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?

31 Comments

  1. That would in fact be Extreme Championship Wrestling. I could do pages on ECW and New Jack but I will spare the world.

  2. Y’know, you’re such a romantic. Makes me wanna go “Awwwwwwwww! HE’S SO CUTE!”

  3. 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.

    Holy crap, this happens to you guys too? Actually, it’s more of a steady state with J and I; I’m the morning person, she’s the night owl. In the winter it gets particularly absurd, with me going to bed at 8:30 and waking up at 4:30.

    *”El Scorcho” came very close to being the first dance at our wedding. (Lisa is ethnicly half Japanese.)

    Since Pinkerton is in a lot of ways about Rivers’s year at Harvard, I as an undergraduate also found a lot of the songs on that album saying things about my own life: hopeless crushes on lesbians, sex-addict roommates, and other varieties of sophomore-year weirdness.

  4. So, if memory serves, I remember a dinner at Doyle’s awhile back in which you and Lisa claimed to envy Michelle and I for having ‘cool jobs.’ But she’s doing work with Peabody Essex, going to China, and running LARPs in her classroom? Methinks you were holding out on us!

    Other Kurosawa flicks I can recommend:

    “Throne of Blood” and ‘Kagemusha’ are so very very cool. Definitely rent those.
    “Hidden Fortress” is in rotation on IFC right now, I watched a bit on Saturday after finally seeing ‘Ghost Dog’ (I have to admit, I’m not a big Jarmusch fan, I can’t really see what all the hullabaloo about him was amongst my elitist snobbish film school peers) Anyways, Hidden Fortress is worth seeing, but it’s not one of my faves.
    “Yojimbo” and it’s sequel ‘Sanjuro’ are fun. I’ve caught them on IFC or TCM within the past month.

    There’s been A LOT of Kurosawa on cable recently, so fire up your TiVo!

    For non-samurai flicks:
    ‘Dreams’ is slow, ponderous in parts (the story about the mountain climbers especially) but every frame is gorgeous. Like watching a painting.
    ‘High and Low’ is a great crime drama.

  5. >Besides that, what other Kurosawa movies are must-sees?
    Kagemusha. Absolutely one of his best. A low-bred thief is hired to serve as a double for a powerful warlord, who then dies, leaving the thief in charge. Like Ran, but not as dreamy.

    Throne of Blood is also pretty good, mainly because it’s a re-telling of MacBeth.

  6. I wanna do it again too! It was AGES ago!
    Hey- we should all get everyone together sometime for dinner. No dice involved.
    But, given our schedules, commitments, and all that jazz, I’m sure that’ll happen.

    Oh, yeah, I just sheepishly remembered as I read that back that Jere and Jess graciously have people over to their place for dinner and drinks with shocking frquency. Me and Michelle just usually can’t make it.

  7. Ditto on the Jess and Jere thing. Plus, getting out there for me is difficult.

  8. I don’t know you, but all I can say is ‘great minds think alike’ (check out my post above). 🙂

    Those are fantastic movies. The witch scenes in ToB are awesome. And Mifune chews the scenery with aplomb. And the final scene in Kaegmusha is jaw dropping.

    Memo to self: I’ve got to get them on DVD…

  9. And I also just read back what I wrote and sheepishly realized I wrote ‘Me and Michelle!’ Jeez Louise, my grammar be atrocious! No wonder I haven’t been invited back out to dinner with R&L!

  10. Oh, and by the bye (I swear this is my last post on this thread. Honest), Kill Bill vol. 2 has been moved to, like, mid-April. I don’t know why though. Probably ’cause God hates you.

  11. Well, he did make all those remarks the other day about J.C. bustin’ a move and buyin’ the drinks at ManRay the other day. Coincidence?

  12. So, if memory serves, I remember a dinner at Doyle’s awhile back in which you and Lisa claimed to envy Michelle and I for having ‘cool jobs.’ But she’s doing work with Peabody Essex, going to China, and running LARPs in her classroom? Methinks you were holding out on us!

    OK, maybe, though that’s Lisa’s cool job rather than mine. (I really should’ve applied for that job at the International Spy Museum.) And we almost never get to hang out with Aerosmith or baby kangaroos. (If my memory serves, that was the night Michelle called to say “we can’t go anywhere too fancy, because I have some kind of animal goo all over my shirt.” Hee.)

    Agreed that we should do something together again soon, and that Jess & Jere shouldn’t have to be the only ones promoting social interaction amongst us.

  13. 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.

    Start booking dates. Seriously. Chris and I do this every Saturday night. Sometimes it’s the only time all week I might see Chris socially. Otherwise he would be sort of like the guy on the couch in Half Baked. Even if it’s an activity as platonic as eroding an ass dent into the couch and watching kung fu movies, it’s still fun.

