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My memories of Paris are never too distant, the colors never too far removed. My palette runs with the blue of violets, the burnt red of sienna, and the saffron yellow of cadmium, yet I remain chalked in a gray-walled studio on the outskirts of Tokyo. Here, every surface is tacked with newsprint sketches and unfinished canvases, and every floorboard blackened by the dust of crushed charcoal. My mind is captured by a fingernail memory, caged by the fractured glass of a prism that refracts time and reflects only the past.
Burdened by my vision and displaced by my experience, I am bound. My journey prevented me from being Japanese; my face prevented me from being French. I am an artist who cannot belong to the tapestry of either country. But my misery becomes me. I exist with few friends and even fewer followers. I suppose I must be proud of this: like my father's craft, my world remains appreciated by few.
My father was a mask carver. As a young boy I saw his craft overtake his face. While other boys see their fathers' faces become a feathered maze of wrinkles, my father's became a smooth sheet of stone. My father had a broad, flat face and skin stretched so thin that he appeared blue. He, a man who carried with him the faint green smell of cypress and the cool sting of steel, could stammer only a few words to me, yet could stare for hours from behind a pair of bottomless, black eyes.
Father was a lonely and famous man, and I his lonely and confused son. He widowed, I motherless, we lived quietly near the Daigo Mountain, within the walls of Kyoto. This mountain,the ancient tomb for the emperor Daigo's spirit, served as the shrine of my childhood. As I crossed its earthen path each day, with the sand and rock dust beneath my sandals and the flaming orange gateway above my head, I knew that something was here in this burial ground of my ancestors and their rulers that breathed a rhythm into my own minor existence. It was also here that, as a young schoolboy dressed in my coarsely woven hakama, I first noticed the extraordinary beauty of the seasons.
I marked the seasons by the change in the mountain; perhaps this was the first palette I ever owned. From below the belly of the mountain, the fabric of autumn stretched high into the horizon. The colors, loomed by the threads of interwoven leaves, beamed yellow to screaming scarlet, then humbled to a fading brown. Winter ushered the dying leaves to the sepulcher of the earth's frozen floor, and blanketed the city and empty branches with a soft cotton rain. It was in those cold, dark months, with the color drained from the landscape, that I was most miserable. The brightest things I saw between late December and early February were my frostbitten ankles, which shot nakedly from underneath the cloth of my uniform, their skin always splashed crimson from suffering the bite of the bitter snow.
Every night my father and I raised a sliver of my mother's dowry to our lips as we sipped fish broth from her dark lacquer bowls. Her ghost most often visited me on icy winter nights. She always came in silence, careful not to disturb my father's solitude, arriving and then dissolving in the cloudlike formations of my soup.
She appeared and she was beautiful. She, my fleeting companion who encouraged me, who I sensed always understood.
Her death had prevented me from knowing her voice, yet her image was revealed to me when I was alone at night. She would come to me as I lay sleeping and lead me through what appeared to be just a dream, but in reality was the story that preceded my life.
Father's arrival into the Yamamoto family was as strange and mysterious as our family itself. His arrival was unannounced. He carried with him no letter of introduction, no ceremonial gift reserved for first meetings. He simply arrived at the Kanze theater carrying with him nothing more than a furoshiki filled with masks.
Grandfather's reputation, however, preceded him. Yamamoto Yuji. He was the most famous and most revered Noh actor in the Kansai region, the patriarch of the Kanze Noh family. People came to see him whether he performed by torchlight or within the walls of the Kanze theater. Having played the distinguished roles of both God and Spirit for nearly a half a century, his position had gone unrivaled. To many in that community, he was the closest thing to a living God.
His entrance on the stage was marked by the beating of the otsuzumi, the high-pitched cries of the chorus, and the nokan whistling its shrill staccato. I can still envision the richly embroidered karaori hanging from his broad shoulders and the tresses of the massive wig tumbling down his back.
Most vivid in my memory is the mask, the haunting mask: its hollowed-out eyes and a face that changed with every turn. The mask with a life of its own.
That day in the theater, the first time my grandfather laid eyes on one of my father's masks, he felt his face drain white. Holding the mask between his thick, pulpy hands, he shivered, and his eyes widened with wonder. There was something different about my father's masks. And after Grandfather held each one in the cup of his hands, he swore he could feel each unique spirit seeping into the creases of his palms.
He felt his eyes being drawn into the masks. Their eyes penetrated his own gaze. To my grandfather, my father's masks were just like those carved by the masters over a hundred years before. In particular, the young man's masks reminded him of those of the great Mitsuzane; they were subtle, refined, and possessed a haunting intensity that stirred his soul.
My grandfather looked into the eyes of this quiet young carver and saw nothing. He then looked to Father's hands; he saw genius.
He asked my father about his family. Where had he been born? Who was his father? To whom had he served his apprenticeship?
