Movies: After the Storm

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This poignant Japanese film explores the day-to-day life of former writer Ryota (played by Hiroshi Abe). After failing to live up to his early promise, he holds down a job as a private detective and struggles to support his ex-wife Kyoko (Yoko Maki) and young son Shingo (Taiyo Yoshizawa). Unsurprisingly, there is plenty of sadness and tension in this broken relationship, yet it is balanced by a gentle humour that surfaces when you don't expect it, especially in the scenes with his mother Yoshiko, played by Kirin Kiki of Sweet Bean. The drama culminates in an overnight stay in Yoshiko's tiny apartment, where the divorced couple and their son end up sheltering together to avoid a typhoon - the storm of the title. This movie falls emphatically in the "slice of life" category, though with a brief nod to detective-led genres. So don't go in expecting resolution of any sort, just enjoy this cinematic portrait of Japanese urban living, and the subtlety of these very human relationships.

After the Storm (2016)
Director Hirokazu Kore-eda
Running time 117 min

You can view the trailer below.

Books: Black Dragon River by Dominic Ziegler

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This is a densely-written account of one man’s journey along the River Amur, at the boundary between Russia and China, and to the north-east of Mongolia. The man in question is Dominic Ziegler, an editor at the Economist, but his focus is less on the present-day difficulties faced by this remote region, and far more on its rich and complex history. So although I was expecting a travelogue, along the lines of The River At The Centre of The World by Simon Winchester, this is at heart a history book.

The narrative contains a great deal of historical material, covering episodes such as the early life of Genghis Khan; the Mongol attack on Kiev (1240); the Decembrist Revolt against Nicholas I (1825); and the Boxer Rebellion and the massacre of Chinese by local Russians at Blagoveshchensk (1900).

However, the structure of the book is geographical not chronological, causing some confusion as you go back and forth in time, or find the same historical character appearing and reappearing. The geographical method works well if the episode is rooted in a specific location, and one that Ziegler is visiting. For this reason, the Blagoveshchensk episode hits the reader hard, even in a book fairly brimming with brutality. But not all the episodes had a link this specific, and then it started to feel as if the narrative was drifting.

Ziegler interweaves his history with scenes from his travels, which were less colourful than I expected. This could be down to his very neutral tone, as though at one remove from the story. There is a lack of dialogue and personalities, of the sort I enjoyed in The Kolyma Diaries by Jacek Hugo-Bader, another travel book about remote parts of Russia.

Instead, what brought Ziegler’s story alive for me were the little factual gems strewn through the narrative: the study that showed as many as 8% of Asian men descend from Genghis Khan, for instance, or the fact that in the 18th century there was an informal Russian empire that spread down the American coast as far as Sonoma County, California.

A good resource if you have an interest in this part of the world, but not an easy read.

Black Dragon River: A Journey Down the Amur River at the Borderlands of Empires
Dominic Ziegler, 2015.
Penguin, 357 pages, $27.95 (hardcover) or $17.00 (paperback).

I listened to the audiobook version of this title, narrated by Steve West and published by Brilliance Audio. I also checked the hard copy out of my local library!

Extravagant tomb treasures from China

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Currently showing at the Asian Art Museum is Tomb Treasures, a major exhibition of archaeological finds from Chinese royal tombs. I sighed inwardly as I approached this one because, much as I love Chinese art, I was pretty sure I had seen the material before, when it travelled to the Fitzwilliam Museum in 2012. That show had a similar title, too - The Search for Immortality: Tomb Treasures of Han China.

As it turned out, the Fitzwilliam show really had featured some of the same pieces from the Xuzhou Museum. These were among the objects I liked best, though, so I now count myself lucky to have set eyes on them twice - once in Cambridge and once in San Francisco.

