Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Thai Epic

This year Santa brought me a gift card for a bookstore (always a good thing). My list, as usual, is long, and
includes several jazz CDs by Lage Lund and Rez Abbasi, and director Chatrichalerm Yukol's epic Thai movie Kingdom of War, but I will almost certianly use it to buy the Baker/Phongpaichit translation of The Tale of Khun Chang Khun Phaen. It's been described as 'a love story, set against a background of war, and ending in high tragedy' filled with 'comedy, tragedy, love, sex, war, magic, honor, infamy, gallantry, and treachery', 'a dozen Shakespeare plays rolled into one, with a rich vein of Arthurian romance to boot'. Just what the doctor ordered.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Judge Bao

I first became aware of Judge Bao, the Song dynasty magistrate, in the 90s. I was one of the musicians in a Beijing Opera Judge Bao performance, part of an intensive months-long training program at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. I was able to work firsthand with professional teachers from China. It was a great experience, but to be honest, what struck me at the time was just how incredibly loud Chinese percussion instruments are. As a plucked-string player, I had to sit right in front of them. I’d been exposed to loud before, but this was one of the loudest, perhaps (along with Kathakali and Stevie Ray Vaughn) one of the top three loudest things I’ve ever experienced.

Recently, however, I’ve experienced good nostalgia. I’ve come across several Judge Bao stories, and what’s striking is the various ways these stories are presented. For those who want to stick to the more novel-oriented experience, there’s ‘Tales of Magistrate Bao and His Valiant Lieutenants’. This is a translation of an 1879 Chinese novel derived from the oral narrative attributed to the Qing storyteller Shi Yukum. Similarly, ‘The Seven Heroes and Five Gallants’ is another novel about Judge Bao and his men who solve crimes, rescue maidens and pretty much seek justice anywhere and everywhere.

Closer to the source (and therefor of much more interest, at least to me) is ‘Judge Bao and the Rule of Law’, a series of eight ballad-stories on Judge Bao, dating from the period 1250-1450. These ballad-stories, the oral narratives on which later novels were based, are more straightforward, the experience more distinct, like reading Robin Hood ballads as opposed to movie tie-ins. There’s also an early Chinese play ‘Rescriptor-in-Waiting Bao Thrice Investigates the Butterfly Dream’ in the collection ‘Monks, Bandits, Lovers, and Immortals’.

Another way to experience Judge Bao is ‘Judge Bao and the Jade Phoenix’, a graphic novel of his adventures. It’s important to keep your standards high when choosing a graphic novel to read, and this one looks to be quality work.

Finally, in the movie/TV section, there’s ‘Judge Bao’ and ‘The Return of Judge Bao.’ There are many more, no doubt. My guess is that watching these would be roughly analogous to watching Chinese versions of ‘Bonanza’, but I could be wrong. I hope to find a subtitled jingju (Beijing Opera) video, but if there are any out there, I haven’t come across them yet.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Water Margin

I'm only eleven episodes into the 2010 Chinese TV serialization of the epic "Romance of the Three Kingdoms" and already I'm contemplating the next epic series, "Water Margin". Also refered to as 'Outlaws of the Marsh' or 'All Men Are Brothers', WM is a much different experience than RoTK. RoTK is an incredibly tangled web of intrigue and overlapping strategies, with many battles and sieges. WM, meanwhile, is more of a series of short stories, Robin Hood-like kung fu stories. A very different read. From the clips I've seen, the TV series, like RoTK, has very high standards in production, acting and, of course, fighting choreography.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Afghanistan: Tamim Ansary’s “Games without Rules"

Next on my list of audiobook listenings is Tamim Ansary’s “Games without Rules: The Often-Interrupted History of Afghanistan”. I recently met several men and women from Afghanistan, and wonder about their history. Most of my knowledge of the region comes from Kipling, to be honest. It will be interesting to hear another side of the area’s history.

My interest in the ‘other side’ goes way back. My love of original sources brought me to Islamic chronicles of the Crusades (Arabic historians saw things differently, of course, and were often surprisingly fair in their assessments). I then started reading Turkish chronicles to get the Ottoman version of things. The Mongols, Japanese oral histories of World War II… All interesting, even enlightening.

