The Half-way Mark

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I’m at the half-way point of my life in Japan because at the end of last month I signed my re-contracting papers to stay on for a third year and I don’t think I’ll stay on any longer than that. It’s strange to think that from now on, there will be less time remaining in Japan than I’ve already spent here. I know the next year will fly by as I try to fit in everything I haven’t managed to yet. I thought this would be a good time to review the year and a half I’ve been here. I’ve collected a lot of postcards from friends, places I’ve visited and exhibitions I’ve been to. I stuck them up to brighten the place and also to give an extra thin layer of insulation to my thin walls. They’re not in chronological order as I waited until I had a lot to stick them up, and some of them I don’t remember what they are because the information on the back is written in Japanese. The images are a bit grainy because I couldn’t use the flash and my house is quite dark, but when I move out I’ll be glad to remember how I had them on my wall.

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1-5: Japan 365 by J Muzacz. A friend of a friend living in rural Kyoto prefecture drew a picture of or inspired by Japan using a ballpoint pen every day for a year. At the end of the year he was able to publish a book of all his drawings, with ten percent of the profits donated to Japan for Sustainability and I went to the book launch in Kanazawa.

6-10: Metabolism: The City of the Future. This was probably the most interesting exhibition that I’ve been to in the past year and a half. Metabolism was the first modern architecture movement in Japan in the 1960s when Japan had the money to reinvent their post-war urban landscape for the future. The name comes from the biological concept with buildings and towns designed like organisms that could be expanded or contracted as needed. My favourite concepts were the Marine City across Tokyo Bay and the towers that were designed like the double helix of DNA. Not many buildings were built or remain from this era, but its most obvious legacy is the capsule hotel.

11: China: Through the lens of John Thomson 1868-1872. This exhibition was held in the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin and my friend Michael sent me this postcard of a Manchu lady having her hair dressed.

12-13: I bought these at the Hokkaido Museum of Modern Art despite not having seen them in real life because there were no postcards of the print exhibition I saw.

14: Shirakawa-go.

15-16: I bought these in the High Museum of Art, Atlanta.

17: Eighteenth-century Chinese snuff bottles from the Notojima Glass Art Museum.

18: Yayoi Kusuma. This was an installation at the Kanazawa 21st Century Art Museum. It’s a living room covered in coloured dots that become luminous under the black lighting.

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1-5: Illustrations from the Bologna Children’s Book Fair 2011. This event is on every year in March in Bologna, where I lived in 2008/2009, and illustrators from around the world send in their work for children’s book publishers to look at and hopefully commission. Some works are then selected to be part of a touring exhibition which ends up in Nanao, Ishikawa in December. It’s a small world.

6-8: Japanese Masterpieces from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Dragon and Tiger by Hasegawa Tohaku (1606) and Dragon and Clouds by Soga Shohaku (1763).

9: Photo of three Appalachian women in the late 19th C that I bought in a series at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

10: A. Schwab Store in Beale St, Memphis.

11-12: From the Edo-Tokyo Museum. The first I think is an Utamaro print that I didn’t see and the second is a Meiji era print of people ballooning that was part of the Tower exhibition that I went to.

13-17: Paintings from the National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo.

18: The Farnsworth House, Plano, Illinois.

19: The Creation of Adam from the Sistine Chapel, Rome, sent to me by my friend Michael who holidayed there.

20-21: Postcards from Istanbul sent from my friends Christabel and Michael.

22: Postcard from Brittany sent from my sister who was living there with a host family for two weeks.

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1-4: Screen paintings from Nijo Castle, Kyoto.

5: Tokyo nightscape from Mori Tower.

6: Dragon.

7: Tofukuji, Kyoto in the Autumn.

8: Kinkakuji, the Golden Pavilion, Kyoto.

9: Print from the Kuniyoshi: Spectacular Ukiyo-e Imagination exhibition at the Mori Art Museum.

10-11: Two of the thirty-six views of Mt Fuji by Hokusai.

12: A postcard I bought at the Miho Museum outside Kyoto.

13-16: Prints by Sharaku, Eizan or Eisen I think, and Hiroshige that I bought at the hundred yen store.

17: Postcard of the Mori tower.

18: One of the 2011 Bologna Children’s Bookfair postcards.

