Greetings from Shinjuku, Tokyo. I arrived in Japan two days ago for a workshop at Waseda University. After that ends, I’ll hang around for another week or so, doing a bit of research, a bit of visiting family, and a bit of music spectating (more on that later).
In the meanwhile, I’m reminded of how Shimazaki Komako (1892-1979) had a way of surprising people by turning up when least expected. She was the model for the heroine in Shimazaki Toson’s scandalous 1919 novel Shinsei (New Life), in which the middle-aged novelist confessed to a shocking affair with his own niece. She gave birth to his child, after which her family shipped her off to colonial Taiwan to avoid the scandal.
Toson probably thought she was out of his life for good at that point. But she suddenly reemerged in 1937 when she fell seriously ill and, lacking any financial resources, ended up hospitalized in a charity ward. The media had a field day, dredging up the old scandal and contrasting Komako’s current plight to her uncle’s wealth and fame. Novelist Hayashi Fumiko took an interest in her at the time and wrote about her, and Komako herself ended up publishing an account of her life in a popular woman’s magazine, taking her uncle to task for the hypocritical way he had portrayed her and their relationship in the novel.
I wrote about all of this at some length in my book, The Dawn That Never Comes. I was under the impression that, once I’d published my account, Komako was out of my life. But she wasn’t done with me, apparently.
On the plane ride to Japan, I started reading the recently deceased Inoue Hisashi’s 2002 play, Taiko tataite, fue fuite 『太鼓たたいて笛ふいて』(Bang the drums, blow the pipes), a kind of Brechtian musical based on the life of Hayashi Fumiko, tracing her collaboration with Japanese militarism in the 1930s and her eventual self-critical awakening in the 1940s. Inoue has Komako appear as a key character: he re-imagines the nature of their relationship, having the two women meet in 1935, prior to Komako’s illness, when she was still an activist in leftist political movements. In Inoue’s script, Komako becomes a figure for the conscience of Japan as Hayashi slides into problematic complicity with fascism.
Inoue’s play was first staged just about the time time I finished writing my book. I’d thought I was the only person fascinated by Komako when I wrote about her. But according to the afterword in the Shincho Bunko edition of the play that I’m reading, Inoue had been thinking about her for years: in 1969, he submitted a scenario for NHK’s morning serial drama based on Komako’s life, only to have it rejected for being too dark in tone.
Where do you suppose she will turn up next?
Vladimir Nabokov, Pnin. Just about the perfect novel: funny, poignant, wise. Nabokov’s ability to make the English language dance at will is astonishing. The hero Pnin is a White Russian exile, an intellectual reared in the salt water of Europe now trying to survive in the mucky freshwater of 1950s American academia. It’s been years since I’ve fallen quite so deeply in love with a work of fiction.
Narita Ruichi and Iwasaski Minoru, Norma Field wa kataru: sengo bungaku kibo 『ノーマ・フィールドは語る―戦後・文学・希望』(2010). Part of the handy Iwanami Booklet series, in a compact 63 pages this provides an appealing portrait of the life and scholarship of my colleague, Norma Field. In a series of interviews with two of Japan’s leading intellectual historians, she talks about growing up the daughter of an American soldier and a Japanese woman in 1950s Japan, about her intellectual awakening in the 1960s and 70s, and about the ethics of scholarship in today’s tangled academy.
Alexander Saxton, The Great Midland (1948). A recently revived classic of late American proletarian literature, the story of Communist Party activists on the South Side of Chicago: railroad workers (both black and white), University of Chicago armchair radicals (both male and female), immigrants and their children. Reminiscent of early John Dos Passos, the narrative moves forward and backward through the history of the first half of the twentieth century as it depicts the friendships, jealousies, and confusions of a generation of American radicals.
Cornel West, The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism (1989). West’s classic account of American pragmatism is driven by great passion and intelligence, and he makes a persuasive case for the relevance of James, Dewey, Peirce and their intellectual descendants in today’s world. But I’m also struck by the remarkable undercurrent of American exceptionalism that runs throughout his argument.
After an extended period of healthy abstinence, we’re sliding back into our sinful ways. That is to say, we’ve been watching several Japanese television series this summer.
