Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Hollow Fires

The sound of dried plants and drier voices greets us, nothing but wind and the slow jerky movements of creatures that where once . Watching the scene unfold, I cannot help to think of the first section of TS Eliot’s "The Hollowed Men": "We are the hollow men ... Our dried voices, when / We whisper together / Are quiet and meaningless / As the wind in dry grass / Or rats’ feet over broken glass".
Kon Ichikawa's Fire on the Plains, part of the ongoing Shadows of the Rising Sun film series, takes place during the last throws of the Japanese Imperial Army's hold on the unforgiving landscape of the Philippine island of Leyte in February 1945. We follow Private Tamura, a sunken-eyed, tubercular straggler; his army of walking skeletons with tattered clothes barely fitting their wasting frames; and other unfortunate beings Tarumua meets while traveling.

There is nothing triumphant or sentimentality patriotic in their situation--only the silent battlefield where triumphs and defeats mean equally nothing. The slow procession of the walking dead mirrors their agonizing craving for the nectar of life, but they merely suffer the eternal starvation brought on by their own barbaric, hollow and feeble attempts at glory. Their voices and gestures are as nonsensical as the wind through the dead grass. They are stuffed with hollow shadows of their former self. Again, they are Eliot's  hollow men on the hollow plains:
Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;
Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
Remember us-if at all-not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men
Shadows of the Rising Sun continues tonight with Caterpillar, and Devils on the Doorstep and
Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence on Sunday, December. Tickets are $12 for general admission and $9 for Japan Society memebers, students & seniors.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Falls The Shadow

There is a scroll hanging in Japan Society’s Gallery for The Sound of One Hand called Nin. It is a simple calligraphic painting showcasing Hakuin's quick, fluid kanji stokes. In the middle is the distinct yet abstract impression of a person sitting in contemplation. The wall text simply gives the name of the scroll, its date of completion, and the translation: “Become the Master of your own Heart, and do not let it master you.”

This scroll has had profound meaning for and impact on me and the events around me, and I hasten to add that it goes perfectly with Japan Society's ongoing film series Zen & Its Opposite: Essential (&Turbulent) Japanese Art House, which explores the frailty of the human condition and the monstrosity that can manifest within our own hearts. The image also sings true for the latest film series Shadows of the Rising Sun: Cinema and Empire opening today through Sunday at Japan Society.

'Shadows' encompasses the full manifestation of a unmastered heart. Set in the particularly heinous Pacific campaign of World War II and told by keen eyes of filmmakers from Japan and China, the four films collide with Japan’s ambition for Empire and the harrowing descent. The films are not pretty, there is no honor, and no glory but madness. They show the truth of war, a particularly prickly subject to talk about and properly envision on film.

The four featured films are Kon Ichikawa’s Fire on the Plains (1959), Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983),  Jiang Wen’s Devils on the Doorstep (2000), and the New York premiere of  Koji Wakamatsu’s Caterpillar (2010). Each film demonstrates the consequences of untamed ideals loose in an unforgiving world.  Some use dark humor, others use the bare and broken flesh as their medium, and others use the Greek tragedy formula to express when humanity falls into a shadow realm. Issues are dealt with utmost honesty, care and courtesy to all parties in these stories.

A resounding collection of anti-war war films, I'm reminded of the song "Our Solemn Hour" from the band Within Temptation and leave with the words:
Are they themselves to blame, the misery, the pain?
Didn't we let go, allowed it, let it grow?
If we can't restrain the beast which dwells inside
it will find it's way somehow, somewhere in time
Will we remember all of the suffering
Cause if we fail it will be in vain

Friday, December 3, 2010

Carnegie Hall's Passport To Japan

Seiji Ozawa infuses New York with Japan.

Everyone knows how to get to Carnegie Hall (practice!), but who knew once you got there it would be a trip around the world!

A true New York institution, Carnegie Hall is what people think of when they dream of the world's finest Western classical music and its best performers. Carnegie Hall has also taken on the role of cultural ambassador, presenting stimulating series of world music. Last year they gave us the inspired Ancient Path, Modern Voices Chinese series, and this year they've outdone themselves with a staggering feast of Japanese culture.

JapanNYC is a citywide festival that "explores the Japan of today, where newfound artistic sensibilities continue to transform and revitalize the cultural landscape." The festival features some 65 Japan-related events, including several Carnegie Hall produced concerts featuring world renowned artists, traditional and new Japanese theater, manga workshops, film, butoh dance, pop art exhibitions, and a variety of music genres.

Sprawling from December through April, JapanNYC was spirited by the legendary conductor Seiji Ozawa, who conducts two main event concerts with Japanese ensembles he has established. On December 14, he officially launches the festival with the Saito Kinen Orchestra. The program features a U.S. premiere co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall from composer Gondai Atsuhiko, Mitsuko Uchida  performing Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3, and what is sure to be a luscious performance of Brahm's first (there will be an encore performances of this program on December 15 and 18). Maestro Ozawa delivers another cornerstone concert in the second half of the festival March-April with a rare overseas appearances by the Seiji Ozawa Ongaku-juku.

Honored to be part of the festival, Japan Society's contributions include the classic Zen painting exhibit The Sound of One Hand (through January 9), the contemporary Japanese visual art show Bye Bye Kitty!!!  (opens March 18), and rare performances of ancient noh and kyogen theater (March 24-26.

While the full schedule is wonderfully overwhelming, December highlights, in addition to those mentioned above, include:

Takemitsu Film Festival – A 14 Day film fest showing films that were scored by famed Japanese composer, Toru Takemitsu presented by Film Forum. Begins December 3.

Calligraphy and Manga Education Events – The New York Public Library hosts teen manga-drawing workshops with Misako Rocks. December 9, 16.

Peter and the WolfGuggenheim Museum presents contemporary performance of the famous Russian tale featuring an installation inspired by contemporary Japanese anime and features a newly commissioned visual concept by Japanese artist Rei Sato. December 11, 12, 17, 18.

