Sunday, July 14, 2013

Shun-kin at Lincoln Center - 春琴抄

At the Lincoln Center Festival, July 2013, I saw Shun-kin, a remarkable Complicité production directed by Simon McBurney. Presented by a Japanese cast in Japanese (with English supertitle), this is a stage adaptation of a story by Tanizaki Jun’ichiro, a strained love between a beautiful woman, blinded in childhood and turning mean, who cruelly treats her man-servant who passionately adores her and blinds himself by piercing a needle into his eyes to assure her that he shall not see her face after it got a severe burn from boiling water thrown by another mistreated admirer.

It is an understatement to say that the production was phenomenal -- beautiful, dramatic, and deeply touching, adopting freely the conventions of Noh, Kabuki and the Bunraku puppet theater. It was noteworthy on four levels. First of all, the narrative structure is a bewildering but clearly articulated nest of boxes, involving several narrators -- the anonymous narrator ("I" in the novel), the author who appears on the stage writing and also interacting with the stage characters, the reader for the radio presentation of the novel, the man-servant Sasuke reminiscing in old age but also when younger between acting the character.  Secondly, the complexity is multiplied by having one stage character represented by more than one performer; Sasuke at different stages of life was performed by three actors; and also Shun-kin -- first as a puppet, then by an actress with a mask maneuvered by puppeteers and then only with a makeup and acting on her own, and finally by one of the puppeteers representing her true self laid bare. Thirdly, the simple props of 6-foot poles serving as a garden gate, sliding screen, the instrument samisen, tree branches, the stupa, etc., was effective, setting the visual world revealed only as a partial experience as by a blind, especially with the stage very somber and only spot-illuminated only when appropriate, again suggesting the blind's tightly focused locus of attention. The pole was also used for snapping the floor for sound effect, Kabuki-style, in the scenes of violence, as when Shun-kin strikes Sasuke. Fourth, the production recreated the effect of the subtle aesthetics of the sadomasochistic eroticism that the writer Tanizaki explored and captured in his elegant prose.

All these effects owe largely to the insightful direction of Simon McBurney (of the Complicité).  I have known his work from earlier on: The Street of Crocodiles, The Elephant Vanishes, and A Disappearing Number; he has a commanding grasp of the artificial nature of theater.  Honjoh Hidetaro contributed the samisen music which he also performed as the music master; the Setagaya Public Theater was the co-producer.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Seeing - 見るという事

My all-time top favorite title given a book is by far and without question Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees by Lawrence Weschler, a 1982 book (now expanded) on the contemporary artist Robert Irwin, an excellent book on its own right, which is inspired and inspiring in its unforgettable title that states a far-reaching and profound truth that everyone with eyes to see should learn and cherish.

書物につけられた題名で、あたしの好きな 空前最高のものは[見るとは,見るものの名称を忘れる事」で,これは1982年発行の,現代美術家ロバートアーウィンを論じた,ローレンス ウェシュラーの著作、それ自身優れた本ですけど、その啓示的な、印象深い題が伝える所は,深遠共に遠大な真理で,見る目を持つすべての人が学び、心に抱いて欲しいものです。

Friday, July 5, 2013


Liberal Arts, codified as the basis of intellectual education in the Middle Ages, brought together two groups of subjects for learning: the Quadrivium and the Trivium.  These became the basis of the Liberal Arts education.

The Trivium had to do with verbal proficiency: Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric. Logic taught how to process ideas clearly. Grammar taught how to combine words precisely; Rhetoric taught how to communicate persuasively.  The Trivium was necessary for effective communication; these subjects taught how to talk well. They educate Sophists, as Plato said.  The Swarthmore education excels in this.

The Trivium does not teach to cultivate the intellectual substance that makes communication worth the effort. This was the realm of the Quadrivium.

The Quadrivium consisted of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music.  They all have to do with mathematics.  The names are misleading.  Arithmetic must be understood as the study of number, geometry of number in space, music of number in time, and astronomy of number in space and time.  The Quadrivium, in short, had to do with metaphysical thinking, and was thought to form the basis of philosophy.

Mathematical thinking is the core of the Liberal Arts Education and belongs more in the realm of humanities than in that of science.  We all know that but forget it too easily in the modern world, especially in modern college educatiion, in which verbal skill is overemphasized and too often mistaken for intellectual learning.


Hate feels righteous while it lasts but in the end one who harbors it feels terrible and finds it hardly worth the ulcers it causes. The sooner one learns this simple truth, the happier she or he will be.

Straight Gaze - 直視

In the West, at least in the contemporary Western society that I know firsthand, two people in conversation face each other and look straight into each other’s eyes as they talk.  The straight gaze promises and assures interaction.  The averted gaze suggests inattention, if not evasion, and raises suspicion.  In Japanese convention, even today, the averted glance is understood as common courtesy. Looking straight into the eyes of the person you are talking to, is seen as aggressive and confrontational; to avoid this impression, one looks slightly off the center so that the eyes don’t quite meet.  Meeting a superior, one is expected to keep the eyes low.  Only momentarily upon first meeting, one may look into the eyes of the other person in recognition but then immediately bow the head in greeting. Early visitors in Japan felt the averted gaze as demure in women, insincere in men, and definitely underhanded in business transactions.  In general, Japanese don’t use eyes for expressiveness. They don’t roll up their eyes; a sideways glance is seen as too stealthy; a glare is stagy; goggling is vulgar.  They frown but without squinching up the face.  In fact, Japanese vowels are pronounced with minimal reshaping of the mouth -- no gaping, no pouting, no pulling flat.  Japanese facial expressions are naturally placid. Inscrutable, indeed.