62 posts categorized "Arts and Humanities"

Notes from Godzilla Week

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"I'm totally old-school Godzilla," snorted Master Right.  "It's gotta be a guy in a suit.  None of this computer animation bullshit. That's cheating."

It's Godzilla Week across the Fatherland on Channel Five, and my husband is pumped. 

I learned he was a Godzilla snob early in our relationship.  Having just moved to Tokyo, and wanting to immerse myself in Japanese culture, I gathered some classics of the Japanese cinema on the still-novel medium of DVD.  Among them was Destroy All Monsters (1968), which many fans consider the consummate Godzilla flick. 

"You know," he recalled as he picked the box from the shelf, "this was the very first movie I was ever allowed to attend at the cinema in Kobe, on my own."  Unthinkable nowadays, my future husband would have been five years old.  

He took his discovery as a sign that we were Meant To Be.  For two blokes, things like this amount to a romantic moment.  I can't recall being so misty-eyed since he bought me an orbital sander. 

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Americans first encountered Godzilla in a 1956 release called Godzilla, King of the Monsters.  (Trailer here) But that was a poor reflection of the original Godzilla from 1954. (Trailer here)

In the original, US H-Bomb testing in the Pacific arouses a sleepy sea monster, Gojira.  Japanese speakers hear echoes of two words in his name; the English gorilla, and kujira, meaning "whale".  For centuries, natives of a nearby island kept him out of their hair with the odd virgin sacrifice, but all this nuclear tomfoolery has messed the guy up.  He now has atomic-breath, indestructible skin, and a bad attitude. 

His attitude is a bit hard to figure out, sometimes.  Godzilla helps and protects mankind from time to time, and equally often he just tromples buildings and eats trains.  You don't know what he's going to do.  Dude is out of control. That's the scary part.

Neither good nor bad, but powerful and dangerous—many have written that Godzilla is a metaphor for nuclear power.  Some have suggested that Godzilla, an impulsive leviathan, embodies the United States.  Both make sense, when we think about the tenor of the time, and what fate had befallen the nation less than a decade before.

The parallels were so stark, that American distributors edited the film heavily before its stateside release.  They even went  so far as to shoot an extra twenty minutes of footage, casting Raymond Burr as the young reporter Steve Martin (no relation) who explains events into a dictaphone for posterity, reminding us how serious it all is.  The performance calls to mind his later work as Perry Mason, but without, like, the acting.

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Master Right is a child of the late Showa period, so he's in it strictly for the camp value.  The overacting, preposterous plots, and obvious terror devices earn an ironic—but amused—roll of his eyes. 

One of the most obvious terror devices, employed everywhere, is creepy familiarity.  We see icons that we know and love, bite the dust.  That's why every disaster movie set in New York shows the Statue of Liberty, right?

Few viewers from across the world realise exactly how familiar—and accurate—were the models that Godzilla crushed and torched.   In Destroy All Monsters, Godzilla pops up in New York and flattens the newly-constructed UN Building as a warm-up on his way to Tokyo for the main event.  If he had nuked the Empire State Building instead, that would be rubbing King Kong's nose in it, I fear. 

I once lived in that very Manhattan neighbourhood, and can vouch for the model's authenticity.  To the left, the big chap eyeballs a tasty-looking Tudor City, and on the right, the delicious Beekman Tower.  

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Master Right and I can vouch for his Tokyo exploits, too.  We lived in a small two-chome neighbourhood not far from the centre of the city, nestled among the louche gaijin of Roppongi, liquored-up civil servants faking overtime in Akasaka, pompous leaders doing deals in Kasumigaseki (Tokyo's Whitehall or Manuka), salarymen copping a feel at the hostess bars of Shimbashi, and the Emperor himself at the palace.  In the course of several movies, Godzilla would play merry hell with all our neighbours. 

The original film shows him attacking the Diet (Parliament).  Mostly, though, he headed for the mid-rise skyskraper district where our apartment perched.  Destroy All Monsters might confuse the casual visitor, but locals reckon Godzilla beached up around Hamamatsucho, slap-bang in our neighbourhood.  There's even a statue of Godzilla in nearby Hibiya Park, since it is—if you'll pardon the expression—his old stomping ground.

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Given the events of the 21st century so far, such casual depiction of mass destruction in the name of entertainment makes me feel a little uneasy.  Do individuals, or even nations, who have suffered lose their taste for stories of further tragedy?  Godzilla suggests not.   Does it actually help people process horror they otherwise cannot comprehend?  That, perhaps, would go too far.

