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Harvey Weinstein Dates Princess Mononoke: How Studio Ghibli Went Global

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 10/10/2020 - 9:07am in

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articles, culture

Published in Japan Forward 9/10/2020

Miyazaki and I… were first shown clips from Fantasia 2000, which was then in production. Asked what he thought of the film so far, Miyazaki replied simply “hidoi … totemo hidoi” (terrible … really terrible), which I translated as “interesting … Mr. Miyazaki finds the animation very unusual and very interesting.”

You can see why Steve Alpert was indispensable to Studio Ghibli’s global ambitions. He really knows what should get lost in translation and what should stay. “Sharing a House With the Never-Ending Man”, his highly entertaining memoir of his fifteen years at Ghibli, gives an insider’s view of how cultural products are translated and transformed, also how art and commerce collide in the world of cinema.

Alpert was the right man in the right place at the right time. Ghibli recruited him from Disney’s Japan arm in 1996 as board director and senior executive tasked with bringing the creations of anime maestro Hayao Miyazaki to international audiences. A business school graduate experienced in the ways of the American entertainment industry, he was also a Japanese speaker who had studied Japanese literature at graduate level and had ambitions of becoming a literary translator.

If the combination of skills was perfect, so was the timing.  Miyazaki was about to launch two masterpieces, Princess Mononoke (1997) and Spirited Away (2001), that would prove beyond doubt that anime could be serious art while doing serious business at the box-office. In the process, Miyazaki would himself be transformed from a purely domestic Japanese phenomenon to a globally recognized auteur.

Events moved fast. In 2003 Alpert would find himself at the 2003 Oscars, where Spirited Away won the award for Best Animated Feature. At the Berlin Film Festival, he was alone on stage to receive the kinkuma-chan (Golden Bear Award), the elusive Miyazaki having declined to appear in person.

Alpert also received the ultimate accolade when he was on the receiving end of an expletive-laced rant by Harvey Weinstein, ending with the threat “OR YOU’LL NEVER WORK IN THIS F***ING INDUSTRY AGAIN.” Alpert, of course, was a Ghibli executive who lived and worked in Tokyo.

Disney had bought the rights to distribute Ghibli films overseas, but the marketing department had objections to the contents. As Alpert summarizes, “My Neighbor Totoro —the dad gets naked and bathes with his daughters! We can’t show that in the US. Pom Poko —the raccoons use their scrotums to do magic.  We can’t have children looking at animal scrotums. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind—when she’s flying we can see her ass…  Only Yesterday — the girl is talking about getting her first period; we can’t show that to children.”

The solution was to turn the films over to the Weinstein Brothers’ Miramax, which Disney owned at the time. Alpert had no inkling of the “Me Too” troubles that were later to put paid to Weinstein and Miramax, but he does hint that the company’s reputation for sensitivity to artistic values may not have been entirely deserved.  At a meeting to discuss Princess Mononoke, he was bombarded with questions by Miramax personnel.

“This guy Lord Asano, who is he? Is he a good guy or a bad guy? Who were the samurai working for? Why were they attacking a village? Why were they attacking Lady Eboshi? She’s a bad guy, right? Who is this guy Jigo and who does he work for? Why does he want the Deer God’s head? Is he a good guy or a bad guy? Why is the Deer God a god? Is that a Japanese thing? Is he a good god or a bad god?”

To be fair, Alpert does praise the contributions of English language script-writer Neil Gaiman and the Hollywood talent – such as Minnie Driver, Billy Crudup and Gillian Anderson –  who had the difficult job of giving voice to the characters. Even the film’s Japanese distributors had been uncomfortable with certain aspects  – such as limbs being sliced off and characters who were lepers and prostitutes. Miyazaki smiled, thanked them for their feedback and ignored it.

In Alpert’s telling, Miyazaki is an enigmatic figure, generous and self-effacing, but with a will of steel. When a film is completed, Miyazaki is wont to suggest that the team of animators should be fired, to give them a sense of what is at stake, and then rehired for the next production. Nobody is sure whether he is joking.

One revealing anecdote concerns Miyazaki being offered vintage port at a posh New York restaurant. Though he rarely eats out and doesn’t drink much, he sent the port back on the grounds that it was not forty years old as claimed. The waiter protested that it was. Miyazaki was adamant. The bottle was checked, and it turned out he was right. Miyazaki brings the same kind of accuracy to his anime work. As with Akira Kurosawa, every detail has to be right, including those that the viewers would never consciously notice.

Miyazaki was dubbed “the never-ending man” by his colleagues because of his indefatigable creative energy.  But artistic accomplishment is not enough for an independent film company to enjoy four decades of extraordinary box office success. Alpert’s memoir is also business story as it portrays two powerful characters who provided the commercial infrastructure which enabled Miyazaki’s talents to thrive.

Toshio Suzuki, producer and marketing strategist, subverts every stereotype about the risk-averse, consensus-seeking Japanese salaryman.  An instinctive contrarian who pays no heed to conventional wisdom, he is in Alpert’s view “one of the most brilliant people to ever market anything.”

Then there is company president Yasuyoshi Tokuma, the old school entrepreneur whose gut instinct led him to back Ghibli and Miyazaki in the mid-1980s. A blustering teller of tall tales who is also a fount of wisdom, the late Tokuma is described as “your grandfather on steroids.” He deserves a book in his own right, but short of that we have his recipe for personal and career success.

Don’t let anyone write the screenplay of your life. Make your ambitions high. Real men don’t apologize. And always remember, if you need money, the banks have plenty of it.

Words to live by.

Steal All the Clocks: Terayama, Yoko Ono and The Beatles Pt.6

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 03/10/2020 - 7:06am in

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culture

In 1960s Japan, there was a particular institution which acted as an incubator for the burgeoning avant garde.

The Sogetsu Art Centre was sponsored by the Sogetsu school of Ikebana (flower arrangement), which was famous for its emphasis on individual creativity. Active from 1958 to 1971, the Art Centre was set up and run by Hiroshi Teshigahara, son of the founder of Sogetsu.

Teshihara's large-scale piece in memory of composer Toru Takemitsu in 1996 Teshigahara’s large-scale piece in memory of composer Toru Takemitsu (Hiroshima, 1996)

Teshigahara, later to become the leader of the Ikebana school, was an unusual figure. While still a university student, he joined a clandestine unit of the Japan Communist Party tasked with violent revolutionary activity and got involved in a failed attempt to blow up the Ogouchi Dam in Okutama, north of Tokyo, in 1951.  After that brush with the law, he channelled his radical impulses into artistic endeavours.

