I've taken two trips away from Osaka during my time here. The first was south to Kyushu and the second was to Aomori via Tokyo. The main impetus for going to Aomori was to visit the Terayama Shuji Museum in Misawa. My planning somewhat overlooked the fact that I was going at the same time as the Nebuta Festival, five days of giant illuminated floats and quite the tourist draw for Aomori City. Airfares and hotel bills seemed to double...
A train from Tokyo station. What are the people doing on the train? Much the same as people on trains anywhere else? More or less. Some people eat from lunchboxes, some eat sandwiches. Others sleep. The girl next to me is travelling back to Sendai after a visit to Tokyo Disneyland. She fidgets with her mobile and makeup constantly. The man to my right spends the journey working on a very tedious looking Excel spreadsheet. Aren't they all? I imagine some tedious meeting where this mammoth thing is physically printed and then promptly discarded afterwards. The landscape unfolds. I eat my lunchbox and drink a beer. So far so good. The shinkansen line finishes at Hachinohe to the south of Aomori. The rest of the prefecture won't be connected until 2010. I change trains, spot a local that removes a potential change but might take half an hour longer. Whatever. The train from Noheji to Shimokita will be an hour regardless.
The local trundles along. What do people do on this train? Sleep mostly. Or at least keep their eyes shut. I'm looking out the window for any signs of Terayama-ness. The land seems wider and the sky larger. A different sort of green. Changes in vegetation. Farmers. Forest. A plantation of windmills. Some French tourists jump on at Misawa and then jump off at Noheji. I've not worked out what the code is for meeting foreigners in Japan. Never have. I smile at people, try to make eye contact. Eye contact is something that foreigners generally avoid with one another here. From afar, yes, but once you can see the whites of their eyes... I'm not sure why. "Just because we're both foreigners, that doesn't mean we have to recognise each other!" Yes, I think, but ignoring one another is a form of recognition and not a pleasant one. "If I look at you, we'll both be wondering what the other person is doing here!" Yes, I think again. The competition between expatriates: who is cooler, who speaks better Japanese, who knows more. Sometimes the question "Is she really going out with him?!?". Heavens. Whilst all foreigners look to me as if they could come from London, that's not always the same the other way around. Sometimes people smile back. It's not so common. Mostly it's a head twitch, the bird on the horizon, the sign in the distance. The French girl looks fresh from an Eric Rohmer film so I'm willing to let the shorts slip. They fit. We smile briefly. They're speaking English to their Japanese hosts. The brother is wearing shorts too or rather sort of half-leg trousers. I never wear shorts. For the record, I seem to be affecting a sort of dishevelled Tom Wolfe look although I'm hoping for more of a Taisho Romance impression: seersucker suit, Panama hat, blue lensed sunglasses, the moustache is getting a bit silly. Maybe not so much in Tokyo or Kyoto, I don't know, but the foreigners here in Osaka are sartorially a sad looking bunch. Mostly colourless, wan even, and decidedly limp. Come on, I think, look how everyone else is dressing! Make an effort. Have some fun at least. I forget that I'm perhaps the only one on something of a permanent holiday.
Eventually Shimokita. It's the outskirts of Mutsu, although that place is hardly large. I'm staying at the Plaza. As it turns out, it has possibly one of the few restaurants in the area. I take a rest and walk out into the evening. It looks like Pigeon Forge, TN. Except there's no country music theme to the place. There doesn't really seem to be a theme at all. It's some roads, big stores with car parks. Evident food choices are: a drive-through Sukiya (Japanese fast-food), KFC, MacDonalds, Gasuto (Gusto, I presume). I'm not convinced about any of these for an evening meal so I walk. Empty footpaths, but the air is cool. No cicadas, frogs and crickets. Away from the strip malls, the forest. Smell of the sea. After about half an hour, I've passed one empty ramen restaurant and two kaiten sushi places. Not really what I'm after. I head back and go for Gasuto. I try hard to find a meal that costs more than four pounds. Gasuto is roadside cheap, it looks like America. The menu looks American. The meat is American and says so, which is not really a badge of honour at most restaurants in Japan. Meat and salads. Tastes generic American. It fills, but it's lifeless. Most probably we're dead already, I think. The next day I'm heading to Osorezan, a Buddhist complex situated at a place held to be the bridge between life and death, hell even. It's where the souls of departed relatives await family members so they can pass into the next world together. Generally, this is children awaiting their parents. Historically, then and now, this commonly means those killed by infanticide and aborted foetuses. Rural impoverishment in Japan frequently favoured the former. Hence Terayama's film Den-en ni shisu which opens with a scene at Osorezan to the song "Kodomo Bosatsu", or Child Buddhas, sung by these very dead souls.
