Friday, April 2, 2010

The Ancient, the Really Old, and the Green at the Japan Society

I know I talk about the Japan Society ad nauseam, but I really like going there! They've put on some excellent shows/talks/exhibits lately, and last week was particularly fantastic. Okay, I'm gushing. Sorry. Anyway, last week I had the pleasure of visiting the Japan Society to see three very different things: An art exhibit featuring what could be the precursor to manga, a discussion about how three artists approach the concept of being "green," and a centuries-old art form that pokes fun at the samurai class.

The Really Old
First, the latest gallery exhibit at the Japan Society is a must-see for anyone in or near the city. Graphic Heroes, Magic Monsters: Japanese Prints by Utagawa Kuniyoshi from the Arthur R. Miller Collection showcases the masterful work of Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861), a color-woodblock artist whose warriors and otherworldly creatures could have influenced manga. I can see why, especially in his pieces that include Chinese combatants or Japanese samurai fighting to the death against a monster. 

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Chinese Warrior Ruan Xiaowu Fights Underwater, 1827-30. American Friends of the British Museum (The Arthur R. Miller Collection) Photo ©Trustees of the British Museum

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Minamoto no Raiko and His Retainers Battle with the Earth Spider, early 1820s. American Friends of the British Museum (The Arthur R. Miller Collection) Photo ©Trustees of the British Museum

Generally I'm not a fan of the phantasmagorical, but I was drawn to Kuniyoshi's series about the tattooed  Chinese desperadoes from the novel The Water Margin and his series about birds and beasts more than to his landscapes. His landscapes are beautiful, but after seeing rooms filled with bold, fantastic creatures fighting to the death, it's hard to get overly enthusiastic about a monk walking up a snow-covered mountain.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Monk Nichiren in the Snow at Tsukahara, c. 1835. American Friends of the British Museum (The Arthur R. Miller Collection) Photo ©Trustees of the British Museum

The fact that landscapes even exist in Kuniyoshi's repertoire is a testament to his skill and diversity as an artist, as well as the evolving tastes of people who appreciated art at that time. Kuniyoshi also created works featuring geisha (until images of courtesans and geisha were banned by the Japanese government in 1842), kabuki actors, and animals that impersonated people, comic prints known as "crazy pictures."  The vividness of the colors shows how carefully preserved these prints from the 1820s are. Very impressive.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Octopus Games, 1840-42. American Friends of the British Museum (The Arthur R. Miller Collection) Photo ©Trustees of the British Museum

The Green
The Japan Society has a "Green Japan" series where people sit around and talk about being green and saving the planet. I picked a good one to attend. Conscious Inspiration: Juxtaposing Nature and Art Form was a discussion between architect Shigeru Ban, artist Mariko Mori, and composer Ryuichi Sakamoto. I was excited to see Shigeru Ban, a "starchitect" whose Metal Shutter Houses is near my apartment in Chelsea. Ryuichi Sakamoto is the frontman for the Japanese '70s electropop band Yellow Magic Orchestra and won an Academy Award in 1987 for composing the score of The Last Emperor. I didn't know anything about Mariko Mori, but I like her for her quirkiness – she dresses only in white – and her next project is in Okinawa. She has quirky fans, too, who built this website that's hard to read because the text is purple.

Even though this was part of the "Green Japan" series, each of these creative people spent the evening talking about how they're not green in the sense that Americans are. Their green is based in nature and in finding a balance between our busy lives and the beauty of the natural world. Ban must use the environment in his work, so he tries to find the most efficient materials possible. Sakamoto is the founder of more trees, an organization that promotes the planting of, well, more trees. Mori "becomes one with nature," a process that allows her to paint.

One annoying thing about the event was the earpiece. Since the three guests felt more comfortable speaking in their native Japanese, live translators were there. The earpiece of the transmitter thing that I had to wear in order to understand what Ban, Mori, and Sakamoto were saying didn't fit well. Or maybe I didn't have it in right. Anyway, I had to hold one hand to my ear to keep the earpiece from popping out, which made it difficult to take notes. I'm done whining now. Overall, it was an interesting talk punctuated by Sakamoto's line – with tongue planted firmly in cheek – that "squid will dominate the earth." One day, he says, "squid will grow legs and come on the land." Pretty fitting since I had just seen Kuniyoshi's depiction of Ariomaru killing a giant octopus.

(from left) Ryuichi Sakamoto, Mariko Mori, Shigeru Ban, and moderator Stefano Tonchi

The Ancient
My first encounter with kyogen a YouTube video the Japan Society posted on its website. I used the video for research and in my story to promote the Yamamoto Kyogen Company's performances.

I knew I pretty much had to see the first performance so that I could review it, but I wasn't sure how much I would enjoy this ancient comedic form of Japanese theatre. In fact, I honestly didn't think I'd be able to sit through an hour of the sing-songy voices. Well, I was wrong. I loved it. It was interesting, engaging, and funny. There was a sadness to it, too, just like the sitcoms from the '70s and '80s that make you laugh and teach you a lesson in humanity.

It's also easy to appreciate watching a craft such as kyogen knowing that the people onstage are the third and fourth generations of a family of kyogen performers. I appreciate how important tradition – and the carrying out of that tradition – is to Japanese people.

Yamamoto Kyogen Company performs a scene from Shido Hogaku, a classic comedic Japanese play. ©Yoshiaki Kanda

My Lesson
Growing up in North Carolina, I never appreciated my Japanese (Okinawan) heritage, but living in New York has presented myriad opportunities to learn about this great culture. It wasn't until I started writing about Japanese culture in NYC for that I realized how many Japanese-related things are going on here. It's amazing, overwhelming, and educational. I'm lucky to be in the general proximity of institutions such as the Japan Society to introduce me to people, traditions, and art that I would have never seen otherwise.

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