July brought many exciting developments. I was promoted to full Professor and became chair of my department at the University of Chicago. The Japanese translation of Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon came out from Byakuya Shobo. At around the same time, the discovery I helped make of some previously unknown 1950 Sacramento concert recordings by Misora Hibari, Kasagi Shizuko, Yamaguchi Yoshiko and many other Japanese singing stars became big news in Japan. I was apparently a featured item on television “wide shows” for a couple of days; I’m told that at least one of the shows introduced me with a photograph that was not actually of me. The Japanese edition of the book was well received, too; dozens of newspapers and magazines ran favorable reviews.
The whole family flew to Tokyo in late July. I spent a couple of days doing press interviews at my publishers’ offices in Takadanobaba. On July 29, Satoko and I were able to participate in one of the largest anti-nuclear demonstrations of the year, a march that started from Hibiya Park and ended up surrounding the Diet building. We celebrated the children’s birthdays up in Sendai with Satoko’s parents. With the help of a reporter from the Kyodo Tsushin wire service, I was able to get a copy of the 1950 wire recording of her Sacramento concert to 92-year-old Yamaguchi Yoshiko, who gave an interview about how delighted she was to hear it. As a result, once again I showed up in newspapers across Japan.
We returned to Chicago in early August. I recorded a segment for public radio’s “To the Best of Our Knowledge,” which was broadcast nationally later in the month (you can listen online here). We brought the whole family to a terrific play,”The Death of Harry Houdini,” at the House Theater. We ran up to Minnesota again to celebrate what would have been my father’s 75th birthday on August 15, and while there I saw another ballgame at Target Field. I also got to see one of my old favorite local bands, the Flamin’ Oh’s, play a show at Mears Park in downtown St. Paul. Back in Chicago at the end of the month, we attended the opening night “Tribute to Ella” with Dee Alexander, Frieda Lee, and Spider Saloff at the Chicago Jazz Festival. I returned again on the last day of the festival to catch stellar sets by the Steve Coleman Group and Pierre Dørge And The New Jungle Orchestra–two more favorite musical discoveries of the year.
In September things started gearing up in my new role as department chair, but on a stormy night we saw Bruce Springsteen give a fine concert up at Wrigley Field, and when the Twins swung through town early in the month I ran over to New Comiskey Park to take in a game. Late in the month I filled my car with grad students and drove to Kalamazoo for the Midwest Conference on Asian Affairs meeting at Western Michigan University.
Classes started in October. I taught two seminars this past fall–one on Japanese literary discourses of “furusato” (hometown), the other on Japanese cultures of the Cold War. As usual, I learned a great deal from the students in both. Extracurricular activities slowed down as I resumed full-time teaching, of course, but I still managed to get out now and then. In early October, I saw a nice set by guitarist Wayne Krantz at Martyr’s and later in the month caught an intriguing performance by shamisen composer Kimura Shunsuke. In October, I attended the Association for Japanese Literary Studies meeting at Ohio State, reconnecting with many old friends and meeting some new ones. I also enjoyed the opportunity to make a presentation about the 1950 wire recordings at the annual Humanities Day celebration here on campus in Hyde Park.
We had a quiet Thanksgiving at home, with me preparing the turkey as usual. In December, we enjoyed a show by Leo Kottke up at SPACE in Evanston, as well as a terrific performance of Barber’s Violin Concerto and Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony by the CSO. I made another trip to Los Angeles to give a talk at UCLA and to film an interview about the 1950 wire recording of Misora Hibari for a television special which was broadcast in Japan on the BS-TBS network on December 7. We spent Christmas with family in Minnesota, quiet and relaxing. On Boxing Day, we went ice skating with a big group of my cousins and their children.
Later today we’ll bring our 2012 cultural calendar to a close by attending the acclaimed production of “Annie” at the Paramount Theater in Illinois: the last few years, our family has made a tradition of attending a musical in the week between Christmas and New Years. We also have tickets to see the opening night of Buddy Guy’s annual stand at his own blues club downtown later this week, and we’re off to Second City a few days after that for some comedy.
It really has been a blessed year for us: writing this up has helped remind me how lucky I am. I’m surrounded by a supportive family, wonderful friends and colleagues, students who keep me on my toes, and a city that bustles with creativity and energy. As usual, I have compiled a long list of New Years’ resolutions, but I won’t bore you with those. Suffice it to say that I am looking forward to 2013.