A film-maker in his own right, he has a small but highly-respected body of work to his name, including Woman in the Dunes (1962), a classic of the Japanese nouvelle vague, and Rikyu (1988), a biopic about the sixteenth century tea-master. Teshigahara was also active as a potter, set designer for opera and theatre and an innovative practitioner of Ikebana.

Woman in the Dunes – directed by Teshigahara, from a novel by Kobo Abe, with music by Toru Takemitsu. All three were associated with the Sogetsu Art Centre.

Under Teshigahara’s leadership, the SAC hosted noted foreign avant gardists such as painter Robert Rauschenberg and dancer-choreographer Merce Cunningham, as well as young Japanese poets, musicians, film makers, and other artists.

Figures appearing in the annual record included modernist poet Shuntaro Tanikawa, jazzman Sadao Watanabe, graphic designer Tadanori Yokoo, film director Nagisa Oshima and butoh pioneer Tatsumi Hijikata, all destined for great prominence in their respective fields.

Terayama first appears in the SAC record in 1959, when he took part in a poetry-reading. A play he wrote was performed there in 1964, and in 1967 Terayama debuted his newly formed theatre troupe, Tenjo Sajiki, with two performances of The Hunchback of Aomori at the SAC.

In 1970, shortly before the SAC was to close permanently, he screened his best-known experimental film there, Emperor Tomato Ketchup.

After ten years in New York, Yoko Ono returned to Japan in 1962. She naturally gravitated to the SAC, where she introduced Works of Yoko Ono, consisting of instructions for paintings, sound collages, poems and happenings. Later that year, she was on stage at SAC with John Cage, part of the series of ground-breaking concerts that produced what is known in Japan as “the John Cage shock”.

In 1964, SAC hosted the Yoko Ono Sayonara Concert, to mark her imminent departure from Japan. It included her proto-feminist performance artwork, Cut Piece. She was never to reside in her native country again.

The world of Japan’s 1960s avant garde was a small one. Terayama was on close terms with many of the SAC’s leading lights, such as poet Shuntaro Tanikawa, with whom he created Video Letter during his final illness in 1982-3. Another acquaintance was Yoko’s first husband, Toshi Ichiyanagi, who set a Terayama poem to music.

To what extent there was direct interaction with Yoko herself is unclear, but during her two year stay in Japan she and Terayama would certainly have been aware of each other’s presence and may well have viewed each other’s works.

Despite their drastically different backgrounds and artistic processes, they had several preoccupations in common. One is a macabre fascination with the children’s game Hide and Seek (see Part 4). Another is a distrust of clocks and man-made time, one of the building blocks of the modern world.

CLOCK PIECE

Steal all the clocks and watches

in the world.

Destroy them.

From Grapefruit, by Yoko Ono

A collaboration between Terayama and Yoko– in experimental film or surrealist theatre –  would likely have produced fascinating results, but their personalities and artistic goals were too different to make that possible.

Indeed, whether purposely or not, these two sacred monsters of the Japanese avant garde seem not to have made mention of each others’ existence.

What we do know is that in their very different ways they both dug The Beatles.

***

What’s French for Bullshit? Terayama, Yoko Ono and The Beatles Pt. 5

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 26/09/2020 - 7:22am in

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culture

Both Terayama and Yoko came of age in the early 1950s, which made them significantly older than The Beatles and other sixties icons. Nonetheless, they came to symbolize and influence the counterculture of the era.

The dynamic they shared was the drive to fuse avant garde ideas with mass entertainment. That would leave them open to charges of ruthless ambition and “selling out.”

Commercialism had always been suspect to the high priests of the avant garde. André Breton, prime mover of the pre-war surrealists, gave Salvador Dali the anagrammatic nickname “Avida Dollars” on account of the healthy income his paintings generated.

To Terayama, who idolized Dali and was later to visit him in Spain, and to Yoko commercial success part of the project. It meant that the message was getting across.

Notoriety and outrageousness were also part of the formula. They both understood the mesmerizing power of the mass media and courted controversy of any sort. The global phenomenon of pop music was an obvious channel for projecting their personas.

Terayama’s Toki niwa haha no nai ko no yo ni  was a million seller for singer Carmen Maki, and several of the hundreds  of other songs he wrote are well-known today. The music itself is accessible and catchy.

Yoko fused herself with the biggest band in the world at the height of their fame, sitting in on their recording sessions and releasing her own music with their help – some of it unsettlingly weird, some in a more conventional vein. For example –

There can be no better example of the fifties seeding the sixties than Yoko, in October 1966, bringing a request from John Cage to The Beatles. Cage wanted to use a Lennon-McCartney song manuscript in a book he was writing. Yoko, living in London at the time, visited the house of the Beatle who was the most knowledgeable about the avant garde.

That was Paul McCartney, who had absorbed all kinds of unusual influences from the artistically inclined family of his girlfriend, Jane Asher. He had attended a lecture by Italian composer Luciano Berio in 1966 and regularly sought out concerts featuring works by Berio, Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen.

This was at a time when John Lennon was still in his conservative rock’n roller phase and considered that avant garde was “French for bullshit.” George Harrison came up with a pun – “avant garde a clue.” Ringo’s opinion is unknown.

Paul McCartney, Barry Miles and Luciano Berio 1966. Paul McCartney, Barry Miles and Luciano Berio, February 1966.

In the end McCartney was not willing to hand over any Beatles material, so Yoko turned her attention to Lennon instead.

Imagine a different outcome. Imagine that the most avant garde Beatle at the time did in fact agree to supply Yoko with a song manuscript. Imagine that the bond created between them developed into a romantic liaison.

Imagine that Yoko collaborated with McCartney on his unreleased musique concrète piece from 1967, Carnival of Light, rather than with John Lennon on Revolution No.9 in 1968.

Imagine that it was Paul and Yoko that appeared naked together on a record cover; that they did a week long “bed-in”; that Paul sang Helter Skelter in Toronto while Yoko writhed in a laundry sack in front of him.

Imagine that Yoko became a permanent member of McCartney’s band Wings, featuring on keyboards and howling banshee backing vocals; that they are still performing together today.

Imagine. Imagine. Imagine.

There is no bird than can fly higher than the human imagination. Shuji Terayama

paulyoko5

Live Event: Could you be arrested for planting flowers in your street?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 15/09/2020 - 3:29pm in

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nature, culture

What guerrilla gardening reveals about our relationship with urban nature and culture. Part of the Humanities Cultural Programme, one of the founding stones for the future Stephen A. Schwarzman Centre for the Humanities.

