Seeing things and people in Tokyo.

So I’ve been in Tokyo for the last while. My time here has been extremely busy. No time for silly things like blogging. However, I have been thinking a good deal about this country and culture.

The one thought that I keep circling around is the idea that Japan is spending a good deal of energy and resources on innovation and development that is relevant only for the Japanese, and is still somehow failing to find ways to make their contributions resonate fully in the world community. I’ll try to come back to this point, but for now some vignettes of the week.

We spent the first couple of nights in Tokyo at the home of Yoji Sakate. Mr. Sakate is the artistic director of the Rinkogun company, and current head of the Japan Playwrights Association. I have known Sakate for about a decade now. We first met when I performed the simultaneous translation for a tour of Rinkogun’s Capital Of The City of the Gods. This was a significant tour for me in that it marked my first visit to New Orleans. I have since translated a number of Sacate’s plays and directed a reading of a section of his Attic. The last time I was in Japan was when I was here 6 years ago to create an adaptation of Moby Dick with RInkogun. So the first night we were in Tokyo, a bunch of the people who had worked on that show came over and we had about 17 tons of food and drink. It lasted late into the night.
I had a long conversation with Mr. Furumoto, Rinkogun’s managing director. He’s from Toyota, where I grew up, so we have always had an interesting bond. It was interesting to hear how the funding situation in Japan is getting more and more severe. GOS grants that had kept the company alive for most of it’s 25 years, have simply gone away. Despite the fact that Rinkogun and Sakate have won just about every award available to them, and are arguably one of the most firmly established companies in the country, they’re still having to re-invent the funding wheel every year to stay afloat.
There was a woman at the party that I did not know, who brought some food that she introduced as “macrobiotic”, informing us that it’s currently a big hit in the United States. This is a common trope, something that is barely on the radar in the U.S. is marketed here as a huge craze that is sweeping the United States. What struck me though was that she used the word “macrobiotic”. Now, I may be wrong about this, but my understanding is that the concept of macrobiotic food is based on “Shoujin Ryouri”, which is the food eaten in certain Japanese Buddhist monasteries. So there’s a perfectly good Japanese term for this stuff, which everyone in Japan would understand. “Macrobiotic” is, at best, clumsy in Japanese.

The next day, Akiko and I went down to Yokohama to have lunch with Akiko’s older sister and the elder of her two daughters. The ocean-front area of Yokohama around the new “Landmark Tower” is a futuristic architectural splurge with amusement parks, hotels and shopping malls arranged like the diorama of a theoretical cubist city. Post-modernism is alive and well in Yokohama. After lunch, Akiko and I went up to the top of the Landscape Tower (the tallest structure in Japan) on the elevator (the fastest elevator in Japan, although the certificate on display from Guiness said “Fastest Elevator” so I’m not sure if there’s a faster one anywhere). The view was spectacular. Even in Yokohama, which is technically past the southern border of Tokyo, the expanse of buildings is unending. You literally can’s see the edges of the city. It’s civilization as far as the eye can see, off past the curvature of the earth.

That night, Akiko went to see the dance company she used to dance with and Sakate met me at the Tokyo Public theatre to see Hanagumishibai’s new take on Chushingura. Hanagumishibai is a 20 year old company that has as it’s theme, the re-interpretation of Kabuki in a modern, unauthorized context. These guys (and yes, they’re all men) trained in the traditional techniques of Kabuki but are not part of the official Kabuki organization. I hadn’t seen their work in over 10 years, so I was curious to see how they were doing. I was a bit disappointed. Back in the day, the company had featured a friend of mine, the extraordinary Sasai Eisuke, as the principal Onnagata (specialist in playing women). Sasai was so compelling he became a kind of phenomenon all on his own. The times that I saw the company, the interplay between Sasai and company founder and director/performer Mr. Kanou was mind-blowing. These two guys were at the edges of their ability, weaving a totally new kind of cloth out of this ancient thread. Sasai has since left the company, and although Kanou is still really (and I mean REALLY) amazing on stage, the production as a whole felt safe. They have a lot of money now, the costumes look fabulous, the staging is gorgeous, but many of the very things that they began criticizing about official Kabuki are now features of their performance. It could have been because they were doing, perhaps, the most well worn play in the Kabuki cannon, but especially the first half was deadly boring.

The next day, Akiko and I moved to my brother Joel’s place for a night. After a beautiful walk through Tama Cemetery (resting place of Yukio Mishima, Edogawa Rampo, General Tojo and Admiral Yamamoto), we had dinner with Akiyo (an old friend from Toyota) and her two kids, so along with Joel’s family it was quite a crowd.

The next morning, with the help of Joel, I got a bunch of little fixes implemented on the blog. So if you haven’t noticed, things are working smoother and every-thing’s a bit prettier here at Leon’s blog.

