Rie and I watched the film "The Wife of Seishu Hanaoka" last night. It stars Takamine Hideko, an actress (on the left) who starred in most of director Naruse Mikio's films. I saw a lot of Naruse's films while at UC Berkeley, and I became a fan of Takamine. She's got a very distinctive voice, and her eyes are really expressive. Directed by Masumura Yasuzo, "The Wife of Seishu Hanaoka" is about the relationship between a wife of a doctor (Wakao Ayako) and his mother (Takamine). Set in the late-18th/early-19th century, the doctor (Ichikawa Raizo) is trying to develop anesthesia to perform operations on patients. He first experiments with the anesthesia on cats, but finally, when he needs a human subject, both the wife and mother offer to be his test patient. It was a bit hard to understand, but it seemed like both women wanted to prove their love for the doctor by sacrificing themselves.
In the end, one of them goes blind.
I've recently been told that I don't know enough about mukashi banashi, or Japanese folk tales, the kinds of stories that every Japanese person knows since childhood. And without knowing these most basic of cultural references, I'm basically a cultural moron. So last night I rented and watched some animated versions of children's classics from the 1970s. The collection I watched included Momotaro, one of the most popular stories in Japan. It's a story about a boy who is born out of a giant peach and is raised by an old childless couple. He is super strong and brave, and he goes off and fights some demons that have been terrorizing the villages of Japan. (The cartoon made the demons look way too wimpy.)
Anyway, in an odd coincidence, I just found out that the Japan Postal Service started selling stamps last Friday featuring heroes and heroines from this animated series . I am going to have to rush out and get some before they are sold out.
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On Saturday I went to the new National Art Center to see a retrospective of Yokoyama Taikan (1868-1958), a painter who mixed Japanese and Western techniques in a style known as Nihonga. As usual with special exhibitions in Tokyo, there was a pretty big crowd. One of Taikan's scrolls on display was fully unrolled, which gave a rare opportunity to see the entire work at once. However, there were so many people, we had to slowly side-step along the glass case inch by inch to see it. This gold leaf wall screen of Mt. Fuji and clouds was also on display. I bought a post-card sized reproduction of the screen that folds just like the real thing, allowing me to stand it up on my desk.
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Last night we ate Chanko Nabe. Nabe is basically a big hot pot of stuff that you cook yourself at your table. Chanko Nabe is the version that sumo wrestlers are famous for eating. The restaurant is named Tokitsunada, after the former sumo wrestler that runs it. His face appears as a drawing on the sign outside as well as on the chopstick wrappers. I didn't realize he was a real person, however, until Rie pointed at the wrapper and said, "He's here." When I looked up I saw a big guy walking around, and he proceeded to approach every customer's table to welcome them. He no longer looks like a sumo wrestler though, just a big guy with a pig nose. On a darker note, recently the former master of the stable where Tokitsunada trained was arrested along with three wrestlers in connection with the beating death of a 17-year-old junior wrestler.
Monday was a national holiday, so we took a special express train to Sawara, Chiba, a town that is famous for its Edo-era buildings. Rie thought the place was more like Showa-era, since most of the buildings seemed more modern . . . modern and run-down. Still, there was a fair share of quaint old structures like this traditional storehouse, or kura, along the canal. There were also boats that plied the waterway for about 1600 yen a ride, boats a bit more sea-worthy than the one in the photo, but we skipped it, since we could see everything on foot anyway.
For lunch we ate one of the local dishes, black soba (above). The noodles are black because they are made with a mixture of kombu, a type of kelp, and buckwheat. The soba had a nice al dente-ness to it, whether it was cooked that way on purpose or it was a result of the recipe, we don't know. Whatever. It was good, even if the color made it look a bit like long, skinny worms in a dish.
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