Tonight, as we sit in front of the Fernseher, watching Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah (2003), we laugh as an unsuspecting band of camera-wielding Japanese tourists are caught unaware by history's most beloved radioactive dinosaur.   Hey, Shark Week is for wimps.

 Images are taken from trailers for the 1954 and 1956 Godzilla movies, and the 1968 Destroy All Monsters.  I believe that the reproduction of all images and content conforms with US and EU rules on fair use in quotation and criticism. If you use these images, similar conditions apply.

Bets of British

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The Monty Python crew were men of many talents, and one of them was selling out.   They ain't ashamed to cash in on their celebrity—indeed, they revel in it.  And none so well as that chuckledaddy darling of adland, John Cleese.  

In his endorsements, Cleese stops short of complete shamelessness, but it's often a close call.  I remember a series of ads he did for Planters Nuts in Australia.  (Check them out.)   The script joked about the client wanting to dissociate himself from the commercial; unfortunately, that's exactly what happened.  The spots ran, I believe, once.  

One day, while watching Austrian television—we watch a lot of that in Bavaria during the Strausssommernachtstraum season—I got an eerie sense of deja vu.   Cleese was hawking William Hill, Britain's behrümteste bookie.  

In it, a gorilla tires of lugging around a laptop just so he can log onto williamhill-punkt-com, and steals Cleese's Blackberry.   Another tells us that Austria has besseres Wetter (better weather),  but in Britain one can besser wetten (bet better)

Like I said, these gags stop just a bee's dick short of shameless.  But during the recent European Football Championship, the Hill turned from William to Benny.   Cleese says there are plenty of amusing things about the Euro Cup, but you shouldn't gamble with jokes.  A fat guy in his underwear appears, proving the point.

Why is this most British of British comedians famous in the German-speaking world?  Many forget that Cleese is part of it.  He speaks excellent (if accented) German, and was responsible for bringing the Pythons to Bavaria in 1972 for a series of TV specials.  YouTube contains most of the sketches from Monty Pythons Fliegender Zirkus, and I urge you to watch.  Personally, I think it some of their finest work.  Like the English version, it cracks the veneer of uptight order to release anarchy, but with a professional polish they never quite achieved at the BBC.

Visitors note: service in Bavarian restaurants has not improved in the last four decades.


SCRABBLE® in German is no fun extremely challenging.

In English, we can add a sneaky "-s", or "-ed" to build on someone else's work, and cream the points off their letters.   Wordy types scowl when they learn that the game is not won by the player with the biggest vocabulary, but by the player with the most rat cunning. 

Scrabble auf deutschWhen you try the standard SCRABBLE® tricks in German, you come a cropper.  For example, to turn "stop" into "stopped", German turns halten into hielten.  Letters change in the middle; verbs and plurals are the biggest culprits.

Further, words in German simply need more characters.  Compare work and Arbeit, ham and Schinken, I and ich—the list never ends.  I sometimes write in English for translation into German. The rule of thumb is that the character count will go up by 15%, or more.

Maybe German SCRABBLE® would work better if the board were bigger, and the bag held more tiles.   It fascinated me to discover that until 1990, this was the case.   The letter-count stood nearly 20% higher than in the English version, at 119 tiles.   Players drew eight per turn, as opposed to seven in English. 

The makers throw in a few extra S's—seven, versus four in English.  We need them.  German crossword games substitute an SS for an ß, or Eszett.  You can't begin a word with an ß, and to use it would limit the word-crossing possibilities.  (Interestingly, the game designers deliberately limit the number of S's in English, lest point-stealing through guerilla plurals make the game too easy.)

The German edition holds half as many Y's, though.  The Ypsilon occurs rarely, mainly in foreign words.   One wonders if, statistically, the German game should have a Y at all.

Such issues would have entranced the inventor of SCRABBLE®, a detail-obsessed architect fascinated by structures and mathematical interdependencies.   Alfred Mosher Butts—surely Buttress would have been a better name for an architect, no?—studied the front page of the New York Times to work out which letters occured most frequently.   Amazingly, the distribution remains valid, in spite of our changes in speech.  

Mind you, English spelling never changes.  It already had fuck all to do with the way we speak when Butt invented his game in the 1930s, and we've made no progress since.   The useless "gh" construction persists.  "-mb" hangs off the ass of too many words.   And guessing how any given vowel might sound, is a crapshoot. 

Ed Rondthaler made letters his business for almost a century.  Here, he explains why we use them stupidly.

