HAIKU FOR SAGIMUSUME _ a poem by Yuri Kageyama

Heron in a Tokyo Park

Heron in a Tokyo Park

A poem by Yuri Kageyama

Dance from white to red
A ghostly bride mirrored in snow
Killed by love, she still lives

I saw Kikunosuke perform the Kabuki dance “Heron Maiden.”
I’ve seen the dance by Tamasaburo many times, but this version was special, perhaps because his subdued though utterly elegant interpretation so perfectly highlighted the beauty of the story and the music, or perhaps just because a garden near where I live, Hamarikyu, has herons.
Now, I know they are so still, perched on a rock with their crooked necks, as though they know but don’t care they are forming a perfect picture for an artist, so intensely focused, ruthless in their silence and stillness.
What a bird it is _ and what an image, forlorn and fantastic at once, to depict the love of a Japanese woman.
It is not necessary to have seen herons every day or be a Japanese woman to appreciate this gorgeous theater piece.
But it helps.
And I thank the god of poetry for giving me the gift that allows me to witness how this great Japanese dance and the humble dignity of the heron can transcend the finitude and pettiness of society.

Heron in a Tokyo Garden.

Heron in a Tokyo Garden.

Why the Japanese Love Michael Jackson, an essay by Yuri Kageyama

Why the Japanese Love Michael Jackson

“MY-keh-rooh,” as Japanese fans adoringly call him, never had to worry about being perceived a wacko-weirdo here _ a culture where neoteny, or the celebration of juvenile traits, and the cross-gender persona, as in effeminate men and masculine women, are at the core of this nation’s highest art forms.
Japanese are used to seeing in its top artists the very traits that some Westerners found so creepy and appalling in Michael Jackson.
It’s not surprising Japanese, long known for their worship of American musicians and movie stars, came out screaming and cheering at sell-out stadiums during Jackson’s “Thriller”-day heights of the 1980s.
But Japanese came out screaming and cheering even in recent years when Jackson was in Tokyo for shopping sprees at gadget stores, visits to Disneyland and Joypolis, an amusement park run by game-maker Sega, and tightly orchestrated events for fans, where he didn’t sing a single note or glide a single Moon-walk.
He was MY-keh-rooh, the gloved man-child, sweet, innocent, pure _ and oh, so “kawaii.”
Kawaii literally translates as “cute.” But the Japanese has none of the connotations of sexuality associated with the word in the West.
An old man, a subcompact car, something as innocuous as an umbrella, digital camera or kitchen utensil, even something grotesque like a horror-film creature can be potentially kawaii.
Kawaii is about the emotion evoked by a child from its parent, and so is linked in the Japanese mind with the most basic and honorable instinct for the preservation of the species.
It is about love. And it is virtuous.
Kawaii-ness is the keystone of artistic sensibilities from as far back as the Edo Period, prevalent in Hokusai woodblock prints. It is very much alive today in “manga” comics filled with doe-eyed heroes, as well as in the Mickey-Mouse parody sculptures and drawings of Takashi Murakami.
By Western standards, kawaii is embarrassingly frivolous _ like an adult being caught clutching a stuffed animal.
But it’s taken very seriously in Japanese art.
So the King of Pop cavorting on amusement-park rides, cuddling Bubbles the chimp, collecting dolls and playing with children are far more easily accepted as normal adult behavior in Japanese culture.
It is aesthetically almost a modern-day “Tale of Genji,” a floating-world quest for the essence of beauty in a child.
Fans worshiped Jackson not only for his obviously dazzling singing and dancing talents.
As neoteny believers, they were able to take at face value without the cynical doubts, more typical of the Western intelligentsia, his “We Are the World” messages on peace and spirituality.
Jackson could do no wrong as a kawaii guy with his soft velvety voice and shy quiet mannerisms, even as his nose changed sizes and his skin changed tones, no matter.
Take any Japanese MJ fan. Ask him or her whether Jackson is kawaii. And the answer would be a definitive “Yes.”
Jackson was a genius at perpetually staying the child. Even in his final photos, he looks pretty kawaii, especially for a man in his 50s.
Jackson was a master at blurring social barriers, and his denials of such definitions went beyond just age: Black, he looks white. Male, he looks so pretty he is asexual.
That is another reason why Jackson has endeared himself to the Japanese psyche.
A womanly male is about as high as one can get in the pinnacle of Japanese art, as evident in the world of Kabuki, where all roles, including those of women, are played by men.
As a counterpoint to this male-oriented theater is the world of Takarazuka, where all roles, including those of men, are played by women.
Japan is still such a sexually divided society, despite the recent advancement of women, people enjoy the escape that art offers in seeing categorizations turned upside down.
Perhaps it can be said that social definitions are so rigid in the mainstream an artist, by definition, is expected to defy them.
In Kabuki, the denials of convention extend to age. An 80-year-old master routinely plays a teen-age village damsel, and a proper Japanese won’t blink an eye.
Akihiro Miwa is an example of a highly respected artist who has made his fame on being a transvestite, the kind of character more common in San Francisco Finnochio’s in the West, not the acclaimed works of Yukio Mishima and Shuji Terayama, in which Miwa was the star.
In his early years, Miwa still looked more or less like a man but wore makeup. These days, he wears evening gowns, sports blonde curls and speaks in the language of women. Japanese love him and seek him out for career advice as though he is a shaman.
Jackson appears rather sedate next to the bejeweled Miwa or the 80-year-old Kabuki master.
Jackson’s death was big news in Japan. But the national mourning was not a splashy loud affair. Fans came out to buy the CDs they still didn’t have in their collection. They watched his videos together at Tower Records. They just wanted to be there, they said, to share that moment with others of like minds. Never mind they had the videos at home.
To the fans, Jackson was a beautiful person.
They became almost weepy when they talked about the allegations of child molestation he had endured. It worked out as a a boon for Jackson that Japanese tend to be mistrustful of the justice system. There are just too many cases of wrongful imprisonment. The first ever jury trial started only in 2009, the year of Jackson’s death.
In one high-profile case, Toshikazu Sugaya, a bus driver, served 17 years of a life sentence after being convicted of charges of murdering a 4-year-old, because of police profiling him as a pedophile, as well as because of coerced confessions that experts say are common in this nation’s police investigations.
Sugaya was released in 2009, after a long legal struggle, and only after DNA tests proved his innocence. Japanese suspect there are many like Sugaya in the prisons, and he was just lucky he had DNA tests.
Jackson was acquitted of all charges in 2005.
Media reports surfaced shortly before his death that Jackson had shown an interest in a young Japanese gymnast and had wanted to meet her.
Perhaps they would have married, some speculative but excited reports suggested _ if only he hadn’t died.
It would have been a marriage made in heaven for Japan.
In true exaltation, we could have witnessed Jackson obliterate yet another painful divisive barrier _ that of insider vs. outsider, or the Japanese vs. the “gaijin” foreigner.
By taking a Japanese wife, he would have almost turned Japanese, becoming one of us.