I enjoyed very much Ansary’s “Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes”. Ansary’s writing is very clear and even-handed, straightforward and thought-provoking. I may even search out “The Widow's Husband”, his historical novel set in 19th century Afghanistan. Ansary tells a good story, and it would be interesting to read the story of the British occupation from the Afghan side.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

'Romance of the Three Kingdoms' TV Series

I begin most days these days by watching a fifteen-minute segment of the 2010 Chinese TV drama 'Romance of the Three Kingdoms' on Youtube. This is an epic undertaking. There are close to a hundred episodes, a little short of one hour each. At fifteen minutes a day that amounts to...well, you do the math. Many, many days.

I'm not suffering, of course. It's a great story, and the acting, production values, etc, are all top notch. This version is different from the 1994 TV series in that it focuses much more on Cao Cao (the antagonist? Anti-hero?). It's still early going, so the perspective may change before long.

Generally speaking, I prefer reading to watching, but about an eighth of the way through RoTK I get lost in the blur of names (most of the many characters have two names, which doesn't help). The 2010 series follows very closely the original text, and is a big help in making sense of this awesome and complex classic.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Black Count

My audiobook-of-choice for my daily commute these days is The Black Count, the biography of the father of Alexandre Dumas. This book will be of particular interest to fans of Dumas the writer. It not only gives the background of the Dumas family, it also shows quite clearly how the father (who died when the son was very young) inspired many of the son’s classic works. This book makes clear how Dumas took many of the legends and anecdotes about his father and reworked them into his historical novels, including ‘Georges’, an 1843 fiction work in which the protagonist is a man of mixed race, ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ and ‘The Three Musketeers’.

Someone who can inspire the stories and characters in The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers clearly must have had an eventful life, and General Alex Dumas did. He lived through (survived) very turbulent times. The Black Count is well-researched, and very successfully evokes 18th century France.

The default mode in my brain when it comes to French history seems to be one of disappointment. A great country, their continuation of the American Revolution morphed into a bloodbath, and the great hero of the age, Napoleon Bonaparte, became an egotistical dictator. But this book also reveals France’s role of being at the forefront of promoting progressive attitudes towards race, at least immediately following the Revolution. All in all, The Black Count is a fascinating read.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Romance of the Three Kingdoms

One of the most exciting discoveries in recent weeks is the book Battles, Betrayals, and Brotherhood, a book of translations of Chinese plays. I was very lucky, back in the day, to attend several performances of Beijing Opera, and even got to take part in a series of performances as a musician. I became interested in Romance of the Three Kingdoms at about that time.

Basically, there were a bunch of civil wars (c. AD 180 220). The Han empire was divided into the Wei, Shu-Han, and Wu states. In AD 280 these three states were reunified under the Western Jin. A popular history, Sanguo zhi pinghua, recorded many of the incidents, and in the 14th century Luo Guanzhong wrote the historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms based on these events.

RTK is one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature and the stories and legends it contains are hugely popular in China and East Asia, and have been for centuries. Artists have been producing plays, legends, books, manga, films, TV shows, paintings and more based on the RTK for a long, long time, so the lack of materials available in English is truly shocking. Other than a couple translations, a couple movies (notably ‘Red Cliffs’ and ‘The Lost Bladesman’), and the only tangentially-related computer game series, materials are very hard to come by.

So the book Battles, Betrayals, and Brotherhood is very welcome. These dramas show incidents from the wars, and how the heroes of the Three Kingdoms were portrayed on the Yuan and Ming stage. The swearing of brotherhood in the Peach Orchard, the battles and betrayals, all make for interesting reading. Also, since the RTK has a total of 800,000 words and nearly a thousand dramatic characters in 120 chapters, Battles, Betrayals, and Brotherhood is indispensable as a companion to this classic novel.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Siege of Sziget

My life, such as it is, is extremely international. I work in a multilingual, multiracial department with clients from all over the world. In my world speaking two or three languages is the norm, and almost all my colleagues are in bicultural relationships or part of a bicultural family.

About six months ago I started a project. I began discussing with my colleagues and their spouses about producing a series of epics and legends from their various countries. This has, to date, produced some very interesting translations (more on that later).