Winds and Strings of Change: Glories of the Japanese Traditional Music Heritage – Another tribute to Toru Takemitsu featuring the use of traditional Japanese instruments such as the Biwa, the Shakuhachi and the Koto presented at the Miller Theater. December 16.

A Tribute to Toru Takemitsu – Held at Zankel Hall, this performance will feature some improvisations on Takemitsu’s film scores. December 17.

Yoshitomo Nara: Nobody’s FoolAsia Society's acclaimed exhibit featuring tons of work one of the world’s most cutting edge artists. Through January 2.

On Becoming an Artist: Isamu Noguchi and his Contemporaries, 1922–1960The Noguchi Museum  highlights the relationship between famed Japanese landscape artist Isamu Noguchi to other artists during his time period. Through April 24.

T.D., S.J.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Japan & Korea: Decades Of Geopolitical Musical Chairs

This is not the sound of silence. Via.

Up and down--one chair pulled and the music continues. The players are Japan and South Korea, playing for decades in an international arena with their neighbor who has had an amazing growth spurt, China, and their cantankerous cousin North Korea. The music is the never ending (and often dissonant) song of diplomacy.

If we chronicle Japan and Korea’s quandary from 1990s to the present, it has been a continuing game of musical chairs. 720 miles apart, Seoul and Tokyo have faced economic strife and regional security detriments. Although many of the crises were similar, the two countries chose different paths with different geopolitical and domestic consequences.  

South Korea, historical and regionally, has always been at the mercies of their neighbors and the international community. Currently they are rekindling their relationship with the U.S. and cooling to China since the sinking of the South Korean Cheonan. They faced many of the same economic, political and demographic problems Japan now faces. They made strong and bold reforms, created a robust economy, strengthened a vigorous and interactive democracy—all to enhance their geopolitical weight so they are no longer at the mercies of the world. Yet despite these accomplishments, they remain at an impasse with North Korea, where things have heated up of late.

Japan’s game change happened in 2009, when the Democratic Party of Japan defeated the more conservative Liberal Democratic Party, ending the latter's near unbroken rule since World War II. This was celebrated as a major step in Japan’s democratic system, but has so far created risks in every level of Japanese life: political, bureaucratic, economic and public. The situation now threatens the efforts of Japanese leaders and their allies to promote economic recovery and ensure stability in the region.

On December 8, Japan Society welcomes Harvard University Kennedy School of Government’s William Overholt to lead the hard-hitting discussion Japan & Korea: Domestic Reform & Geopolitical Shifts. Overholt is a one-time investment banker who has become a prominent Asian policy expert over the last few decades, planning studies at one time for the U.S. Department of Defense, Department of State, National Security Council, and Council on International Economic Policy, as well as penning six books (most recently Asia, America and the Transformation of Geopolitics).

In the discussion, Overholt poses the question: can Japan revive without crisis amidst unstable internal power structures and with such alarming international security issues unfolding in East Asia? He also addresses Japan's importance for Asia and South Korea’s management of a deteriorating North Korea.

The lively and timely discussion is presided by Robert Fallon, a professor at Columbia Business School, who also serves on the boards of Japan Society and Korea Society. Chairs will be provided, and the music has already begun to play.


Monday, November 29, 2010

Dance Duo Bends Beyond Butoh, Makes Movement For Everybody

"You connect to their world not by watching, but by imagining that you are living inside their bodies."

Percussion pounds in the distance as identical, scantily clad figures with snow white faces move together through time in a slow, fluid motion—an odd combination of spiritual ritual and martial art. The slowness is gripping, the stillness is suffocating, and a sense of awe emerges from the twisting and tangling of limbs and faces.

Butoh, Japan's inimitable form of modern dance was founded in the post war period by Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno. Hijikata felt dance in Japan following World War II was merely a copy of Western dance and wanted to create a form uniquely Japanese. A sense of rebellion permeated butoh performances, which emerged from a backdrop of student riots and protests. The movements were incredibly raw, as though animal instinct and sexual desire governed the dancers. This was intentional, as Hijikata and Ohno sought to tackle taboo ideas regarding human sexuality and challenge authority by showcasing the human body’s untamed movements. 

Two contemporary artists who tamed the untamed are the legendary husband and wife choreography/dance team Eiko and Koma. Though they met at Hijikata's studio in 1971 and studied with Ohno, they don't consider their dance butoh out of respect to the masters. Nonetheless the influence manifests itself in their style. In her fantastic recent New York Times profile of the "king and queen of slow", Gia Kourlas describes Eiko and Koma's movement:
While the moving-painting quality of their choreography is profoundly arresting, both theatrically and visually — they find the beauty in ugly — there is another layer that gets to the essence of nature. You connect to their world not by watching, but by imagining that you are living inside their bodies.
Japan Society, which debuted Eiko and Koma in 1976 and has presented them many times to great acclaim, hosts Eiko & Koma: Delicious Movement Workshop. The venerable duo hopes that anyone who takes their workshop—no matter what level of dance experience—find a renewed sense of focus and coordination, as well as take a primal pleasure in the simple act of moving one’s body.

The one-day workshop is held on December 4. Tickets are $40 or $32 for Japan Society members.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Kids: Sumi For A Sunny Sunday

Beware the sumi-e dragons! Via.

There is an ancient story that a monk was working on a sumi-e painting of dragons. When he finished his painting, he went to the head monk to seek his approval. The head monk was very pleased with the young artist’s work but asked why there were no pupils in the dragons' eyes. The young artist shyly looked down and expressed that if he added pupils he feared the dragons would come alive. The head monk scoffed and asked him to put pupils in the dragons' eyes to prove he was wrong. The young monk walked over, lightly dipped his brush in the ink and placed the pupils in the two dragons' eyes. Once he finished and moved away from the paper, the two dragons blinked their eyes, slowly rose out of the paper and with one swift movement flew away. The head monk looked on astonished and then understood why the young monk was reluctant of placing the pupils in the dragon’s eyes. He did not just draw dragons but he captured their essence.