Ebizo and Kamejiro

I should have shouted the question in Japanese when the interpreter failed to tanslate the last part of my question to Ebizo Ichikawa and Kamejiro Ichikawa at the Foreign Correspondents Club.
The question: Given that your children will inherit your family’s artistic legacy, when you choose the woman who is to be the mother of your children, do you (1) look for traits that you think are desirable in a Kabuki actor, (2) listen to what your father recommends, or (3) simply fall in love?
And if so, (4) are you in love now?
The interpreter completely ignored question (4).
He also mistranslated Ebizo’s reply, which was that he would take all those factors into account.
The translator said exactly the opposite.
My story gives Kamejiro’s reply.
Kamejiro was outspoken and witty. What impressed me the most was how like a regular young man he was.
When his father Danshiro Ichikawa went on and on explaining the intricacies of Kabuki theater, he quipped jokingly: “One example is enough!”
Kamejiro got laughs when he reminded his father the interpreter won’t be able to remember all that he said!
When Kamejiro was asked what he wanted to be in his next life, he said he had already completed his incarnation cycles, and he isn’t destined to come back to Earth and will instead stay in Paradise.
When it became his father’s turn to answer, he kept muttering: “Pilot.”
His father did tell the story that he once dreamed of becoming a pilot.
But now, Danshiro said, he will choose to come back as an actor again.
They were such an obviously loving father-and-son team, it was charming.
Afterward, Kamejiro and the two fathers were still in their bluish kimonos.
But Ebizo changed instantly into Western clothes, perhaps to go to his next engagement.
A black ski cap on his head, he walked right past us in a flashy red jacket with golden logo-like marks that were both Kabuki-esque and Gianni Versace _ every inch the superstar that he is.