Jin: This scored high ratings when it was broadcast in Japan on TBS back at the beginning of this year. Our local neighborhood pusher (TV Japan) is only now getting around to airing it, but we’re enjoying the show despite the delay. An oddball melange of samurai drama, science fiction, and romantic comedy, it also contains a clever parody of the current NHK Taiga Drama, Ryomaden (see below). A doctor from contemporary Tokyo whose girlfriend is in a coma finds himself inexplicably transported back to the Japan of the 1860s, where his use of modern medical knowledge starts monkeying with the course of history. Can he save his girlfriend? Can he get return to the present? Will he become a historical bigamist, with a wife in each era? Stay tuned….
Ryomaden: Every January when NHK rolls out its new year-long Taiga historical drama series, I browse an episode or two but then fall by the wayside. I’ve stuck it out a bit longer this year, though, with this retelling of the life of the super-patriot Sakamoto Ryoma from the 1850s and 60s. Fukuyama Masaharu plays the lead role as something of a cross between Jimmy Stewart and Errol Flynn. The real joy here is Kagawa Toruyuki’s wonderfully overacted performance as Iwasaki Yataro, Ryoma’s hometown rival and the future founder of the Mitsubishi empire. We’ll see if I manage to persevere through December and Ryoma’s untimely demise.
Gegege no nyobo: It’s been ages since NHK has enjoyed a hit with its morning serial drama, but this spring I started hearing rumors that the current title, based on the life of the wife of Mizuki Shigeru (the manga artist who created the classic Gegege Kitaro series) was a notch above the usual. We picked up on it a few weeks ago–more than halfway through the run. I have the feeling we missed the best parts (the years of courtship and early struggles), but it’s a mostly painless show, and it’s entertaining to see NHK portray what our old Tokyo neighborhood around Chofu-shi looked like back in the 1960s.
We’ve also started taping episodes of Magerarenai Onna, the NTV comedy from earlier this year. I’ll leave you today with an amusing teaser from that one.
Driving up to Minnesota with my 18-year-old earlier this month provided an unexpected educational opportunity. For a change of pace, I ceded hegemony over the radio to him and as a result, I now can identify many of the songs that have topped the hit charts this summer. I know my Kate Perry and “California Gurls” (and I know that the break is by Snoop Dogg), and I sometimes now even find myself spontaneously singing in my mind that catchy line about melting popsicles. I know my Lady Gaga and “Alejandro,” I know my B.o.B. and “Airplanes.” In fact, we spent a good deal of time turning the knob in search of the latter.
So I encountered a good deal of new music on the road trip. I also met up with some old musical friends I hadn’t heard in decades. Back in 1981 or 82, I had the opportunity to interview Chris Osgood, one of the founding members of the seminal Minnesota punk band the Suicide Commandos. Osgood is creative, smart, funny, and the interview was by far the best I’d ever done–full of hysterical stories, wistful remembrances, pithy one-liners. And then I got home and realized that the tape recorder batteries had died and that only the first couple of minutes of the hour-long session were preserved….
Anyhow, at the time Osgood gave me a cassette tape that included a number of studio recordings he’d done recently with his then-current group, The L7-3 (in addition to Osgood, the band included Commandos’ drummer Dave Ahl and bassist Steve Fjelstad, late of another fine Minneapolis band, Fingerprints). I fell in love with the tunes on the tape and basically wore the thing out, playing it over and over. But The L7-3 broke up shortly thereafter and the recordings were never issued.
Fast forward to my summer 2010 trip to St. Paul: I’m flipping through the CDs in the “Local Music” section at Cheapos Records on Snelling Ave., and come across Men of Distinction, a CD by The L7-3, released late last year on the Garage d’Or label. From the cover photo, I know immediately that it’s them.
Of course I buy the thing and out in the parking lot immediately pop it into the car CD player (temporarily reclaiming hegemony over the roadtrip musical soundtrack). I break into a huge grin with the opening bars of the first song because I recognize it immediately: the CD consists of those same unreleased recordings I fell in love with thirty years ago.
The music sounds just as good now as it did then: punk rock with an M.F.A. and a sense of humor (the music contains allusions to, among others, The Monkees and The Bonzo Doo Dah Dog Band). Take the quirky fragmented sound and intellectual lyrics of the Talking Heads, combine it with the goofy garage-rock spirit of The Replacements, and you start approaching what makes this so appealing. These are two-minute punk rock workouts packed with symphonic intricacies: simple guitar chord progressions that collide with sound effects, complex musical bridges, rhythmical shifts, etc. Highlights include “The History of Philosophy,” “Metaphysics vs. Loud Music,” “Emergency Art Liquidation,” “Snafu,” “What Rock ‘N’ Roll Means to Me.” The song titles provide a hint to the band’s style, I think. Anyhow, I can’t tell you how happy I am to welcome these amazing songs back into my life.