The inscruitable yin of English spelling complements the strict yang of the game.  It succeeds in spite of English spelling insanity.

We might ask if SCRABBLE® better suits languages which have no spelling at all—iconic languages, such as Japanese or Chinese. 

I have written about the time when I tried to teach my ever patient husband, whose native tongue is Japanese, how to play in English.  It was not a success. 

Sudoku shows that while number-based "crossword" games work across cultures, word-based games will not.  Chinese SCRABBLE® would require several thousand tiles, and sentences would intersect rather than words. 

In Japanese Scrabble, the tiles would need to take two different forms, for words and grammatical particles, some representing sounds and some representing more.   One wonders if Mattel (the licensees of the game in Asia) might not experiment with a Hiragana-only version.

But then, at least half of the tiles would need to say desu.  Scratch that idea.

The World's Worst Buddhist

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The Daibutsu (Amida Buddha) at Kamakura, near Yokohama, in April 2004.
He looks in a pensive mood, which isn't very Buddhist of him.

If you must have a religion, Buddhism strikes me as a good idea.  By all accounts, it tries to unite the spiritual and the temporal, in a healthy way. 

Should one need the solace of prayer, one could do worse than meditate; meditation is prayer turned inward, rather than upward.  Regular meditation can increase physical and mental well-being.

Buddhist meditation focuses you on yourself, your mind and body.  Is this selfish?  Not at all.  In theory, such deep understanding of one's own being fosters both compassion toward others, and self-reliance.  

(All this compassion doesn't keep you from being a sexist creep, from time to time.  The Dalai Lama maintains that a woman might well become his successor—but she's gotta be a looker, since appearances count.)

So, without wishing to trade-in my broad-church atheism for an actual religion or nuttin', I took Buddhism out for a spin.  Not the whole thing, but a couple of Buddhist precepts.  January was to be a month of ditthi, viewing reality as it really is, not as we wish it to be, and sati, seeing things for what they are with clear consciousness and a sense of truth, as well as being aware of the present reality within oneself, without any cravings for more, nor distatste for what you have.  

IlovesmallstonesA meme piqued me to do it.  Buddhist priest and therapist Kaspalita, along with writer Fiona Robyn, declared that January 2012 become a River of Stones.  Each day, they encouraged readers of their website to write a small stone.  In their words, a short piece of writing that precisely captures a fully engaged moment.  If you read their work, you'll discover that the stones they write, are true gems.

Just what the doctor ordered.  Therapists and support groups tell me that a family like mine—where children were served generous helpings of emotional torture sprinkled with little jimmies of violence—will create adults with a distinct quality of mind.  We have trouble engaging in the moment.  Disengagement with the moment, after all, was once a tool of psychological survival.  The habit dies hard.

Kill it, though, I must.  So I set up a Tumblr for my River of Stones, and dubbed it Der Fluß aus Steinen.  Alert readers will have noticed a link to it on the sidebar.  Readers may notice, too, that it no longer appears.  I lasted eight days. 

It started smoothly enough.  I resolved to capture each stone in a photo, and write of it later.  On January 1, a Christmas three atop a crane on the Odeonsplatz caught my eye.  I imagined that the presents underneath would be Erector Sets for all the little cranes to enjoy.  Maybe Erector Sets were the crane equivalent of toy soldiers, or Barbie.  So far, so good.  Step one on the road to enlightenment.

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Eight days later, I cast a pair of weary eyes around the office.  Mindful of my surroundings and present in the moment, a full pencil sharpener loomed into view.   Should one iron the shavings, to improve the feng shui and attract positive chi, I wondered?   Not exactly On Walden Pond.

And so, mindful of my surroundings and present in the moment, I gave up.

I could never get the hang of these little moments of exquisite, poetic sensibility.  They're all terribly nice, but so what?  

Let's give it another go, right now.  Around me, I notice a number of things in the room where I sit.  It is a living room.  The prints on the wall hang slightly crooked; maybe they leaned together for a furtive smooch, and hastily composed themselves as I walked by.  

These pictures in mild disarray remind me of a Casanova caught in flagrante, who must dress fast to escape.  One could do a 5-7-5 haiku about that.

A lover revealed. 
He is not quite complete.
His socks took too long.

Talk about unmindfulness!  Not only did I fail to describe what sits in plain view, but I leapt to another, more interesting story, the likes of which I've never experienced in person.  (Call me a coward, I always hid naked in the wardrobe.) 

I chose imagination over observation.  Bad Buddhist!

