Thursday, October 11, 2012

Osaka Castle: Justin *is* Toyotomi Hideyoshi

Toyotomi Hideyoshi was kind of a big deal. Building on the accomplishments of Oda Nobunaga before him, Toyotomi Hideyoshi unified Japan through a combination of military prowess and shrewd diplomacy (though more of the former than the latter, in most cases). Although his clan's reign lasted only a generation, he established the foundation of the Tokugawa Shogunate, which would rule Japan from the early 1600s until the Meiji Restoration in 1868.

Basically, Toyotomi Hideyoshi was the ultimate old-school samurai, and his rise through the ranks from peasant to warrior to rascal to lord of all Japan has made him one of the nation's great heroes.

Osaka Castle was one of Toyotomi Hideyoshi's major strongholds. It was also the site of his son's last stand against Tokugawa Ieyasu, erstwhile ally and founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate. While the old castle has been destroyed several times over, a relatively careful reconstruction of the main tower sits on the old site, and of course the sprawling moats and battlements will take more than a few hundred years and one world war to destroy.
Though some of us may have tried our best.

Today, the castle and its grounds form an enormous park right in the busy modern heart of Osaka. The main tower is now a museum dedicated largely to the story of Toyotomi Hideyoshi and his clan.
The museum itself is nothing spectacular. A lot of the exhibits are in Japanese only, though there were some really great videos on the castle and on some of the old screen paintings depicting major battles in the history of the Toyotomi clan.

The view from the top was nice, though.
Oh, yeah - and I paid a few hundred yen to dress up like Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

My war face.

My "Oh my gosh this thing weighs a million pounds" face.
All in all, not a bad way to spend a beautiful late-summer day!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

A trip to Osaka: Elisabeth/エリザベート the musical, and Prince Rudolf Hello Kitty

Justin and I had a three-day weekend in September. I have an obsession with musical theater which matches my obsession with history. Elisabeth the musical (called エリザベート, or Erizabeto, in Japanese) was playing in Osaka. Peach Airlines has recently introduced service between Fukuoka and Kansai Airport, which gets us there faster and more cheaply than the shinkansen (bullet train).

Such a confluence of serendipity could not be ignored. 大阪に行きましょう! Let's go to Osaka!

Elisabeth is absolutely the best musical to have never been done in English. It has been done in German, Hungarian, Korean, Finnish, Dutch, Swedish, and Japanese, and Takarazuka alone has performed it seven times. Broadway, what gives? I think it would go over great in the US! Elisabeth is what Phantom of the Opera wants to be: a behemoth, Gothic, lushly-scored, supernatural, occasionally-over-the-top dark chocolate indulgence of a romantic, tragic musical (Interestingly, the recent Phantom movie basically costumed Christine as.... Elisabeth. Down to the hair ornaments. When your master's dissertation involves the analysis of film and stage costumes, this is the sort of thing you geek out about.)

The plot follows Elisabeth, who will be the last empress of Austria-Hungary, from her childhood through her unhappy marriage to Emperor Franz Josef and up to her assassination. (Sounds like a normal musical/opera plot so far). The story is narrated by her assassin Luigi Luccheni, who in vintage SAT parlance : Elisabeth as Che :: Evita. He's narrating from beyond the grave, where he is on trial for the murder. (Getting weirder). And his justification for murdering Elisabeth is that she wanted him to, as she has been involved in a life-long love affair with the personification of Death. (And you thought a guy with half an ugly face is creepy? Bush league, Phantom. Bush league.)  

This musical is an endurance test for the cast, clocking in around 3 hours. This is probably why for the three month summer tour, Toho cast two Elisabeths and three Deaths (along with others). I was incredibly excited to find out that Máté Kamarás was one of the Deaths. Kamarás is famous as Death from the Vienna 2004 version, which I fell in love with on Youtube. (It amuses me that this user's fan subtitles, rather than being smited with DMCA takedowns, are actually endorsed on the composer's own English-language workshop site.)

And Máté Kamarás is not my only favorite Death actor appearing in the Osaka Elisabeth. Sena Jun is, too. She played Death back in 2009. Yes, she - Sena Jun is a Takarasienne. She's the only Takarasienne to have played Death, Elisabeth, and Luccheni, which probably means she's the only person in the world to do it, since, you know, most other places don't let you play other genders. Actually, her Death is one of my favorites, and I'm bummed that except for this fuzzy recording, it seems to have disappeared from Youtube. In Osaka, she was one of the two Elisabeths.
Sena Jun as Death and as Elisabeth, from (here and here)
The other Elisabeth, Haruno Sumire, is another former Takarasienne, who also played Death. So if Kamarás breaks a leg or something, there'll be plenty of backup.
Interchangeable. (Images from here and here)
With the help of our music teacher buddy Aki, we got tickets for the showing at which both Sena Jun and Máté Kamarás were performing, and man, it was fabulous. I mean, the show was great, regardless. Justin had no previous experience and enjoyed it a lot. But for me, it was just so cool to see in person an actor and actress whom I've admired on Youtube for oh, three years now? Which I suppose is why that composer leaves the clips up - I'd never have paid for a ticket, let alone flown all the way to Osaka for the show, if it hadn't been for those versions. Maybe Takarazuka could get those Sena Jun clips back up??

