Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon


God Save the (Cultural) Village Green

Posted in Books,Change is Bad,Current Events,Japanese literature by bourdaghs on the January 31st, 2010

A few years back, as part of an ongoing project to rethink the works of novelist Natsume Soseki (1867-1916) in relation to the rise of modern regimes of property ownership, I wrote an article on him in relation to Mizuno Rentaro (1868-1949), chief architect of Japanese’s 1899 copyright law, a legal code that remained in effect — albeit with amendments — until 1970.

Under that law Soseki’s copyrights expired in the 1940s and his works entered the public domain. But in 1979, when Readers Digest Japan advertised a new series it was publishing that reproduced first editions of Soseki’s works, it found itself the target of multiple lawsuits filed by various publishing houses and other parties. The plaintiffs claimed that they held intellectual property rights in the physical appearance of those first editions. In essence, a moral right of authorship was being asserted for the acts of typesetting and printing of a book. As a result of out-of-court settlements in the Readers Digest Japan case, a new “right of reproduction” became standard in the Japanese publishing world. In a move the current U.S. Supreme Court would no doubt beam down upon with approval, the locus of the creative, original mental labor that was the original justification for copyright protection was shifted away from the personality of the author and onto the act of investment of the publishing house. Capital was granted the status of moral personality.

In a depressingly similar move, this week the NFL claimed ownership over the “Who Dat?” slogan used by fans of the New Orleans Saints football team. Though the phrase has a long history preceding the 1988 trademark registration filed by the team, the NFL is claiming exclusive authorship privileges and threatening to sue anyone who uses the phrase without permission. The NFL claim rests on very shaky legal ground; in fact, another business registered a trademark on the phrase several years before the Saints did, and the phrase has been in popular circulation for more than a century. But few small businesses or individuals have the financial capacity to engage in a court battle with a huge corporation like the NFL when it mounts this sort of intellectual enclosure.

This sort of situation is increasingly common in trademark law. Trademark originally was supposed to pertain only to specific, denoted meanings of a phrase, but increasingly legal decisions are expanding its domain to include secondary connoted meanings produced in the public commons by anonymous users of the phrase. Hence, McDonalds Corporation, for example, has claimed to own the nickname “Mickey D’s.” As legal scholar Rosemary Coombe notes:

The trademark owner is invested with authorship and paternity; seen to invest ‘sweat of the brow’ to ‘create’ value in a mark, he is then legitimately able to ‘reap what he has sown.’ The imaginations of consumers become the field in which the owner sows his seed—a receptive and nurturing space for parturition—but consumers are not acknowledged as active and generative agents in the procreation of meaning. The generation of new, alternative, or negative connotations are ignored, denied, or prohibited because patrilineal rights of property are recognized as exclusive: no joint custody arrangements will be countenanced.

(Coombe, The Cultural Life of Intellectual Properties: Authorship, Appropriation and the Law. Duke University Press, 1998, p. 71)

The author may be dead in literary studies, as we focus more on the dialogic process by which meaning is produced through the relationships between author, text, and the community of readers. But in trademark law, the High Romantic version of the Author as the seminal source of all Meaning remains alive–or, more accurately, undead, a kind of zombie creature that lives on by sucking the living blood of readers and, now, of football fans.

It’s another instance of what scholars like Kembrew McLeod (the man who trademarked the phrase “Freedom of Expression”) and James Boyle have attacked as the contemporary equivalent to the enclosure of public commons land during early capitalism. It’s depressing to watch Japan in recent years follow the lead of the U.S. (which in turn is following the lead primarily of the motion picture and television industry) and propose extending the length of copyright protection to seventy years. I’m not opposed to copyright per se, but we are seeing an alarming destruction of the public domain, assaults on the notion of fair use, and a general attempt to transform into private capital the cultural and intellectual discourse that by its nature must be shared in common.

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Passing Strange: The Movie

Posted in Film,Music by bourdaghs on the January 29th, 2010

I’ve been a big fan of musician Stew for more than a decade, since I first stumbled across his band The Negro Problem back in the late 1990s. He takes the sound of 1960s sophisticated California pop (think Arthur Lee and Love or Jimmy Webb) and updates it with lyrics that shimmer with wit, intelligence, and poetry. Throw in a remarkable gift for composing haunting melodies and you have a singer-songwriter who I think is a living national treasure. The best gift I ever gave Satoko was for Valentine’s Day 2006, when I was able to get Stew to record a personalized song for her commemorating the holiday. Satoko said it almost made up for all the other crummy presents I’d given her over the years.