Haiku purists take a dim view of all this metaphor and narrative.   High haiku must adhere to a strict rhythm—it needn't rhyme, because given Japanese grammar and phonology, rhyming would be too easy to be considered artful.  And it must stick to what the poet sees and hears. 

Matsuo Basho wrote arguably Japan's most famous haiku in 1686.  There have been hundreds of translations of these seventeen simple syllables.  Plainly put, the poem states there is a peaceful old pond, a frog jumps in and makes a splash. 

Call me a philistine.  Call me obtuse.  But...I don't get it. 

My Japanese friends (and my husband, to boot) assure me that I am missing a great source of artistic satisfaction, not to mention the serenity which comes from contemplating a moment of exquisite beauty.  Well, yeah.

I have a long way to go.

In the meantime, imagination provides both diversion and solace.  A certain amount of inserenity can pump you up, just as much as a good whiff of chi.    But you have to dodge a trap—living too comfortably in your imagination, rather than seeking comfort on the panet Earth.  Perhaps that's a discussion for another time.

Photo Friday: Walk

This week's Photo Friday theme is Walk, but in truth, the pictures sort of show a march.  We arrived in Hakone on a festival day in the summer of 2003.  The mountain town celebrated with a parade.  Her streets, though, are barely wide enough for a single car to pass: bands could march, at the most, three abreast.  And spectators got up close and personal with the musicians.


Keys to the City

My mental picture of a street musician was formed in Australia, where every smelly hippie thought he was the next folk-rock sensation. We used to walk past and them and shake our heads, vowing that Bob Dylan has a lot to answer for. 

Street musicians in Europe are, like, real musicians.  With musical day-jobs and buyable CDs and stuff. 

Folky balladists get no audience.  You either do real folk, which in Bavaria means a brass band, or you prove your chops with the classical repertoire.

Munich musicians favour keyboards, in one form or another.  This presents some physical challenges.

These guys don't set up a second-hand Korg on the sidewalk and croon that James Taylor ditty about pina coladas, no sir-ee.  At least one insists on a grand piano—a Steinway, no less.  As Tom Lehrer said, just think of it as an 88-string guitar.

Not sure if this instrument belongs to the city, the musician who plays it, or the nearby Galleria Kaufhof.  You'll find it on Kaufingerstraße just west of the Marienplatz, wheeled out in front of delighted passers-by when rain doesn't threaten.

Many, though, simply strap their keyboards over the shoulder and give it a good squeeze.  In other words, they play the accordion.

I always believed that the definition of good taste is someone who can play the accordion, but doesn't.   When Greg forced Joan to play accordion on Mad Men, it humiliated her.

Of the many aesthetic insults from my grim Pittsburgh childhood, accordions inflicted the worst.  I dreaded early June, when my parents would pack a picnic and cart us off to the annual Polka Day  at Idlewild amusement park in the Laurel Highlands.  Loud fat drunk people dancing and singing: the only noise shrill enough to rise over the chaos was the accordion.   Mother and Dad loved Frankie Yankovic and his Polka Jets—little did they know that a few years later, distant relative Wierd Al Yankovic would mock accordion music so mercilessly that it almost diappeared from American popular culture.  Lawrence Welk, it wasn't.

My attitude to accordion began to soften in Melbourne, where a young virtuosa broke through the din of busking Garfunkels.   Every Satuday, smiling at the indifferent shoppers on Bourke Street, we would find Bernadette Conlon.   Severely visually impaired, she surpised squeezebox-bigots like me with a distinctive repertoire—the baroque.  Unchain the accordion from folk, polkas and oompah bands, and it suits serious music very well indeed.

Don't put an accordion in an orchestra—nor, god forbid, make an orchestra of them.   What do you do with the instrument?  In Munich, our street accordionists work the classical organ repertoire.    Makes sense.  It's all air through reeds, innit?

Most of our artists prefer the Hohner brand.  This Swabian firm is the world's largest manufacturer of accordions, as well as the world's largest maker of harmonicas.  One can snigger at the phrase mouth organ, but technically, it fits—like I said,wind through reeds.

The undisputed king of Munich squeezeboxers is Ivan Hajek.  He eschews the classical repertoire for his own compositions, the most energetic of which he composed as a workout accompaniment for his friend Rob Kamen, nine-time world kickboxing champion.  English speaking tourists often respond to this piece with a holy-fuck-I-didn't-know-an-accordion-could-do-that!   I have tried to listen  from beginning to end, as I pass Hajek on the street.  I can't.  About half-way through, I get so worked up that I start punching passers-by, or in a pinch, strangle their dogs. 