In my search for works that are (in the west) little-known, I came across ‘The Siege of Sziget’, a Hungarian epic on the Turkish wars. It was composed in 1651 by the grandson of Croatian Count Miklós Zrínyi, who, in 1566, defended the Fortress of Szigetvár against an overwhelming Ottoman siege. The poem is described variously as ‘one of the cornerstones of Hungarian literature’, ‘one of most important works of the seventeenth century’, ‘one the finest of European epics’ and ‘the last great European epic’. The kind of literature I love, so why had I never come across it before?

I contacted the wife of a colleague, I native speaker of Hungarian, very literate and a talented writer, and suggested she translate it as part of our project. Her first comment was about the length. Translate an epic poem of approximately 1,500 stanzas? A young mother? Not going to happen. Then, of course, is the sheer difficulty of translating Hungarian poetry into English. After the conversation I was depressed, not so much because it wouldn’t be part of our project, but because I would never get to read it.

Fortunately a very readable English version of ‘The Siege of Sziget’ has since been published. An authentic war chronicle describing the life of the sixteenth-century soldier’s way of life, it is also a romance, an adventure story and, among other things, a theological treatise. It is very human, but larger than life, occasionally fantastical. Its huge cast of characters includes the hero Count Zrínyi, an angry God, Sultan Suleiman, wizards, angels and demons. It’s a fascinating read.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Antony and Cleopatra

Soju Kai has been very busy lately putting together more visually-oriented Noh-inspired performances with live music and sound effects, but we took some time off this weekend to attend a performance of Shakespeare's 'Antony and Cleopatra'. It's only the second time I've seen A&C live. This version managed to be epic without being plodding, bloated or distant. Three months before our next Shakespeare break!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Atsumori - sumi painting on display

'Atsumori's Final Moments', part of Kumiko's series of noh-inspired sumi paintings, is currently on display at East Shore Gallery in Bellevue.

Puget Sound Sumi Artists 
 "September Song" @ East Shore Gallery (9/16-11/11)

We are preparing several books, a series of seventeen noh plays translated into English and featuring Kumiko's sumi paintings. The book on "Atsumori" is part of that project. They should be ready in early 2013!!

 We did a staged reading performance of "Atsumori" in February 2011 in Bellevue, Washington. To read more about the story, please see the link below.
Noh play "Atsumori"

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Mahabharata Addiction 3

Another interesting Mahabharata-inspired novel is 'And Now Let Me Sleep' by author P.K. Balakrishnan. In it the author tells the story from the perspective of Karna, one of the most intriguing of the multitude of characters in the epic. Though differentiating between 'good' and 'bad' can be extremely difficult in the Mahabharata, Karna stands out as a particularly noble character, one of several 'good' characters who, for various -often complicated -reasons, end up fighting for the 'bad' guys. I've always found Karna to be a particularly sympathetic character, and Balakrishnan does a particularly good job telling the tale from his point of view.  

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Mahabharata Addiction 2

Of the many Mahabharata-based novels out there, one of the best is 'Parva' by S.L. Bhyrappa. At close to 1,000 pages, it's no weekend read, but the author manages a new take on the epic that is a good introduction to Mahabharata-newbies, but because of its intriguing shifting perspective it would also be of interest to those who know the epic well.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Mahabharata Addiction1

The Mahabaharata just kind of sneaks up on you. The whole thing is huge-long and at first (and even later) very intimidating, a confusion of stories and a cast of (seemingly) millions. But once you get the basic core of the story straight, you can start exploring the many plays, poems, short stories, novels, movies, songs, comic books, puppet shows, etc., it has inspired. It's a complete and profound addiction.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Parabola Atsumori Article

I have been receiving lots of positive feedback for my article on Japanese Noh theatre in the summer 2012 issue of Parabola Magazine. Soju Kai is planning a series of performances and lecture/demonstrations across Washington state in the summer and autumn. We have done staged readings of our Noh translations in the past and they have been very well received. It looks to be an exciting year. We will keep you posted!


Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Atsumori in Parabola Summer 2012 Issue

My article 'Atsumori' is in the summer 2012 issue of Parabola.
I have been reading Parabola since my college days, so I am very excited to be published in it. A few months back, when I saw that their summer 2012 issue would be on the theme ‘Alone/Together’, I thought of Zeami’s ‘Atsumori’, a Noh play about, among other things, mutual compassion, the actions of the individual when in a group, and the comfort of aloneness. My ‘retelling’ follows the original play as closely as possible. The layout of the piece is very beautiful and includes traditional woodblock prints of the Atsumori legend. 