So I was delighted when Stew’s musical, Passing Strange, won him some much deserved attention, including a Tony Award for its 2008 Broadway engagement. I thought about flying out to New York to see the show during its two runs there, but never made it. I did snap up the original cast recording CD when it was issued and fell in love with many of the songs on it.

In the end, though, I never saw the show live. Last night, I got to see Spike Lee’s film version, which records the final Broadway performance at the Belasco Theater. I was prepared to like this film, needless to say. But I wasn’t fully prepared for how powerful the experience was. It had me in tears more than once–that is, when I wasn’t laughing or tapping my foot in time to the music.

It’s a Portrait-of-the-Artist-as-a-Young-Man narrative combined with an electrifying rock show: Stew, his longtime collaborator Heidi Rodewald, and band are on stage the whole time, frequently interacting with the actors. The cast is astonishingly good. Many of the players take up multiple roles during the course of the evening, and it is sheer pleasure to watch them inhabit the bodies of radically different sorts of characters. Through it all, Stew serves as the avuncular narrator, stepping up to centerstage whenever the need arises for a rock-and-roll explosion. Spike Lee’s direction is lean but creative: he even gets a cast member to carry a video camera on stage to film one sequence (watch the Special Features section on the DVD for more about this).

I can only guess how much more powerful the show must have been live. It’s difficult to imagine another cast ever taking it on, so probably this filmed version is the best I’ll get. I hate to set you up with excessive expectations that no movie could ever satisfy; undoubtedly, the best way to encounter this would be to stumble across it unexpectedly and be blown away. But I’d hate for anyone to miss this one: do yourself a favor and watch the thing. It’s a work of art, and to paraphrase Stew, life is full of mistakes, but art is where we go to correct them.

A Ray of Hope

Posted in Music,The Kinks by bourdaghs on the January 27th, 2010

The gloom of winter: this morning, the radio newscaster announced that the wind chill factor outside was “4 below” and then, not five minutes later, amended that to “6 below.” Yikes. But things got a little more warm and cheery in Chicago yesterday, because we learned that Ray Davies is on his way: a new March U.S. tour was announced. It includes a March 13 gig here at the Riviera. The full tour schedule is available here.

On top of that, “Postcard from London,” Ray’s new duet with Chrissie Hynde, was officially released in the U.S. yesterday. You can download it at Amazon.com or at I-Tunes.

So I’m in a pretty good state of mind. And I’ve shut the radio off, because I don’t want to hear what the newscaster will say next.

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Symphony, Sumo, Symphony

Posted in Classical,Music,Sumo by bourdaghs on the January 24th, 2010

The weekend began Friday afternoon at Symphony Center for a matinee performance, Pierre Boulez leading the Chicago Symphony as part of the celebrations for his 85th birthday. I’d never seen the great man conduct before and was struck with his economy of motion: no over-emoting for him. Whatever the style, it worked: the orchestra played as well as I have heard it. The program opened with the latest incarnation of Boulez’ own Livre pour cordes, a particularly warm instance of serialism. They moved on from there to take on the tricky twists and turns of Bartok’s Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion and Orchestra, played brilliantly by Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich as the keyboard soloists. It’s a work in which Bartok explores the percussive nature of the piano, setting the keyboards in complex dialogues with drums, xylophones, and other struck instruments. The program closed with a thrilling rendition of Stravinsky’s The Firebird played in the full ballet version. John von Rhein, the Chicago Tribune’s classical music critic, was similarly enthusiastic in his review of the Thursday evening performance.

In the meanwhile, on the other side of the world, yokozuna Asashoryu, the bad boy from Mongolia, took charge of the New Year Sumo tournament. He wrapped up the title on Day 14. It was his 25th career championship, putting him in third place in the record book. The victory came in the final tournament for Uchidate Makiko, Asashoryu’s long-time nemesis on the Yokozuna Deliberation Council, making it all the more satisfying. Moreover, Asashoryu gave us yet another spectacular example of his trademark misbehavior during the tournament, coming close to getting himself arrested in a drunken brawl late at night after Day 6. The tournament, as expected, also saw the retirement of the great ozeki Chiyotaikai. Yokozuna Hakuho managed to defeat Asashoryu in their direct meeting on the final day, but that victory was purely moral, as Asashoryu was simply killing time until the trophy ceremony.