Dr Elizabeth Ewart, Head of the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography at the University of Oxford joins JC Niala, one of her doctoral students to discuss human relationships to nature in cities. Dr Ewart has an interest in the anthropology of everyday practices such as gardening. JC Niala's doctoral research focuses on urban gardeners in Oxford and she is interested in the what their everyday practice reveals about the way we live.Working with the case study of guerrilla gardeners who operate in cities such as London and Oxford they will explore the interactions between different types of gardeners that challenge commonly held assumptions about nature and culture.

Biographies:
JC Niala
JC is a doctoral researcher with an interest in how people’s imaginations of nature, affects the environment. With a focus on urban practice, she has worked on food sovereignty projects in Kenya . JC has used verbatim theatre as a tool for community engagement with both adaptation and mitigation strategies for dealing with climate change. JC's current ecological project 'Plant an orchestra' brings together her love of music and trees.

Elizabeth Ewart
Elizabeth Ewart is Associate Professor in the anthropology of Lowland South America. Her research is with indigenous people in Central Brazil where she has lived and worked with Panará people. She is interested in the material and visual aspects of Amerindian lived worlds, including body adornment, beadwork, garden design and village layout and is also interested in the anthropology of everyday practices, such as child rearing and gardening.

More recently, she has been developing research in southwestern Ethiopia (together with Dr Wolde Tadesse), on local agriculture and food production, specifically in relation to a local staple, enset (Ensete ventricosum or Abyssinian banana), exploring the manifold connections between cultivation, cooking, animal husbandry, land custodianship and sense of wellbeing among Gamo communities in the southern Ethiopian highlands.

“One Love Chigusa”: Soji Shimada’s Homage to Tezuka

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 12/09/2020 - 8:38am in

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articles, culture

Published in Japan Forward 10/9/2020

The best science fiction is never about the future, but the present. One Love Chigusa, the latest offering from British publisher Red Circle, is a case in point.

Nominally set in the year 2091, Soji Shimada’s short novel deals with highly contemporary concerns, specifically what it means to be human in a world of advanced robotics and AI (Artificial Intelligence.)

The advent of artificial human-like beings has been a rich theme for speculative fiction ever since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published in 1818.

Now that we’ve been informed that “the singularity” –  runaway growth in machine intelligence to levels far beyond human capabilities – is just around the corner, the prospect no longer provokes horror. Rather, the most common response appears to be uneasy resignation and concern about what we humans may learn about our own limitations.

Perhaps that is why Shimada’s Beijing of 2091 is, for better or worse, not much different from Beijing in 2020. People still use email, drink coffee in coffee-bars and work in factories. There are even magazines who employ illustrators like our hero, Xie.

There is, however, one technological leap that we learn about straightaway. Xie is badly injured in a motorbike crash and undergoes radical surgery, including an AI implant in part of his brain. The effect is to change his perception of reality.

There was an unpleasant metallic noise, a ringing coming from somewhere. He saw everything in a flash. The cliff behind him was in fact made of grey metal. Xie’s latent memory had allowed him to see this as real nature.  But the truth was much different. Metal the dull colour of lead, iron reddened with rust, all piled together…

Worse than the physical environment are its inhabitants. Women with demonic red-black faces and mechanical bodies that display monetary amounts constantly scrolling up and down. Men with transparent skin exposing their skulls and mouths stretching from ear to ear.

Xie is an unreliable narrator, misogynist, misanthropic and brain-damaged to the extent of experiencing auditory and visual hallucinations. Or perhaps they are not hallucinations, but true pictures of what the world is really like – and what everyone else perceives is simply a comfortable collective illusion.

Tellingly, the book’s epigraph describes it as “a homage to Osamu Tezuka.” Tezuka, the creator of Astro Boy, Simba the Lion and Blackjack, is known in Japan as ”the God of Manga.”  His influence here is indirect, but powerful.

Tezuka is sometimes associated with a naïve faith in technology, but much of his later work is dark and nihilistic. As manga authority Frederik L. Schodt explains in The Astro Boy Essays, even Mighty Atom, Tezuka’s early hit series, tackled difficult topics such as racial discrimination and war. When the ground-breaking anime version was exported to the US as Astro Boy, it had to be toned down.

American TV company NBC cut scenes of violence, anything close to nudity and references to drugs, religion and nuclear war. Characters that had been killed were presented as having been knocked unconscious. Material that Japanese kids absorbed without problem was considered too strong for their American equivalents.

In the words of the Japanese theme song, Astro Boy himself is “a pure-hearted child of science.” It’s always the humans that are the problem.

In Schodt’s estimation, Astro Boy would pass the Turing test, –  a way  of distinguishing machine intelligence from human intelligence, devised by British scientist Alan Turing. Even so, he is not fully human because he cannot feel love or fear.

Shimada’s story is an exploration of that problem. The pure heart of an android is a vacuum. It behaves “ethically” because it has been programmed that way. If we converge with non-human intelligence, will we become more ethical, less fearful and less loving?  If androids converge with us, will they become less ethical, more fearful and loving? What elements of human nature are worth saving anyway?

If you want some some answers, follow the story of Xie to the end.

Soji Shimada is Japan’s most celebrated writer of  honkaku (authentic) mysteries, those that focus on the ‘whodunnit’ element rather than social problems or character development.

His Detective Mitarai series, which began with The Tokyo Zodiac Murders (available in English translation), has sold more than five million books in Japan, and he has an enthusiastic following in China, Thailand and elsewhere in Asia. He has even established a Soji Shimada Prize for honkaku mystery novels written in Chinese.

For many years, Shimada split his time between Los Angeles and Kichijoji, on the west side of Tokyo. That may have encouraged his decision to site his android story in a generically modern Beijing rather than a more familiar future Tokyo. Tezuka did something similar with Astro Boy, “de-japanizing” the locale in which the android boy conducts his adventures. Here too the landscape in which mankind confronts its own eventual replacement is anywhere and nowhere.

As is customary with Red Circle books, One Love Chigusa is an original work that has not previously appeared in print in any language. In something of a coup for the publishers, they have secured the services of Sir David Warren, former British ambassador to Japan, who provides the smooth translation.

For once, Soji Shimada comes up with a puzzle which has no solution, but leaves the reader with plenty to think about.  His story is a welcome addition to the Red Circle roster.

The Ghost of Kurosawa: A Samurai Videogame Channels History

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 05/09/2020 - 6:50am in

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articles, culture

Published in the Nikkei Asian Review  2/9/ 2020

I hold my trusty sword in the moon stance.

With my grimacing red mask and stag’s antlers sprouting from my helmet, I almost scare myself.

Having nourished my bodily strength in the hot spring and hardened my resolve by praying at the fox’s den, I’m ready for anything.

