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  • Japanese Language in Action: Summer Theater Workshop For High Schoolers

    Wednesday, Jul 25, 2012 1:05AM / Standard Entry

    SPAC's Medea, performed at Japan Society in 2011. Photo by Takuma Uchida.

    When we think theater we think of bright costumes and big sets, flashy musical numbers, tear-jerking soliloquys, black box realness or broad, bawdy comedy. On Broadway alone right now, it's spider men spinning impossible spectacle, invisible family-binding bunnies, all that jazz, music of the night and much more. But when you get down to it, theater is fundamentally story, which can be told through many different languages: movement, character, plot, design. And sometimes, in the best theater, the story unfolds simply in language itself (think Shakespeare).

    This year’s Japan Society summer high school workshop teaches the most fundamental tool for storytelling, language (specifically Japanese) through theater and performance techniques. Although participants may be of any proficiency level, the program is recommended for beginner to intermediate level speakers.

    Led by Mami Fujisaki, a high school Japanese teacher at Horace Mann School and a recipient of the Bellet Award for Teaching Excellence (2004), participants split their days between basic Japanese courses and purely theatrical workshops. In the morning Fujisaki teaches students dialogue and conversational skills. In the afternoon, guest instructors present an array of mini-workshops focusing on storytelling through acting, movement, and even traditional non-theater techniques and pop music, among other topics. Guest instructors include Jun Kim, Sonoko Kawahara and Kanako Hiyama, who participate as actors, directors or dancers in New York Japan-based theatre troupes; Alex York, a veteran Japan Society language student and New York based Japanese pop-rock singer; and Tara McGowan, a traditional storyteller and practitioner of kamishibai (storytelling through illustrated picture cards).

    Over the course of the workshop, students learn two plays--Issun Boushi and John Manjiro--which they perform on the final day of the workshop, August 18. Though they will have a hand in creating costumes, set, and lighting, their primary focus will be bringing characters to life and understanding them from the mind of the author as well as the actor. Having polished performance skills, learned basic Japanese, and mastered lines and delivery, they will demonstrate a deeper understanding of the language, and ultimately connecting to people through storytelling.

    --Sarah Anderson

    Each summer Japan Society’s Education Program offers workshops for high school students aiming to help them connect with a particular facet of Japanese culture. In previous years, students have discovered tops topics such as anime, fashion and cooking. For more information on the Society’s education programming, visit http://www.japansociety.org/page/programs/education_family.

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  • No American Comparison For Japan's Leading Living Actor

    Saturday, Jul 21, 2012 12:28AM / Standard Entry

    Koji Yakusho. Photo by Kazuto Suetake.

    While our JAPAN CUTS roundup last week only touched on this weekend's mini-retrospective honoring living Japanese screen legend Koji Yakusho, today's New York Times carries an extensive critic's notebook by Mike Hale heralding the arrival of Yakusho to NYC:
    Few people know more about movies, or have a more prominent place in the world of Japanese film, than Koji Yakusho... Regularly cited over the last 15 years as Japan’s leading actor… Mr. Yakusho’s name is not familiar in the United States, but many American filmgoers, whether they know it or not, have seen his long, wonderfully expressive face and his full head of floppy black (now graying) hair.
    Born Koji Hashimoto in 1956, the former municipal government worker became interested in acting after seeing a production of Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths. In a nod to his previous career, he took the stage name Yakusho, which means “municipal ward office” in Japanese. After studying at the prestigious Mumeijyuku acting studio, he landed the role of historical figure Oda Nobunaga in the popular NHK series Tokugawa Ieyasu (1983). The role made him a household name in Japan and launched his career in television and film. While best known to foreign audiences for the Hollywood films Memoirs of a Geisha and Babel, his career spans an immense collection of dignified work.

    Due to the sheer volume of titles (over 70 films in 33 years), Yakusho does not appear to have any contemporaries in the West. When considering similar U.S. leading men, the staff at Japan Society couldn't decide: DeNiro, Eastwood, Redford and Hanks all seemed to align themselves to various aspects of Yakusho's persona and career. In the end, there was just no comparison.

    Even among his peers in Japan, Yakusho stands out for the range of quality films and television dramas. The latter half of the 1990s was his most audacious period and solidified his reputation as Japan’s premier actor. First came the feel-good hit Shall We Dance? (1996), which inspired a dance craze in Japan and a Richard Gere Hollywood remake. The film’s popularity no doubt stemmed from Yakusho’s performance as a worn-out salary man who finds renewed vigor and lust for life when he enrolls in a late night dance class.