In Composition Arthur Wesley Dow describes the nature of sumi-e painting:
the painter…put upon the paper the fewest possible lines and tones; just enough to cause form, texture and effect to be felt. Every brush-touch must be full-charged with meaning, and useless detail eliminated. Put together all the good points in such a method and you have the qualities of the highest art...
A gorgeous description for adults but one wonders how this expression of sumi-e painting can mix with kids. Gather around and I will tell you sumi-e ink painting is very easy and fun for children. First off, the tools are only ink, a brush and a piece of paper. Secondly, the process is not painstaking reproduction of the subject, but rather a brisk and concentrated capturing of its essence.
Thirdly, sumi-e paintings have made their mark in contemporary culture through the Playstation 2 and Wii consules video game called Okami.  The action-adventure game allows the player to control the main character in an interactive storyline, accomplished through the unconventional use of animated sumi-e illustration with other traditional Japanese art forms. 

On November 21 Japan Society’s Education Program hosts Art Cart:  Sumi Ink Painting.  Led by a  Japan Society educator and artist Linda Malhauser, a member of the National Sumi-e Society of America,  children learn basic painting techniques, and create original works of art in reaction to the wonderful art in our current exhibitions, The Sound of One Hand: Paintings and Calligraphy by Zen Master Hakuin , which features an array of kid-friendly figures such as ghosts and demons, dragons, acrobats, dancing mice, and monkeys!

Hakuin's hanging monkey. Via.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Inside Your Zen Side

We think 60,000 thoughts per day, notes photographer Dana Lane. Via.

This season we've brought you Zen through art, food, films, writing, painting, theater, and literature.

Now we're bringing you to Zen.

Japan Society hosts its first-ever meditation workshops, Zen For Everyone, with renowned Buddhist scholar and priest, Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara. Enkyo Roshi currently serves as Co-Spiritual Director of the Zen Peacemaker Family, a spiritual, study and social action association. Her focus is on true self-expression, peacemaking and HIV/AIDS activism. She holds a Ph. D. in Media Ecology and taught Multi-media at my alma mater, New York University for over 20 years.

In three separate workshops on November 21, December 12 and January 8, Enkyo Roshi discusses the spiritual side of Japan Society's Hakuin exhibit, and instructs on proper zazen (sitting meditation) technique. According to Village Zendo, where she teaches, here are several key points to remember:
Whatever position you choose, sitting in a chair, full lotus, half-lotus, Burmese, or kneeling with a cushion or bench, choose a posture you can hold comfortably for 30 minutes.

Once seated, roll your hips slightly forward, allowing your belly to relax and your breath to move freely.

Center your spine by gently swaying from left to right in decreasing arcs.

Push the crown of your head toward the ceiling, straightening and extending your spine. Then relax your shoulders.
We've already discussed  the benefits of meditation in one’s daily life. It’s a great stress reliever, guides practitioners to a higher state of consciousness, and instills a greater sense of focus, which can be applied in any real world situation. But one question remains: how exactly does one truly meditate? Zen for Everyone is destined to enlighten all involved .


Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Diversity In East Asia: The Value Of Women And Foreign Workers

Chickens reframing diversity. Via.

At the just-concluded G20 Summit  in Seoul South Korea, 20 of the most powerful economic countries and unions discussed geo-economically issues. The news focused on the hot button "Currency Wars"   pushing aside other important issues deserving discussion. One of those issues important to many of the world leaders was urging global co-operation. President Obama stated, "no one country can achieve our joint objective of a strong, sustainable, and balance recovery on its own".  World leaders don't want to solely address import, exports and currency; they also want to reframe diversity in the global market.

Major European and American companies have realized that diversity in their markets and employments increase healthy competition. Within the Asian region "BBC Newshour reported that South Korea is a global success because although they honor their roots, they realized the need to diversify their workforce.

Today Japan Society and Asia Society co-host Reframing Diversity Management for a New Global Economy (taking place at Asia Society). The program is twofold, addressing gender equality as outlined by Commission on the Status of Women (sub-commission under the Commission on Human Rights, UN), and the use of using different cultures, languages and values to reforge a the global workforce.

The CSW succinctly states it goal:
to raise the status of women, irrespective of nationality, race, language or religion, to equality with men in all fields of human enterprise, and to eliminate all discrimination against women in the provisions of statutory law, in legal maxims or rules, or in interpretation of customary law
This underscores that women are one of the key agents of change in aspects of life, social, political and economical.  Reportedly there are 6 million more women than men in the world. In that standing we are a pretty affect of change, so global heavy hitters should find it invaluable to have women on the field with them.

The other fold of diversity addressed in the discussion is using the huge cache of knowledge and experience from foreign workers. In 2003 Japan Times stated “It is important for Japan to introduce talented foreign workers in the fields of management, research and technology”, and referenced the METI paper [PDF] that reinforced the notion that Japan needs to think like South Korea and make it easier for foreign workers to live and work in the country. The exchange of ideas would feed innovation and support a better collective standard of living.

Taking on these topics and offering insights, participants in the symposium include: Philip Berry, President of Philip Berry Associates, LLC and Co-Chair of the Corporate Diversity Council for the Asia Society ; Kathryn Komsa, Vice-President, Chief Diversity Officer of Marsh and,McLennan Companies, Inc ; John F. McNulty, Executive Director for People Focus Consulting and Ceo of PFC Asia Pacific; and Moderator  Natsuyo Nobumoto Lipschutz, Managing Principal of ASPIRE Intelligence LLC.


Monday, November 15, 2010

Midnight Moonlight Reads

Look into my… um. Via.

We're still finding empty candy wrappers in hidden corners of Japan Society from our OBAKE! Halloween party, and we've barley recovered from the exquisite psychological turmoil of our Onibaba screening last Friday. With no further frights in sight on the calendar, what better way to start a week than with a list of incredible horror/supernatural/thriller manga and manga-based anime!