For my money, though, one must take care when applying the accordion to popular music styles.  Europeans have the knack for jazz accordion, and I prefer them—though I must confess that Art Van Damme sneaks into rotation on the car stereo. 

What music suits the instrument best?  Every day, many years worth of seasons are pressed out of the pianoaccordion on city streets, and it always pleases the crowd.  My personal fave is Astor Piazzolla's Libertango, another popular Munich choice.   Here, Ukrainian import Zdravko serenades the Hofgarten.  

Zdravko uses the so-called chromatic accordion, or button accordion to the likes of you and me. It strikes me that the chromatic accordion is a little more authentic for the piece.   Piazzolla himself played a bandoneon, an elaborate buttoned concertina from his native Argentina.  Most local musos make do with a piano accordion, and it's not quite the same to my ear—though Roman Setchko (often found in arcades off Theatinerstraße) makes an excellent fist of it.

If you pass any of these guys on the street, be sure to toss them a Euro or two.  Or better yet, a Ukrainian Hryvnia, since that's where many hail from.


More grand pianos on the street—but curiously, only a box for a drum kit.  The Odeonsplatz is like being at home in your parlour.


English on the March: Lady

As she has done so often in her life, Margaret Thatcher provides the exception that proves the rule.

The rule in question: Honourable Husband's #1 Law of Denglish.  No language borrows a foreign word just to sound cool.  The language has to need it.

Let's look at The Iron Lady, the film in which Meryl Streep won an Oscar for her portrait of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.  In German, it's Die Eiserne Lady.

While praising Streep's performance, both sides of politics seem pissed off.  Toryblatt Daily Mail gripes that the film didn't make enough of her putative political accomplishments.  On the other hand, @piercepenniless tweets that I see the new Thatcher film doesn't start with her being sorcerously belched from the steaming tar-pits of hell.  Unaccountable oversight.  Apparently, the Russian version (title unkown) pulls no punches, either.

For the moment, we'll stick to the Deutscheausgabe and focus on the title.  Why would we use the German word for Iron, but the English word for Lady

Good question.  I asked it of a number of native German speakers. 

Most agreed that Die Eiserne Dame, the literal translation, would sound old-fashioned.  Perhaps the promoters of the film wanted to sound modern, they suggested.

Mildly convincing.  But we hear the same connotation in English.  A lady is an older, somewhat fancy woman, and using the word carries a lot of baggage.  It shows respect, perhaps even admiration for her grace and dignity.  The word Dame, borrowed from the French into both German and English, does so as well.  These terms suggest maturity, and a certain worldliness. 

A little too much worldliness, perhaps.  Feminists have long pointed out that such words for women carry a sexual charge—think ladies of the night.  Or, at the very least, they make women appear weak or dependent; ladylike is a synonym for dainty or delicate.

On that note, let's switch the language of our current discussion, just for a moment.  From Denglish to Engrish

The Iron Office Lady.

In the sixties and seventies, feverish economic growth taxed the spirit of the Japanese salaryman.  Long hours, compulsory after-hours bonhomme, and the company dormitory took a toll on his private life.  Many couldn't meet enough women to find a girlfriend, let alone a wife. 

So the curious job of office lady, or OL, was born. 

She was originally called a BG, for Business Girl, but that sounded a bit seedy.   In 1963, a magazine sponsored a competition to find a new name, and our girl became a lady in an instant.

There is a native term in Japanese for these women.  Shokuba no hana, or office flower, captures the decorative nature of her job.   What does she actually do?  She helps to make everyone feel happy  Such a job description might perplex westerners, but Japanese culture places high value on emotions—even, and especially, in business culture.  The job of making everybody happy is an important one, and the calling is noble.

That doesn't remove the sexual agenda from her duties.  We see it loud and clear in the late-nineties sitcom, Office Lady Police


I have a DVD of the first season, and it is one of the most treasured souvenirs of my time in Japan.  My husband—another treasured souvenir from my time in Japan—finds it insufferable trash and refuses to watch, so I can't give you an in-depth run-down.  But I'll try.

The series opens with the Ladies conducting a sting.  We see a tall, Porsche-driving hunk showering his girlfriend with expensive gifts.  But something smells fishy to our heroines.  They corner the couple, and after a quick swipe with a cotton pad and cold cream, they reveal that the woman is—shock!—actually one of those vulgar ganguro girls, with reverse-out eye shadow that makes her look like a photographic negative.  Boyfiend is devastated, since he is kind and sensitive as well as being tall and rich and driving a Porsche.  The Ladies take him off to a special Hunky Victims Unit for counselling by candlelight, over a bottle of Moët.