Friday night ended with another classical concert: Europa Galante led by violinist Fabio Biondi at Mandel Hall. A period instruments ensemble, they opened with two lovely pieces by Telemann. Guest flutist Frank Theuns could easily be the model for a new muppet character. They closed with an edgy version of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, the schmaltz factor reduced to almost zero, reminding us in the process that a terrific piece of music lies buried beneath all the abuse that mass culture has heaped on to it. Two short encore pieces by Corelli and Gluck (the latter had the violinists plucking their way through) brought the evening to an airy close. The Chicago Classical Review website liked the performance, as the did the critic for the New York Times, who caught much of the same program last week at Carnegie Hall (where, no doubt, the acoustics were better….).

This and That

Posted in Current Events,J-Pop,Japanese literature,Music,Sumo by bourdaghs on the January 21st, 2010

The New Year sumo tournament is heading into its final days now with yokozuna Asashoryu holding the lead at 11-1 and fellow yokozuna Hakuho lingering one step behind at 10-2. Hakuho just lost today to ozeki Harumafuji, but perhaps the most exciting match so far was yesterday’s face off between Asashoryu and sekiwake Baruto. See if you can tell who won from this photograph (link courtesy of Moti’s sumo news mailing list). Meanwhile, the sport’s backstage politics have hit the front pages, as former yokozuna Takanohana pursues his reform effort by seeking a spot on the Sumo Association’s board of directors.

Meanwhile, in another fine old Japanese cultural institution, the Emperor’s New Year waka poem for 2010 (source):

Where rays of sunlight
Filter through the trees I see
In the middle of the path
Carpeted with fallen leaves
A clump of green grass growing.

The assigned theme this year was “light.” Back in the old days, this would have been by definition the best poem of the year.

Although I have my doubts about the accuracy of the crowd count figure given, this article shows that legendary J-Rock band X-Japan can still pack them in, even in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, the Tokyo Shinbun newspaper is reporting (Japanese-language only) on the hit chart bounce enjoyed by artists featured on the NHK Kohakau Utagassen New Year’s Eve television spectacular. Ikimono Gakari’s “YELL/Joyful” (performed to great effect in the NHK broadcast with the backing of a choir of junior high school students) jumped from #23 to #12 on the Oricon charts the week after the show, while Kimura Kaera’s “Butterfly” moved up from the teens to the #1 slot on several music download sites, including I-Tunes Japan.

This has nothing to do with any of the above, but recently while wading through the Internet, I came across some amazing live performance of Iggy & The Stooges from 1970. Let’s call it “The Sweet Bloom of Youth.” Subtitle: “A Boy and his Peanut Butter.”

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Asakawa Maki (1942-2010)

Posted in J-Pop,Jazz,Music by bourdaghs on the January 18th, 2010

The Yomiuri newspaper is reporting (Japanese-language only) that legendary singer Asakawa Maki was found dead Sunday in a Nagoya hotel. She was 67 years old. A legendary, charismatic figure, she was the late 1960s “Queen of Underground Music.” Asakawa began appearing in Terayama Shuji’s experimental theatrical productions in 1968 and quickly became an icon of New Left culture. She released her debut album in 1970, featuring a melancholic singing style that combined jazz, blues, and chanson. Her persona coupled a cool, mysterious sexiness with searing intelligence. Asakawa always dressed in black and was usually surrounded by a haze of cigarette smoke (or at least, that was the image). She continued to perform and record regularly over the decades and was in Nagoya this weekend for live appearances at a jazz club there.

R.I.P.

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Gargoyles and Eccentricity

Posted in Art,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the January 15th, 2010

When I first arrived here in Chicago a couple of years back, I managed to offend one of my new colleague’s sensibilities. We were walking across campus together when this respected scholar asked me if I didn’t simply love the architecture of the university’s buildings. Without thinking, I replied that I thought it was a little silly. Here in Hyde Park, a neighborhood studded with masterpieces of Prairie School and other early-twentieth-century styles of American design, why had the Rockefellers and the university administration decided to build in the Gothic style, as if Hyde Park were thirteenth-century Cambridge or Oxford? It reminded me a little of the Magic Kingdom in Disneyland.

