Wednesday, January 4, 2012

93. Hokusai’s The Great Wave (NOT ON DISPLAY)

No more isolationism.
A shame; I’ve always maintained as strict an isolationist policy in as many things as possible. But at some point, with new technologies for transportation and communication, it simply becomes impractical. Then you just become rude.

In any event, this podcast is about a woodblock print made in Japan in the mid-nineteenth century, part of a series of “Views of Mt. Fuji” that became popular, nay, even iconic. MacGregor uses it to tell the story of how the U.S. forced Japan to open up to the rest of the world, in 1853, speculates on what this meant, and proposes a couple of different interpretations of the image. It’s a fascinating story, chronicled in Sondheim’s weird 1976 opera Pacific Overtures. (Never seen it! It doesn’t get done all that often. But I’ve known about it for years, and, kicked in the butt by this podcast, finally got around to reading/listening to it.) Ever since Japan closed down to the outside world in the 1630s, the only way in or out was through Nagasaki, where the Dutch and the Chinese were allowed to trade. (Remember the Kaikemon Elephants?) The U.S. finally sailed in with 500 men and warships, in 1853, and threatened an ineffective government (a puppet-emporer under the direction of the Shogun, according to Sondheim) into allowing the rest of the world in. Act 2 opens with my favorite number: Sondheim writes parodies of American, British (of course they’re imitating The Mikado), Dutch, Russian, and French music as each nationality pushes its way in and starts fighting with the others. For a country that had been largely disconnected, they industrialized much more quickly than most of Asia and became the only Asian country to establish, or at least to try to establish, an empire in that great and awful Age of Empires that climaxed in World War II. I know this story much better from Madama Butterfly; but since that’s mostly Italian sexual fantasy, it isn’t particularly relevant.

As for the print, it inspires Butterfly, at least, because this print (and the 70 or so other “Views of Mt. Fuji” that were printed by the thousands) made its way to Europe and inspired that movement of japonisme that you hear in these operas. (The Mikado, too, which is probably just as ridiculous.) But is the idea of the image a) Japan, serene and eternal or b) Japan, about to be engulfed by a great wave, run for your lives, and even then you’ll never make it to Mt. Fuji (ie the Golden Age) ‘cause it’s too far off in the distance! The great wave may be the policy of isolationism, protecting Japan from the horrors of the rest of the world; or it may be the terrifying force of the rest of the world, about to engulf Japan like the storm in Ponyo; and it may be in the background behind Japanese fears of Godzilla-monsters, etc., although that’s often explained as being a reaction to the bomb. (Which MacGregor never mentions.)

In any event, it’s probably extremely important for us non-Japanese to figure out how to see things, such as this history, from the Japanese point of view. Hard to do. It’s easy to eat sushi and watch Kurosawa movies and play with electronics. But only a true shift in perspective will help avert future cultural misunderstandings.

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