Bowling For Geisha

(Originally published on my old LiveJournal.)

Goddamn, you half-Japanese girls / you do it to me every time.
—Weezer, “El Scorcho”*

Last week was Lisa’s birthday. We went out with a bunch of friends to Peking Tom’s, and ran up a big bill on dumplings and tropical drinks. As a present for her, I had a couple of large prints made and framed from the photo archive of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. Lisa’s worked with the PEM on a bunch of Asian history things over the years. She took some of her students to China under the museum’s auspices in 2001, and would have taken more last year if not for SARS. (They’re supposed to go this year, so we’re watching the spread of Mad Chicken Disease with alarm.) And she also ran a workshop on their photo collection last summer, which makes the prints a pretty cool present if I do say so myself.

The PEM is absolutely worth visiting if you’re ever near Salem. They’ve got a huge gorgeous new building, they’ve got Yin Yu Tang, an entire house brought over peg by peg from southeastern China and rebuilt here, and then they have great rotating exhibits on Asian history and New England maritime history. There’s an exhibit of 1920s photographs of China, Tibet, and Mongolia on now and an exhibit on geisha opens this week. You can see many of their photographs (though no bigger than these images) at something they call ARTscape.

Above are the two prints I had made. They’re both from around 1880, by a Japanese photographer named Kusakabe Kimbei. I really dig the nineteenth-century photos—actually, I really like all old photos. Kusakabe was one of the first and best-known Japanese photographers. His pictures differ from most taken by Westerners of the era, who were more likely to pose their subjects directly facing the camera. Kusakabe’s photographs are not without artifice—the samurai era had been over for twenty years when the samurai picture there was taken—but they’re just a little more alive then the formal Western pictures, a little closer to offering a window on the past, which is what makes pictures like these so compelling for history nuts like L & myself.

That’s not to say that the Westerners’ photographs in the collection aren’t cool too. Especially since the main aspects of Asia that Europeans tended to want pictures of were: 1) “exotic” clothing and costumes, 2) cool architecture, 3) nekkid ladies, 4) torture and mutilation. And who can argue with wanting to see any of that?

Here’s two more pictures from the PEM I really like. On the left is a pagoda in Fuzhou, China, photographed in 1871. On the right are three Indian soldiers serving the Maharaja of Kashmir in the 1870s. At this scale you probably just notice their funny hats, but if you see this picture full-size you can tell from their faces these dudes are BAD ASS. I’m reminded of a comment in the letters column from League of Extraordinary Gentlemen:

The depiction of Verne’s Nemo is born of dislike for the fashion by which Western media unvaryingly characterize those of Indian descent as high-voiced, wobbly-headed, timid, ineffectual shopkeepers … Clearly such people have never had several hundred wild-eyed fanatical devils over-run their cannon positions. Or wondered why [Hindu] deities possess so many arms, the great majority of which are holding something sharp.

The only depressing thing about the Peking Tom outing was how it was one of the very few times I’ve actually seen and interacted with Lisa in the last few weeks. We’ve both been busy and stressed lately, and when that happens we tend to revert to our natural biorhythms—I stay up and get up later and later, she gets up and goes to bed earlier and earlier. Eventually we’re like acquaintances who pass each other on the way to and from bed around 3 am. Lisa declared Sunday a mental health day for both of us, which meant no work, not even email or weblogs. A lot of lounging, snogging, canoodling, and we even started drinking before noon. Heaven. Lots of things to get stressed about again come Monday—medical problems in the family, the job hunt, the dissertation, her grades due, money—and oh yeah, our roof is caving in! But Sunday was a damn good day.

My Linking Technique Is Unstoppable!

  • Samurai Archives! Electric Samurai! The Samurai Code! Akira Kurosawa! Did I mention that I’m on a samurai kick?
  • I watched The Seven Samurai last week for the first time in ages. I’ve seen Ran and Rashomon, never seen Yojimbo. Besides that, what other Kurosawa movies are must-sees?
  • Lisa ran her Sengoku-inspired classroom LARP last week. This is I think the third time she’s done it, and something cool and different happens each time. This time the ninja assassin killed the daimyo, but she let him hang around as an unquiet ghost. I wish I’d had her as a teacher in high school. Except for the ickiness our being married would then create.
  • Samurai Jack just gets better and better, doesn’t it? I can’t tell how “seasons” work on Cartoon Network, but virtually all of the newer episodes (Robo Samurai versus Mondo Bot, the secret origin of Aku, the one where Jack and Aku agree to fight without sword or magic) have been priceless.
  • Anyone out there seen the movie Samurai Fiction? Worth renting? Mostly I want to hear the soundtrack and find out if everything Tomoyasu Hotei does is as cool as the song on the Kill Bill soundtrack. I’d hate to drop $40 for a import CD and have it turn out to be noodly 80s J-Pop.
  • Speaking of that, what = up with Kill Bill Part 2? Wasn’t that supposed to be coming out this month?
  • Getting away from samurai per se: Chris/Gamma Fodder had a great post on Asian junk food cinema recently. I’ve seen many of those films, mostly with him, but I’m still saving the link to fill in the ones I’ve missed. Plus here’s an RPGnet thread with more samurai movies and comics for me to go through.
  • Edit: One more link for my own benefit, from China rather than Japan: Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

*”El Scorcho” came very close to being the first dance at our wedding. As a public service I will explain for you the part of the lyrics that nobody can figure out:

I asked you to go to the Green Day concert
You said you never heard of them
How cool is that?
So I went to your room and read your diary:
“watching Grunge leg-drop New Jack through a press table”
And then my heart stopped:
“listening to Cio Cio-San”
I fall in love all over again.

The fifth line refers to wrestler Johnny Grunge putting the hurt on Nu Jack Isone in (I’m told) the old ECW wrestling league. “Cio Cio-San” is the title character in Madame Butterfly—which, like the album “Pinkerton” and this post, is about a Westerner’s infatuation with the East. A girl who shreds the cello, has never heard of Green Day (in 1996!), but writes in her diary about wrestling matches and Madame Butterfly is clearly a strange girl worth holding on to. Is it any wonder that this is “our” song?