The enemy edges towards me, the flames flickering behind him…

This is the scene on my Play Station 4 screen as I hit pause, put down my controller and get another beer from the fridge.

Role-playing video games eat up an inordinate amount of time. Even dedicated otaku – “geeks”, in English — can take over 50 hours to complete The Ghost of Tsushima, the game I’ve been playing.

For a bumbling beginner like me, whose last brush with a console game was a few minutes on Guitar Hero many years ago, it would take longer than rereading the works of Dostoevsky.  Even so, as a long-time fan of samurai movies, I found the game utterly compelling.

Tsushima, the brainchild of American developer Sucker Punch, has been a sensational success since its release in July. Global sales of 2.4 million in the first three days made it the fastest-selling original title for PS4.

In Japan several stores ran out of stock almost immediately, and it earned a perfect score from the Famitsu gamer magazine – the ultimate accolade for a Japan-themed creation.

The story is based on historical fact. In 1274, Mongol forces invaded the island of Tsushima, situated halfway between mainland Japan and Korea, massacring the defending samurai  and much of the population. With Korea already forced into vassalhood, Kublai Khan planned to incorporate Japan into his continent-spanning Mongol Empire – an ambition that was later shattered by the kamikaze (“divine wind”) that wrecked his fleet off Kyushu.

In Tsushima, the Mongols’ nemesis is not a typhoon but Jin Sakai, a young samurai who survived the initial onslaught and decides to fight back. The “cinematography” is often superb – one flashback of a much younger Jin practicing swordsmanship under falling cherry blossom is particularly memorable.

The influence of legendary director Akira Kurosawa is clear. Unsurprisingly so, since the game’s art director Jason Connell is a Kurosawa fan who went through the great man’s oeuvre as preparation and cites Ran, Kurosawa’s late masterpiece, as a particular inspiration.

Indeed, if you opt for “Kurosawa mode,” you can experience the entire game in weathered black-and-white with slightly compressed sound. Turn on the Japanese language speech with English subtitles and you almost expect to see actor Toshiro Mifune stroll into view with a trademark toothpick jutting from his lips.

Great films are not just about the visuals. They take you on the kind of emotional journey that is beyond the capability of a videogame. Or is it? The Ghost of Tsushima does provide moral dilemmas and intriguing back-stories for the characters.

Ghostpic3

Jin was a weakling as a youth and bitterly regrets his failure to save his badly wounded father from a bandit. Now he is a ruthless guerilla fighter willing to use all possible means –  poison darts, smoke bombs, stabbing men as they sleep –  to repel the invaders. Lord Shimada, his uncle and former mentor, is appalled by his “dishonourable” methods.

When the Mongols came ashore they were not only merciless, but also equipped with gunpowder weapons that the defending Japanese had never seen before.  Jin prioritizes the survival of his clan and, by extension, the independence of Japan. Shimada adheres rigidly to the samurai ethos.

Pragmatism over ideology – it is a conflict that recurs in Japanese history, from the rebellion of Saigo Takamori in 1877 to the end of the Pacific War, when schoolgirls with wooden staves were expected  to resist an American invasion.

Jin comes to understand that he can accomplish nothing alone, that he needs allies. Prime amongst them is Yuna, a tough thief who accompanies Jin and gives him advice. True to movie convention, they learn from each other – Yuna  transforming into a female samurai, Jin becoming more patient and cunning.

In the climactic scene – spoiler alert – Jin is confronted with a deadly existential choice that Kurosawa might well have admired. One path would restore his samurai status at heavy cost, the other would condemn him to the disgraced life of an outlaw. In a film, you would be a passive observer of the decision. In the game, you decide yourself – and feel regret afterwards, no matter which path you choose.

The conventional wisdom is that videogames are for nerdy youngsters with too much time on their hands, yet The Ghost of Tsushima hints at much greater artistic potential for the medium. Who knows – perhaps the Kurosawas of the future will be game developers.

The Triumph of Imagining: Terayama, Yoko Ono and The Beatles Pt. 4

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 08/08/2020 - 6:55am in

 

Stuck as “it” in a game of hide-and-seek, I grow old

Who shall I seek at the village festival

From the tanka poetry collection To Die in the Country, by Shuji Terayama.

 

Hide-And-Seek Piece

Hide until everyone goes home

Hide until everyone forgets about you

Hide until everyone dies

From Grapefruit, by Yoko Ono.

***

The children’s game of hide-and-seek was one of Terayama’s obsessions. Echoing the traumas of his childhood, he imagined a seeker (the oni, or devil, in the Japanese version of the game) who would never find the hiders. Abandoned and ostracized, he would have to carry on seeking them for the rest of his life..

Yoko is a hider. She knows you can win the game by a) finding the best hiding place, b) outliving all the other players.

Which is, more or less, what she has done.

***

Yoko Ono and Shuji Terayama were born just two years apart, in 1933 and 1935 respectively, but their circumstances could hardly have been more different.

Yoko was a member of the Yasuda clan which controlled the Yasuda zaibatsu (industrial group). Her family was highly international, her father being a senior banker with the Yokohama Specie Bank, which handled foreign exchange transactions in the pre-war era. Yoko moved to San Francisco at the age of two, then to New York in 1940, before returning to Japan as the storm clouds of war gathered.

In Tokyo, she lived in the exclusive Azabu district and was educated at Gakushuin, the Eton of Japan, where the future Emperor Akihito was her classmate. In 1951, she became the first female philosophy undergraduate at Gakushuin University, studying Heidegger and Kierkegaard.

After the economic reforms imposed by the Occupation authorities, the Yasuda family no longer controlled the Yasuda industrial group, but nonetheless they were very comfortably off. Yoko could do what she wanted – which was to attend college in New York, where her parents had re-established themselves, and get involved with the burgeoning avant garde in its new global capital.

In stark contrast, Shuji Terayama  came from one of the poorest and most remote parts of Japan. He liked to claim that he was born aboard a moving train and thus had no hometown. In reality, he was born in Hirosaki, a market town in Aomori Prefecture, in the far north of Honshu, Japan’s main island.

Even in the 1960s, Aomori  was a twenty hour train ride away from Tokyo. Throughout his career, Terayama deliberately stressed his local accent which he considered a badge of authenticity, in contrast to the lifeless language of authority that was standard Japanese..

Terayama’s father was a policeman who died of disease in South East Asia after being conscripted into the Japanese army. Terayama and his mother were burnt out of house and home by the American air-raids of July 1945.

After the end of the war, Terayama’s mother went to work as a cleaner on the American airbase in nearby Misawa. Then, when he was thirteen years old, she moved to an American base in far distant Kyushu, leaving him in the care of a relative who operated a cinema.