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The Ladies seem to spend a lot of time rescuing each other from embarassing scrapes or fending off nerdy salaryman suitors, and it leaves little scope for fighting crime. This demands excessive over-acting from their squad sergeant as he dresses them down.  If Office Lady Police were an American sitcom from 1966, rather than a Japanese sitcom from 1999, Paul Lynde would play this role.

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The Ladies keep up their energy by eating ice-cream, and dining on Italian food al fresco.  Oh, and their squad car is not the customary Suzuki Alto, but a trendy imported model—the tricky-to-pronounce Volkswagen Golf .  

Those, my English-speaking friends, are the hallmarks of a true lady

Titled Ladies

Back to Denglish.  In the course of our chat, one of my colleagues made an intriguing point.  She asked, "If you met  Silvio Berlusconi, and wanted to address him respectfully, what would you say?"

That anyone would want to address Silvio Berlusconi respectfully is a mighty big assumption, but I played along.  "I'd say, Signor Berlusconi..."

The penny dropped.  Some of the first words we learn of a foreign language, even if we don't speak it, are titles.  You might be a hardened monoglot, but you probably know the meanings of Herr and Frau, Señor and Señora, Monsieur and Madame. We'll use these words from time to time, out of respect for another's culture, or just to add local colour to an exotic character.

Shakespeare did it.  In his numerous Italian plays, he seldom uses the word Mister, preferring Signore.

When I lived in Japan, the lingua franca of our office was English. Yet we always used the suffix -san to address each other, or to refer to someone.  I knew it was a title, but it took me a while to figure out exactly what it meant, and where it fit on the scale of respect. (-chan, -kun, -san, -sama, -sensei.)

We tend to understand these words only in their most basic sense, though.  And seldom do we know the ins-and-outs of their usage, like how to abbreviate them.    English speakers can readily decipher the meaning of Señora Franco, but might pause for a moment before understanding Sra. Franco. That's why Roger Hargreaves' Mr. Men series becomes Mister Men in German.  This maintains a certain foreign flavour, but is easy enough for children to understand.

Mr. Happy was lifted with love (and permission) from A Bavarian Sojourn.

Here, the German use of lady probably echoes a title, rather than a noun.  Lord and Lady, or Sir and Lady, get used in English often enough to be recognisable by German speakers.  The converse, however, doesn't hold.  Few know words like Grafin (Countess) or Herzog (Duke) simply because such titles cannot be used officially, nowadays.

(Here's an aside.  It rather surprises me, then, that in Oscar Wilde's Ernst sein ist AllesTo Be Earnest Is Everything—Lady Bracknell becomes Tante Augusta. Perhaps it harks back to an era when English was not heard so commonly east of the Rhine.)

As it turns out, the German language doesn't need the word lady.  The promoters tossed it in, because Mrs. Thatcher was, and still is, an Englishwoman. 

If they were searching for a British title, they might have noted that our Margaret Hilda actually has one.  She is Baroness Thatcher.   Now, the last time I checked, Baron was a German word, too. 

Mind you, I last checked at the age of six, in the third frame of a Snoopy cartoon.  Perhaps German has changed since then.

Special hat tip to Julia and Billy, for your crucial language input.

Copyright notice: Eiserne Lady poster sourced from distributor's website.  OL Police images from DVD PIBD-1027.  Image of Mr. Happy in German from A Bavarian Sojourn.  I believe that the reproduction of all images and content conforms with US and EU rules on fair use in quotation and criticism. If you use these images, similar conditions apply.

Our Neighbour, the Cross-Dressing National Treasure

Jakuemon Ferrier
Nakamura Jakuemon IV. (Photo Steve Ferrier)

Movers hated the tricky corner by the elevator; someone's couch or shoji screen might wedge there for several hours until its owner worked out how to dislodge it.  Walk too hastily, and neighbours would collide head-on, unleashing a torrent of sumimasens and embarassed bowing.  But space in Tokyo is tight, and the Elbow (as we called it) was just one more quirk of living in a quirky city.

As I arrived home late one afternoon, it came as no surprise to see some lads making a clumsy job of getting a long object through the corridor.   Closer inspection revealed that they were paramedics, and the apparatus they had tilted on its end was a stretcher.