In trying to figure out how this miracle happened, I poked around the Internet and learned that other previously lost material from late ’70s Minnesota punk was also now available. The remarkable 1978 debut EP by Fingerprints (think Iggy and the Stooges meet Television) is available at I-Tunes, as is the long out-of-print debut EP by The Suburbs.
By coincidence, The Flamin’ Oh’s, another terrific Minneapolis band from that era, has recently created a new Facebook page with lots of good stuff on it. They’ll be playing a live gig July 31 in Minneapolis in honor of their recently deceased drummer, Bob Meide. If I weren’t scheduled to be giving a talk in Tokyo that afternoon, you can bet I’d be there…. In the meanwhile, here’s a clip from a typical Oh’s gig from back in 1981 at Duffy’s (man, how much of my youth did I waste at that bar?). If you’re pressed for time, advance the clip to 2:59 for the second song in this sequence: “We Do What We Like,” a great rock anthem that should have conquered the world.
It must be summer, cuz you’re never around (a good line stolen from the Fountains of Wayne). But I protest: I really am around. You just wouldn’t know it from the paucity of blog updates lately. I’m juggling a large number of rather rather bulky and wobbly projects these days.
I did manage to catch some of the baseball All Star Game last night. When I heard the news yesterday morning about former Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, I had to smile at the timing. Back in his heyday in the 1970s and 80s, if the Yankees didn’t make it to the World Series in a particular year Steinbrenner would always pull some stunt right in the middle of the series (fire his manager, berate his team captain, whatever) to steal the headlines away from the teams still playing for the championship. So of course the man would pass away on the day of the All Star Game, assuring that all the coverage would focus not on the mid-season classic, but on the Boss.
Yankees’ fans clearly held the man in great affection. As a Twins’ fan and therefore a congenital Yankees’ hater, I generally despised him and everything he stood for as a baseball owner. But as several tributes I’ve read point out, wouldn’t it have been great to have a Twins’ owner as committed to winning as Steinbrenner was with the Yankees? Anyhow, I imagine he is up in heaven now (or, given the Damn Yankees thematic here, down there below), trying to rehire Billy Martin.
The very odd Nagoya sumo tournament got underway Sunday. Something like a quarter of the wrestlers in the top two divisions are suspended or banned due to the gambling/yakuza scandals, and NHK has gotten all holy about this and is refusing to televise the bouts live. Yokozuna Hakuho will no doubt take the title, as usual–on Tuesday he broke his own personal record of 32 consecutive wins. But with so many of the usual faces sitting this one out, the tournament should generate some unusual results. For starters, it’s a terrific opportunity for lower ranked wrestlers to leapfrog up the rankings.
Other than that, what have we been up to? Last Saturday night, we headed downtown to catch the Grant Park Orchestra play a free concert in Millenium Park under the energetic baton of female conductor Xian Zhang. We liked the program very much, as did Tribune critic John von Rhein and Sun-Times critic Andrew Patner. They played a piece by the contemporary composer Chen Yi, Prokofiev’s “Suite from Love for Three Oranges,” and Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 in D Major. Didn’t mind the raindrops or the firetruck sirens hardly at all. It must be summer.
I’m now reading a book I’ve been curious about for more than a decade, Cornel West’s The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism. I’m up to the chapter on John Dewey now and was interested to learn the history of the University of Chicago Lab School, where my son graduated from high school last year and where my daughter still goes today. We’re justly proud of the school, and we love to point out that it was founded by the great educational philosopher Dewey as part of his mission to transform philosophy into a form of radical democratic practice.