Japan’s war destroyed Terayama’s family and almost killed him. He also personally experienced the stunning reversal of values that followed –  in a few months the Americans went from hated enemy to his mother’s economic lifeline.

What had seemed to be solid reality (Japanese Imperialism, Emperor-worship, martial virtues) suddenly melted away like a bad dream. In its place a totally different reality (democracy, pacifism, equality) had appeared.

Or was that a fiction too?

Child dictators - from Emperor Tomato Ketchup Child dictators – from “Emperor Tomato Ketchup”, Terayama’s best-known experimental film

Yoko’s war experience was much less visceral. Upscale Azabu, where her family lived, was  never bombed. In the later stages of the war they fled to the comparative comfort of Karuizawa, a picturesque town in the foot-hills of the Japanese Alps which served as a summer getaway for Tokyo’s high society. Yet her civilian father was absent too – stationed in Vietnam, then interned there.

Even in Karuizawa, where Yoko was to holiday with John Lennon in the 1970s, food was hard to come by. Yoko’s aristocratic mother was reduced to bartering foreign-made household implements for supplies of rice. When her younger brother complained of hunger, the pre-teen Yoko would get him to “imagine” a lavish meal for them both to eat.

This prefigured  the Imagine instruction pieces in Grapefruit and, indeed, the song Imagine itself, which is now credited to “Lennon-Ono.”

The annihilative destruction of modern war can have powerful cultural consequences, sweeping away pre-existing values and ushering in new artistic movements – such as surrealism, Dada and literary modernism after the First World War.

A similar current swept through Japan in the 1950s and 1960s, taking inspiration from the original European avant garde and native traditions, and adding post-war inventions such as ankoku butoh (“the dance of darkness”).

When reality collapses, imaginary worlds suddenly seem more dependable.

To be continued.

Top 10 Olympic Movies: From Clint Eastwood to Chris Marker

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 01/08/2020 - 4:45pm in

Tags 

articles, culture

Published in Japan Forward 1/8/2020

Covid-19 may have deprived us of this year’s Tokyo Olympics, but there are plenty of Olympic-themed films that are well worth watching instead. They range from warm-hearted comedies to tense thrillers and dark human dramas.

Most are based on true stories, with subsequent real-life events adding another layer of interest.  Many deal with the conflict between the lofty ideals of the Games –  “the harmonious development of humankind,” according to the Olympic Charter – and the messy reality of commercialism, cheating and political agendas.

That contradiction was there from the start. The founder of the modern Olympics was the French aristocrat, Baron de Coubertin, whose statue can be found outside the Japan Sports Association building in Tokyo.

Coubertin statue in Tokyo Coubertin statue in Tokyo

Coubertin, born in 1863 to a royalist family, was highly conscious of France’s loss of status in the nineteenth century, symbolized by the Prussian army besieging and taking Paris in 1871. That was shortly followed by the establishment of the Paris Commune, a radical socialist collective that held the city for two months before being bloodily suppressed.

Against such chaos, the Olympic ideal offered the promise of order and hierarchy. From Britain, the leading power at the time, Coubertin took the idea that “organised sport can create moral and social strength.” By rejecting professionalism, Coubertin’s Olympic movement ensured that the Games would exclude the proletariat.

Just as the Olympics has always been political, its relationship with films goes back a long way too. The first official documentary is of the 1912 Summer Games in  Stockholm, which featured such luminaries as Native American athlete Jim Thorpe – later to be stripped of his medals for playing semi-pro baseball – and the future General George Patton, who competed in the Modern Pentathlon.

The first Hollywood take on the Olympics was Million Dollar Legs (1932, directed by Edward F. Cline), a wacky comedy starring W.C. Fields. The Berlin Olympics of 1936, which an ageing Coubertin had lobbied for, was commemorated by the most notorious official documentary of all, Olympia (1938), Leni Riefenstahl’s visually dazzling work of Nazi propaganda.

The Olympics even won an Oscar, when Chariots of Fire (1981, directed by David Puttnam) collected the award for Best Picture. The film, which can be considered a kind of riposte to Olympia, depicts the respectful rivalry between two runners from very different backgrounds at the 1924 Olympics.

One is a British Jew who is determined to succeed in order to overcome antisemitic prejudice. The other is a China-born Scottish Christian who refuses to run on Sundays out of religious conviction. In later life, the former had a long career as a BBC sports journalist, including covering the Berlin Olympics. The latter died at the age of 45 in China, where he had continued his parents’ missionary work.

So there is a great variety of Olympic-related films to choose from. Here are some of my personal favourites, organized into three categories – Summer Olympics, Winter Olympics and Documentaries.

Chariots of Fire doesn’t make the grade, despite its stirring theme music. I prefer stories about losers and untalented oddballs to those about winners winning.

For some reason, the Winter picks are all comedies, while the Summer films are not funny at all.

 

SUMMER GAMES CATEGORY

Gold Medal: The Ballad of Richard Jewell (2019, directed by Clint Eastwood)

The 90-year old Eastwood’s latest is nominally the story of a hapless security man wrongly accused of planting a bomb at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. In reality, it is a searing portrait of today’s left-behind America, devoid of economic opportunity and self-respect, hankering for authority.

Jewell, superbly acted by Paul Walter Hauser, is fatherless, obese, clumsy and naive. His one-in-a-million shot at proving his worth is snatched from him by the forces of the Deep State (a procedure-abusing F.B.I.) and the “fake news” peddling media industry (a ruthless female reporter).

In real life, the reporter died of a prescription drug overdose in 2001, also a feature of today’s America. Jewell himself died from complications of diabetes in 2007 at the age of 44. He may not have survived Covid-19.

 

Silver Medal: Foxcatcher (2014, directed by Bennett Miller)

“This is an Olympic gold medal. I won this… This is more than some piece of metal. It’s about what the medal represents, the virtues required to attain it…”

So speaks a stone-faced Mark Schultz to a hall of schoolchildren. Schultz and his more charismatic brother, Dave, both won gold medals at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics in the sport of free-style wrestling. Those Olympic virtues Mark cites are tested to breaking point when he falls under the influence of the cocaine-snorting wrestling obsessive, John E. du Pont, a member of the du Pont industrial dynasty.

Du Pont plans to train up a team of wrestlers for the next Olympics at his enormous private estate, Foxcatcher. In his world of super privilege, anything can be bought. Just as his mother paid a boy to befriend him when he was a child, so he uses his wealth to buy the friendship and loyalty of the Schultz brothers and then attempts to force them apart.

The ancient sport of wrestling – introduced to the Olympics in 708 B.C. – proves no more immune to the corrupting force of money and power than any other.