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1-4: Screen paintings from Nijo castle, Kyoto.

5: The Golden Pavilion, Kyoto.

6: A house in the Ukraine that seems to be a classical building that had gargoyles stuck onto it, sent to me from my friend Christabel.

7-9: Sydney Harbour and Opera House.

10-12: Postcards from the Miho Museum near Kyoto.

13: From the Mori Art Museum.

14: Postcard picked up at a café, not sure what it’s for.

15-21: Postcards from the Bologna Children’s Bookfair 2011.

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1: Illustrations by Kudo Ayumi around the five senses from the 2012 Bologna Children’s Book Fair.

2: Elvis.

3: Le Corbsier and Mies van der Rohe.

4-7: Scenes from the Appalachian mountains.

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1: Postcard advertising a textile exhibition at the 21st Century Art Museum.

2: Postcards from the 2012 Bologna Children’s Book Fair.

3-4: 1960s posters by Tadanori Yukoo of himself and Yukio Mishima from the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo.

5: Postcard of the Tennessee Theatre, Knoxville.

6-9: Frida Kahlo, Josephine Baker, Patsy Cline and Cab Calloway, bought at Beale St, Memphis. Though they don’t have anything to do with the place, I thought they were iconic images of iconic people.

Review: Fritz the Cat

I still have a couple of more posts about America to put up, but things are happening here in Japan in the meantime that I don`t want to leave too long to write about so here`s one of them!

It was around this time last year that I went to the Kanazawa Horror Film Festival where I saw The Cool World, and I was surprised this year that I hadn`t seen any posters up for it, so I looked up the Film Festival website to see what was happening. To my surprise, this year`s festival wasn`t horror but erotica! I had a look at the programme which had the films grouped into different categories like animation, horror, films focussing on erotica in showbusiness etc, but the main focus of the event was a retrospective of Christina Lindberg, a Swedish softcore porn actress of seventies fame who shot a few pink films in Japan. Her film Thriller: a Cruel Picture was an inspiration for Tarantino`s Kill Bill. I had originally wanted to see Extasy; a 1933 european film starring Hedy Lamarr that was banned in the United States but that also got Lamarr noticed by Hollywood for her subsequent film career. But unfortunately I couldn`t go at the time it was being shown and it was also not in English.

I did however get to see three films in the festival. The first was Showgirls (1995) with Elizabeth Berkeley (of Saved by the Bell fame) and Kyle MacLachlan (Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks). This apparently caused quite a stir on its release for the amount of nudity in it, as Berkley spends about a sixth of the film completely nude, but I had never heard of it. The reason I went to this film was because it was the opening screening of the festival, and not only was it free but it was being shown outdoors! Yes, ladies and gentlemen, there was a free outdoor screening of an erotic movie. Only in Japan. I hadn`t realised, but Christina Lindberg herself was the special guest at the festival and she gave a short speech at the beginning where she talked about coming to Japan for her films in the seventies and apparently her film Sex and Fury was partly set in Kanazawa. Not only that, but a girl also performed a pole dance before the film started. It was quite impressive. The film itself was pretty dire, if it was on television I wouldn`t have watched it all the way through, but as with most bad movies, it was quite fun to watch it with a group of people and many a belly laugh was had. It was quite a strange experience.

I also went to The Night Porter, and though it`s not the kind of film you can say you enjoyed, I`m definitely on the side of people who think its a good film. Although some of the plot was silly or confusing, I thought the acting was great and it really made me wonder how anyone who has been through something as horrific as a concentration camp can function normally in society afterwards.

The other film I saw was Fritz the Cat, an animated 1972 satire of the swinging sixties that became the first animated film to receive an X rating. Despite this, it’s tame by modern standards compared to some cartoon shows today like Drawn Together and Family Guy. Because of its rating, when it was released it didn`t have a very wide distribution, and so its distributors, who specialised in exploitation films, promoted its more controversial aspects. It’s about the hypocrisy of the sixties, especially that of the radical youth who want to change the world but who don`t know anything about it, and who say they’re looking for truth when really they’re just looking for drugs and sex. The cartoonist who created Fritz the Cat, Robert Crumb, wasn’t happy with how the film turned out because he thought it had too bleak an outlook, which is strange considering he was a pretty cynical individual.