I've compiled my 13 top personal favorites,  ranging from delightfully spooky tales to extremely disturbing paranormal lore. There's lots of ways to pick up these titles (libraries, conventions, trading etc.), but a great source to learn more is Anime News Network. Enjoy a good ghoulish read, and I would love to hear about your favorites in the comments! Without further ado and in  no particular order:

Sunday, November 14, 2010

How The West Was Hung: Foreign Representations In Japanese Art

A Russian couple visit Japan in 1861. Via.
The Tokugawa Era in Japan was an extraordinary period in Japanese History, marked by cultural renaissance, prominence of the samurai class and most notably, almost total isolation from contact with the world outside of Japan’s borders. Save for one port at Dejima in modern day Nagasaki prefecture, Japan during this period had extremely limited contact with foreigners, especially those from the West. Then in the mid-19th century, due to the efforts of Admiral Perry, Japan began to open up its borders to people of different nationalities. This ushered in a new era of diplomacy, and unsurprisingly, an influx of foreigners in Japan. Most Japanese people at that point had never seen a foreigner, so this rapid increase of the foreign population in the port city of Yokohama caused Japanese people to reflect on their views of foreigners. One of the ways foreign peoples manifested themselves in the eyes of the Japanese was through art.

The Philidelphia Museum of Art hosts Picturing the West Yokohama Prints 1859–1870s -- an exhibition showcasing Japanese ukiyo-e (floating world portraits) woodblock prints with foreigners as the main subject. When one looks at these paintings, the subjects are not caricatures as one might expect. Rather, one gets the sense that the artists were driven by excitement and curiosity than fear and xenophobia.

Lee Lawrence's excellent profile of the exhibition in The Wall Street Journal discusses the various quirky new technologies and customs that came flooding into Japan all at once, and describes the work of Sadahide, one of the exhibition’s most prominently featured artists:
The map is by Sadahide, in many ways the star of the show. Of the 15 artists featured, he is the best represented and the one who most successfully offers both beauty and information. His vivid and dynamic compositions convey the hustle and bustle of Yokohama's markets and thoroughfares. And his Sales Room in the Foreign Mercantile Firm (1861) accurately introduces Yokohama's cast of characters in two cleverly crafted scenes. On the right, Caucasian and Japanese men conduct business with the help of a pig-tailed Chinese assistant, while one of the Europeans in the foreground is shown writing horizontally. The left half of the print is a more domestic scene—foreign women preparing food and an Indian servant plucking a duck.

Sadahide and other artists variously highlight the novelty of pocket watches, hot-air balloons and horse-drawn carriages, the luxury of large windowpanes and chandeliers, and the oddity of elephants, camels and a woman on horseback.
Often in the field of Japanese studies, there tends to be a lot focused on how Japanese people are represented in the West without seeing it from the other side. Thanks to this exhibition, which closes today, one can get a new perspective on history, art and cultural understanding, like a Japanese fisherman seeing a hot air balloon for the first time.


Image: Russians (A Russian Couple) (Detail), 1861. Utagawa Yoshikazu, Japanese
Color woodcut. Sheet (Öban tate-e): 14 3/8 x 9 5/8 inches (36.5 x 24.4 cm). Purchased with the Lola Downin Peck Fund and with funds contributed by Lessing J. Rosenwald, Mr. and Mrs. Robert A. Hauslohner, Dr. Emanuel Wolff, the Derald and Janet Ruttenberg Foundation, Mrs. Edward G. Budd, Jr., and David P. Willis, 1968.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Beyond The Cult Of Kawaii: Breaking The Otaku Effigy

Kitty-chan looms on Park Avenue... in protest? Photo via

Awareness of Japanese art is diametrically opposed. People tend to either appreciate reverent mediums like ukiyo-e paintings, uki-e, kano, kyoto, nanga, rinpa, tosa, etc., or relish the populist mass media production of anime and manga art. With this edification, what emerges is a culture that is either an idiom of traditionalism or predominantly an expression of a pubescent child that fetishizes the most mundane event as an oblique sexual manifestation masked by cute innocence.

Japan Society has covered the range, with the former represented by the current Hakuin exhibit and recent shows focusing on the art of Kuniyoshi and Zeshin. The latter phenomenon was sumptuously articulated in Japan Society's 2005 exhibition Little Boy: The Arts of Japan's Exploding Subculture  curated by Takashi Murakami.

Well, Japan Society is about to inject a new piece to the proverbial puzzle of Japanese art.

Opening spring 2012, Bye Bye Kitty!!! Between Heaven and Hell in Contemporary Japanese Art is a deliciously titled exhibit that goes far beyond stereotypes of the latest Japanese art and ideas. Curated by David Elliott, founding Director of Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum and hot off the 17th Biennale of Sydney, the show features 16 emerging and mid-career artists whose paintings, objects, photographs, videos, and installations meld traditional styles with challenging visions of Japan’s troubled present and uncertain future.

Japan Society Gallery Director Joe Earle notes the exhibit "celebrates the 'beyond cute' generation, introducing a group of younger artists whose work marks a clean break from the kawaii orthodoxy of the last decade. The show will offer a feast for the senses, demolishing preconceptions about contemporary Japan."

Why are we talking about this now, when there is plenty of time to catch the current exhibits The Sound of One Hand and oxherding? Joe Earle gives a sneak peek of Bye Bye Kitty!!! on November 16 at FIT’s Katie Murphy Amphitheatre. The lecture is part of an amazing range of programming concerning contemporary Japanese culture in conjunction with FIT’s exhibition Japan Fashion Now. Admission is FREE, though a reservation is required. Hope you can stop by and hope you are ready to get beyond cute!


Thursday, November 11, 2010

Max Gimblett: The Pop Artist Of Sumi Painting

From Max Gimblett: The Language of Drawing.