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Kimonos, Flowers and Jazz

Spring, as usual, comes to Seattle in feints and stutter steps,
 but Kumiko's blog is consistently sunny and jazzy!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Soju Kai Update,Spring-Summer 2012

It has been a busy winter for us. My retelling of the play ‘Atsumori’ will appear in the next issue of the journal Parabola. 'Atsumori' is a play from the repertoire of Noh, the traditional masked drama of Japan. The play 'Atsumori', based on a story originally from the fourteenth century military chronicle 'Tale of the Heike', is a masterpiece of the genre, written by the brilliant dramatist Zeami (1363-1443).

My version of ‘Atsumori’ is a ‘retelling’, but it follows the original very closely. It a tale of mutual compassion and the interrelatedness of all things. It includes the comfort of aloneness, the effects of clan membership, the actions of the individual when in a group, remorse when alone and when together with others, and how our lives and our souls become intertwined through our actions.

I have been reading the excellent journal ‘Parabola’ for at least two decades, and am truly pleased and excited to be appearing in it.

Meanwhile, ‘Ophelia’, Kumiko’s translation of sections of Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’, is going well. Rehearsals for the final production, a Butoh performance by dancer Kaoru Okumura with Noh-style chant accompaniment, will be premiered later this week.

We are also scheduling a tour for this summer. Shoju Kai will be presenting Noh lecture/demonstrations throughout the Pacific Northwest, as well as performances of many of our translations of Noh plays.

Finally, my book. I have written a series of interlocking plays based on the stories of several characters from the great Indian epic ‘Mahabharata.’ The plays are heavily Noh-influenced (in fact, it follows the traditional form and sequence of a day of Noh plays). I am rewriting the plays as a novel. I am well into it, and am pleased with how it is taking shape. We will keep you posted!

Friday, January 20, 2012

A year of new beginnings -2012

2012 will be a big year for Soju Kai Seattle. As Kumiko is graduating her training as a licensed massage therapist (she passed the national exam already!), she will have much more time to focus on integrating her art, her music and her profession. Also our youngest son is graduating high school. I plan to return to my writing, composing and performing. We also plan to do more lecture-performances this year. It will be a year of new beginnings!

Speaking of new beginnings, Kumiko chanted a piece from the Noh play “Tsurukame” for the East-West Chanoyu Center’s New Year’s celebration. The East-West Chanoyu Center (formerly called Urasenke Seattle Branch) has served the broader community in the appreciation and study of the Way of Tea since 1981. They have changed their organizational structure as well as their name, and started a new to spread the beauty of the Japanese tea tradition.

‘Tsurukame’ literally means “Crane and Tortoise.” The crane and the tortoise are traditional symbols of longevity in Japan because the crane is said to live for a thousand years, the tortoise for ten thousand. This song is often sung for auspicious occasions or as Hatsu-utai (the first chant of the year). Being given the opportunity to start the year 2012 by chanting this piece was surely a good sign for us, as well as for our long time close friends.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The year 2012 -NHK "Kiyomori"

The year 2012 looks to be an exciting year for many reasons. Among other things, it looks to be an exciting year for – believe it or not – television (!). We’re very much looking forward to the Taiga Drama (a year-long historical mini-series) from NHK (the PBS of Japan, more or less). This year’s program is entitled ‘Kiyomori’ (http://www9.nhk.or.jp/kiyomori/), and focuses on one of the characters of the classic Japanese epic ‘Heike Monogatari’ (‘Tales of the Heike’). This program will be of particular interest to us because we have translated about seventeen Noh plays that were based on the Heike Monogatari, and are currently working on an epic play inspired by them. This year will be an interesting one for us; Kumiko is finishing up her training as a massage therapist, so we can continue our various projects, including lecture/demonstrations and collaborative performances, as well as poetry, plays, short stories and a guidebook/anthology of Noh plays. NHK Taiga Dramas are well-written and entertaining. We will be busy this year, but we’ll be sure to set aside 45 minutes a week to see their take on the character of Kiyomori. It will be, as they say, time well spent.