Let me end by wishing you joy, peace, and health in 2013. Thanks for stopping by.
I have several projects with looming year-end deadlines. I really should be working on those this morning. Which, of course, makes this an excellent time to devote instead to an update here. 2012 is fast winding down. What kind of year was it?
A fine and memorable one, thank you. Not without its bumps and bruises, of course, but those just help remind me that I’m alive. I end the year feeling gratitude and hope.
The first half of 2012 found me on sabbatical. In early January, I flew to Seattle for the MLA convention. I saw old friends, sat in on some good panels, caught the film “The Descendants” in a cinema across from the hotel–and accepted the Scaglione Prize for the translation I co-edited of Natsume Soseki’s Theory of Literature and Other Critical Writings. Later that month, I flew up to Ann Arbor to participate in a faculty workshop, and a week later I presented a talk at another faculty seminar at Northwestern University. The month ended with Satoko and I enjoying a performance by Westside blues legend Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater at SPACE, the little-club-that-could up in Evanston.
In February, we caught Ricardo Muti conducting the CSO in Franck’s Symphony in D minor and then, a few days later, I attended the University of Chicago Folk Festival, featuring Billy Boy Arnold. The most exciting event of the month: my book, Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon: A Geopolitical Prehistory of J-Pop, came out from Columbia University Press. I heard many nice things about it from people–to the point that I started to worry that it must not be very good. If something you write doesn’t piss anyone off, how interesting can it be? But later I heard through the grapevine that a number of senior scholars in my field hated it. I felt reassured. In late February DePaul University hosted a fun workshop based on the book for Chicago public school teachers.
On the first day of March we watched Pierre Boulez lead the CSO in a wonderful performance of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. The next morning I was off to NYC for meetings. Then on March 10-11 I co-hosted a conference in honor of my colleague, Norma Field, who retired at the end of the 2011-12 academic year. “What March 11 Means to Me” brought together an amazing group of public intellectuals from Japan for personal and philosophical reflections on the first anniversary of the Tohoku earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster: Amamiya Karin, Komori Yoichi, Ryusawa Takeshi, Takahashi Tetsuya, and Yokoyu Sonoko. The following week, I traveled to Toronto for the AAS annual meeting, where I chaired a roundtable discussion on the 1950 wire recordings of Japanese performers in concert in Sacramento (more on those anon).
In April, I was back in NYC for a lecture at Columbia University. While there, I saw the acclaimed revival of “Death of a Salesman” with Philip Seymour Hoffman and caught up with a few old friends. Back in Chicago, we attended a lively concert by Rodrigo y Gabriela and a fine performance by the Alvin Ailey dance company a few days later. Later in the month, I drove up to the Twin Cities to visit family and friends, catching a Twins game while there and a Beloit Snappers minor-league game on the drive home. During the month, I also finished up an article on Natsume Soseki’s conception of world literature, which appeared in the May/June issue of the Iwanami Shoten journal Bungaku.
On May Day I joined the protest march that started out from Union Park and made its way past the site of the Haymarket Massacre (the historical origin of May Day) before ending at a rally downtown. A few days later, we caught a live performance by one of my favorite musical discoveries of the year: Kids These Days. The group manages to combine rock, funk, jazz, and hip hop and make it all work; their debut album Traphouse Rock came out later in the year and was one of my favorite records of 2012.
Later in May I attended the Atomic Age II conference at Chicago. It featured a keynote address from Koide Hiroaki, one of the most important critics of Japan’s “nuclear village.” The next day, we joined a group to visit the nature preserve in the western suburbs where the remains of Chicago Piles 1 and 2 (the world’s first nuclear reactors) are buried. Later in the month we caught a surprise cameo appearance by Ray Davies at a public television benefit concert, and then I was off to Tokyo for a quick one-week visit. During that trip, I attended the May sumo tournament, met a number of scholars, visited libraries and bookstores, and stopped by an exhibit of photographs by Mike Nogami. After coming back to Chicago, I survived the NATO conference shut-down of the city, dragged the kids to the reunited Beach Boys concert at the Chicago Theater, and enjoyed a Millenium Park performance by Kelly Hogan (another key musical discovery of the year). We ended the month by catching Court Theater’s production of “Angels in America” with Larry Yando’s memorable turn as Ray Cohn.
