Thursday, January 26, 2012

Where the Wild Things Really Are

Exhibition Poster, from Illustrated Legends of Kitano Tenjin Shrine

And when he came to the place where the wild things are/
They roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth
—Maurice Sendak

An eight-headed, nine-tailed monster greeted us at the door of the exhibition. Fortunately for us, the monster was preoccupied with other business, for he guards the gate to hell.

What occupies the monster at the moment is the itinerant monk Nichizō. Nichizō has come to hell in search of Emperor Daigo.  He finds the Emperor engulfed in a sea of flames with blackbirds swooping at his head.

from Illustrated Legends of Kitano Tenjin Shrine

Nichizō needs the emperor’s advice about placating the spirit of Michizane, who has been wreaking havoc since he died in exile.  Emperor Daigo is the one who banished Michizane, unjustly, as it turns out.

All this is happening at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in its exhibition, Storytelling in Japanese Art.  Among other treasures, a complete set of rare thirteenth century handscrolls are on display for the first time.  The handscrolls, the Illustrated Legends of Kitano Tenjin Shrine, are the only ones in existence that recount “Nichizō’s full journey to heaven and hell.”

These days, the handscrolls are viewed from behind glass panels, with several good-sized segments on display.  Imagine, though, sitting with an ancient handscroll, perhaps as much as thirty feet in length.  Imagine your left hand unrolling the handscroll in two-foot lengths, your right hand rolling up what you’ve read.  Imagine the curl of paper in your grip, your hands moving in rhythm as you dwell upon each segment.  With each winding of the handscroll, the story progresses:  a new segment of the story is revealed, another rolls away.

Imagine viewing the story of The Drunken Demon.  The story begins “[o]n Mount Oeyama, northwest of Kyoto,” where “there lived a giant demon who terrorized the capital, abducting all the beautiful maidens.” Armed with poisoned sake and a golden helmet, a rescue party, led by the warrior Raikō, enters the demon’s compound.  The demon treats them to a “macabre feast of sashimi made with human flesh, washed down with goblets of blood.”

The demon, drunk on the poisoned sake, retires to his chamber for a nap.  The rescue party finds him, but chopping off his gigantic head is a danger in itself, as the severed head flies up and lands on Raikō’s own.  Raikō’s life is saved, though, as he’s wearing the golden helmet.  The maidens are rescued, and everyone lives happily ever after (except the demon and his subjects, of course).

Battles loom large in the handscrolls, and poetry and battles come together in The Battles of the Twelve Animals, which begins with a poetry competition. Battles ensue when the badger, spurned as the choice to judge a second competition, plots his revenge.  When the badger is finally defeated, he becomes a Buddhist monk and composes “poems reflecting on the snow and the moon.”

Tales of human beings also yield to tales of animals in The Tale of Mice.  Nehyōe, the mouse-husband, is carried off by a goose while trying to satisfy his pregnant mouse-wife’s craving for meat cut from the bird’s right shoulder. Sister Toad and Lady Mole are summoned to help, while meanwhile Nehyōe wanders the countryside composing poems of lament.  At long last, Nehyōe is rescued and sent home in a boat, and the mouse-couple lives happily ever more.

Interspersed among the handscrolls are precious objects relating to the stories on display, like these:

a Noh costume adorned with books;

a set of cards used for poetry games.
The Tales of Ise Playing Cards

It’s all there:  life and death, poetry and danger, love and war.  Even old pots and pans must be disposed of properly, or, as The Night Parade of One Hundred Demons admonishes, their spirits will not rest.  Might Maurice Sendak, in writing Where the Wild Things Are, have taken a cue from this?

By the way, if you’re wondering what it took to placate Michizane, it was simple, in the end.  Building a temple didn’t quite suffice; even after that, the imperial palace “mysteriously” burnt to the ground.  Title, it seems, is all: peace descended only after Michizane was named tenjin and worshiped as a god.


The exhibition continues through May 6, 2012.  For those unable to visit, there is a splendid publication that includes fold-out views of some of the handscrolls, as well as rich (if a bit hard to navigate) materials available online.  For those lucky enough to be able to visit, the handscrolls will be wound periodically to put different segments on display.  The first winding is to occur on February 8th.

Listening List

For a Spotify playlist, click on Where the Wild Things Really Are.

Yasushi Akutagawa, Rhapsody

Daron Hagen, Koto Concerto: Genji

Qunihico Hashimoto, Symphony No.1 (2d movement excerpt)

Fumio Hayasaka, Piano Concerto (1st movement)

Hirokazu Hiraishi, A Rainbow in the Mirror

Alan Hovhaness, Fantasy on Japanese Wood Prints (Part 1)

Akira Ifukube, Meeting in the Rain

Akira Nishimura, Tala

Yoshiaki Onishi, 'Départ dans...' 

Somei Satoh, Birds in Warped Time

Toru Takemitsu,  And Then I Knew ’Twas Wind

Sakura "Cherry Blossoms,” Traditional Music of Japan, Classical Koto Music

Yoshida Brothers, Kodo

Credits:  The photographs from The Drunken Demon and The Tale of Mice are of images in the exhibition publication.  The remainder of the images are from the Metropolitan Museum's website.  The Sendak quotation at the head of the post is from Where the Wild Things Are.  The remainder of the quotations are from the exhibition publication and the Metropolitan Museum’s website.