    Following that triumph, he starred in a drastically different role in Shohei Imamura’s Palm d’Or-winning The Eel (1997). Imamura, one of the maverick directors from the Japanese New Wave of the 1960s, cast Yakusho as a man on the path to redemption following the murder of his adulterous wife. He won a Japanese Academy Award for both performances. 1997 also marked the release of A Lost Paradise, based on the novel by Junichi Watanabe. It features Yakusho as a middle-aged man who has an affair with a woman twenty years younger, ending in tragedy. The film came in second to Hiyao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke at the Japanese box office and critics universally praised his performance. That year he also won the prestigious Hochi Film Award for Best Actor for Bounce Ko Gal, a topical film that dealt with high school prostitution. Yet again that year, Yakusho began his collaboration with Kiyoshi Kurosawa with Cure, in which he played an emotionally repressed detective searching for a deranged serial killer. Further films with Kurosawa include the horror-thrillers Charisma, Kairo (a.k.a. Pulse), and Doppleganger .
    Koji Yakusho appears tonight at JAPAN CUTS' New York Premiere screening of his latest film The Woodsman and the Rain, followed by a Q&A session and reception. The actor also appears at the July 21 screening of his hit samurai film 13 Assassins. JAPAN CUTS also presents Yakusho’s Shall We Dance?, Chronicle of My Mother, and Cure.

    Recently Yakusho directed and starred in the film Toad’s Oil, also screening at JAPAN CUTS a drama about a greedy day trader whose son has a serious accident that results in a coma. Faced with a challenge that cannot be solved by money, Yakusho’s character begins an exploration of emotions and challenges that are new to him. The film received enthusiastically positive reviews from critics and one wonders if the next stage of Yakusho’s career will emulate that of Clint Eastwood or his Japanese contemporary Takeshi Kitano. Considering his long list of accomplishments, it would not be surprising if this versatile actor became one of World Cinema’s preeminent director-performers as well.

    --Lyle Sylvander



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  • Dots Mark The Spot: Yayoi Kusama’s Triumphant Return To NYC

    Friday, Jul 20, 2012 4:03AM / Standard Entry

    Yayoi Kusama holds sway over all. Via.

    The Louis Vuitton store on Fifth Avenue has a new look. What appears to be strips of dot matrix snake skin sliced from a coiled, psychedelic cobra, curls around the building. The offbeat aesthetic stems from an unprecedented collaboration between Vuitton and Yayoi Kusama, one of Japan’s foremost pop artists.

    Still active at the age of 83, Kusama is known in the U.S. for her meticulous (some might say obsessive) dot-infused creations from the 60s, when she lived in New York at the height of the city’s avant-garde movement, traveling in the same circles as Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg and Mark Rothko. According to Holland Cotter writing for the New York Times:
    It was during that American sojourn… that she did her best-known work: eyelet-patterned abstract paintings, furniture bristling with soft-sculpture phalluses, and polka-dot designs suitable to any and every surface… In the New York City of the mid-’60s she and her art were everywhere. Newspapers clamored for photographs of her wearing dots, painting dots, mingling with the dot-covered nude dancers in street performances that were part protest, part circus.
    After her move back to Japan in 1973, she checked herself into a psychiatric hospital where she continues to work to this day. Talking to Women’s Wear Daily about everything from her time in New York City to collaborating with big business, Kusama said of her living situation:
    I think that if I didn’t live in the hospital, I couldn’t continue painting. I have hallucinations and these symptoms. The fact that I feel safe in my surrounding allows me to keep painting.
    Despite the psychedelic nature of her work (or perhaps because of it), she remains popular, and the Louis Vuitton project, a commission by creative director Marc Jacobs, is only the latest commercial collaboration with mainstream fashion houses.

    Marking her first Manhattan visit in more than 30 years, Kusama was on hand for the launch of Vuitton’s new line of Kusama-inspired clothing and accessories (the store also features two window displays of her work: “nerves”, sprouting elongated pink-and-dotted tubules and “self-obliteration”, chock full of mini Kusama dolls), which coincided with a comprehensive retrospective of her work at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Running through September 30, the exhibit features many of her well-known paintings and sculptures, as well as  immersive large-scale installations. Kusama says these installations recreate her hallucinatory experiences, due to mental illness, at the visual and sensory levels, capturing “the feeling of losing your bearings and losing yourself in the process”. The most recent of these, Fireflies on the Water (2002), consists of hundreds of lights reflected by mirrored walls and pools of water, creating an ethereal and spiritual environment (video).