    Date your spouse! You might even get some action if you buy dinner!

  14. Well, if I lived in anything greater than 370 square feet, I’d promote social gatherings. Oh, wait, there are a ton of restaurants near me, maybe I should do that. OH! Woody’s! You guys would love Woody’s! Okay, next social gathering is all me.

  15. Agreed that we should do something together again soon, and that Jess & Jere shouldn’t have to be the only ones promoting social interaction amongst us.

    That would be nice.

  16. Excellent post, Robbo, although you’ve given me the sniffles just thinking about the “ships in the night” syndrome that you and Lisa (and in parallel Krista and I) have. Careers blow dead marsupials, n’est pas? I agree with Krista’s recommendation with the scheduled weekly date as well. The best date in the twenty to thirty dollar range that you’ll have all week and an absolute necessity to reconnect.

    Re: Akira Kurosawa – all of the afore mentioned picks are right on the money. Kagemusha is without a doubt his best film and should be watched slack jawed. Yojimbo is my favourite (anything with Toshiro Mifune is awesome) as well; you should see it back to back with A Fist Full of Dollars to see how it inspired (or rather created) the spaghetti western. Ran is cinematically beautiful, although it can drag a bit, but the enormous battle scenes are arguably Kurosawa’s best and the “you gonna git yours beyatch” death scene of the baddie is blood-spray-a-riffic.

    Nerdy Kurosawa fact #115: George Lucas got the inspiration for Star Wars from The Hidden Fortress, specifically character personalities for C-3PO, R2-D2 and Princess Leia from the two bumbling servants and Princess Yukihime.

  17. “Twenty dollars? This will be our best date ever!”

    Yeah, you and Krista are right about booking the married-time. You’ve got to jealously guard it. (That goes for all social time, I guess.) And both of our jobs take place in the daytime! I can’t imagine adding shiftwork to the picture.

    Thanks (to you & everyone else!) for the Kurosawa tips. Clearly I have some serious movie viewing ahead of me.

  18. “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.”

    Damn, I could stare at that photo for days. There’s so much I want to know about these guys. Even though the hats _are_ real funny, they are like nothing I’ve ever seen. The hats were not designed for goofiness, [I wear a “jester” style toque, I know what I’m talking about] but more likely for something representing their hierarchy among the Maharaja’s men. The greater their duty to the Maharaja, the greater the hat. Are they somehow helmets? In battle, the hats were probably really intimidating to the enemy. “Holy crap, look at the size of those hats! Retreat!”

    Or, maybe these guys had the photo taken while on a three-day pass, in the village on the river down in the valley. You know, they just smoked some killer opium, wandered into a hat shop, and demanded the proprietor to make them these hats. “Spare no expense, we fight for the Maharaja!” They walked back up the mountainside proudly wearing ther new hats, but were totally shot to death by their fellow troops. “We thought they were demons,” replied one grief-stricken sharpshooter, holding the photo of his fallen comrades, “we thought Shiva had sent demons with monstorous heads!”

  19. I haven’t seen The Hidden Fortress, but hey, look at Vader’s helmet. It looks like a Samauri helmet.

    Nerdy Lucas fact #31415 : When they first made Vader’s helmet, they took a motorcycle helmet and rivited cone-shaped sheet metal to it.

  20. Damn, I could stare at that photo for days. There’s so much I want to know about these guys.
    Exactly! That’s how I feel about almost all these pictures.

    “Holy crap, look at the size of those hats! Retreat!”
    Hee. LOL! as the kids today say.

    You know, they just smoked some killer opium, wandered into a hat shop, and demanded the proprietor to make them these hats. “Spare no expense, we fight for the Maharaja!”
    ROTFL! as the kids say.

    They walked back up the mountainside proudly wearing ther new hats, but were totally shot to death by their fellow troops.
    ROTFLMAO!

  21. Holy crap, this happens to you guys too?
    Oh yeah, all the time. It’s one of the reasons our ever meeting was so unlikely.

    Since Pinkerton is in a lot of ways about Rivers’s year at Harvard, I as an undergraduate also found a lot of the songs on that album saying things about my own life
    Yeah. I was in my first year of grad school when Pinkerton came out so while it wasn’t quite the same (no lesbian crushes or sex-addict roommates – the grad dorms just aren’t that interesting) it was still a good soundtrack to a fairly isolated and often unhappy year.

    Oh, in the original post I forgot to mention what made the gift to L of the prints even more atrociously cute. (This isn’t really in response to your comment, but I’ll bury it down here in the comment scroll anyway.) The prints haven’t arrived yet, so I used my Xmas present to her – which you and Julia will recall was the Amazing Xyron 500, bought the day I saw you two in Harvard Square – to make stickers of the two prints. I think the fact they were in sticker form was as exciting to her as the present itself. (Milhouse: “Mrs. Krabappel wants a paper on Henry VIII, and I have to score at least a pumpkin sticker or better.”)