Von said...

Wonderful!!!Touching a rich field of memories.....

Rubye Jack said...

Susan, I cannot tell you how much I have enjoyed this music, particularly Qunihico Hashimoto. I find it so lovely and consoling to my troubled soul and then, the idea of a chance at renewal. This, to my so very uneducated musical ear. All of your selections here have me in awe, and in spite of not having completed my day I think I will take to the sofa, turn down the lights, light candles, and light up a big doobie while listening to these fantastic selections. Okay, I don't have any MJ but the rest is true. :)

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Susan .. I see Nichizo lived from 1269 - 1342 ... fascinating exhibition and a wonderful read. I'll have to return for the music - and must make a point of having sufficient time for each of your posts .. I might educate myself, as you have such a wealth of knowledge.

I love the photos too .. and am fascinated with their use of cards for poetry games.

Brilliant - ... loved it - cheers Hilary

PS - sorry you're having trouble commenting on my pop up box - I just don't understand Blogger - it freezes for me and I can't use embedded comment boxes at all. Next week I'll have to try to find out why .. H

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Susan:
The illustrated scrolls are so very beautiful, how lucky to have the opportunity of seeing them at close quarters at the Museum of Modern Art. So intricately painted and so detailed in every respect, one can but imagine the patience and dedication needed to complete them. And, we also like the idea of other artefacts being used to highlight other aspects of Japanese culture.

Whilst typing this comment, we have been regally entertained by Qunihico Hashimoto.The ceremonious nature of the work is so perfect to complement the majestic artworks.

Unknown said...

Wonderful post, Susan!

Scott said...

The attention to detail,the tight intricacies, is amazing. It seems very complete but still kind of light and airy. The procession of grasshoppers piece is awesome. I like your description of what it would be like reading the scrolls, unreal. I look forward to enjoying the videos and music.So nice of you to share in this way.

Friko said...

How very fortunate you are having such treasures within reach. And having the inclination to absorb their beauty.

wanderer said...

Susan, you are reducing the yawning - sometimes I feel so far away, and this is helping. I especially like the Toru Takemitsu of whom I have just read something about an ocean with no east or west and this is music with no east or west. And it breathes.

Japan is addictive, a ancient place of respect and reverence. Noh plays are hypnotic, exquisite and long (people sit trance like for hours and hours) telling slowly unfolding legends and stories just like these scrolls, unwinding and winding as you beautifully describe. I felt my legs crossed on the wooden floor.

We are fortunate that we travel to Europe via Japan and always stop. Only last year I heard myself saying 'I think I could live here'.

Suze said...

Listening to 'Birds in Warped Time' as I read your words. Scrolled up the sidebar to see if I'd gotten the name right and noticed the Lynch and the Holst.

Last night, I watched 'August Rush' with my daughter and husband and thought of you. The film, overall, was marred by mediocrity, but there were shining moments which, nevertheless, made me cry. A few words in particular from Robin Williams' character -- apparently patterned after Fagin from 'Oliver Twist' were particularly stirring. He spoke of the harmonic connection between all things and the channels which it seeks in order to manifest.

The young boy in the film speaks to a mentor at Julliard, when asked how he composes, saying that he takes the music from 'the ones that are giving to him' and 'talks back' by writing it down.

I told my husband last night as we were in bed in the dark waiting for sleep to come and bring its sweet oblivion, that I wish to seek and find much instrumental music to assist me in the writing and restructuring and discovery which lies ahead in the coming months. And your blog was the first stop that came to mind.

I am infinitely grateful for this unassuming, rich resource you are creating and maintaining here, Sue.

Just finished 'Birds.' Let me see where I shall click next.

And as for the scrolls, yes. I would love to handle them and watch time roll out its tongue and lick me clean before retreating, again.

(Chose the Ifukube. The initial cacophony is deeply problematic for me. I am looking for bright harmonies which pull me by the string from the chest, not strange sounds which put same chest to roil. Wonder how I will navigate it all but am determined to try -- and extremely grateful.)


Suze said...

(Also -- am sending a link to this blog to my husband. I speak of it often and know he would appreciate your exquisitely-selected collections.)

klahanie said...

Hi Susan,
This is wonderful. Japanese art and music has always fascinated me. And through this visual and musical delight you have shared, has only enhanced my feelings.
And those Yoshida Brothers really play a mean tune :)
As per usual, Susan, your informative postings have instilled a touch more culture into my being. For that, I'm grateful.
With much respect and appreciation, your way, Gary

Jayne said...

Susan- This is an amazing catolog of art and music. And you are so generous to compile it for the world. I haven't spent much time listening to asian music, but sampling the videos you've provided makes me want to explore.

The artwork is visually stunning. And the mice! Fascinating. Thank you, thank you. :)

Britta said...

