Letter from New York
“Ukiyo”: Japanese; a Buddhist concept that the joys of life are ephemeral, and so the pain of their loss can be overcome by detaching oneself from worldly desires.
“Ukiyo-e”: Japanese; lit. “pictures of the floating world”; used to describe the woodblock prints and books associated with Edo (Tokyo) during the 18th and 19th centuries that featured portraits of courtesans and Kabuki actors. Although the Buddhist word is embedded in this term, it is also given a rigorous turn of the screw, since the scenes in the prints represent hedonistic pleasures, the rationale being that since joys evaporate, partake of them while you can.
This column was supposed to be constructed around what was, by all reports, a spectacular presentation (part of the Lincoln Center Festival) of Kabuki in a tent in Damrosch Park by the Heisei Nakamura-Za troupe. Their play, “Natsumatsuri Naniwa Kagami” (“The Summer Festival: A Mirror of Osaka”), is a three-hour condensation of what, in its full version, would take an entire day to present. Unfortunately, last Friday, when I was scheduled to attend, there were downpours of such velocity that they created a floating world, with a difference, along the West Side Highway. I was caught in one of the cars there; and so, having missed the performance, all I can do is to recommend that you read the reviews of the production by Ben Brantley in “The New York Times” (20 July), by Robert Greskovic in “The Wall Street Journal” (21 July), and by Tobi Tobias in ArtsJournal (www.artsjournal.com/tobias). (It’s not surprising that dance as well as theater critics would cover this event. Kabuki, a theater form that arose at the turn of the 17th century to cater to Edo’s burgeoning middle class, legendarily originated as a spontaneous dance solo by a woman. With the proscription in 1629 by the Shogunate against women appearing in the plays—their appearances apparently caused mayhem in the audience—Kabuki companies cast men in women’s roles, and that Shakespearean casting is how the tradition has come down to us today. However, the performances are still rooted in dance and dancelike movement and feature acrobatics, martial arts, and spectacular transformations through stage machinery and costuming.)
At the beginning of July, in conjunction with the appearance of Heisei Nakamura-Za, Japan Society organized several events, including three sold-out screenings of the film “Sharaku,” directed by Masahiro Shinoda, which is set in the Kabuki theaters, Ukiyo-e publishers, and tea houses of 17th-century Edo.
“Sharaku” isn’t available on DVD, apparently; however I saw it in 1995, the year of its release, when Shinoda, himself, now in his late 70s, appeared at the Society to introduce it, and the Society loaned me a screener as an aide-memoire. As filmmaking goes, “Sharaku” is upper-middlebrow Hollywood; however, if you have any interest whatsoever in the art and theater of Japan, it’s a treasure. It includes scenes from several Kabuki plays of the Edo period, starring excellent Kabuki actors of our own time (among them, Tomijuro Nakamura, Shijaku Nakamura, and Danzo Ichikawa); my favorite is a transformation scene, where an actor playing a life-size rat drops down a trap in the stage and is replaced on the rising elevator by a ghostly warrior, wreathed in the smoke of pure imagination.
The title of the film refers to the. . .I guess one would call it pen name of Toshiru Sharaku, a mysterious artist who published Ukiyo-e of about 150 portraits of Kabuki actors between May of 1794 and February of 1795, when he seems to have disappeared from all historical records. There is some speculation that he might have been an out-of-work Noh actor, or the publisher of the prints working under a pseudonym, but no one has any hard evidence of his identity. Scholars are fascinated with his biography because of the prints themselves, which have been compared to the portraits of Rembrandt and Velasquez. Unlike other Ukiyo-e of Kabuki actors or courtesans by Sharaku’s contemporaries (Hokusai, Utamaro), Sharaku’s portraits show the performers realistically to the point of caricature, reporting the physical flaws that made their images recognizably individuals rather than generic types. He also depicted the actors in motion, photographically, in the course of performing. The fact that so many of his prints were produced within a few months, and then no more emerged, gives the mystery of Sharaku the extra soupçon of concentrated genius we associate with the lives of Büchner or Rimbaud. The fact that he flourished in a time of geniuses and in a city that, just a few years later, would contain a population of a million people, making it the largest city in the world at that point, layers on the glamour like so much gold leaf. (In writing this, I’m of course adopting the presumption that Sharaku was a man.)
Shinoda’s movie—which I’d group with “Topsy-Turvy”’s view of Gilbert and Sullivan and “Farewell, My Concubine”’s view of training for Peking Opera as one of the great movies about the processes attendant on highly stylized theater forms—weaves together the various biographical suggestions. His Sharaku is a young Kabuki acrobat named Tombo (Hiroyuki Sanoda), whose foot is grotesquely crushed in an onstage accident. After he heals, he joins up with a group of street players headed by a woman (played with considerable elegance by the wife of the movie’s director), who renames him “Dragonfly," and, in his spare time, he paints scenery freelance. The leading Edo publisher Tsutaya (Frankie Sakai), who is also Utamaro’s publisher, spots Tombo painting, recognizes his talent, renames him Sharaku (“Impertinent”), and, eventually, commissions him—actually, more or less imprisons him in a studio—to make the portraits of the actors. “It’s not trying to be ‘Art.’ Theater should be real! Audiences. . .want to see real actors with real faces,” the dialogue goes.