  22. We do a lot of things on purpose to eke out a wee bit of together time here and there. But most of the couple-y behavioural rituals are too nauseatingly smushy to commit to e-print, and probably reveal more than you wanted to know about the household habits of your friends. The main thing is you have to do it on purpose or it won’t happen. Then, a blurry three years later you’ll pull your head of the pile of dusty periodicals you’ve been snuffling and go, “Hey, did I have a partner around here somewhere?”

    That being said, I will hopefully never indulge in the degree of interpersonal intimacy my parents did, i.e. going to the bathroom in front of one another. Eeuw. I can tolerate those few minutes without my partner, thanks.

  23. Seconding the recommendation of Yojimbo, its sequel Sanjuro, Kagemusha, and Hidden Fortress. I haven’t seen Throne of Blood but imagine it’s good, too.

    While not a Samurai film, no Kurosawa filmfest would be complete without Ikiru, which Roger Ebert considers Kurosawa’s greatest film.

    Scott Morse had a recent comic book about Kurosawa’s life (among other things), called The Barefoot Serpent.

    Although not directed by Kurosawa, you should check out the Samurai Trilogy (Musashi Miyamoto, Duel at Ichijoji Temple, Duel at Ganryu Island) starring Toshiro Mifune, and Chushingura (about the 47 Ronin). Mifune (I think it was him) was also in a very fun western whose name I forget, as a samurai teamed up with a gunslinger in the American west. But then I also liked Sunset, and Six String Samurai.

    Also, check out Zatoichi films.

    Do you watch Rurouni Kenshin on Cartoon Network? Although it’s only showing weekly now, all 22 DVDs are available from Netflix.

    As for comics, Lone Wolf and Cub should be available in all 28 glorious volumes at any decent comics shop. And Usagi Yojimbo in 17 volumes and an ongoing series.

  24. I’ve never enjoyed a post-and-comments combination as much as this one, perhaps. Japanesey and Chinesey and Weezery and College Memoriesy.
    Holy crap, this happens to you guys too? Actually, it’s more of a steady state with J and I; I’m the morning person, she’s the night owl. In the winter it gets particularly absurd, with me going to bed at 8:30 and waking up at 4:30.
    T and I have almost mathematically exclusive sleep sets, because I need eight hours and she only needs 12 or 13. . . every other day. I’m a morning person by emotional preference and a nighthawk by work preference, but all I really need is a stable pattern. T’s habits swing in and out of phase. It’s insoluble. We only have two compatible equilibriums: either 03:00 or later to 11:00 (since I can’t physically sleep later than 11:00, even getting less than eight hours), or 01:30 to 07:00, with a one-hour nap for me in the afternoons. I probably need a Venn diagram to explain what I’ve just written.
    “Venn. He must have bored his parents to death.” – Eddie Izzard (probably paraphrased)
    But seriously, it’s the only thing that drives a recurring wedge between most compatible couples.
    And then what so hey now: crushes on lesbians and sex-addict roommates! I was about to panic (or do a gleeful dance?), until I read “sophomore-year”. So that’s all right then. Were you referring to my Bizarro World counterpart there?
    And I get more the “Costanza” award, despite loving “Pink Triangle” mostest. “I drive ’em to lesbianism. . . he brrrrings ’em back!” I’ve lost count. Three, I think.

  25. Heh. Yes. “Tired of Sex” was very much a sophomore year song for me and considering the living situation I was in, it was very apt.

  26. Okay, so I wasn’t the sex-addict roommate in question. I never doubted it for a moment. Really.
    As for Kurosawa films, it looks like everyone’s comments have covered the lot, but I should mention that The Hidden Fortress is not only a great film, but it’s the film that backs Lucas’ testimony that he conceived of the Star Wars trilogy in one go. (He may not have mentioned that he stole the whole plot from this one film.)
    It’s got everything– the comedy-duo Droids on Tatooine (“We were made to suffer”); the rescue of the Princess; the burning of aunt & uncle figures; the Hidden Fortress (though it’s not the Death Star); the Obi-Wan / Vader duel; and Vader’s true visage and character.
    And it proves once and for all that the light saber descends not from the samurai sword, but the six-and-a-half-point long spear.

  27. Forgot to mention, too! I’ll be in China for the rest of the year, starting in May. If all goes according to plan. If Lisa’s in the southeast at all, she has an ally or point of retreat in Fuzhou. I have some extended family there, too.
    I’ll be mostly based in Fuzhou– I already know it well, and I’m wondering where that pagoda is in the photograph you posted. Don’t recognize it. Must find out.

  28. I really like the samurai pictures. They do give you what seems to be a breif doorway to the past.

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