 

Bronze Medal: Munich (2008, directed by Steven Spielberg)

Munich 1972  was the most disastrous Olympic Games ever. Terrorists from the Black September radical Palestinian group infiltrated the Olympic village – possibly with the help of East German athletes – and  slaughtered eleven members of the Israeli squad. The ugly reality of political violence shattered the pacifist pretensions of the “Olympic Spirit” once and for all. More of that in the Documentary Category.

The film focuses on Israel’s response, the “Wrath of God” assassination campaign directed at those deemed to have been involved in the massacre. Given the background, the treatment was bound to be controversial, but Spielberg’s handling of moral ambiguities and inner conflict leaves plenty of space for the audience to make up its own mind.

 

WINTER GAMES CATEGORY

Gold Medal: Eddie the Eagle (2016, directed by Dexter Fletcher)

“Winning, losing, all that stuff is for the little people. Men like us, we jump to free our souls.”

So says Matti “the Flying Finn” Nykanen, triple gold medallist at the 1988 Calgary Games, to Eddie the Eagle Edwards as they take the ski-lift together to the top of the runway.

In real life, the exchange never happened, but it should have. Eddie was the ultimate sporting misfit. A working-class, self-taught jumper with only twenty months of experience, the Englishman was there thanks to a loophole in the qualification rules which was swiftly closed afterwards.

At the same time, he was the ultimate Olympian, who never gave up despite a childhood handicap and being mocked and dismissed as a fool every step of the way. He never did less than his best, which was enough to get him into the competition final.

In real life, Michael “Eddie the Eagle” Edwards went bankrupt after his spell in the limelight, but then took his A-levels and earned a law degree. He still works as a builder and plasterer and makes occasional media appearances. He loved the film, which he considers to be an accurate portrayal of his heart and soul, if only 5% accurate.

Fate was not so kind to Nykanen, who died at the age of 55. After retirement, he became an alcoholic, married five times, did jail-time for spousal abuse and stabbing a man in a pizza bar and worked as a male stripper.

He is still considered the greatest ever ski-jumper.

 

Silver Medal: Cool Runnings (1993, directed by Jon Turteltaub)

The 1988 Winter Olympics must have been a dream come true for plucky underdogs, with the Jamaican bobsleigh team following on from Eddie the Eagle. Eddie was given a fictional mentor in the shape of a drunken former champion, now reduced to ski bum status. The Jamaicans have an equally flawed fictional coach – Irv Blitzer, a bobsleigh gold medalist who was drummed out of the sport for cheating.

Irv: You wanna know why I cheated, right?

Bannock: Yes, I do.

Irv: That’s a fair question. It’s quite simple, really. I had to win. You see, Derice, I’d made winning my whole life. And when you make winning your whole life, you have to keep on winning, no matter what. You understand that?

Bannock: No, I don’t understand. You won two gold medals. You had it all.

Irv: Derice, a gold medal is a wonderful thing. But if you’re not enough without one, you’ll never be enough with one.

Perhaps Matti Nykanen could have done with a mentor like Irv.

 

Bronze Medal: I Tonya (2017, directed by Craig Gillespie)

We’re back in low-income, rough-and-tumble America. This time the criminal act is depicted in blackly comic terms, with a cast of absurdly incompetent conspirators and conflicting narratives of what happened.

Tonya Harding is a brash, working-class girl who has an extraordinary talent for figure skating and a monstrous mother. The only American to have completed a triple axel jump, she is competing for a place in the U.S. team for the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer. Her great rival is Nancy Kerrigan, middle-class, well-mannered and conventionally cute.

As in Foxcatcher, Olympic glory brings out the worst in human nature. As in Richard Jewell’s story, a sensation-hungry media feasts on the fallen.

In real life, Tonya capitalized on her brief notoriety by selling a sex tape and appearing on trashy TV shows, before trying her luck as a professional boxer. Nancy landed a contract with Disney, then turned professional skater, appearing in Broadway on Ice and other ice shows.

That might as well have been scripted too.

 

DOCUMENTARY CATEGORY

Gold Medal: Tokyo Olympiad (1965, directed by Kon Ichikawa)

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The  original plan was for Akira Kurosawa, to film the official record of the 1964 Olympic Games. He even went to Italy for the 1960 games to prepare, but his demands proved too rich for Japan’s Olympic Committee to swallow. Instead, Kon Ichikawa took up the challenge.

His film is a Kurosawa-esque epic, nearly three hours long and requiring 103 cameras and a total staff of 550. On board were avant garde composer Toshiro Mayazumi and Japan’s most famous modern poet, Shuntaro Tanikawa.

From the opening shots of a glaring primeval sun and a wrecking ball demolishing aged pre-war buildings, the film was never going to be a simple record of sporting achievement.

Instead we get close-ups of the duck-like waggling of the speed walkers’ behinds, the bloodied feet of the marathon-runners, the grimaces of the weight-lifters. In Ichikawa’s panorama, the results hardly seem to matter.

Japan’s Minister of Education hated it, as did the Minister for the Olympics who wanted to have another film assembled instead. On release it became Japan’s largest grossing film and is now considered a masterpiece of the genre.

2020-07-30 (6)

 

Silver Medal: Olympia (1938, directed by Leni Riefenstahl)

In 1944, Leni Riefenstahl finished filming Tiefland, an opera-based melodrama in which she also starred. She was forty two years old and the only female film director of note in the world. Although she lived until 2003, she was effectively blackballed from the industry and never made another film.

The problem was not just that she had produced Nazi propaganda, but that the she had done it with such brilliance. The Triumph of the Will (1935), which glorified a Nazi rally at Nuremberg, won the gold medal for artistic merit at the World Exhibition in Paris, just three years before Hitler invaded France.

Olympia is the cinematic equivalent of Wagner. The camera dwells on the physical beauty and indomitable will-power of the god-like athletes, including “non-Aryans” like Japanese marathoners and black American quadruple gold medallist, Jesse Owens.

Leni’s innovations were remarkable. She dug a pit under the pole-vault to film the jumpers against the sky. She catapulted a camera along a rail to catch the sprinters in close-up. In the famous diving sequence, she used slow-motion, reverse motion and an accelerating rhythm of cuts to turn the humans into bird-like creatures, arcing through the air with geometrical perfection.

It took her two years to edit the film, working by herself for ten hours a day. Even today, some of the effects are stunning.