The story is taken from the comic strips Fritz the Cat, Fritz Bugs Out and Fritz the No-Good as well as some original ideas of Bakshi. The plot is a bit of a mish-mash because of this, but it doesn`t really matter, because it`s the characters that drive the story. Fritz is a naive student who has a lot of ideas about life that he doesn`t understand. He`s not a bad guy, he`s just a phony. He wants free love, drugs and revolution, and in his quest for these he meets a lot of interesting characters, most of which are terribly politically incorrect – crows from Harlem, pig policemen, a Nazi rabbit. I suppose some people might take offence from the blatant stereotyping, but the point of it is to poke fun at racists and people who take themselves very seriously.

Most of the voices in it weren`t done by professional actors or even recorded professionally. This makes it difficult at times to hear what`s being said (in the part with the rabbis, I wasn`t sure if they were speaking English or not), but it does give it a strange documentary-like ‘realness’ in the midst of the surreal madness of the imagery. Most of the conversations you hear in passing were actual conversations that Bakshi recorded with construction workers, black guys from Harlem and his Jewish relatives. The soundtrack itself is great too, and there`s an unexpected intermission where a crow jives to Bo Diddley as the next scene slowly appears as a screen in the distance getting closer.

The animation combines Crumb`s two-dimensional style of the characters with a more painterly approach to the backgrounds. The backgrounds are often skewed and don`t adhere to fixed rules of perception depending on what character is experiencing it. This is to be expected in the drug scenes, but one that shows the death of the crow Duke in a riot through the imagery of billiard balls is pretty affecting. There`s also a beautiful collage-style scene through a dump in Harlem to the sound of Billie Holliday`s Yesterdays where we see broken bottles and syringes mixed with cast-away personal items like photographs. Bakshi highlights the problems of the civil rights era through his seemingly insensitive caricatures because he doesn`t glorify the people who have it rough, nor the university-educated, middle-class students who are aware of the problems in society without understanding them. I suppose this resonates with me because I am one of the latter.

“All you cats the same, man. You don’t know where it is. There’s nobody to tell you where it’s at. And you come up here, try to find out where it’s at… but you got to be up here, man, to find out what’s happening.”
“I know it isn’t a ball, man. I studied the race problems. I know.”
“You don’t know nothing about the race problem. Got to be a crow to know about the race problem. You know what I mean? Do you dig where I’m at? You know what I’m talking about?”
“Man, this thing affects me very deeply, fella. As a cat, I have a considerable guilt complex… because my kind have always brought suffering on your kind. Yes, indeed, my soul is tortured and tormented by this racial crisis.”
“No shit?”

Pretty much the entire film is quotable, but this is Fritz`s soliloquy where he ponders his existence.

“Bastards… you’d think the goddamn exams was the be-all and end-all of existence… the cosmic life-force or somethin’. Can’t even say a few decent words to a guy… the bastards… What a bore… they just sit there and take bennies an’ stay up all night with their face stuck in a bunch of books an’ their thumb up their ass… Yes… yes… I remember the time when it was all very inspiring and enlightening… all this history and literature and sociology shit… You think learning is a really big thing an’ you become this big fuckin’ intellectual and sit around tryin’ to out-intellectual all the other big fuckin’ intellectuals… you spend years and years with your nose buried in these goddamn tomes while out there the world is passin’ you by… and all the stuff to see and all th’ kicks an’ girls are all out there… an’ ME, a writer and a poet who should be havin’ adventures an’ experiencing all the diversities and paradoxes and ironies of life and passin’ over all the roads of the world and digging all the cities and towns and rives and oceans… and making all them chicks!
As a writer and poet it is my duty to get out there and dig the world… to swing with the whole friggin’ scene while there’s still time!
My farting around days are over! From this day on I shall live every day as if it were my last! Yes! Yes! I must do it! No more the dreary boring classes, the dismal lectures, the sitting around bullshitting with pretentious fat-assed hippies, no more the books, the spoutings of a bunch of old farts who think they know the whole goddamn score!
Oh God! What have I done? I’ve set all my notes and books and stuff on fire and now I can’t study for my exams… I’ll flunk out and my folks’ll be pissed off as hell… I’ll get a blanket… the blanket’s on fire. We’d better call the fire department.”