Behind them stood a slightly-built chap, wearing a blazer and Bing Crosby hat.  Though clearly a senior citizen, it was hard to pick his age.  His skin looked incredibly smooth and taut, but didn't bear any of the hallmarks of a facelift.  I would learn later that he had just turned eighty.

Recognising me as a neighbour, he bowed curtly and smiled, before he leapt up on to the righted stretcher.  That took some impressive athletics, since he scarcely reached five feet tall, and the stretcher rose a good distance from the floor.  He declined the offer of a footstool to help him up, but allowed the ambulancemen to remove his shoes, before he strapped himself in for the elevator ride to the ground.

A Brush with Fame

Thus went my first enounter with Japan's most famous kabuki actor, Nakamura Jakuemon IV, better known as 中村雀右衛門.    He was the theatre's foremost onnagata, a male who specialised in female roles.   By all accounts, his technique astounded audiences; a few deft gestures would seduce any observer into the belief that they were, indeed, watching a woman.  In 1991, the Japanese government declared him a Living National Treasure.

Living National Treasures get treasured awfully well.  According to my Japanese colleagues, the deal includes an ambulance to whisk you off for your annual check up.  Probably necessary for most of the elderly writers and artists who made up the legion of NTs, but not for a gent who still lifted weights in the gym from time to time.  It helped him bear those monstrously heavy kabuki robes and headpieces.

Master Right made another point.  Even if Jakuemon had needed an ambulance for an emergency, most men of his generation and stature would feel ashamed to be wheeled about in front of all and sundry.  While he didn't seem frail, it concerned us a little, in a neighbourly kind of way.

An Unhealthy Trade

Older kabuki troupers sometimes succumb to poison.  The first commerical versions of doran (the white foundation used by geisha and kabuki actors alike) contained lots of lead, zinc and mercury.  To remove it, traditionalists would use—I kid you not—nightingale droppings, which had the extra benefit of bleaching the skin underneath.  That can't be good for a fellow's system, and it certainly showed in his complexion.

Our concern heightened when a truck arrived to cart away the master's elaborate collection of costumes.  Had he packed it in?  Was the ambulance trip a harbinger of something serious? 

His housekeeper, who also must have been around eighty, seemed to stay cheerful.  (She took to giving me language lessons in the lift; it was a slow lift, you see.)  When I asked after her boss, she haltingly explained that she had dusted off the costumes and sent them to the theatre.  Jakuemon would reprise a classic role, Princess Yaegaki in the drama Jusshukô, for the 75th anniversary memorial service of his "father", Jakuemon III.   

I put the word "father" in quotes for a reason.  Jakuemon had a biological father, who was also a well known kabuki actor.  But he was "adopted" into another family as a young adult.

The Family Business

The power of identity looms large in Japanese culture—where you fit, to whom you belong, to whom you owe duty and from whom you expect reciprocation.   Names don't just represent individuals—they represent these many connections, and take on an importance beyond just saying who's who.   Business cards carry a mystique.   In such a culture, imagine the symbolism of a stage name

In the west, if we discount the artful concoctions of drag queens, stage names often serve a mundane, practical purpose.  Equity rules stipulate that no two actors share the same working name.   Michael Keaton, for example, was born Michael Douglas, but admired the actress Diane Keaton, who in turn was born Diane Hall, the name of an existing Equity member.  Michael York (nee Johnson) chose his nom de scene because "York" was already tested  in the marketplace, as a popular brand of cigarette

In Japan, stage names act a little like family names, and stage "families" construct a lineage based on a cocktail of blood-relations, relations-by-marriage, teacher/student pairs and honorifics. 

In his movie-star days

Nakamura Jakuemon IV started life as Hirotaro Otani, heir to the stage name Ôtani Tomoemon VII.   In a brief flirtation with movie acting, he actually earned a couple of credits under his real name.

He became close friends with the young man who was the blood-heir to the title of Jakuemon IV.  When his friend was killed in the war, the young man's mother asked if Otani would accept the honour of adoption, so that he may carry on the Nakamura family stage-name.  Since (I understand) Otani had brothers in the family business to carry on the Tomoemon stage-name, he saw it as an appropriate way to honour the family of his friend. 

Like so many other young men, war was a defining experience for the man who would become Jakuemon.  He learned to be a mechanic, and toyed with the idea of becoming one on his return to civilian life.  He enjoyed being high, driving a truck or riding a horse, and even considered joining the maintenance team at the newly constructed Tokyo Tower.