 

Bronze Medal: One Day in September (1999, directed by Kevin Macdonald)

Munich was the birthplace of Nazi-ism. The Olympic Stadium was just six miles from Dachau. In the words of narrator Michael Douglas, “the Germans saw the Games as an opportunity to erase the negative memories of the 1936 Olympics.”  But terror group Black September, according to the lone surviving perpetrator, saw the 1972 Olympics – the first to be beamed worldwide by satellite – as an opportunity to “showcase” their cause.

What is also showcased in the film is the stunning incompetence of the German authorities and the callousness of the Olympic Committee who decided that “the Games must go on.” Even after the bullet-ridden naked body of an Israeli hostage is thrown from a window, other athletes continue to sun themselves on loungers and play table-tennis just two hundred yards away.  Writer Gerald Seymour, on the spot as a reporter, recalls that there was “something selfish, slightly obscene about the atmosphere in the rest of the village.”

Using the double perspective of commentary by the widow of the fencing coach and the last surviving terrorist, in deep cover somewhere in Africa, the film commemorates this first dreadful instance of terror as global spectacle.

 

SPECIAL CATEGORY

Pierre de Coubertin Medal for Olympic Spirit:  Olympia 52 (1953, directed by Chris Marker)

Chris Marker is said to be France’s most famous unknown film director. A Japanophile, he first visited Japan in 1964 to view the Tokyo Olympics and made a short film, The Mystery of Kumiko (1965), incorporating sequences from the Games.

Later, he made a documentary about Akira Kurosawa – A.K. (1985) – and had a bar in Shinjuku’s Golden Gai named after his own most esteemed film, La Jetée (1962). Japan is a large presence in his other important film, Sunless (1982).

Olympia 52 was Marker’s first film. Unimpressed by his own efforts, he effectively buried it. Some sequences are available in awful quality on Youtube, but it was never issued on DVD and is never shown in cinemas. However, good quality extracts can be found in a film about the film, Regard Neuf Sur Olympia 52 (2013, directed by Julien Faraut).

That’s enough to appreciate the poetic flow of Marker’s Olympic commentary and his idiosyncratic close-ups of the spectators and fascination with odd details.

 

 

The Geopolitics of Travel Bubbles

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 11/07/2020 - 7:15am in

Published in the Nikkei Asian Review 8/7/2020

To adapt Oscar Wilde, if there’s one thing worse than hordes of tourists everywhere, it’s no tourists anywhere. Such were my thoughts as my footsteps echoed through the deserted hallways of Narita Airport one evening in late June.

The lighting was dimmed as if for a funeral, and no refreshments were available except from the eerily glowing vending machines. However, I did get personal service from a cluster of masked and gloved immigration personnel who politely asked me why I was leaving Japan and warned that, given the circumstances, I might not be allowed back.

My flight to Europe was the only one scheduled, and I was nervous that it might yet be cancelled, as had happened twice already. In the end, the plane was about one third full.

Alcoholic drinks and tea and coffee were off the menu, and the only meal on offer for the twelve hour journey was a compressed wodge of pasta. The highlight was receiving an illicit cup of coffee from a friendly stewardess who was making some for the pilots.

At the other end, Schiphol Airport was just as empty. Searching for an exit that was not locked, I wandered the corridors like the last man on earth.

tbubble

Is this what de-globalization looks like, I wondered. As Covid-19 recedes, economies are opening up, but international transport linkages are still in a state of dysfunction.

In many countries, government policy is a mess, with Britain at the forefront. After five months in Japan (8 Covid-19  deaths per million people), I find myself locked down in the UK  (640  Covid deaths per million people) thanks to the recently introduced compulsory quarantine for inbound travellers. The penalty for non-compliance is a stiff fine of one thousand pounds.

There is some good news, though. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has approved travel by ‘air bridges’ — sometimes called ‘travel bubbles’ — to and from several dozen “low risk” countries, mainly European or small Britain-dependent islands in the Caribbean.

Such arrangements are driven by politics, not health concerns. As with bilateral trade agreements, reciprocity is the name of the game.  Southern Europe needs the euros brought by north European tourists; it’s part of the financial glue that holds the eurozone together.

Despite Brexit, high-spending, hard-drinking British tourists are indispensable to countries like Spain. Fifteen million visits per year makes Spain by far the top destination for British tourists and the British by far the largest national group.

The reality is that Spain is by no means Covid-free and neither is Britain, but they have a shared interest in taking a certain amount of risk. It will be much more difficult for either to make deals with countries where the common interest is thin.

Something similar is happening in Asia, but with a heavy geopolitical flavour. Japan has eased travel restrictions with Australia, New Zealand, Thailand and Vietnam. In terms of infection risk, these are indeed some of the safest places in the world, but so are South Korea  and Hong Kong and they are not included in the easing.

Australia and New Zealand are unofficial allies of Japan, and both are members of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing group (the others being the US, the UK and Canada) that Japan would dearly like to join. Thailand is a vital off-shore production base for Japanese companies like Honda and Canon, and increasingly for small and medium scale enterprises.

Likewise, Vietnam has become a credible alternative to China  for Japanese direct investment,  with Komatsu and Nintendo amongst the companies shifting production  there from its enormous neighbour.

Vietnam also happens to be a key source of labour for the domestic Japanese economy, which has been struggling with manpower shortages. The 400,000 Vietnamese workers in Japan comprise the second largest national  group,  just slightly fewer than the Chinese.

That takes us to the biggest issue of all. Chinese tourists have been the most visible manifestation of China’s rapidly expanding global footprint, with 160 million of them on the move in 2019. Which country  will be the first to make a “travel bubble” deal with China? For a tourism-driven economy like Thailand’s, Chinese tourists account for about 5% of GDP, a significant amount to lose.

Even Japan, much less dependent on the spending of foreign visitors,  had been expecting an increasing inflow of Chinese to meet the government’s ambitious target of 60 million tourists by 2030, compared  with 34 million in 2019 and just five million at the turn of the century.  In December last year, which now seems a lifetime away, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga even announced a government initiative to subsidize the construction of 50 luxury hotels.

My guess is that Thailand will open up to tourists from China, and indeed Europe, as soon as possible. Japan, though, will use the pandemic as an excuse to downgrade its ambitions of becoming a tourism super-power and, in particular, to modify its open door policy towards mainland Chinese visitors.

The Covid crisis has massively accelerated many pre-existing trends, such as remote working, online shopping and cashless payments. Another one, of great geopolitical import, is suspicion of China. The horse-trading over ‘travel bubbles’ is a foretaste of the hard choices that countries will have to make about how they align themselves in an era of global fracture and superpower rivalry.

Nowhere will the stakes be higher than in East Asia.

Bagism, Dragism, Madism: Terayama, Yoko Ono and The Beatles Part 3

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 27/06/2020 - 9:18am in

Yoko Ono and  Shuji Terayama were very different people from very different backgrounds, but they had several things in common.