I actually preferred Kamarás live in the Osaka production - he has a tendency in the Vienna to get a little campy, with the growls and the hisses. Maybe they sound different in German. Anyway, he didn't go so over the top in the Osaka production. Which he memorized in Japanese, which was also super cool, seeing as I've been here a lot longer and am not close to memorizing three hours of Japanese.

Sena Jun was great, and with charisma to burn. I'm impressed at how well her voice has held up after having to push it low all those years (although she didn't quite get to the high note at the end of Elisabeth's big power song "Ich Gehor Nur Mir" / "I Belong to Me," which I totally understand because it's such a hard jump in such a long show that basically nobody else hits it live either). I'm also impressed by her ability to get into the body language of different characters. If you saw the video above, she plays a strong, impassive physical presence as Death, but as Elisabeth she goes from girlish scampering to queenly processionals. I think being a male-role actress at Takarazuka teaches you how to hold a stage, and you can do it whether or not you stay with your male body language training.

And what about the music? Here are a few of my favorites:

If all you want is a taster of the musical, I suggest popping in for this sequence: "Kitsch," "Ejen," and "Wenn Ich Tanzen Will." "Kitsch" is a rock opera masterpiece, and the vocalist Serkan Kaya is a god. Ejen gets you into "Wenn Ich Tanzen Will," which just oozes with Elisabeth and Death's dramatic love/hate dynamic, with an awesome bolero drumbeat. (If you want to get REALLY gender studies on the whole thing, you can compare/contrast the Vienna "Wenn" with the Takarazuka "Watashi Ga Odoru.' Takarazuka takes the vocal lead from Elisabeth and gives it to Death, plus they strip the aggressive tension out of the choreography, to the point that the principals don't actually touch. Although no other versions take away Elisabeth's vocal lead, both the Osaka version and some of the other German versions retained more physical space. I don't think the Vienna choreography is perfect, but I definitely think it does the most to visually bring out the conflict in the song. I also appreciate the fact that the vocalists don't sing like they're marching.)

I also really love Die Schatten Werden Länger”/”The Shadows Grow Deeper." It has that super-dramatic rock opera sound you associate with the main song of Phantom. The live version is so much more intense than Youtube's cruddy sound can replicate - it's a literal seat shaker, especially once you add the massive chorus of the dead and Death's minions, who go shirtless at the Osaka production. Who doesn’t want to see Death seduce the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne? Especially if there are capering shirtless minions? (Who, by the way, were some of the best dancers I've ever seen live, shirtless or otherwise).

Which brings me to my final point. Prince Rudolf of Austria-Hungary is best known for his murder-suicide (or was it?) with his mistress Marie Vetsera at the Mayerling hunting lodge in 1889. This event removed a voice for liberal reform in the dual monarchy and left Franz Ferdinand heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. It is possible to consider Rudolf's death one of the long-term causes of World War 1.

The Japanese commemorate this with Hello Kitty merchandise.

I bought the folder. There is also a keychain and a stuffed toy.
Too soon?

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Toilets of Asia: Narita Airport and Japanese Techno-Toilets

Toilet type: Western seated, techno-seat
Gender: Men's
Location: Narita Airport terminal
Noted for: "equipment to cleansing the buttocks with warm water."

No, really:

You have to speak four languages just to go to the bathroom.
The Japanese have an obsession with toilet technology. So much so that there is a TEDx presentation inspired by them (best quotes- "It's as if the toilet is saying 'Welcome!'" "And this kind of highly skilled robot [toilet] also has a warm heart." "You become worried that you can't live without this toilet.")

Did you know that a self-heating toilet seat can be programmed to heat within 6 seconds because yes, the Japanese have gathered marketing data to prove that most people are seated within 6 seconds of arriving in the stall? You better bet I'm timing myself next time.

Also, looking for a bidet while out on the town? There's an app for that!
Most articles about techno-toilets reference the Japanese interest in cleanliness as a reason for the toilets. As the TEDx talk states, the goal is to create a restroom experience in which you actually don't have to touch anything, from automated toilet lids to cleaning to flushing to the sinks. I also read elsewhere, and I can't find it now, that the Japanese invest in toilets because in many small homes, the toilet is the only place where you can get some "alone time." People therefore go a little overboard spoiling themselves. I've fallen dearly in love with my toilet's seat heater function, although mine is not of the six-second variety and must be left on in the winter. (Actually, the seat heater is more important here than in the US as well because of the tendency not to use central heating. Your toilet seat therefore reaches temperatures at which you fear A Christmas Story-style fusion of your hapless buttock flesh).

So those are good aspects of techno-toilets. On the other hand, now that the idea is spreading, things like this Korean commercial happen:

And I'm not sure I can forgive Japan for that.