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Japanese habitation and tokonoma.

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    Fabien

    Hello.

    I read recently a book entitled Urban Revolution, from french sociologist and philosopher Henri Lefebvre, lately interested in urban questions.

    In which book (written in the late 60s), it is written that East (Japan, China) has many things to teach to westerners about habitation concepts, and especially about tokonoma, a “poetry” space, entirely dedicated to art / beauty / spiritual, as opposed to utilitarian and rational spaces or to scattered decoration.

    But I can’t find much theoretical and analytic information about this concept and I encounter conflicting definitions (space featuring a single object – as in the book – or several objects – as in wikipedia).

    Moreover, and that is what brings me here, I am fairly certain that there are references to this concept in Akira Kurosawa films, but I can’t remember right now which ones would be interesting to watch again in order to pay more attention to what might have escaped it at first.

    Except maybe for the single flower used as an ashtray in Sugata, but is it really a tokonoma and would it be considered as a dedicated (and forbidden) space violated by the character?

    Well, if you had any information about this concept or advice about the films (not mandatorily Kurosawa’s) related to this, it would be useful.

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    Ugetsu

    I’m afraid this is the first time I’ve heard of tokonoma, but I’m always a bit reluctant to take the word of western writers on topics like this – far too often they seem to accept a superficial orientalist interpretation – didn’t Kurosawa say one time (maybe obliquely about Ozu) that sometimes a vase is just a vase?

    What has always struck me about Kurosawa (and I’m writing as a professional urban planner), is that he has the eye of a geographer, while Ozu had the eye of an architect. I cannot think of any other film maker better than Kurosawa at implanting in the audiences mind the physical layout of a place of action – whether it be the grove in Rashomon, the street outside the school in Sanshiro Sugata, the village layout in Seven Samurai, or the town in Red Beard. But I always feel that AK felt a little less sure of himself in indoor space, with his sets and shooting being a little more conventional. An exception I think would be the brilliant use of the modern dwelling in High and Low (I’ve often wondered about whether there is some sort of symbolism in his choice of an overtly modern avant garde dwelling for Gondo).

    The two films where he seemed to use rooms with tokonoma type characteristics (as I understand them) specifically are in Ran and Kagemusha. Is the scene where the thief/chief tries to steal from the jar that turns out to have a body in it meant to be in a tokonoma? And the scenes in Ran where Lady Kaede plots with her husband seems like a private alcove of some sort (I’m not familiar enough with Japanese domestic architecture to be sure). According to Wikipedia, people were not supposed to use the room, and since Kurosawa’s films were usually about action, I would have imagined he wouldn’t have been very interested in a room like that. I wonder though if that scene in Madadayo where the aging couple sit on the doorway of a tiny house as the seasons change is intended to remind viewers of a sculpture in a traditional alcove?

    Ozu, of course, made brilliant use of interiors, using them as part of the framing for scenes. I assume that many of the little scenes of vases or other items of furniture were supposed to be a symbolic reference to tokonoma to some extent or other. Mizoguchi used architecture in a very different way, with his camera tracking through entire buildings, laying them out naked, as if they’d been turned inside out. I can’t recall though any examples of what I’d understand tokonoma to be in his films.

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    Vili Maunula

    After checking the Wikipedia page, I think that I actually have some personal experience with tokonoma, although the term itself is unfamiliar to me (but my Japanese is what it is). Unless I’m badly mistaken, a tea ceremony room usually includes a tokonoma, which is kind of a small alcove that includes one or more objects, usually seasonal, which in the case of a tea ceremony room are pretty much the only objects in the otherwise rather empty room.

    Tokonoma is not a separate room, but a small open space. If you look at this Google Image search, you can always spot a tokonoma if you look for a scroll and/or a vase in a small alcove. It’s like a very minimalist private art installation space.

    In the school where I studied tea ceremony, this area usually contained a scroll, a flower and perhaps a vase for the flower. All were seasonal and were meant to complement each other. Unfortunately, as I only studied tea ceremony once a week for a year, I never got as far as to learning the art behind these arrangements. It took us a year to just learn how to prepare the tea and walk properly! Our teacher did sometimes mention and explain the arrangements, but most of the time I couldn’t really understand too much because of the language barrier.

