent show - last time I think it was won by a standard poodle doing an interpretive dance to the tune of the Toreador song from "Carmen."

But there was yet more cuteness to come. Hundreds of Lolitas were hanging out in the forecourt of the National Yoyogi Stadium, many of them clutching stuffed animals as complements to their kawaii outfits. Seems they were gathered there for a SID concert, part of the "SID 2011 Deadstock World Tour." Rock on, SID.