Dear Susan,
you are so lucky to be able to see such a wonderful exhibtition! Thank you for your interesting post, and for the tips to get more information.
Draggons, battles, adventures - men is so small in the face of the elements! I would have liked to see the mice-tale...

theconstantwalker said...

A wonderful post to read...

shoreacres said...

My favorite is the grasshopper jar, no doubt because it's so accessible. And I smiled to see that "poetry and battles come together in The Battles of the Twelve Animals, which begins with a poetry competition." I couldn't help but think - its a very old, very Eastern form of playing the dozens!

But I would come to the exhibit primarily to see the scrolls. Like western books with their pages and bindings, the scrolls are part of the story. Like page-turning, the rolling and unrolling is part of the mystery of engagement, a means for the story itself to draw us in and bring self-forgetfulness. It's simply wonderful that the Museum is going to the trouble of advancing the scrolls. For some reason, I find that touching.

klahanie said...

Hi Susan,
Just an added comment to inform you that Penny the Jack Russell dog has bestowed an award upon your good self. She has told me that you must not feel any obligation to acknowledge said award and thus you may do with it as you so wish.
In kindness and respect, Gary and of course, Penny

Doofus said...

Thanks for sharing this, never heard any Japanese classical before. It is almost other-worldy, like how I imagine Japan to be.

Susan Scheid said...

Von: How nice to hear from you! So, you have spent time in Japan, perchance? Perhaps you’ll tell us about that sometime.

Rubye Jack: That Hashimoto was a nice find, I thought—so glad you thought so too. Stretching out, dimming the lights, and simply listening, how nice. So glad to have aided and abetted you in that.

Hilary: I love those poetry cards/poetry games! Makes me want to sit down and make up a set (yet another to be done project!). Interesting what you discovered about Nichizo. The set of scrolls is 13th C, so it could be the very person. You are a great fact-sleuth, no question!

Jane & Lance: Yes, I count myself very lucky indeed to have had the chance to see the exhibit live. And even got a second chance when I had to go down to NYC again last week. The artifacts to complement the exhibit were a wonderful addition—and you’re right, the Hashimoto is a perfect musical complement.

Walt: Hey, thanks!

Herringbone: I love the way you describe the scrolls, and absolutely, I agree. I’m so pleased you liked the grasshoppers jar. I just loved coming upon that and was so glad the Met had a good photograph I could post. (Photographs weren’t allowed in the exhibit, as there were many things on loan.)

Friko: I do feel lucky to be able to get down to NYC to exhibits like this one—though I don’t do so nearly as often as I’d like. To have been able to see the India exhibit and this one so close on the heels of that was spectacular.

Susan Scheid said...

wanderer: That Takemitsu piece is a particular favorite of mine—I love your description of it. I’ve never been to Japan and hope that will be corrected at some point. Your comment makes it even more enticing a prospect.

Suze: As I’ve written you at more length “off line,” I’ll only say here that I do hope your musical journey is a rich one and supports your writing. I am sure, as you find music that speaks to you, that it will speak to your work, as well. At least, I’ve found that to be true.

Gary: Those Yoshida Brothers are something else, aren’t they? I’m so glad you enjoyed the post—it was quite a journey of discovery for me, as well, and it’s lovely to have company along the way. Speaking of which—I will comment over your way, of course, but how honored and touched I am that Penny the Jack Russell Dog and modest internet star has thought to bestow an award on PD. Thank you to Penny and to her owner, a modest internet star in his own right!

Jayne: Are those mice the best? All the animal scrolls are quite amazing. I was back in NYC and able to get over for another look. Just remarkable. Really, Sendak must have got an idea from this, don’t you think?

Britta: As I wrote to Jayne, the mice-tale was particularly rich. The exhibition book is really good on that, and a treasure trove of information and illustrations, too. Thank goodness for that, as even for those of us lucky enough to get there “live,” it’s only a glimpse and then it’s gone.

Andrew: So glad you enjoyed it!

shoreacres: I was particularly struck by the grasshopper jar and am so glad you and others appreciated it as well. Had to look up “playing the dozens,” and yes, you’re right! Isn’t it interesting how these sorts of entertainments find their way around the world and across time in different forms? And yes, seeing the scrolls, and learning how they are read. That was particularly precious. I’m hoping to go back again after they are wound on.

Genius Loci: Before I embarked on this exploration to accompany the post, I only knew a bit of Takemitsu, so it was quite amazing to find out what there was—and there is lots and lots! It was a tremendous challenge to listen, learn, and then try to select among the pieces and composers I discovered. Even though many of the pieces fit within the western classical tradition, the ones I gravitate toward most do, as you describe, evoke the Japan of my imagination, too. Takemitsu ranks high in that regard, and the Satoh I felt was a great find. A great and deep tradition about which I, too, knew practically nothing.

Steven Schwartzman said...

The opening of "And Then I Knew 'Twas Wind" reminded me of the beginning of "Clair de Lune," and I associate some of the featured instruments in the Takemitsu piece with Debussy as well.

Elaine Sexton said...

wonderful post. You sent me straight to the Museum and this exhibit did not disappoint. The scrolls were impressive as were the poetry cards. the music... !

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