From West’s fine book, I also learned the part of the story that usually gets left out when it gets related here in Hyde Park:
Unfortunately, Dewey himself failed to articulate a plan for social reform to which his progressive schools could specifically contribute. He was aware that schools by themselves could not bear the weight of a full-fledged reform of society; yet he also knew that the schools themselves were ideologically contested terrain, always worth fighting for and over. And in 1904 Dewey’s school came to an end after a series of mergers and the subtle dismissal of Dewey’s wife from its principalship by University of Chicago president William Rainey Harper. Dewey immediately resigned from the university. Luckily, Columbia University moved quickly and financed a new chair in philosophy for him. And the luck was American pragmatism’s too, for it was in New York City, and maybe it had to be there, that Dewey emerged as a world-historical figure. (p. 85)
It started raining last night just as we headed out to the car. The weather forecasters had been falsely promising thunderstorms for several days until I stopped believing them, but for once they were right. By the time we reached the parking lot at New Comiskey Park (I continue my personal boycott of the corporate name for the ballpark here on the South Side), it had mutated into a full-blown cloudburst. We tried waiting it out in the car, hoping it would blow over. After twenty minutes it did, allowing us to we make our way to the stadium and our unexpectedly fine seats–36th row behind home plate. We were even tucked safely under the second-deck overhang, an architectural umbrella against any additional precipitation. Not bad for an impulse purchase made on the Sox’ webpage the night before….
The rains came back, delaying the start by nearly two hours. First pitch, scheduled for 7:10, wouldn’t take place until 8:51. But I didn’t mind much: I love just sitting in a ballpark, and the crowd was mostly in a jovial mood. It was Polish-American Culture Night on the South Side, and a local folk dance company entertained us on the big screen as rain continued to fall. Through the marvels of cell phone technology, our 14-year-old located a classmate sitting two sections over. It continued to be hot and steamy: the rains didn’t pack enough fury to knock the humidity out of the air, but rather added to it. As you’ve probably heard, it’s been a little hot in the northern U.S. the last few days….
As usual with baseball, the little quirks are what stand out in memory: watching the grounds crew before the game deal with the infield tarp, which had ponded over with several inches of water in places, for example. Or seeing Polish-American former Yankee star Bill “Moose” Scowron (and his tiny tow-headed granddaughter) throw out the ceremonial first pitch. They showed the Twins-Blue Jays game on the big screen through the rain delay, and I had to check my natural instinct to cheer when Minnesota scored (everyone around me booed, of course).
When the baseball finally got underway, Jake Peavy pitched for the Sox against Jered Weaver for the LA Angels. Our youngest is an Angels fan, so to bug her I started cheering for the White Sox (as a born Minnesota Twins fan, this took some effort). The Sox started the scoring early: Juan Pierre led off the bottom of the first with a double, stole third, and then trotted home on an Alex Rios sacrifice fly.
In the top of the 2nd, in the middle of Mike Napoli’s at-bat, Peavy started walking toward the White Sox dugout immediately after releasing a pitch. He stopped at the foul line, turned back toward the pitchers mound, but then halted again. Something was wrong. Manager Ozzie Guillen came out to check on him, and quickly Peavy resumed walking toward the dugout. They announced several innings later that he had strained a muscle in his back.
Tony Pena took over pitching duties for the home team. We enjoyed seeing Torii Hunter, one of our favorites since his Minnesota Twins days, hit three singles, the first two barely leaving the infield. It felt odd to watch Matsui Hideki wear a Los Angeles uniform: in my mental geography, he will always belong to the Yankees.
We stayed long enough to see Rios blast a home run to left field in the bottom of the sixth, giving Chicago a 2-1 lead. As always, they lit off fireworks behind the scoreboard in center to celebrate the homer. By then it was after 10:30 p.m. and our youngest had summer school in the morning, so we headed for the parking lot. We listened on the radio as Andruw Jones hit his 399th career home run in the seventh, giving the Sox a 4-1 lead. The drive back to Hyde Park took exactly one inning, and I watched the eight and ninth on television in the comfort of our air-conditioned family room. Chicago won, 4-1.
I have tickets to see the Phillys and Cubs at Wrigley a week from Friday. No more rain, please. And, as long as I’m putting in my weather requests, is a nice Canadian cold front too much to ask for?
Theory of Literature and Other Critical Writings, a collection of English translations of Natsume Soseki’s writings on literary theory that I co-edited with Atsuko Ueda and Joseph Murphy, is now available in paperback for a mere $27.50. Such a deal!
The volume was originally published in hardcover last year. Public Radio International’s “The World” picked the book as one of its “International Reads for the Holidays,” and the journal Japanese Studies called it “an impressive work of remarkable erudition matched by the precision and lucidity with which the complexity of Soseki’s thought and of its context are presented….eminently readable, lively, and lucid.”
Soon to be a major motion picture, no doubt….