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PLAY FOR ALL YOU’RE WORTH

- A brief diary of a Japan journey

Takeharu Kunimoto is a Japanese national treasure. When he walks into the theatre of Tokyo’s Museum of Photography in his full performance regalia, the audience stands and applauds. A broadly-built, handsome man of fifty, Kunimoto settles into his chair on stage, adjusts the elaborate kimono, makes himself comfortable, picks up his banjo-like shamisen and grins at the now respectfully silent audience. Then he starts his patter. “Alright? Now don’t be shy! Let me tell you how to encourage a performer like myself!” The audience titters. “When I play something you like,” he plays a quick riff on his string instrument, “what do you say?” He leans forward, holding his hand to his ear. “Why so silent?” He plays another riff, a few in the audience clap. “Ah! No! What you say is meijingei! Let me hear you!” Meijin is ‘master’ and ‘gei’ is ‘art’ so the word means ‘the art of a master’, and the calling of it a bit like our ‘wah, wah’. A few among the audience shout out the word. Kunimoto shakes his head, not satisfied. “And then, the other call is…tappuri! Play for all you’re worth!” Some of the audience shout “Meijingei!” and some “Tappuri!” Kunimoto shakes his head. “Not now! When I play something great!” And so begins a performance of Japan’s traditional song-story-telling, Rokyoku. For two hours, part of it accompanying the award-winning animation film called Mt. Head, part of it paired with a supremely composed older lady who takes over the shamisen, this male Teejan Bai of Japan keeps even some of us who speak no Japanese hypnotized.

There is song, there is the virtuoso shamisen shredding that occasionally — just to show you he can — slides into bravura bluegrass picking. Then there are the sound effects, screeches, twangs, thumps and resonant gongs, done through a combination of the shamisen, the deep, cracked yet mellifluous voice and stamps of the feet. Then there’s the acting, where this one man, now standing behind a kind of counter, creates two, three, four, five comic characters, with just changes of voice, accent and cadence and a quick whip around of the body this way and that. You get the feeling this is Japan profonde and yet it is universal, in close kinship with the story-telling traditions the world over, not least our sutradhars, bohurupiyas and exponents of kathaa.

Later, the visitors’ group I’m part of is joined for dinner at a ‘Beer Station’ by this great artiste, his accompanist and others. One member of our group, Riduan Zalani, is a young virtuoso himself, a true tyro of many south-east Asian percussion instruments and more. As we are sat down the table from Maestro Kunimoto, I urge Riduan to start playing on the large, dubki-like drum he always carries with him. After some initial hesitation, Riduan gets into it, probing the air with beats and meendhs. I’m not sure what I’m expecting from Shri Kunimoto, not any duende of an impromptu jam session but, perhaps, engaged listening, perhaps, at least, a nod, a bonsai-tappuri in Riduan’s direction. What we get is nothing. The man doesn’t even turn his head. He carries on talking as if he can’t hear a single decibel of the sharp, lovely drumming. Is it arrogance? Shyness? Perhaps we’ve broken some unwritten code? Whatever the reason, when a great performer can’t hear or acknowledge another highly talented one, something is amiss.

I’m having a fantastic time in Tokyo but some things do make me wonder. One day, a member of our group, Christoph Gurk, a leading German curator, dramaturge and writer turns to M, our host from the Tokyo Culture Creation Project and says: “You know, the fact that so many people here don’t know English is keeping up your level of isolation. They need to do something about the education kids are getting or this isolation will continue.”

My jaw drops. What Gurk has said is probably spot on but it’s not something I could ever have articulated. No one who is in any way a ‘proponent’ or a kind of ‘representative’ of English could ever say it, but a German, Dutch or Scandinavian, whose country has benefited directly from the learning of this large ‘second language’, could. The conjoined realization for me is to start thinking of Japanese society with all its technology and deep Amercanization as, in some important ways, more ‘isolated’ from the international mainstream than us in India. A third fallout from CG’s pronouncement is that I start wondering, yet again, how much of this “Ingarish” (as the Japanese call it) that I use so freely is seen as ‘mine’, that is for long, now, a bona fide Indian language, and how much of it seems to others, non-Eng-speaking-foreigners, as if it’s on loan from the Anglo-Saxon Word Bank of America and Britain.

