Actress Yamada Isuzu (5 February 1917 – 9 July 2012) dies at 95. Several international newspapers have reported this sad news. I do not know much about her work with other directors, but I have got to know her very well for her role in Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, which was the topic of my baccalaureate thesis, and my first introduction to the world of Noh theatre. In Throne of Blood (based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth) Yamada was Asaji, Washizu’s diabolical wife.
The mastery of Akira Kurosawa transformed Yamada into a Noh mask in the famous delirium scene where Asaji/Lady Macbeth tries to wash invisible blood stains from the hands that plotted the murder of Lord Kuniharu.
The news has bounced on many international newspapers, such as the Japan Times, the Washington Post, and the Guardian. In this report by ANN news (which even describes what she decided to wear before for cremation) it is reported that Yamada preferred not to have flower vases with showy decorations: the funeral took place in an atmosphere of sobriety that characterised her personality.
Like treading on the tiger’s tail, such is the condition of the ‘foreign’ researcher studying anything related to the Japanese culture. Sure, our non-Japanese opinions are kept in high regard, as the gaze of the ‘other’ is fundamental in the constitution of identity in every society, and all the more so in the Japanese society. The foreign opinion is considered, sure, but considered as the ‘foreign opinion’, not as an opinion with a value in itself. It exists in virtue of its cultural otherness. Listened to, then packed into a box, and put somewhere safe, where it will not disturb or divert the ‘natural flow’ of the Japanese ‘way’. This typically Japanese attitude has been criticised for decades now, sometimes even ridiculed because of its inadequacy to the post-modern society many thought we were living in. However. In a world reverting from utopian dreams of interculturalism to new nationalisms and post-traditionalisms, will Japan end up being right about its conservative attitude?
As I approach a new project in which I will discuss aspects of Japanese conservatism in relation to history and tradition, I am once more faced with my incompetence, in the literal meaning of ‘something that does not compete with me’, outside my jurisdiction, a concept close to that of the literal meaning of gaijin. This form of incompetence, which is evidently not technical, is intrinsic to my condition of foreigner. While this thought might appear obvious in an every-day life context – anybody living in or dealing with Japan know what I am talking about, and many got over it (while others never will) – it is not so obvious when it comes to academic research and scholarship, which is the matter I am engaged with. Until when will ‘foreign’ scholarship continue to be ignored as something that adds luster to the ‘things Japanese’, but that eventually does not belong there?
PS: The title of the post is inspired by an early Akira Kurosawa film, The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail, recounting the famous episode, also depicted in the Noh Ataka and in the Kabuki Kanjincho, describing Minamoto Yoshitsune and his bodyguard Musashibo Benkei crossing the barrier of Ataka disguised as yamabushi priests.
How to pay my respect to one of the greatest masters of Japanese cinema? Well, first of all with a ‘thank you’. It is through one of Kurosawa-sensei’s films, Throne of Blood (1957) that I first encountered Noh theatre. While working on my MA dissertation at University of Verona (I was studying Shakespeare at the time) I fortuitously bumped into this screen adaptation of Macbeth. Kurosawa explicitly draws from Noh theatre to produce a masterpiece of black and white, sound and silence. Since then, I have seen Throne of Blood a zillion times, I wrote articles on it, produced the extras for the Italian DVD edition, etc.). Still the perfection of this film moves me as a few other things in my life did. My humble contribution to the genius of Kurosawa is in fact a token of thankfulness for having introduced Noh theatre in such a creative, yet ‘authentic’ way. Kurosawa not only loved Noh: he also understood it so well to know how to transpose its ineffable aesthetics on film, and with such a power. Akira Kurosawa has been long criticised by the Japanese for being too ‘Western’ – I say that it is thanks to artists who dare to do challenge the boundaries of genre, class, local criticism that an artistic dialogue, notoriously more effective than the political, can successfully take place. My reception of Noh started with his work, and I am doing my best to follow his example. So.. thank you, Kurosawa-sensei.