Max Gimblett, a bespectacled, mild mannered New Zealander, walks over to his drawers of Asian paint brushes, lifts one and gently places it back into its resting place. He is in no hurry, and simply picks brushes up one by one, feels them and, it seems, silently communes with them. Once he has found the right one--a long instrument, with a careworn wooden handle and a  bulbous head--he walks over to his workbench, places a stark white sheet of handmade paper down and looks at it for a moment. With a sharp cry and one furious and fluid movement, he forms a perfectly imperfect black "O", ink splattering a wonderfully concise counterpoint design across the page. The act itself is what he calls "Poetics with meaning" ex nihilo. If you look closely there is a smile—not of satisfaction as one might imagine would follow such a masterful stroke, but a smile of clarity and peace.     

When Gimblett was interviewed for Japan Society's Nihon New York video series during the opening of his oxherding exhibit (running in conjunction with the Sound of One Hand Hakuin show), he laughed when he recalled, "Thomas McCelvey wrote if I had got to New York ten years earlier, ten years younger, I probably would have been a pop artist."

Well I am sorry to be contradictory to a master painter, draftsman and Rinzai lay monk, but Max Gimblett: you are the pop artist of the sumi ink painting world.

Think about the powerful, deceptively simple and accessible contemporary translation Gimblett achieves with oxherding, or the fusion of Western and Eastern thoughts, philosophies, desires and symbols. He takes these things out of context, isolates them, remixes them, and creates something completely new but steeped in the familiar for the individual to contemplate and enjoy. That is pop art in my book.

What can be affecting and transforming for the viewer can have a similar effect on the artist. When asked about how creating the oxherding paintings affected his life, personally and artistically, Gimblett recalls a time when he was stuck. He remembers telling one of his teachers that he was having trouble with drawing the later parables of the "Ten Ox Herding Pictures". Her response was "Anybody in their body will have trouble with seven through ten. They are not meant to be experienced alive. Act on good faith, and [when] you have done the first six, just proceed. Don’t expect to know the results."

That is what he exactly Gimblett achieves and welcomes the viewer to do the same. The point is not to know but to understand. In Gimblett’s words "You empty the mind and you have no mental activity. You operate out of your body, in the space, in relation to your soul where you are poetic and soulful…HRUMP! And you let it come."

Geared for painters of all levels, Gimblett offers three sumi painting workshops at Japan Society  November 13 [UPDATE: Sold Out], December 18, and January 9. The workshops begin with an exhibition talk and feature a studio session using traditional handmade paper, sumi ink and Asian brushes. The cost is $65/$60 Japan Society members, seniors & students and includes all materials.


Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Limbus Limbo: How Low Can You Go

We are greeted by swiftly swaying reeds, a deep pit and silence. No sounds comes out but clearly words are printed across the screen:

Deep & Dark, Its darkness has lasted since the ancient times, Onibaba

Onibaba is a film set in 16th century Japan. With the land ravaged by war and famine, men and boys are taken from the fields to be pawns in the chess game of the elite--clan against clan, neighbor against neighbor, brother against brother. Those left behind must fend for themselves against the beasts that conspire to wipe them from their small existences.

Two women cling to each other and solemnly decide to live the unscrupulous life of marauders, taking the valuables from wandering samurai. Surrounded by wilderness they pillage corpses and throw them into a pit. They have been alone for years, waiting patiently for their loved ones to return and end their hell. But only their boorish neighbor returns, setting into motion conflicts between their most primal desires and their bleak reality.

Onibaba is a cinematic masterpiece that is intensely erotic but steeped in the Buddhist mythology. Part of Japan Society Zen & Its Opposite series, Onibaba represents one of the paths of the "Six Paths of Existences", the Realm of the Animals. In this realm, you are a servant to your desires and instincts. You have no sense of morality and you have a devil-may-care attitude about life and people. If that sounds like nihilism, Onibaba goes far beyond and pierces deep into the human  psyche.

The film is an exploration of Sigmund Freud’s concept of das Es--literally "the It" but better known as the Id.  Freud stated in his study of "The Interpretation of Dreams (1900s)", later republished in Modernism: An Anthology of Sources and Documents:
It is the dark, inaccessible part of our personality, what little we know we have learnt from our study of the dream-work and of the construction of neurotic symptoms, and most of this is of a negative character and can be described only as a contrast the ego. We all approach the id with analogies; we call it a chaos, a cauldron full of seething excitations. It’s filled with energy reaching it from instincts, but has no organization, produces, no collective will, but only a striving to bring about the satisfaction of the instinctual needs subject to the observance of the pleasure principle.
The Id is in control of Onibaba's three main characters; their daily existence is governed by finding life's 'pleasures' (shelter, food, water, sexual gratification) and extinguishing anything that gets in the way of attaining them. In wonderfully intoxicating, 60s Japanese cinematic form, Onibaba exemplifies how the Id can dehumanize us to mere beasts and keep up from attaining our ideal life--a valuable lesson for the world's weary wanderers.

Onibaba screens at Japan Society Friday, November 12. Tickets are $12 general admission, and $9 for Japan Society members, students and seniors. You can read more about Onibaba in The Wall Street Journal's recent article "Haunting Films of Japan" or check out the Criterion Collection DVD.


Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Japan's Shifting Generations, The World's Shifting Wealth

Reuters: Japan expects over 1/4 of citizenry to be 65+ by 2015. Via and via.

From Japan's lost generation to their estimated 41,000 centenarians, age disparity profoundly affects Japanese society, culture and economy.

Traditionally, Japanese people who graduated from university would generally be hired by a company and stay there until they had to retire. Stability has always taken precedent over upward mobility. With current changing global economic and social trends, the individual is beginning to take more responsibility for his/her financial future by resorting to new online brokerage accounts and non-traditional investment vehicles. This is coupled with the rapid retirement of the baby boomer generation who are in need of asset management services to help them for their remaining years.

The old vs. new debate is as relevant as ever, especially for financial professionals and the general investing population when considering Japan, one of the world’s largest economies and consumer societies. In Japan Society's Wealth Managers Grapple with Japan's Shifting Generations, experts discuss major shifts in Japanese wealth management, how participants around the world are affected, and examine a host of financial planning implications for current and future Japanese retirees.