    Kusama has a special connection to Japan Society, which owns one of her early paintings entitled Net S.P. (1961). While smaller than her usual works, it bears her hallmark repeating-pattern aesthetic and has an obvious connection to later works such as the Infinity Net series, according to Reiko Tomii, who co-authored the catalogue to Japan Society’s 2007 exhibit Making a Home, featuring Kusama. The circumstances under which the Society acquired the painting are not quite known, but it assumed that the artist donated it after receiving support from the Society when she first arrived to the U.S.

    Over 40 years later in 2008, the Society presented the U.S. premier of the documentary Near Equal Kusama Yayoi: I Adore Myself , which won the JAPAN CUTS Audience Award and introduced her to many that may have been unfamiliar with her life and work.

    It seems at last Kusama’s star has risen for a new generation.

    --Lyle Sylvander

    KUSAMA Yayoi, Net S.P., 1961, oil on canvas, 30 X36 1/8" (76.2 x 91.8 cm), Japan Society JS 12.200; gift of the artist. Photo by Steven Williams.

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  • Tanabata Tutorial: 7 Ways To Wish Upon A Star

    Sunday, Jul 15, 2012 2:36AM / Standard Entry

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    7 types of Star Festival Decorations. Via.

    According to an ancient legend, wishes come true during Tanabata, Japan's summer "Star Festival", which occurs every year on the seventh day of the seventh month (those following the lunar calendar observe in August, but people in the U.S. celebrate in July.) On that day, festival-goers write their wishes on a colorful piece of paper called tanzaku and tie it to a branch of a bamboo tree.

    Although the legend varies slightly from region to region, it is celebrated all over Japan (and at Japan Society this Sunday!) The story goes that Hikoboshi, the star of Altair, and Orihime, the star of Vega, are two lovers separated by the Milky Way. Orihime was a skilled weaver, but because she spent most of her time weaving, she had no time to love. Her father, Emperor Tentei, saw how sad she was about this and arranged a marriage for her with Hikoboshi. But now Orihime had no time to weave because of her newfound love, so Tentei forbid the two from seeing each other, except for one day a year as long as they wished hard enough every other day. Tanabata celebrates the lovers’ reuniting.

    Seven is the magic number for Tanabata, so there are seven types of decorations with special significance:
    Tanzaku - wishes for academic success and technical skills.

    Kinchaku - shaped like a purse, this decoration is a wish for success with money.

    Kamigoromo - shaped like a tiny Kimono, this is for better sewing skills, success with style.

    Toami - the net papers, these represent success for good fishing and harvest.

    Orizuru - a chain of paper cranes, if you hang these you wish for good health and a long life.

    Kuzukago - the trash net, this indicates wishes for cleanliness and thriftiness with money.

    Fukinagashi - these aren’t really wishes, they are colorful streamers that represent the fabric Orihime wove.
    Click here for a cute manga explaining the decorations and the legend. Our own About Japan teaching rwesource ebsite has some simple Tanabata activity and craft-making guides you can do at home or at school.

    Japan Society's Tanabata observance includes interactive, family-friendly activities and an opportunity to hang your own tanzaku on Japan Society's bamboo trees. The event is recommended for children 3-10 and their accompanying adults, but couldn’t we all use a wish or two? Happy Tanabata!

    --Sarah Anderson


    (UPDATED 7/14/13)

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  • JAPAN CUTS 2012: From Mainstream Mania And Genre Benders To A Post-3/11 Era

    Friday, Jul 13, 2012 5:14AM / Standard Entry

    Join the Monsters Club that is JAPAN CUTS 2012. © 2011 GEEK PICTURES

    “This year’s JAPAN CUTS festival is so varied in its programming that it’s anti-thematic”, says Samuel Jamier, Japan Society’s senior film programmer, and curator of the Society’s monster summer film festival, opening today in its sixth consecutive year.

    The trailer for the festival says it all… by saying nothing and everything at once:



    The shear diversity of 2012’s JAPAN CUTS films range from the decidedly popular Rebirth (winner of the Japanese Academy Prize for Picture of the Year) and uber-romcom Love Strikes!, to the grind(out)house Zombie Ass: Toilet of the Dead. Situated somewhere between these extremes is the “Focus on Post 3.11 Cinema” and “Anime from Hell”.