Kodomo Bosatsu (mp3)
Such are the lyrics:
さいのかわらにあつまりし みずこ まびきこ めくらのこ てあしはいしに すれただれ なきなきいしを はこぶなり ゆびよりいずる ちのしずく みうちをあけに そめなして ちちうえこひし ははこひし よんでくるしく さけぶなり あヽ そはぢごく こどもぢごくや
(You can try entering that into a translation engine but the lack of kanji will probably floor it completely. Where does one word start and the other finish? I could translate, but it's hot outside now I'm in range of wifi)
I go home and watch The Evil, a dusty looking second hand DVD I've picked up at a local book and dvd centre.
Breakfast is cheery though. It's a random mix of Japanese and Western foods. Toast and yaki soba. Tofu and sliced ham. There's little notes on some of the foods letting you know what's local. The waitress encourages guests to try the apple juice, vegetables and other dishes. The sun shines, I wander around for a bit, get on the bus. We cross the bridge that separates two worlds. We wander around. If anything, the summer sun makes Osorezan feel a cheerier place than I expected, even if rather lunar. There's not much in the way of water, but there's plenty of sulphur in the air bubbling up from the earth. The ground is surprisingly spongy underfoot. We're floating on gas. No smoking obviously. I walk around and take photographs. For once.
I'm sure to have written this before, but I don't really enjoy taking photographs. I carry a camera around with me, but most often it stays in the bag. My way of looking shifts once I start photographing. How could you frame that? Does the light work? I stop interacting with the environment in the way that makes me feel most settled or connected to it. Looking for photographs, not looking. Okay, it's not that I don't enjoy it, it's just I'd rather not! A day of photography exhausts me. I'm prone to insularity anyway, why do something that exacerbates the condition? I've made the effort here (and I'll post more from Aomori) but uploading photos to Flickr tires me as well. The inner librarian wants everything tagged properly. It annoys me to look something up on that site and find that the set has been block-tagged rather than the relevant photo. Increasingly, I'm wondering whether I really don't want to know less rather than more. Or at least, to paraphrase Terayama, throw away your blogs and go out into the streets!
You don't need to be eagle-eyed to note the presence of a figurine amongst some of these photographs. She's made by a company in Marseille called Arterra. Santons (rather like the Catalan... err, except there's no internet so I can't remember the word...) were originally nativity figurines but they've broadened in design to include local figures and costumes. They're a common enough souvenir from Provence, although the ones from Arterra seem a step up in design compared to some others. She is Elève Fille (boudeuse). A sulky schoolgirl. A souvenir I originally bought for someone in the hope that my gift-selecting skills would be yet one more convincing reason to go out with me. It somehow reminded me of her and I bought the pair (there's an unsulky schoolboy) with the intention of giving them to her but something more suitable appeared. They sat in the dining room amongst other ephemera. Visiting once, she commented that it looked rather like her. Yes, I said, in fact...