The panel includes  Monex Group President and CEO Oki Matsumoto; Alicia Ogawa from Columbia University's  School of International and Public Affairs; and Walter Altherr, executive director of equity research at Mizuho Securities USA. Moderated by Reuters' Anchor Fred Katayama, the discussion takes place Wednesday, November 10.


Monday, November 8, 2010

Katana To Kitchen Knife: The Samurai Origins Of Japan's Unparalleled Cutlery

Japanese knives: cuts above the rest. Via.

The Japanese sword, or katana, was considered an inseparable accessory of the samurai warrior class. Today the sword is almost never used for its intended purpose, but the design and composition that made samurai’s katana so feared on the battlefield is now being used to give chefs extremely high quality knives in kitchens across the world.

Why the shift from katana to kitchen knife? According to the professionals at New York's Gohan Society, after World War II General MacArthur banned Japanese sword making, forcing the skilled artisans who had honed this craft for centuries to look towards the world of professional cooking for clientele. Japanese cuisine is often marked by clean flavors and preciosity. The sword makers sought to elevate their craft to help Japanese chefs achieve an extraordinary level in their cooking. Their work has paid off as Japanese knives and Japanese cuisine are highly regarded across the world.

On November 9, Japan Society partners with the Gohan Society to host Chef Says: Japanese Knives are the BEST, in which James Beard Award-winning chef and avid collector of Japanese knives, Michael Romano discusses his love for Japanese cutlery. Romano, from the multiple award-winning Union Square Café in New York City and Tokyo (check out his great essay "Diary of an American Chef in Tokyo"), advocates Japanese knives for their strength, durability and sharpness. He also talks about how Japanese cuisine has influenced his own cooking style and how that influence is currently reflected by his restaurant’s menu where there are a number of selections tailored for the Japanese palette.

The discussion at 6:30 pm, and concludes with a knife-sharpening demonstration and reception. Tickets are $12 for the general public and $8 for Japan Society members, seniors, and students.


Friday, November 5, 2010

You Better Workshops: Manga & Anime In The Classroom + Some Hakuin Help

Manga and anime can color classroom doldrums. Via.

The influence of anime and manga (Japanese animated films and comic books respectively) in America has grown beyond its cult status of the last decades of the 20th century. Anime conventions in the U.S.  draw thousands of participants rocking out in costume and taking part in readings, demos, panels, collecting, workshops and screenings. Major chain book retailers like Borders and Barnes & Noble have shelves of manga, and our traditional comic book stores are filled to the brim with Japanese imports.The rise of manga and anime as entertainment in the U.S. is ever growing, but there’s another area where it increasingly brings people together and makes a difference:

The classroom.

When I attended Japanese high school, the only manga I saw in class was sneakily hidden behind my friend’s textbooks during the occasional boring lesson. These days manga serves as a teaching tool to provide a fun and interactive way to expose American students to art, social sciences and foreign culture.

"For teachers of Japanese Studies, Asian Studies, or any kind of diversity studies, the rising popularity of anime and manga among young North Americans seems an opportunity too good to miss," writes Toni Levi, in her excellent essay "Anime & Manga: It's Not All Make-Believe"  at our About Japan teachers website. Levi discusses introducing the material to students:
There are basically three ways to approach anime and manga in the classroom: 1) to focus on the content using approaches drawn from the social sciences, 2) to focus on the content using analytical methods drawn from literary and dramatic criticism, and 3) to focus on the anime or manga as a cultural document in its own right. Each of these has something different to offer and all in all, this is a great way to bring exciting, entertaining, and culturally relevant works into the American classroom.
Various manga and anime have Japanese cultural references that can enlighten American children about foreign customs. For example, the classic Hayao Miyazaki children’s film, My Neighbor Totoro has a scene where the father takes a bath at night with his two children illustrating the importance of bath culture in Japan. Much manga and anime contains great coming-of-age stories suitable for young adults or teenagers. English teachers may like to know that there are also many references to old forms of Japanese storytelling such as kamishibai, bunraku and kabuki, whose influence is clearly seen in modern works literature.

On November 8 & 10, the Japan Society Education Program  presents the two-session workshop What’s With Japanese Comics?: Bringing Manga Into the Classroom, introducing educators to the art of manga and anime and how to utilize them as powerful teaching tools.

The November 8 session features Brian Camp, Programming Manager for CUNY TV and co-author of Anime Classics Zettai! 100 Must-See Japanese Animation Masterpieces. He introduces seminal works and themes as well as Japanese concepts of storytelling with special attention to popular animated cartoon shows that have sprung from manga. He'll discuss sources of manga’s appeal to American readers today, showing how trends in the comic book genre in the U.S. from the 60s-90s reflects what's happening today with manga, using the recent explosion of shoujo (girls’) manga as an example.

November 10 features artist and professional mangaka (comic book illustrator) Hiroki Otsuaka, who created the original manga Samurai Beam for our spring 2010 Kuniyoshi exhibit. Otsuka introduces manga from the creative side, and shows participants how to turn themselves into a manga character and create a manga-esque storyline from their life.

Because the classics are as valuable as modern fare to inspire learning, the Education Program recently wrapped up a sister-workshop called Integrating Art and Social Studies Using Paintings by Zen Master Hakuin, showing how Hakuin's lessons towards enlightenment can enrich a child’s educational experience. K-12 educators took a guided tour of The Sound of One Hand: Paintings and Calligraphy by Zen Master Hakuin and collaborated to create teaching ideas and materials to bring back to their classrooms.

According to Education Program staff, the workshop cleared up a number of misconceptions about Zen (a Google search for “zen” brings up an insane amount confusion), outlining three basic characteristics: the master/disciple relationship; opposition to the use of idols; and meditation on koans, "verbal paradoxes with no answers aimed at encouraging unorthodox approaches to self-reflection by the Zen believer," according to presenter Frank Felten. They discussed the simple formula of the "3 Hakuins": the playful Hakuin + the serious Hakuin = Hakuin the Zen monk, and Felton outlined Hakuin's major themes:
Hakuin chose themes that were in some way or another directly related to himself.  Supreme deities (Kannon/Avalokitesvara), sages that he admired or that interested him (Hotei, Yen t’ou), everyday objects as an important part of religious practice, elements of folk belief that he was accustomed to and that he considered an important part in life, calligraphy.
Concluding the workshop, Linda Mulhauser led a sumi ink painting lesson, where participants had a lot of fun working the brush and discovering that bamboo looks deceptively simple to paint. We're lucky to have Linda return November 21, to lead a sumi ink painting workshop for children ages 8-12.