    Off the top of my head, I cannot really think of literal tokonomas in Kurosawa’s films. But the wider concept of a non-functional, purely artistic space which tokonoma represents, is of course quite relevant to Kurosawa’s use of screen estate, although that is stretching the concept somewhat.

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    Fabien

    Well, I’m surprised and glad to bring a new word here.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

    Ugetsu, you made a point when citing Ozu, as I believe that the pictures I had in my head about tokonoma, with retrospect, come more probably from the few and late Ozu’s films I have watched. His films being, indeed, more “interior framed”, as far as I can see.

    As for High and Low, it’s a very interesting film from a urban point of view, and I read somewhere (I think it was in Yoshimoto studies, but not sure) that the urban landscape of the big japanese cities came through radical changes in the 50s and 60s, like in Yokohama (where the scene takes place); changes which induced anguishes, and it would be also what the film is about.

    I don’t know about the symbolism in the Madadayo scene, but that is actually a striking one.

    Oh, and I’m not too confident either with westerners talking about East customs, but Mr Lefebvre didn’t assert anything beyond what I wrote above (that we have to learn from East and that poetry dedicated space is an interesting concept to take into account when studying urban matters — and I was also taught about the fundamental differences between “urbanism” and “urban phenonemon”).

    Lucky Vili, you had tea making art lessons!

    Though I wonder if I would really profit from walking lessons, these studies must be very attractive, at least for people who love tea (like me).

    Where did you learn this?

    By the – seasonal – way, I wonder if the interior Christmas tree, especially for the part that is a non-religion-related custom, could be considered as a temporary tokonoma, and if this type of custom runs in Japan like it does in other regions.

    (And have a happy new year!)

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    Vili Maunula

    Indeed, I think the Christmas tree is a little like the Western seasonal version of a tokonoma space. That’s a nice and seasonally very appropriate link!

    I had the privilege of studying tea ceremony when I lived in Japan a little over ten years ago. Our teacher was a 70-something lady, a lovely woman, and very patient with our mistakes, while also very stubborn to have us do what she wanted us to do.

    I was the only foreigner in the group, and also the only male. I spoke little Japanese, especially at first, and the others didn’t really speak any other language, so communicating some of the necessary details was at times quite challenging, but we managed.

    And walking, it turns out, is actually more difficult than you would imagine. At least if it’s as heavily dictated by rules and customs as in Japanese tea ceremony. Pretty much every movement of your body is in some way regulated, and you need to do it exactly right in order to do it properly.

    I loved learning the discipline needed, but as much as I love tea, I must say that the type prepared in a Japanese tea ceremony isn’t exactly at the top of my list of favourites. It’s extremely bitter and tends to be pretty foamy since you whisk the tea powder into the hot water. Then again, the ceremony is not really about tea, but more of a social and artistic thing.

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    Ugetsu

    Fabien

    As for High and Low, it’s a very interesting film from a urban point of view, and I read somewhere (I think it was in Yoshimoto studies, but not sure) that the urban landscape of the big japanese cities came through radical changes in the 50s and 60s, like in Yokohama (where the scene takes place); changes which induced anguishes, and it would be also what the film is about.

    Interesting point (and a nice contrast to Ozu, who always photographed smoking chimneys and crazy buildings as if they were all just aesthetic objects). I’m personally quite fascinated by Japanese urbanism, or what passes for it – and how a country with such a refined sensibility ended up with such horrible cities. I look forward to discussing this more when High and Low swings by again.

    By the – seasonal – way, I wonder if the interior Christmas tree, especially for the part that is a non-religion-related custom, could be considered as a temporary tokonoma, and if this type of custom runs in Japan like it does in other regions.

    I think Frank Lloyd Wright compared the tokonoma to a fireplace. Which, now that I think of it, is where my families Christmas Tree always met its end….

    Vili

    I loved learning the discipline needed, but as much as I love tea, I must say that the type prepared in a Japanese tea ceremony isn’t exactly at the top of my list of favourites. It’s extremely bitter and tends to be pretty foamy since you whisk the tea powder into the hot water. Then again, the ceremony is not really about tea, but more of a social and artistic thing.

    It all sounds remarkably like the ‘pouring of a pint of Guinness’ ceremony in a good Dublin pub….

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