Chushingura Revisited

I try to find time once a year or so to visit Sengakuji, the Tokyo temple where the 47 samurai of the Chushingura saga are buried.
It’s a 300-year-old story that holds a special place in the hearts of all Japanese.
I’ve often heard the comment on how odd Japan must be for admiring such brutality.
You can still see at the temple the well where the ronin washed off the chopped off head of their target Kira.
You can also see the big rock still stained with the blood of Asano Takuminokami, who was forced to disembowel himself in the ritual of harakiri as punishment for his assault on Kira.
But the appeal of Chushingura isn’t about violence for revenge.
It is about the fight for justice.
The ronin withstood ridicule and ostracism, and took great risks as individuals sticking to what they thought was right, to say, “No,” to the abuse of power.
That is so different from the stereotype of Japanese as conformists who bend to the hierachy.
When the samurai march through the streets of Tokyo, Kira’s head dangling from a spear, the crowd comes out to cheer them on as heroes, even though they are outlaws.
I love this scene.
And I love that hyperactive Edo-era reporter with his notebook and brush-pen yelling out his “Extra” about the ronin’s surprise attack on Kira’s estate.
Everytime I go to Sengakuji, I am amazed at how there is a constant trail of visitors.
The incense is burning _ always _ before the stone graves of the ronin, lined up next to each other, as though their death was just yesterday.
The visitors aren’t all old as you’d expect.
One time, I saw a young woman, perhaps a teen-ager, putting a bouquet in front of one of the graves, and I could be mistaken but she wore a cap to hide her loss of hair for chemotherapy.
The visitors always comment on how young the ronin were when they committed harakiri, their punishment for revenge-murder, a violation of Edo law.
The carvings on stone give their names and ages _ Chikara, the son of leader Oishi Kuranosuke, was 16.
But I’m also struck by how some of the warriors were in their 50s, even 60s.
Told again and again in Kabuki and Bunraku plays, countless remakes of movies and TV shows, the characters and their sidebar anecdotes are as real to us as stories about our relatives.
The Chushingura story speaks to us today because it’s not merely about an outdated repressive samurai code or worship of madness-like loyalty as some would have us believe.
It’s a more universal story about individual choice: How to live _ and especially how to die.
It’s a testament to how modern and merchant-dominated Edo society had already evolved.
And so its values were more about human choice, not feudalistic fate.
Precisely because Japan is such a conformity-driven hiearchical political society, even today, the brave men who took a stand will be remembered for having shown individualistic honor and the courage of conscience in a sadly group-minded world.

Japanese tell a different story

Japanese stories end a chapter before they would end if they were written in English.
A Chikamatsu play ends with the spectacular double-suicide of star-crossed lovers (climactic death/immediate curtain).
There’s no pretense at an explanation/resolution like the feuding-families-finally-make-up ending that comes in “Romeo and Juliet,” the ending that should reassures us of Truth, Progress and hope for Justice.
In Japan, life and art aren’t about Rationalism/Renaissance-style Da Vinci genius.
Beauty Japanese-style is devoid of Reason.
It is so pure and explosive and mad there’s no logic.
This is what is so deep about being Japanese but also what is so frustrating.
Kabuki actor Bando Tamasaburo observes how the ending comes abruptly in “Musume Dojoji.”
The woman turned serpent tells her life story (she is a young maiden, she falls in love, etc.) and suddenly she climbs on top of a giant bell in a sheer horrific rage.
Her story is so absolute, he says.
Why do we need that obligatory explanation about how her revenge toward the man who spurned her will be inevitably punished by a Just God?
Tonight, I saw a movie of the duet-version of that dance by Tamasaburo and Onoe Kikunosuke.
The movie allows stunning close-ups that show the nuances of their facial expressions, as well as of their different, but equally convincing, character interpretations and dance styles, all of which you can’t experience with the stage version.
I was so taken in by the piece, sitting in the dark half-empty theater (instead of the more well-lit, more croweded Kabuki theater) the hogaku music during the closing credits sounded like funk to my ears.
I am proud to be Japanese.