As June began, I flew to Los Angeles to join in the celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the UCLA Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies. It was lovely to catch up with old friends from UCLA, and while there I got to meet and chat briefly with one of my childhood heroes, Daniel Inouye (RIP, Senator Inouye). It turned out that he was one of the 442nd veterans involved in inviting Misora Hibari to Hawaii in 1950 for a charity concert–which led in turn to the 1950 Sacramento concert recordings. Another quick trip to Minnesota followed, and I was back home to catch the last day of the Chicago Blues Festival, including an uplifting headliner set by Mavis Staples. During June we also caught the CSO a couple times, including an eye-opening public rehearsal led by Ricardo Muti, and we visited the Roy Lichtenstein exhibit at the Art Institute. But the cultural highlight of the month was the acclaimed production of “The Iceman Cometh” at the Goodman Theater, with an ensemble cast so strong that the supposed stars, Brian Dennehy and Nathan Lane, mostly just blended into the scenery.
July is when things really got busy. I’ll write about the second half of the year tomorrow. In the meantime, I really should get hopping on those year-end projects….
When I was a young man growing up in Minnesota, theater was a part of daily life. All through high school and college, I acted in plays and volunteered at local community theaters. I dated a few actresses along the way, too, which brought me to even more cast parties and opening nights. Even when I wasn’t directly or indirectly involved in the production, I attended local theaters on a regular basis.
Then came life, and grad school, and kids, and the weight of the world. You could probably count the total number of plays I attended in the 1990s and 2000s on the fingers of two hands, and you wouldn’t need to call on the thumbs.
But in the last six months, that’s all changed. Thank you, sabbatical.
In late December, as a Christmas present, I bundled off the whole family to see the Drury Lane Theatre’s acclaimed local production of “The Sound of Music.” It featured what one local critic declared a “star-making turn” and “a candid, delightfully impulsive, expertly sung performance” by Jennifer Blood as Maria. The children in the cast also acted and sung with remarkable poise. It helped remind me that I really do love a good musical.
Then in early April I was in New York City for meetings and managed to catch the celebrated (and subsequently Tony Award winning) production of “Death of a Salesman” at the Barrymore Theatre. Directed by Mike Nichols and starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, the production recreated Jo Mielziner’s set design and Alex North’s audioscape from the original 1949 staging. I have real problems with Arthur Miller in general: the overweening earnestness of his scripts rubs me the wrong way. And it took a few minutes to adjust to the uncomfortable silences (deeply thoughtful? blankly thoughtless?) that Hoffman etched into his portrayal of Willy Loman. The rest of the cast wasn’t as strong as Hoffman, but as the evening wore on, I found myself wrapped up in the tragic, awful story. Yes: the bowels of my emotions were appropriately purged.
Later that same month, I was up in Minnesota and had the chance to catch Shadowplay Theatre‘s production of Paul Rudnick’s “I Hate Hamlet,” featuring Peter Moore’s delightful take on the ghost of John Barrymore (Moore also directed). Then in May we caught both halves of Court Theatre’s production of “Angels in America,” a seven-hour day/night doubleheader that never felt long. Larry Yando stood out as the slimy-but-lovable Roy Cohn. As Chris Jones wrote in the Chicago Tribune,
Yando is giving one of the great performances of his long Chicago career — the great performance, I’d say. He captures all the necessary sides of the nasty-but-compelling politico: his cynicism, malevolence, intelligence, sexuality, love of power, formidable insight into the baser aspects of human nature and his sense of humor. He is funnier than Al Pacino in this role and just as mercurial. He has a deeper sense of the man’s horror at his own mortality. And, above all, Yando’s Cohn is spectacularly present and alive.
We saved the best for last, it turned out. Last week we attended the Goodman Theatre’s production of “The Iceman Cometh,” starring Brian Dennehy and Nathan Lane. I have to agree with the New York Times‘ Charles Isherwood: “Mr. Falls’s superbly cast production contains as many great performances as I’ve seen in a single show in years, certainly more than I saw in any Broadway show of the past, imperfect season.” It says something that Nathan Lane was the weakest link in the cast, and he in fact turned in a fine performance. The play itself is flawed (the last act, for example, includes an impossibly long monologue), yet I was willing to yield to O’Neill’s (and, for that matter, Tony Kushner’s) vision of the world in way that I just can’t for Arthur Miller.