A Comforting View

When I read that fact online, it brought me up with a sharp jolt.  Our apartments were on the fourteenth floor of a building that looked out over what was once the highest point in Tokyo.   Ours looked north on a drab cityscape; as they say on the Gold Coast, we had the Hinterland View.  But Jakuemon's featured perhaps the city's best view of Tokyo Tower.

Tokyo Tower from our building
Why was I online, googling our former neighbour?   Alas, to confirm reports that he had passed away.  He died of pneumonia on February 23, at 91—an impressive age, even by long-lived Japanese standards.  He performed well into his 80s, treading the boards for the last time in 2010, when his frailty began to show.
Two of his sons are also kabuki actors.  One will use the Tomoemon stage name, and the other, a fellow onnagata, will carry on the Nakamura line.

"Another memory of our Tokyo days is gone," remarked Master Right.  Jakuemon's passing reminds us not just to honour living treasures while we can.  But to treasure life itself.

All photos link to source.

Star of Head Dead

Sorry for the limp title.  It was the wittiest quip I could do on the subject of Davy Jones' death.  Someone already made the obvious joke: "I guess it's just Paul and Ringo now." Adam Avitable will publish a Dead Celebrity Interview any minute.  Sean Condon updated his facebook status with the priceless I'm a Bereaver.  There are no jokes left to crack.

Isn't that what you do on the internet when a celebrity dies? You crack jokes.  Just ask Whitney. Via a medium, of course.


So let's not crack jokes.  And let's not celebrate Jones' contribution to pop-culture, perish the thought.  The social web is all atwitter with youtubes of his 1971 appearance on The Brady Bunch as Marsha's prom date.  (He was an ex-Monkee at that stage.  Perhaps he'd been promoted to chimpanzee?)  I watched it, and ralphed.

Let's discuss the contibution of Jones, and the Monkees as a whole, to avant-garde culture in the late 1960s.

Jones' finest work came as a Dadaist.  His New York Times obituary describes the Monkees as "benignly psychedelic", but in truth, they were double-breasted Duchamps.  Singing Magrittes. Cabaret Voltaire sur Mer

We forget that by the standards of mid-century, middle-class American TV, The Monkees verged on surrealism.  If there weren't a laugh track to tell us not to take it seriously, and Mickey Dolenz mugging for the camera, the show could almost reach capital-A Absurd. 

They unzipped the laugh track for their 1968 movie Head.  Sergeant Pepper it ain't.  Head scorched the career of the band with its curious brand of Surrealism Lite—confusing their romance-hungry teenybopper fans, and failing to capture an art-house audience who knew what real surrealism was.

Head had its moments, though.   The boys got to play dandruff flakes in Victor Mature's coiff.   Annette Funicello go-go dances.  And Frank Zappa chides Davy for not practicing his music—you may recall that in the Monkees, Jones played nothing more complex than tambourine.

(Zappa was one of rock 'n' roll's most high-minded musical snobs, but he harboured great affection for the brazen fakery of the Monkees.  Click this link to see him goofing off with a clearly-stoned Mike Nesmith.  Nesmith was one of the first group members to grow tired of the  sham and pack it in.  He didn't actually need the money.  His mother, a Dallas secretary, invented Liquid Paper.  In her blender.  No, really.

This cafeteria scene from Head recalls the Monkees' early days on the Columbia lot, during their first TV season.  Legit actors, incensed at the sheer fraudulence of the group, would leave the comissary when the lads arrived.  Watch for a cameo from Jack Nicholson; Nicholson co-wrote the script with Bob Rafelson under the influence of LSD.  Of course, everyone alive in the sixties claims to have been on acid pretty much all the time.

He maintained his absurdist streak offstage, too.   Peter Tork recalls a time when the group had lunch at a diner, and Jones pulled an outrage reminiscent of that other great Dadaist, Barry Humphries

Australians will know of Humphries' famous airline barf-bag stunt. In the days before liquids were limited on aircraft, Humphries once boarded an aircraft with a concoction of fruit salad and condensed milk in a container.  He would slyly empty it into an airsickness bag, which he would noisily and theatrically pretend to use. When flight attendants responded to his distress, he would say that he felt much better, and proceed to eat the contents of the bag, with comments like "mustn't let it go to waste".  Jones later reprised it with perfect comic timing.  

I wonder if there's a connection?  After all, Humphries and Jones shared a stage.  It was the London production of Oliver!, where one played Mr. Sowerberry, and the other the Artful Dodger.  Not difficult to guess who was the master, and who the student.