Akiko and I then moved to a hotel in Ikebukuro, which was part of our old stomping grounds. That night we went to see Shiraishi Kayoko play the mother in Parco Theater’s production of The Beauty Queen of Leenan. For those who don’t know, Shiraishi Kayoko is the best stage actor in the world right now. I would qualify this as my opinion, but I’m not the only one who feels this way. She was Suzuki’s lead actor for the period of time when his work was important, and she was the progenitor of much of the so-called Suzuki Method. I was lucky enough to have my time with the Suzuki company and hers, overlapp by about 3 years, during which time we became quite close. She has toured to the United States twice with her “Hyakumonogatari” solo performances, and I have made a fool of myself on those occasions, distracting the audience with simultaneous translations. Aside from being a remarkable performer of the first order, she is also a fanatically loyal friend and one of my favorite people.
The production was directed by a new up-and-coming 32 year old whipper-snapper of a director. It was solid, but not brilliant as a production. As is appropriate to the material, the style of performance was naturalistic. But this raises one of the most interesting points about the production; Kayoko is anything BUT a naturalistic performer. She is a monster on stage. A huge theatrical presence of titanic proportions, and to the very depths of every bone in her body, theatrical. So for her, acting “normal” on stage is immensely difficult. What this meant is that everyone else on stage is coming from a place of comfort within the daily-life body of naturalistic performance, and reaching towards theatricality. Kayoko is starting from a place of intense theatricality and reaching towards daily-life. Which one do YOU think is more interesting to watch? For me it’s no contest. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. The character is a horrible, cruel, resentful hag of a woman. Kayoko makes her absolutely and terrifyingly vivid in all her ugliness and then makes you care about her. It was, in a word, stunning.
After the show Akiko and I and Kayoko and her Husband went to Roppongi for late night Chinese. At midnight it became Kayoko’s 66th birthday so we made a deal about that. She was born the day before the attack on Pearl Harbor. As she said, “…there’s always been something about me and America.”

The next day (Sunday), I met my childhood friend and ersatz guru Tom “Peach-fuzz” Eskildsen for breakfast. We then met up with Akiko, Ivar Eimon, Paul Hoshizaki and his wife Hiroko for lunch. These are all childhood friends of mine. We were eating at this really rather good “All the organic food you can eat in 90 mins for 1800 yen” place when another childhood friend who lives in Kobe, Loren Gilbertson called Ivar. It was about as close to a full-on reunion as I care for.

Ivar had to leave but the rest of us went over to the Ginza and walked around until Joel and Ruth showed up and we had Joel’s favorite thing to eat in the entire world An-pan fresh from Kimuraya. Kimuraya is a very old bakery on the Ginza and An-pan is a sweet bean-paste filled roll that originated there.

The party then shed those not related to the Ingulsruds and we went to big brother John E’s and after meeting up with Joel’s two girls, we had a pizza dinner surrounded by John and Kate’s 29th floor, panoramic view of Tokyo at night.

This morning we had to leave the hotel by 10 am leaving us the bulk of the day before our evening flight, so we went to Ueno (the Hard Rock Cafe spells it “Uyeno”), put our bags in a big locker, and went to Ryogoku; the Sumo district. The reason for this side trip was that we had not had any luck finding Tabi (Japanese formal socks with a bifurcated toe that we wear for Suzuki Training) in my size. For reasons that perhaps obvious to anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the sport, the Sumo district is a good place to look for anything oversized you might want in Japan. Please insert here one or more jokes at my expense comparing me to a sumo wrestler.

And now I’m at the airport. The tabi and everything else is checked in and we’re checked into that international limbo of intercontinental air travel. This has always been an emotionally and philosophically loaded space for me. I used to write poetry on airplanes a lot. Then I stopped writing poetry all together and the world was a better place.

I can’t say that I’m ready to go back. There are certain things/people I’m looking forward to seeing. But on the whole, I wish I’d been here longer. This is leading to a sense that I want to get back as soon as possible, and for as long as possible. I don’t want to be an ex-pat. I find them sad. But I do love this place and feel a bond to it, even if it’s only one way.

Then again, I want to live a life with lots of places that I miss.

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4 Responses to “Seeing things and people in Tokyo.”

  1. bondo says:

    Hi Leon, And welcome back. Thank you for the chance to read all this. I’ve been wondering about your experiences and what you’ve been doing – and THINKING about. One can feel you connection to place in this blog; and one can feel your ambivalence about leaving, about staying, about coming back USA-side, or not, it is in there. And I appreciate it. I, for one am glad to have you, and Akiko back. It did occur to me more than once that you might have stayed. I would not have been surprised. Truly.

    See you Thursday.

    I am staying at Barn & Michael’s

  2. sarah jane says:

    Hello Leon’s Blog. Please tell Leon I said hello. Has been wonderful reading about his adventures. Please notify upon return to New York as a cocktail on this side of the world is in order.
    In the name of Christmas Fanatics and Sumo Wrestlers,
    Sarah Jane

  3. Fascinating. I can sympathize with Bondo’s comment above regarding a lack of surprise at your choosing to stay, had that happened, but am far more glad at seeing you choose to return. I stand a much better chance of seeing you at work over here than over there! Then too, your entire branch of the family is so closely entwined with Japan, it seems only natural you would find yourself torn in loyalty.

  4. Ishmael says:

    Leon!

    I’ve read some of your old blogs on Katrina. Terrifying. It’s strange how it’s not a huge deal in America much anymore, how quickly it turned off from the news cycle and daily “consciousness”.

    Anyway, it’s great to read how you’re doing. Alaska’s going just well. Perseverance is changing, as always.

    Ishmael Hope