But, as it turned out, audiences of late 17th century Edo didn’t want that at all: they wanted the beauties and sensual refinement of Utamaro, the comedy of Hokusai. Sharaku’s portraits don’t please, and they don’t sell. The publisher tries another tack: he should paint not portraits but full-figure scenes, keeping the faces realistic but “selling” the costumes. These don’t sell, either. He tries a third idea: add scenery and background. Failure. By this time, the individuality of Sharaku’s gifts is almost unrecognizable. In a very painful scene, where a deputy of the publisher insists that Sharaku should trace the work of other artists from other cities and affix his moniker to them, he throws a classic artist’s tantrum and walks out. The deeper character, Utamaro, who rivals Sharaku in love for a very young teahouse courtesan—who has eyes only for Sharaku, although her limbs and skin belong to Utamaro’s patronage—demonstrates the depths of his feelings by trying to help the two young lovers to escape from Edo, disguising the courtesan as a boy. Along the escape route, she drops a comb, they are recognized, and a gang tears them apart, beating Sharaku to the point of death. A previous scene in the movie, depicting the punishment of another courtesan who tries to run away, leads us to believe that this girl will be hamstrung, hung from a tree, beaten, and then stabbed with a dagger. In fact, the last scene shows her as a weary veteran of a thousand trysts in the teahouse, staring at a group of street players in the road, whose astonishing acrobat looks quite like her forever-lost lover. The soundtrack, by the late Toru Takemitsu (composer of the score for George Balanchine’s Bugaku), alternates throughout the movie between period-appropriate instrumental music and soft jazz; for this last scene, whose understatement and emotional complexity are worthy of Ozu, it’s the jazz we hear. The girl is meant to be us, the jaded modern audience, who has seen so many images we can no longer feel anything in looking, just dazedly stare at what might be the love of our life, passing by the door, just one more dragonfly.
Perhaps the single most amazing shot in the movie catches the courtesan, about to be presented to potential patrons for the first time in a “promenade,” as she sails up a staircase, her back to us and her silken kimono billowing out so that she seems to have no feet. The promenade itself, executed in sandals that are some five or six inches off the ground, consists of steps that each painstakingly places the walking foot parallel to the supporting foot then meticulously fans out the walking foot: a dance in itself. Another shot of a pornographic print by one of the artists might have also been spectacular; alas, the screener I was lent had a censoring white blob imposed on the genitalia (which, I learned from written sources, is priapic).
“Is that what life is: a flower-viewing party floating over Hell?”
“What I create from, what my home is, is a woman in a nightgown. I need to know her skin.”
“It’s the actors that sell, not the pictures.”
“We’re performers! We go to the theater, too!”
“. . .staring up at Heaven, with a ladder in your foot.” (a description of Shakuru’s stage accident)
(Artist scanning a teahouse crowd): “There’s a picture! Black cat and kimono sleeve.”
“With no true love, a courtesan’s world is dark, indeed.”
(Deputy publisher to Sharaku, whom the deputy is trying to get to trace someone else’s work): “It’s time you started acting like a professional artist.”
Subscribers to “The New Republic Online” last year had access to “Lost & Found: The Shape of Things”—an essay by the cultural critic Rochelle Gurstein about our diminished frame of reference as a culture that is one of the most remarkable essays on the arts I’ve read in decades. Its story is her accidental discovery of the mention of an ancient statue called the “Venus de’ Medici,” which may have been the work of Praxiteles; her odyssey to discover the statue, itself; her research into the way it has been cited in European and American literature in the past couple of centuries; and her dawning realization of how fragile our hold on the past really is. “Just how much does one have to know about something—a work of art, a sensibility, a way of being in the world—in order to be able to recognize what one doesn’t know?,” the essay opens, and from there it speeds to its devastating conclusion, built around a quotation from the Futurist Marinetti (“Come on! Set fire to the library shelves!. . . .”) and one from John Ruskin, which is so saddening in its anticipation of our own age that I can’t bear to quote it out of context. I don’t know anything more about Ms. Gurstein than the fact that she is the author of a well-received, recently published book, called “The Repeal of Reticence: A History of America’s Cultural and Legal Struggles Over Free Speech, Obscenity, Sexual Liberation and Modern Art,” and that she published another gorgeous essay on the “Mona Lisa” in “The New Republic”—“One of the most extraordinary but least remarked upon features of painting and sculptures is their persistence as actual, physical objects from other times and places,” it begins—which has been republished in its entirety by the on-line “Arts & Opinion” . The woman writes like Jane Austen; arts criticism doesn’t get much better than this. Why she hasn’t been snapped up by magazines and newspapers with the circulation to bring her to the general readers who are clamoring for great writing about art is one of the mysteries of our own age of diminution and despair.—Mindy Aloff
last updated on July 19, 2004