Visiting the workshop earlier in the spring, I intended to buy some more of them and make some kind of installation piece for her. It's really only ever love, successful or failed, that encourages me to make such things. There were a few of the same santon there, but the colouring was different. However, there was a piece where the boy and girl both stood united on the same stand, the boy's arm now assuringly around her shoulder. So I bought that instead. Separated, just prior to departure, disconsolate, I brought the figurine with me, where she spends most of her time standing in front of an icon. I had hoped that the woman in question was going to join me here at some point, but those plans came to nothing. So I started taking photos of Sulky Girl. Her stand-in. Imagining her here, what she would be looking at, interacting with the environment. I sent some of these to a friend who commented that it rather reminded her of that section in the film Amelie to do with photos of a garden gnome from around the world. Maybe, I didn't intend it. I was rather more thinking of Blythe, that annoying doll who is well-represented in bookshops here. Unlike Blythe, although perhaps like the gnome, Sulky Girl is, obviously, invariably sulky! Nothing particularly impresses her. You can take here anywhere. Same expression, even if the context can encourage you to read it differently. Sometimes reverent. Mostly bored or indifferent. You can't make her costumes as she has her arms folded. Well, capes and hats maybe. She's only the one pose. I wasn't thinking Amelie, I said, I was thinking more art therapy for a broken heart!
Here is where you would be with me. Instead it's me and this figurine. So these pictures that I have been taking are trying to communicate (oh dear, art that is trying to communicate...) something about absence, distance, loss. These pictures in Aomori are the first that I've taken that don't exclusively feature Sulky Girl somewhere in the frame or are taken solely to balance against some other photo of her. That would seem like progress. Of course, putting a figurine in an otherwise uninhabited shot generally improves it to my eye. Also, as it's been something of a project, it encourages me to take photos on a more regular basis.
I don't doubt that it's obsessional but it's a physical recognition of that. I can play out these scenarios in the real world rather than imagination. There's nothing particularly furtive about it. It's not Hans Bellmer or Yotsuya Simon et al. There's no flash of underwear when you've a morally solid terracotta dress on. No, Sulky Girl goes around and looks at objects. Here, the trees, flowers, animals. Off you go. Don't leave. Where are you going now? Cheer up, for heaven's sake! Have you ever seen the like? And yet everything is of course posed. There's an operator. An observer. A relationship.
One of my great pleasures in visiting Osaka is the chance to see bunraku, puppet plays. I've only been able to see the summer holiday show this time around, but that's three separate performances. I say to Japanese people how I prefer bunraku to kabuki. Not that I dislike the latter. Hmm, bunraku's a bit boring, I find, many say. Boring?!? Although looking around the theatre, half the people seem to be snoozing. Why would you prefer puppets over actors, given that many of the plays are fairly identical? Many kabuki plays being based on works originally written for puppets. I don't know exactly. I think there's an element of what I might be mislabelling as autism (spectrum, as they like to say). I have to project more of myself into the performance. Bunraku puppets don't have a vast range of facial expressions. They can wiggle eyebrows or move eyes, but it's used sparingly. They can open and close mouths, but they almost never do when speaking. It's just to register shock or humour. The puppets (or their operators) don't speak anyway, one single narrator to the side of the stage does the voices and the rest. They might be quite advanced as puppets go, and they are certainly operated with consummate skill, but they're still restricted compared to their human counterparts. The female characters don't even have legs or feet! The kimono fabric is folded and moved to intimate their presence underneath.
I wrote in my notebook, nothing particularly original or well-thought out I think, that the puppets don't seek fame. Actors, kabuki actors as well, seek acclamation. Advantage, wealth, celebrity, the rest of it. Puppets don't stumble out of clubs half-cut at dawn. They don't do Hello or Heat. Puppets seek to be recognised as living. They might just fool us for a while. I'm infinitely more moved by the death of a puppet on stage than I am of an actor. The puppet is abandoned by its operators. It is dead. A brief moment above the waves then back down. The actor pretends. Has a couple of gin and tonics after. I find myself humming "Wow" by Kate Bush at this point. The puppet returns to the storeroom where it hangs until the next performance. Furthermore, the puppet in bunraku is invariably brought to life only to act out some fated human drama where it has to die. The crux of bunraku/kabuki theatre is mostly giri-ninjo, the conflict between social duty and human emotions. It never works. There is no escape. The lovers have to be murdered or kill themselves instead. Indeed, bunraku/kabuki pretty much shouts out that the only possible course/consummation of love is death and the exchange of glances and confidences is as much booking your ticket for the next world as it is the game of flirting.