My father's voice was soft. His response to Grandfather's inquiry was barely a whisper: `I no longer have a family.'
If it had not been for the silence of the room, Grandfather would have been unable to hear. He could see that my father's lips were still moving, and because he felt a strange interest in the man, he craned his thickly veined neck toward the young carver.
Father's words were barely audible, but Grandfather found himself entranced. He had, for perhaps the first time in his life, relinquished his role as performer and become the sole member of an awestruck audience.
Within the sanctuary of Grandfather's dressing room, my father relayed his story. A strange and sad story, one of ghosts and plum trees, of an old man and a young boy. A story so unique it could have been a play of Noh.
When Father had finished telling his story, his body echoed his exhaustion. His shoulders sloped under the folds of his kimono and his eyelids weighed heavily, veiled pupils gazing at the ground.
Grandfather was rendered speechless. He had never heard such an outrageous story. Nor had he seen such a young and talented carver in his lifetime. His mind raced. If what my father said was true, he possessed a skill that could rival that of Mitsuzane, one of Noh's most revered carvers.
Truly, the masks before him were unlike any he had seen before. The edges were whittled down to paper-thin proportions, and the features were perfectly formed. But even more impressive was their incredible sense of unearthliness. These masks were not bound to a single expression. Rather, the strokes of the carver had freed their spirit instead of binding them to a single earthbound existence. They refused to be captured; they evaded his eyes like coquettish, young girls masked in an innate world of mystery. They existed like blank white ghosts until he manipulated his hands under their backside.
Grandfather held the Komachi Rojo mask in his palms. His eyes traced the thin curl of her ruby-painted lips, the razor-sharp incisions of her eyes; in her blankness she seemed almost haughty, defiant, all-knowing. But when he tilted his palms forward, he saw her face cast in an entirely different shadow. Suddenly she appeared sadder, older, and lonelier. He jerked forward. Startled by his abrupt movement, he focused his gaze once more. He could not believe his eyes; it was as if the spirit of the aged poet Komachi was transforming there before him.
Grandfather knew this carver was empowered with a gift far greater than even his own acting ability. He pondered the young man before him and then found his concentration shifting to his daughter. With no heir to carry on the Yamamoto name, he marveled at the idea of a possible family union.
Grandfather surmised that because the young carver had no family of his own, he would be proud to be brought into the Yamamoto family and to inherit the prestigious name. He poured sake for the young man and, with great elegance, thanked him for his visit. He commissioned three masks from him and then, before my father fade him farewell, Grandfather slyly inquired if he was married.
`No?' My grandfather repeated my father's answer. `Well, I am not sure of your schedule, but next Thursday my wife Chieko is planning to teach our daughter to prepare chawanmushi. Should you have the time, we would be delighted to have you join us.'
My father, understanding that this was the old man's way of initiating an introduction to his unmarried daughter, offered a deep and reverent bow to my grandfather. He bade the great patriarch farewell with the promise to visit his home the following Thursday.
Posted March 23, 2000
Having lived in Japan myself, and having visited the country many times, I was really impressed that a first-time author (and such a young author) could capture the conflict between a Japanese artist, with his own hopes and ambitions, and his deep-rooted obligations to his family and to tradition. In addition to giving us a deep, moving story line, Alyson Richman provides us with images so beautiful that I could frequently close my eyes and imagine that I was back in Japan again. There is no doubt in my mind that this novel should be nominated for this year's National Book Awards. What a debut and what a wonderful book!
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Posted November 17, 2011
An engrossing, evocative ready - turn of the century Japanese culture and the artist community. It is the story of family, love - love of the art, love of the heart. Passion subtly underneath the storyline. Lovely!!
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Posted February 4, 2000
This beautifully crafted drama set in late 19th C. Japan and Paris, reminds me somewhat of the rich and lush passages of 'Shogun' in the sense that you feel every texture, every emotion; see every visual, feel every nuance of discovery, of blossoming, every breath of death and despair. A beautiful touch the publisher added is an attached satin book mark. This is necessary to close the book from time to time to dwell on the richness of the images. This is a hauntingly lyrical book with a central character whose life bleeds through the pages. Historical changes seep through the book, setting a rich background for the emotional and heartbreaking tragedies and triumphs of one lonely man's passage through life and an era.
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Posted May 30, 2014
Posted May 30, 2014
Posted October 4, 2013
I enjoyed reading this book. It was full of a lot of information about Japanese culture. I wouldn't say it captivated my attention but it was a good story. I think drug on a little in places but overall I would recommend it.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 13, 2000
I usually limit my leisure reading to poetry and non-fiction, but I was impressed by the young author's delicate lucid prose and haunting images which combine the best of lyric poetry with the insights of a visual artist. Her intelligence and knowledge of Japanese culture lends the book added authenticity. I would highly recommend it to all readers.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 7, 2013
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