    Jamier, who has curated three JAPAN CUTS festivals to date, notes “This year I have expanded the scope of the types of films we show. It is nice to have a reverential attitude towards the more serious films, but it is also good not to take yourself too seriously, and to always be on the lookout for something new and special. Previously, the only way to sample such a wide variety of genres and styles was to have actually lived in Japan. But I feel proud in bringing that variety to New York.”

    A visit to the Japan Society between today and July 28 may indeed feel like a cinephilic trip to Japan as the 2012 installment of JAPAN CUTS is the largest ever presented with 39 films, 33 premieres 8 special guests, 3 award presentations and parties.

    Something absolutely unique to the festival in the inclusion of documentaries and fictional films inspired by Japan’s March 11, 2011 earthquake and subsequent Sendai tsunami and Fukushima meltdown. With five features (Women on the Edge, Chips, A Gentle Rain Falls for Fukushima and No Man’s Zone) and a collection of shorts (We Are All Radioactive)--films all completed within a year of the disasters--it is surprising how such a wealth of quality work was created in such a short time span.

    According to Jamier, “We now live in a post-3/11 era of creativity and there’s definitely a post-3/11 cinema happening .” He explains how during the tsunami tragedy, many amateur videographers shot footage of the disaster with their cameras and cell phones, creating their own documentation and narratives. The series of short documentaries We Are All Radioactive reflects this phenomenon. Filmmaker Lisa Katayama and her crew gave cameras to residents of Motoyoshi, a seaside town 100 miles north of Fukushima, to shoot the local scene after the disaster.

    Jamier notes the post-3/11 era has also influenced films that don’t directly deal with the tragedy. “For instance, Yoshihiro Nakamura’s feature film Chips is ostensibly a comedy about a young man and his infatuation with a professional baseball player. But at the same time this comic story is being told, there is a weird ghostly space accommodating more serious subject matter. I attribute that to the influence of 3/11.”

    Yakusho (l) in Woodsman. © 2011 Kitsutsuki to Ame Film Partners

    At the center of the festival is the career of legendary actor Koji Yakusho, who will participate in a Q&A session and be presented with the first-ever Cut Above Award for Excellence in Film on July 21. Jamier says “I’m really excited and honored by the presence of Koji Yakusho, who is, in many ways, Japan’s leading actor.”

    The festival features many of his classic films like Shall We Dance?, the director’s cut of 13 Assassins and Cure, as well as newer films like Chronicle of My Mother and The Woodsman and the Rain. “It’s amazing to see the consistent quality of his films through the years. By featuring Japan’s leading actor, we hope to demonstrate the importance of Japan Cuts in showcasing contemporary Japanese cinema,” says Jamier.

    Other not-to-be-missed Q&A sessions include ones with Love Strikes! star Masami Nagasawa on July 14, Monsters Club director Toshiaki Toyoda on July 15, No Man’s Zone director Toshi Fujiwara on July 22, Roadside Fugitive SR director Yu Irie on July 22, and Leonie director Hisako Matsui on July 27.

    The opening week party on July 14 will follow the sold-out screening of Love Strikes! and Q&A with Ms. Nagasawa, who won a Japanese Academy Award for her performance. The film, also screening July 22, was a blockbuster in Japan based on the enormously popular manga and television series of the same name (Moteki in Japanese). It follows the travails of a 31-year-old otaku who inexplicably experiences sudden popularity with women. Perhaps his goal of romance with the hip and kawaii Miyuki (Nagasawa) is attainable after all. The fun story is densely populated with pop songs, including a musical number performed by girl group Perfume, and visual teasers like scrolling Twitter messages and karaoke lyrics.

    In a festival where Love Strikes! twice, it’s a bit overwhelming that there are 37 more possible hits. Luckily, several media outlets have produced their top choices from this year’s “cool slice of cinematic pie”, including the Wall Street Journal, Village Voice, and Twitch.

    --Lyle Sylvander
    Love Strikes! © 2011 TOHO CO.,LTD. / TV TOKYO CORPORATION / DENTSU INC. / KODANSHA Ltd. / Sony Music Entertainment (Japan) Inc. / Office Crescendo Inc. / PARCO CO., LTD. / Yahoo Japan Corporation / TV OSAKA CORPORATION / TV AICHI CORPORATION 
    モテキ© 2011「モテキ」製作委員会 

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