The puppet's life is to be condemned to act out these pitiful human dramas, they're never free to find the puppets' solution to these issues. They are only able/allowed to operate under certain conditions. They can't turn against their operators. To me, this expresses far more forcefully the questions about the human condition these plays raise than is managed by kabuki actors, however great they may be. How are we controlled? How aware are we of these forces? Can we not turn against them? Can we only be given life by others?
I tried to get a picture of Sulky Girl together with Monkey (yes, that Monkey Magic Monkey story) after one of the performances but it was too crowded. It was the children's slot in the morning and it was fascinating to see how they tried to update the piece to keep their attention. There was a battle between Monkey and a spirit in which they took on different animal forms, a giant takoyaki even, and finally transformed into two Osaka characters. Namely, Taro-kun, the stripey-suited marionette that stood bashing a drum outside the restaurant Kuidaore in Dotombori, and Glico-man, the emblem of the confectionery company and the most famous neon sign in town. Kuidaore closed in July after around 60 years of business and the closing ceremony featured Taro standing just inside the restaurant as the shutters came down. I was watching it on television in Kyushu and found myself crying for another vanished sight of the post-war era, but then I am both entirely sentimental at such things and being a social historian (sometimes...!) is my professional excuse. Old-time Osakans standing outside were also weeping, so I took some comfort there. Anyway, Taro lived again at bunraku which I was very touched by. Puppets ate various local produce (ice creams from Horai 551, kitsune udon, takoyaki) and one even popped its head out the side of the theatre dressed in a Hanshin Tigers outfit and waving a flag about some recent scoring achievement. I imagine that bunraku before the war, when there were still several competing companies operating, must have been something rather more like this. Nods to current events, the script not quite so written in stone. It's mostly the classics now.
The final evening performance was about a celebrated mass murder at a teahouse in Kitahama (just along the ways). A samurai fancies a prostitute but she loves another. He intercepts a letter in which she reveals to this lover (an upstart merchant! Lowest on the social scale) how much she dislikes the samurai's attentions. Well, she profoundly disses him! Said samurai reveals he has intercepted letter. We should run away before he kills us! They think (That will never work, we should all shout out at that point). But if they run, both will have to die. Why not? To spare the merchant's life and moreover the social standing of him and his family, she has him go to sleep upstairs at the "teahouse" and then sends another woman to his bed in her place (I think this was his actual fiancée, now I think of it. The mind boggles). In the darkness, he won't know. That way, the teahouse girl can be killed and he can then marry this other woman. Maybe his fiancée. I wasn't too convinced it would work out that smoothly in the long run, but... Samurai turns up, kills the woman and another five or six. He's still upstairs, but hearing the commotion downstairs as they are slaughtered, he makes his escape from the window. Samurai arrested. The murder of the puppets is horrendously gruesome. Not through excessive stage blood (there is some inventive use of red silk and the like), just the brutality of one puppet killing another as it repeatedly smashes the other's head and body. Stamp of operator's feet on ground, a roar of shamisen playing in the background, the narrator is groaning at epic volume. Brought to life, but condemned to murder. The samurai decapitates the woman, displays her head. It is her head! Attendants come in. One loses both arms. They are his arms! Please, when does it end? Until, roaring, exhausted, he is overpowered and we survey his impotent victory. End.
Puppets and operators don't do curtain calls. We leave into the night.
Reading back through those paragraphs, that's probably not the best way for me to end discussing these photographs of Sulky Girl. I'm not sure whether their language might be something quite personal in its references. But there's nothing about them that needs to be private. They're just photographs that wonder about how you say goodbye. Maybe some other things aw well.
In due course, I might, or might as well not, take all of these and assemble something else out of them. There are many. Along the way, I've compiled two sets which are broadly representative of what any final piece might turn out to be upon more selective editing (and inclusion, since some of my favourites are omitted here):
One set taken in Osaka and Nara
One set taken in Kyushu and Hiroshima