Both were of a generation old enough to be marked by Japan’s catastrophic wartime defeat and young enough to incorporate the experience into the new kinds of artistic expression that flourished in the 1960s.

Both were determined to break out of the constraints of the artistic milieu in which they has gained  prominence –  traditional tanka poetry in Terayama’s case, the neo-Dada avant garde in Yoko’s case.

Both were blasted by traditional critics – Yoko as a talentless charlatan and publicity-seeker, Terayama for plagiarism, even self-plagiarism. And both had the fireproof self-confidence and ambition to shrug off the criticism and get to where they wanted to go.

There were also similarities in their artistic philosophy. In her early 1960s manifesto, The Word of a Fabricator, Yoko’s opening line reads I feel a strange attraction to the first man in human history who lied.

As Midori Yoshimoto of New Jersey City University explains, Yoko saw fabrication / lying as intrinsic  to the human experience.  This strongly  contrasted with  the ideas of John Cage, Yoko’s mentor, who used random “chance operations” to reveal  a supposed underlying, non-human “truth.”

Terayama also admired the art of lying and had little time for whatever lay outside human consciousness. In a famous aphorism, he declared My philosophy of life is that lies reveal human truth much better than reality. The reason is that reality would exist without humans, but without humans there would be no lies.

Both orchestrated elaborate jokes that played with notions of truth / lies. In 1970, Terayama presided over a funeral for Tooru Rikiiishi, one of the main characters in the wildly popular manga series Ashita no  Jo (“Tomorrow’s Joe”). Seven hundred mourners lined up to pay their respects as incense swirled, candles flickered and a real Buddhist priest chanted sutras.

 the deat of Rikiishi. Mourning a manga character: the death of Rikiishi.

Yoko’s version was a fictional solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York that “took place” in 1971. Without alerting the Museum, she placed advertisements in the Village Voice, had a catalogue printed and showed up on the prescribed day to film the crowd of would-be attendees, most of them mystified, some of them in on the joke.

Advertisement for Yoko's fictional exhibition Advertisement for Yoko’s fictional exhibition

The world is inside your head. You can make of it what you will. Terayama played with the concept throughout his career. Yoko took it much further.

Fabricating “John-and-Yoko”

The first edition of Yoko Ono’s book Grapefruit may have sold a minimal number of copies in 1964, but the second edition did a lot better six years later.

Issued by New York publishers Simon & Schuster, it had an introduction written by Yoko’s new husband that was short and to the point.

Hi, my name is John Lennon. I’d like you to meet Yoko Ono.

The book-signing event at Selfridges department store in London’s Oxford Street was mobbed by frenzied Beatles fans.

Book sighing at Selfridges Book signing at Selfridges

For Yoko, Grapefruit proved to be the gift that kept on giving. In 2018, she was awarded a writing credit for the song, Imagine, based on remarks that John Lennon made a few days before his death in 1980.

Actually, that should be credited as a Lennon-Ono song because a lot of it – the lyric and the concept – came from Yoko. But those days I was a bit more selfish, a bit more macho, and I sort of omitted to mention her contribution. But it was right out of Grapefruit, her book. There’s a whole pile of pieces about ‘Imagine this’ and ‘Imagine that.’ And give her credit now, long overdue.

John Lennon, interviewed by Andy Peebles of the BBC in December 1980.

Yoko’s influence on Lennon –  artistic, political and personal – was transformative.  Anti-war sentiment and feminism was in the air at the time, but both had been part of Yoko’s persona since the mid-1950s.

After the trauma of defeat and devastation in the Pacific War, pacifism was absolutely mainstream in Japan. Not so feminism, which was restricted to a tiny group of wealthy, artistically-inclined  families who retained some trace of the liberated values of the Taisho Era (1912-1926). That was the milieu that Yoko was born into.

Lennon had already experimented with avant garde techniques on Tomorrow Never Knows, the last track on Revolver, which was recorded well before he knew of Yoko’s existence. Yoko’s influence took him much further. The White Album track Revolution No. 9, cooked up by the two of them, was probably the most famous piece of musique concrete in the world at the time, while also being the least listened to Beatles number ever.

Likewise, the John-and-Yoko “bed-ins” that entertained and outraged straight society derived directly from the avant garde performances Yoko pioneered in the late fifties and early sixties. Indeed, Yoko  put on displays of “bagism” – the practice of  climbing into  a giant bag, either alone or with someone else, then stripping off and writhing around – with her second husband, Tony Cox, on the roof of their apartment in Shibuya, Tokyo.

Lennon referenced the concept in the lyrics of a song he wrote for his new group, the Plastic Ono Band, in 1968.

Everybody’s talking ’bout
Bagism, Shagism, Dragism, Madism, Ragism, Tagism
This-ism, that-ism, is-m, is-m, is-m,

All we are saying is give peace a chance

Yoko changed Lennon in a way that made it impossible for him to carry on as “Beatle John.” Likewise, Lennon changed Yoko in a way that made it impossible for to her remain an obscure avant gardist, putting on performances for handfuls of progressive intellecuals. In both cases, they were pushing on doors that were already half-open.

According to Midori Yoshimoto, Yoko’s pre-Lennon artistic stance was as follows: if you do a work of yours on the stage and the audience – all of it – walks out on you, then it’s a very successful concert, because that means that your work is so controversial, so far out that the audience could not accept it.

“Through Lennon,” Yoshimoto comments, “Ono learned about popular, mass culture, which was mainly sustained by the working class as opposed to the avant-garde of the upper middle class. The commercialism and populism of rock’n’roll music gradually made sense to her as a means of communicating with a large number of people.”

Shuji Terayama’s instincts led him in the same direction. He had already composed a macabre rockabilly song for an obscure Masahiro Shinoda film at time when The Beatles were still playing clubs in Hamburg.

Terayama was always happy to dash off a column for a weekly magazine or appear on TV at any opportunity. He even did a TV commercial for the Japan Horse Racing Association. Experimental films were interesting, but he wanted to make films and put on plays that would be surreal and challenging, but also fun and could be enjoyed by everybody. Likewise, he wanted to write songs that would be poetic, but also have mass appeal.

He didn’t want the audience to walk out. He wanted to pack them in.  Even “the cheap seats in the peanut gallery” (= Tenjo Sajiki, the name he chose for his theatre troupe) would be filled. He saw himself not as a John Cage or a Jonas Mekas, but more like a P.T. Barnum of the avant garde.

Both Terayama and Yoko saw the unique opportunity that the rock’n roll generation provided and grabbed it with both hands.

To be continued.

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