Shifting Shades of Gray

Raise your hand if you think global cooperation is the future of int'l policy! Via.

Life is not black and white, and the international arena can be one of the biggest planes of shifting shades of gray imaginable. In an age of great interconnection and even greater competitiveness, foreign policy is in a constant state of re-correction to avoid massive global disaster.

Lately grumblings have risen in Northeast Asia (China, Japan, the Koreas), where relations have continued to rock and roll after World War II. There have been constant shifts in the region’s political parities, rising tides of economic stagnation, and lately aggression between the region and the allied U.S.

When thinking of Japan specifically, there have been territorial altercations with China in regards to jurisdiction over the disputed land and seaways, lack of consistent leadership, foreign policy that does not agree with the domestic situation, and the controversial presence of U.S. military and its unknown future .

All of these challenges have affected Japan’s attempts to re-establish its position in East Asia, and even upset the very core of the U.S.-Japan relationship. Only 50 years after the seminal security alliance brought our nations together, some wonder if the pact can stay in tact these days.

On November 8, Japan Society and Asia Society gather top Japan and East Asia experts for Twists & Turns in Japanese Politics: Implications for Japan, the U.S & the Region to discuss these issues and more.

Tobias Harris shares his sharp, inside acumen as seen on his site Observing Japan or his blog for Newsweek Japan

Jun Saito from Yale's Department of Political Science breaks down the impacts of Japan’s recent elections and the rise of Prime Minster Naoto Kan (hear him discuss Japan's domestic politics with us back in May).

Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan Studies at the Council of Foreign Relations, takes up the sensitive subject of the U.S.-Japan relations on security and defense, including the issues of military instillations on Futenma and the continuing dispute of Senkaku Island.

Yinan He from Seton Hall University's John C, Whitehead School of Diplomacy reveals the recent politic fluxes in the Asian perspective.

Finally, Edward Lincoln, director of the Center for Japan-U.S. Business and Economic Studies at New York University's Stern School of Business moderates  the discussion. (Lincoln was here in May to discuss 150 Years of U.S.-Japan relations and collaboration: full recap here.)

Expect a lively, illuminating and impacting discussion of the global ramifications of Japan's current politics and policies!


Thursday, October 28, 2010

No Brands Land

Across the world there are growing movements advocating that companies do more to encourage sustainability, waste reduction and recycling in order to rein in their environmental impact on our world. In Japan, the Kabushiki-gaisha Ryōhin Keikaku has been doing just that for 30 years. Americans and non-Japanese would probably recognize this company by a much more compact name: MUJI.

MUJI, meaning “no brand” in Japanese, was started in 1980 as an offshoot of the Japanese supermarket chain Seiyu and focuses on producing cheap, high quality goods for the average middle-class family. It achieves this by streamlining its manufacturing process, minimizing packaging and making use of various sustainable processes such as "using recycled cardboard in many of its products, using unbleached cotton and practicing sustainable forestry."

Currently, all of MUJI’s U.S. stores are located in New York New York City, including one branch at MoMA and one at JFK airport. MUJI’s sustainable practices and unique "no frills" way of doing business have gotten considerable press attention including The New York Times, Time Out New York, and the TAXI design network.

Japan Society hosts the discussion America Meets MUJI  November 3 (currently SOLD OUT), featuring three internationally acclaimed designers from the Muji Corporation, Naoto Fukasawa, Kenya Hara and John Maeda, who discuss the concepts behind the creation, design and essence of MUJI. Fukasawa is a product designer who has won countless awards for his work designing products for MUJI as well as companies across the globe. Hara is a graphic designer and was the brains behind the spectacular opening and closing ceremonies at the Nagano Winter Olympics. Maeda is a Seattle native known for his philosophy of humanizing technology. He is a world-renowned designer, served as associate director of research at the MIT Media Lab, and was named by Esquire magazine as one of the 21st century’s 75 most influential people.

Celebrating the 30th anniversary of the store, the discussion is followed by a signing of the newly released coffee table book MUJI that gives an intricate look at MUJI’s rise and the inner workings of the company--a fascinating read for anyone interested in sustainable business practices.

Some describe MUJI as the Japanese IKEA, but perhaps its best described by a quote from the book (reviewed recently in The Times), "Muji exists in a category all on its own."
America Meets MUJI is just one of several Japan Society events focusing on smart design.On November 2, The Design Difference looks at sustainability in architecture and shares lessons from Tokyo on how to build better city housing projects, and Chef Says: Japanese Knives are the BEST  looks at the samurai origins and global appeal of Japan's incredibly durable cutlery.


Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Movie Too Insane To Resist

Welcome to our Hausu… if you dare. Via.
Imagine if Beetlejuice, the classic Alice in Wonderland, Evil Dead II and the Terry Gilliam cartoons from "Monty Python’s Flying Circus" collectively decided to conceive a child with Japan as surrogate mother. The freakish, hybrid spawn would be a film alternately frightening, funny, absolutely bewildering… but never boring.

The movie in question is the 1977 self-described (and purely Japanese born) "fantasy horror" film Hausu--House as it's called in America. The plot is surprisingly simple. Annoyed that her father plans to bring his new fiancée on their yearly family vacation, Oshare (which can be translated as "fashionable" or "gorgeous") decides to abandon the trip and takes seven of her friends to her aunt’s house. The aunt, unbeknownst to the group, is actually an evil spirit who feasts on young girls. The spirit possesses Oshare and begins to hunt the women.