The current show combines material from both the Xuzhou and Nanjing Museums. It includes works from four kingdoms in modern-day Jiangsu province: Jiangdu, Chu, Sishui and Guangling. Among the best preserved is the Dayun Mountain site - a 62-acre walled compound that contained the tomb of Liu Fei, king of Jiangdu, along with the tombs of two queens and other consorts and concubines. It was excavated between 2009 and 2011, to considerable fanfare. The site had been looted by grave robbers, but the collapsed floors of the outer chambers helped to conceal the objects beneath.

The exhibition is themed around different spheres of a person's life at court, represented through items the deceased would need in the afterlife: vessels for food and drink; bells for making music; weaponry and ceramic warriors for making war; or even an advanced type of toilet for sitting on. I especially liked the more decorative items: a pair of gold belt buckles, with a tiger and bear motif; or a dragon-shaped jade pendant that was itself an antique when it was buried, reflecting the fascination of the elite with rare antique jades.

There are numerous items crafted from jade, a material believed to protect the person's flesh from decomposition. You can see a custom-tailored jade suit for a queen, made from jade plaques sewn together with gold thread, and a large jade coffin, reconstructed from 1500 jade plaques of assorted shapes.

One quirk of this exhibition is the labelling, which has been augmented with short quotes in which a local figure from outside the art world (wine expert, food blogger, make-up artist) will say something about one of the objects. It's too distracting and it was definitely causing some mirth among the Chinese pensioners. Aside from that, the exhibition is great.

Tomb Treasures: New Discoveries from China’s Han Dynasty
Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, CA
17 February to 28 May, 2017

Above: Jade suit. From Tomb 2, Dayun Mountain, Xuyi, Jiangsu. Western Han period. 2nd century BCE. Jade and gold. Nanjing Museum. Photo: Nanjing Museum, at

Below: Kneeling female figurine. From the tomb of the King of Chu, Beldong Mountain, Xuzhou, Jiangsu. Earthenware. Xuzhou Museum. Photo: Xuzhou Museum, at

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Below: Set of belt buckles. From a Han dynasty tomb, Tianqi Mountain, Xuzhou, Jiangsu. Western Han period, 2nd century BCE. Gold. Xuzhou Museum. Photo: Xuzhou Museum, at

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Below: Pendant in the shape of a dragon. From the tomb of the King of Chu, Shizi Mountain, Xuzhou, Jiangsu. Zhou Dynasty, Warring States period, (approx 475-221 BCE). Nephrite. Xuzhou Museum. Photo: Xuzhou Museum, at

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Below: Jade coffin. From the tomb of the King of Chu, Shizi Mountain, Xuzhou, Jiangsu. Western Han period. 2nd century BCE. Nephrite, lacquer, wood. Xuzhou Museum. Photo: Xuzhou Museum, at

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Books: Cutting Back by Leslie Buck

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In Cutting Back, author Leslie Buck chronicles her four-month stay in Kyoto at the turn of the millennium. Unusually, for a woman and a westerner, she was taken on as an apprentice at a big-name Japanese landscape gardening company (Uetoh Zoen).

There is something irresistible about this type of memoir, especially when the writer is trying to lift the veil from some very traditional aspect of Japanese culture. Liza Dalby in Geisha (1983) told the story of her move to Kyoto to train as an apprentice geisha; Kaoru Nonomura in Eat Sleep Sit (1996) described how he left his job as a designer for a year of training at a Zen Buddhist temple. Both books sold well, partly because they offer a glimpse inside cultures that are essentially hidden, but also because as readers we identify so readily with the hapless novice navigating the unknown.

Buck was not really a novice when she arrived: she had run her own landscaping business in California for several years. Yet following Japanese tradition she was automatically junior to the sixteen-year-old apprentice who had joined six months ahead of her. And he, being senior, was at liberty to give her instructions on the job, even though his inexperience meant he was getting things wrong.

Buck is a natural raconteur, and excels in her descriptions of life as the female American employee of a traditional Japanese business. She deftly draws out the humour in her encounters with clients and colleagues, and much of it is self-deprecating, as she herself struggles to meet their exacting standards and keep a grip on her natural exuberance.

