Boy with Cat, or Japanese song of summer

February 28 2013

Donald Richie (recent posts) made his own experimental films.

What is the sound, apart from the obsessive piano, in this mildly erotic nouvelle-vague-ish short from 1966? Obviously a kind of musique concrète. It’s a sublime soundtrack, even if you hear it away from the images.

I lived in Tokyo from July 1990 to the end of ’91 (to help open a publishing office). I’d done a reccy a few weeks before to look for a flat. I was lucky and found a freestanding unfurnished house in the centre of town, in Nishi-Azabu, on a leafy slope between Roppongi and Hiroo. Or in the angle (tangle) between the Shuto Expressway and the road leading to Hiroo.

The day before I was due to fly from London and move in, it occurred to me that it had no bed. My furniture was in the Panama Canal. I didn’t want to start this adventure in a hotel and I’d be landing too late to buy a futon. So I bought a folding bed and checked it in, feeling like the man in the parable.

The strangest thing is that, long before I had seen the house on the reccy, I’d been certain that I would live in one, and on a slope, and on the right as you walked up. So it was. It was on a lane that you entered as you left the road to Hiroo.

I like a sentence in Jonathan Rauch’s The Outnation, Harvard Business School Press, 1992: “Often you come upon neighborhoods in which the streets are so narrow that cars must negotiate them with care; the result is a glorious quiet, a Venetian calm.”

That is so true of Tokyo. Mine was not exactly like that. The lanes were a bit wider. There were trees. It was actually a patch of embassy-land (Greece, Romania), but not in the sterile gated way of a backward city. There were some quasi-’30s buildings. At its heart, towards Terebi-Asahi-dori, was a very large overgrown walled garden with a gloomily distinguished house at the centre of it.

My first sensory impression on arriving in my house on that hot July evening (no summers are as suffocating as Tokyo’s) was of the smell of tatami matting.

It was “western” on the ground floor and had paper doors and tatami on the first. It faced Hiroo and gave onto a garden via sliding doors in the main rooms on both levels. On the first floor, for its length, was a railed balcony. The rooms were separated from it by a wood-floored gallery. During typhoons, I’d pull all the doors open, turning it into a doll’s house.

Hydrangeas nodded into the dining room. The garden contained a stone frog and some real ones. (People think Tokyo is a sterile place.) The garden in the film looks exactly like it. The house and its relation to the garden are like mine, except for the ground-floor tatami. Could it have been it? I had been told that mine had belonged to an artist.

Below, at a short distance, was a school. The sound of a playground is the same everywhere. My house breathed. When you opened the front door in autumn, leaves would blow in.

I woke up on my first morning and heard the noise in Richie’s film. It was as loud as there. It couldn’t have been the singing of electricity in the ubiquitous Tokyo overground cables. Metal was being cut. I had moved opposite some light industry without noticing. I asked the real estate company. They sucked their teeth.

Then I stopped noticing it. And the smell of tatami receded slightly, but it must be overwhelmingly evocative in the minds of Japanese when they leave Japan.

It had been the sound of cicadas or semi singing in unison:

In 1993 I visited Tokyo and decided to take a look at the house, with a feeling of foreboding, knowing Tokyo’s impermanence, which is another name for its indestructibility. I turned off the main road, walked a few steps and saw a hole in the ground.

The Japanese song of summer:

2 Responses to “Boy with Cat, or Japanese song of summer”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    Relationship between stumbling-human piano and continuous-natural cicadas is almost Ivesian (Unanswered Question).

  2. davidderrick Says:

    The beginning of the waltz in the 1966 Teshigahara film, the sung version to which I linked in the last post, quotes from the Moonlight Sonata, or so my ears tell me. It’s very clear.

    This 1966 Richie short film quotes from the same notes of the Moonlight Sonata.

    Surely there is a connection.


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