At its foundation House sounds no different than countless unsuspecting-teenagers-meet-gruesome deaths-at-the-hands-of-an-evil-antagonist horror flicks. Where House differs from typical slasher fare is its use of over-the-top surrealist imagery: killer lampshades, blood-spewing cat wallpaper, nefarious floating heads and man-eating pianos—all splayed against 70s retro, psychedelic animation that enchants just as much as it horrifies. Janus Film's trailer alone is a work of art:

"A fear too beautiful to resist!"

Nobuhiko Obayashi made his film directorial debut with House after a celebrated run in television commercials (remember those Charles Bronson MANDOM ads?), and in 2009 was awarded the prestigious Order of the Rising Sun by the Japanese government for his stellar career in the entertainment industry.

House was success in Japan during the 70s (though never a "Jaws-size success" notes Chuck Stephens in his great essay "House: The Handmaindens"). The film has only recently gained the cult status it deserves in the U.S., thanks in part Janus Films distribution efforts, and savvy art house presenters across the States.

Japan Society screens House at our October 29 its OBAKE! costume party, and yesterday the Criterion Collection released House on DVD and Blu-Ray. Wherever you see it, you're in for a cinematic treat you won’t soon forget. But don't take it from us...

"Meow." Via.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Building Social Change Exchange From Tokyo To New York

There's a design charette brewin' for Brooklyn's Brownsville.
Eco products, urban agriculture, renewable energy: relatively new concepts which have become everyday terms around the world and now impact how we live day to day. We see the seeds of these ideas sprouting all over New York, with green roofs coming to life, street-side makeovers turning the city more bike friendly, and green markets popping up all over.

NYC is not alone in this transformation. Japan has made strides to answer the green call promoting more walking-friendly cities, LED lights are now the latest thing to cut energy costs, and architects are finding more ways to make green open space.

There are many ways the U.S. and Japan can learn and benefit from one another in the green revolution, and Japan Society fosters this discussion.

As part of a 2-day program, Japan Society’s U.S.-Innovators Network brings together designers, social entrepreneurs, and architects whose work focuses on social issues. On Tuesday, November 2, The Design Difference features Atelier Bow-Wow's Yoshiharu Tsukamoto, Public Architecture's  John Peterson and moderator Valerie Casey from Designers Accord. They discuss the latest thinking in architecture and design from Japan and the U.S. and explore its influence on behavior, how it illuminates culture, and how the built environment shapes community. 

Tsukamoto seeks to create spaces in ways that align and maximize the harmony (wa) of the space, the surrounding environment, and human need. In his book Behaviorology, he describes his approach as a thought process:
[it] brings about an immediate shift in subjectivity, inviting many different elements together and calling into question who or what may be the main protagonist of a space. Through this ecological approach our imagination follows the principles of nature and experiences space from a variety of perspectives. When one is surrounded by and synchronized to the liveable rhythms embedded in different behaviors – there is no experience quite so delightful.”
Peterson is looking to harness the power of public service by bringing together architects to volunteer 1% of their time to projects focused on public good. The program "challenges architecture and design firms nationwide to pledge a minimum of 1% of their time to pro bono service," connecting and committing  powerful firms with nonprofit organizations in need of design assistance.

Casey recently told the design site Core77 that key questions addressed in the discussion are:
What do Tokyo and Brownsville, Brooklyn have in common? How can we apply the tenets of "Behaviorology" - the interplay of people, nature, and buildings - to change social conditions? How does the built environment shape community and create culture, and what are the responsibilities of architects and designers in making positive change?
Come find out the answers and discover new ways design is shaping our lives! Tickets are $12 for general public and $8 for Japan Society members, students and seniors. And if you’re looking for more, check out MOMA’s Small Scale Big Change exhibit, which also explores how architecture impacts social design.

One of Atelier Bow-Wow's innovative green spaces. Via.

Monday, October 25, 2010

People, Monsters, Kids: Not Always What They Seem

Oh yes, it's an oni! Via.
We wrote about the OBAKE! costume party this Friday, but in addition, we have a Halloween treat just for the kids. Japan Society's Education Program invites children ages 3-10 to Meet Japan’s Mystical Folklore Creatures & Ghosts before the witching (i.e. trick-or-treating) hour on Sunday, October 31st.

Theatre Arts Japan -KIDS- debuts a new play written especially for this event, introducing the fantastical world of Japan's otherworldly creatures. In the story, a young man encounters a kind old woman on his way to light a lantern on a mountain top. When she invites him for tea, distracting him from his duties, the boy discovers she is not at all what she seems. He must turn to the mystical yokai  creatures in the woods and decide whether they are friend or foe and able to help him.

Among the throngs of Japanese beasties (there are literally hundreds), kids discover the tengu, a mysterious flying mountain creature; the kappa, a funky, frog-like river creature; the rokurokubi, a beautiful woman with a surprisingly long neck; and the ornery oni, who has the horns of a cow and the fangs of a tiger. After the theater performance, actors work with the children to create masks so they can transform into their favorite creatures from the show.

For our more adult  monster enthusiasts, we hope to see you at the Friday, October 29 OBAKE! party. In honor of both events, here's another update on a traditional Japanese ghost story, this time for the parents:

The weather outside is cold and rainy, so your kids and their friends are bound indoors. You put them in the playroom, promising sweet treats if they behave and play quietly. For a time, they play as quietly as they can, but slowly peals of giggles crescendo  from behind the door. When you go to check on them, they blame each other for moving things, tickling each other or playing little tricks—all of which each denies. As you leave, you hear a soft giggle, and turn around to see them all looking at you with wide eyes. Relative quiet ensues as you prepare the snacks, but total, eerie silence meets you when you walk back into the room. What are they up to? And did you see one of them duck under the table? You shake your head, but take a quick peek when you set the treats down. Your eyes must be playing tricks on you. As you start to divide the treats, a ghostly little hand grabs one. You follow the hand, past the silken translucent sleeve, to the face of a small girl in a pink kimono, nibbling on a cookie. She smiles, crumbs falling to the floor and disappears. Your child's new playmate is a Zashiki Warashi.

S.H., S.J.