I could tell by my colleague’s facial response that I’d said the wrong thing — I have practice in recognizing that look, given the number of times I put my foot in my mouth in the average day.

Since then, I’ve come to appreciate the campus’s beauty a bit more, especially in summer when everything is in bloom. Most of all, I like the gargoyles that keep watch over us from the turrets and arches of the buildings on the main quad.

Yesterday, my daughter and I trekked over to Rockefeller Chapel — the most Gothic of all the campus buildings — for the opening reception for “That Gargoyle on My Shoulder.” The exhibit brings together gargoyle-related works by local and national artists, including paintings, photography, and sculpture, all of which look remarkably at home in the looming chancels of the chapel. One inventive piece pairs two small paintings in round frames, one of a conventional gargoyle mounted on a cathedral tower, the other depicting a modern video surveillance camera in the same position. We’re still being watched from on high, the piece reminds us.

The exhibit also includes some thirty papier-mâché gargoyles produced over the past five or six years by sixth graders at the University of Chicago Lab Schools–including one done a couple of years back by my daughter Sonia, pictured above. Here’s the planning sketch she did for it, which now hangs in a prominent position on our walls at home.

A review of the exhibit in the Chicago Maroon newspaper praises the student works as “impressive” and concludes

Sixty beady eyes observing your every move certainly has the potential to be unnerving, but That Gargoyle on My Shoulder manages to unite the grotesque with the whimsical for an overall experience that is quite positive. The elephant-eared, tentacled, long-snouted beasts that adorn the inner walls of the chapel make the space a little eccentric, quite inventive, and very exemplary of the U of C.

That’s the word I should have used two years ago: not “silly,” but “eccentric.” It would have reduced the awkwardness of the moment, and it also would have been more precise.

The show runs through March 19, and they promise to serve hot chocolate to visitors. If you’re in the neighborhood, stop by and check out the eccentric vibe.

R.I.P. Teddy Pendergrass

Posted in Music by bourdaghs on the January 14th, 2010
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LA versus Chicago

Posted in Classical by bourdaghs on the January 11th, 2010

It turns out I’m not the only person who has had to make the Los Angeles vs. Chicago decision in recent years. Flutist Matheiu Dufour has switched from the Chicago Symphony to the Los Angeles Philharmonic and back again, and now there’s a bit of a kerfuffle in the press about what it all means. Check out the passionate rebuttals from readers in the comments section, too.

Who says classical music is boring? I have a ticket for one of the Chicago Symphony’s concerts next week celebrating the 85th birthday of Pierre Boulez (a man who has stirred a ruckus or two in his day, now that I think about it). I’ll keep my eyes and ears peeled for hints of sabotage and smoldering passions among the musicians….

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Hatsu Basho

Posted in baseball,Sumo by bourdaghs on the January 9th, 2010

The New Year sumo tournament gets underway in Tokyo tomorrow. Yokozuna Hakuho is the hands down favorite to take home the big trophy. His closest rival, fellow yokozuna Asashoryu, has provided the usual quota of pre-tournament bizarre behavior, although he apparently looked pretty good at the public Yokozuna Deliberation Council exhibition a week or so ago (he also is said to have tired quickly, though). But on that day Hakuho won 27 of 29 matches, including both of his direct face-offs against Asashoryu.

Probably the biggest story going in to the basho is that, barring a miracle, this is almost certainly the last hurrah for the great Chiyotaikai. After two losing records in a row, he has lost his rank of ozeki. He can regain it with at least ten wins this time around, but that seems highly unlikely, and he’s promised to retire if he falls short. He’s always been a tsuppari-style fighter, battering his opponents with powerful arm thrusts, but in the last year or so his blows have lost their sting. According to reports from Japan, his training was going pretty well until about a week ago, when he injured his arm. It will also be interesting to see if ozeki Kotooshu or sekiwake Baruto are able to make their move up to the next level, but in both cases we’ve been waiting for that moment for some time now. I’m not holding my breath.

In the “think spring” category, the recent retirement of pitching great Randy Johnson has led to an interesting tribute over at The Hardball Times: a word cloud of the names of all the batters Johnson struck out over the years, with font size reflecting the number of times each batter has whiffed at Johnson’s pitches. And I leave with you some nice old video of Chiyotaikai in better days, knocking off Asashoryu in an exciting match to clinch the March 2003 tournament championship.

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