Yet she is open about the more difficult aspects of her apprenticeship: the language barrier, the severe winter cold, the strain of being criticised by an unforgiving team leader. The narrative falters slightly when she turns her mind to her boyfriend back in California. The fact that she missed him was part of her story, of course, but so much less interesting than her day to day encounters with the Japanese master gardeners.

There is some discussion of pruning techniques and garden design, but much of this you could find in other sources (Buck references, for instance, Japanese Garden Design by Marc P. Keane). The book is based on the author’s journals and comes across more as a portrait of the people tending to the gardens than the gardens themselves. This means there is plenty to interest the general reader as well as those with a passion for gardening.

I did wonder, though, what happened once she returned to California. Did her Kyoto experience impact her work style or how she ran her business here? How did the boyfriend situation pan out? Overall, a light, warm-hearted read that presents a unique perspective on Japan. Recommended.

Cutting Back
Leslie Buck, 2017.
Timber Press, 280 pages, $24.95 (hardcover).

Cutting Back is available from May 3, 2017. I am grateful to NetGalley and to Timber Press for the chance to review an advance copy of this title.

Japanese Photography at SFMOMA

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I was recently at SFMOMA, my first visit since it reopened last summer after a big three-year renovation project. My eye was drawn to this exhibition of Japanese photography, a thematic presentation, over many rooms, of works drawn entirely from the museum's collections. It was a powerful and eye-opening exhibit, to which I gladly devoted most of my visit.

Postwar Japan saw the rise of many important photographers, whose work charts their response to contemporary themes such as urbanisation, industrialisation, or Japan's relationship with America. For instance, Shomei Tomatsu (1930-2012) produced a series called Protest, Tokyo, in which he tackled protests against the American military presence in Japan, and its involvement in the Vietnam War.

Others have focused on the atomic explosion in Hiroshima. Takashi Arai (b.1978) presents a daguerreotype of a piano that survived the Hiroshima explosion in his work Misako's Hibaku Piano, Daigo Fukuryu Main Exhibition Hall, Tokyo. The use of this technique from the 19th century heightens the ghostly quality of the image: this instrument is something that survived when so much was lost. Miyako Ishiuchi (b. 1947) makes pictures of garments from the victims of the Hiroshima bombing, and they too co-opt the viewer in an act of quiet mourning or remembrance.

Later on, the show explores how photographers have responded to disasters, including the Fukushima nuclear power plant explosion in 2011. For example, Shimpei Takeda (b.1982) travelled around the Fukushima region, collecting soil samples which he packed in unexposed photographic paper for one month. The resulting papers reveal traces of radiation and are displayed as photographic prints.

The show does of course include many images that are not concerned with these headline, soul-shaking events: the natural world, portraits of people and places, cityscapes. These too are of great interest, yet for me it was the inclusion of the more provocative, context-driven material that elevated this exhibition to something well above the ordinary. Highly recommended.

Japanese Photography from Postwar to Now
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, CA
15 October 2016 to 12 March 2017

Above: Shomei Tomatsu, Untitled, from the series Protest, Tokyo, 1969, printed 1974. Gelatin silver print. Height 20.64cm; width 30.96cm. SFMOMA. Image: Shomei Tomatsu - Interface, at

Below: Takashi Arai, Misako's Hibaku Piano, Daigo Fukuryu Main Exhibition Hall, Tokyo, from the series Exposed in a Hundred Suns, 2012. Daguerreotype. Height 25.2cm; width 19.3cm. SFMOMA. Image: Takashi Arai, at

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Below: Miyako Ishiuchi, hiroshima #71, 2007, printed 2016. SFMOMA. Image: Miyako Ishiuchi, at

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Below: Shimpei Takeda, Trace #10, Iwase General Hospital, 2012. Gelatin silver print. Height 40.32cm; width 50.17cm. SFMOMA. Image: Shimpei Takeda, at

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