As our visit unfurls, these deep questions temporarily fall into the narrow cracks between the squeezed-up tables at the crowded yakitori restaurants.

“When you see these clips, you may wonder what kind of people get sexually excited by something like this.” Kyoichi Tsuzuki’s English is pretty fluent as he projects for us his collection of excerpts from contemporary Japanese porn videos. Accompanied by Tsuzuki’s dry commentary, a horde of naked women crawl out of a building in an office ‘fire-drill’, another set of naked girls perform ‘factory exercises’, a half-dressed couple is suspended by cranes on a machaan high above the ground, in a rural setting, with cameras hovering above them from cranes that are even higher. The ensuing ‘action’ almost leads to disaster. “Special Japanese special effects,” intones Tsuzuki, referring to the round circles of pulsating pixellation that ping-pong over all private parts, joined and un-joined, in accordance with local obscenity laws. By the time this segment of Tsuzuki’s powerpoint and video presentation is over, some of us are clutching our stomachs, trying to control the stabbing laughter.

Kyoichi Tsuzuki is a contemporary legend. “Eita dekhechhish?” A few years ago, a fellow-Calcuttan, an image-connoisseur, had shown me a classic book called Tokyo — A Certain Style, which can, in some ways, be described as ‘space porn’. In the book, Tsuzuki has put together hundreds of photographs of people’s apartments in Tokyo: tiny, tiny spaces, packed with mattresses, clothes, music systems, TV sets and plastic decorations; bicycles stacked in kitchens, books in washbasins, plants on top of record players. “I was a journalist and I got annoyed every time I saw one of these beautiful ‘Japanese Style’ supplements in the magazines, you know, minimalist, very beautiful, tea-ceremony, Tadao Ando’s architecture, nice silk textile, very few things in large space, this sort of thing. Real Japanese people don’t live like this, I thought. So, in ‘Tokyo Style’, I wanted to show what real Japanese style was like, reality of Tokyo style.” This exploration and presentation of the ‘real Japan’ has lead Tsuzuki to decrepit ‘sex museums’ (mostly next to small town temples), the now dying institution of the ‘love hotels’ (not really for illicit meetings, mostly for married couples wanting to get away from crowded homes) and, most recently, the engine-music made by young men astride static motorcycles, gunning their wrists rhythmically on quiet nights in small Japanese villages and towns. In the last couple of decades, Tsuzuki’s books and presentations have altered how the world sees Japan.

As we each return from Japan, different images and ideas accompany us. Gurk writes to me and says he’s thinking about what he said and he’s not so sure about this isolation business. My photographs of dogs being coiffeured in a canine salon are a minor hit on Facebook. One of the eight bands in which Riduan Zalani plays does a concert for the Sultan of Brunei and I wonder if RZ even remembers Pandit Kunimoto’s brief moment of deafness. In various competing memories that I have, one that stands out is watching a very different Japanese musician in performance. At the Soundlive Festival, Tori Kudo ‘conducts’ and plays with a non-hierarchical band of musicians who’ve hardly played together before. The whole thing is about listening carefully and reacting to the improvisatory patterns that emerge. The ‘pieces’ are laced with each musician standing up in turn (while the rest of the band keeps playing) and telling us what they did last Friday evening. The significance of ‘Friday Evening’ is that that’s when protests have been taking place against the various fallouts of Fukushima and the government’s nuclear policy, demonstrations that are hardly covered in the media. As you listen to Kudo’s motley group, (check him out on YouTube) you hear old tunes, some almost free jazz stuff and these voices speaking. It’s chaotic, it’s minimalist and un-designed overload all at the same time. It’s very political and yet completely non-didactic work. In the way, it pushes a form and idea to the very extreme, this is a performance unimaginable in too many places outside Japan, and at the end of it I’m shouting, if not exactly “Meijingei!” then certainly “Tappuri!” — play for all you’re worth!