Collaboration is essential in art. To me, the last Aldeburgh Festival of Music and Art (held in 2019) had a distinct Japanese flavour. The accompanying guidebook included an essay by the Executive Director of SISJAC, Simon Kaner, exploring the relationship between Japanese and East Anglian prehistoric archaeology. The pianist Stephen Hough also played Oliver Knussen’s haunting Prayer Bell Sketch, which Knussen had composed in memory of his Japanese composer friend, Takemitsu Toru. And there was an exhibition inspired by the works of the late W. G. Sebald, who created the British Centre for Literary Translation (BCLT). He also supervised my research into German literature.
More importantly, the festival opened with an opera based on Inoue Yasushi’s novella The Hunting Gun (1949). This is a powerful tale with universal resonance. It has something symbolic, even mystical about it and wrestles with big questions about life. Love, death, truth and loneliness are intertwined, the poet narrator capturing the secrets, longings and sentiments of three women for one man, articulated in three separate letters. Under the cold surface of the written word, everything is in ferment, seething like an imminent earthquake. Believing himself to be the central character depicted in the poem, the male protagonist Misugi explains the cause of his sadness by handing over three letters. But whether the letters, and the women who have written them, are a figment of his, Misugi’s, imagination, or whether he is a figment of the poet’s imagination is left open. ‘The living breathing man behind the idea I had formed remained, even now, unknown,’ the narrator claims, concluding that ‘we humans are, in the end, stupid creatures who cannot help desiring that someone know us as we are…’.
Inoue’s Hunting Gun is a perfect example of how collaboration in art transcends national boundaries: written by a Japanese, with music composed by an Austrian, the opera sung in German, and its first UK performance staged in a concert hall on the windswept marshes of East Suffolk. ‘When I first read Mr Inoue’s novella The Hunting Gun, I was immediately captured by its timelessness’, writes the composer Thomas Larcher in the festival programme. ‘It addresses questions encountered by absolutely everyone involved in relationships with other individuals. For a composer, literature is like a magnet, words give direction to music, they drive the listener into the heart of the music’. Larcher’s opera comprises of a prologue and three acts and is sung in German with English subtitles. On stage the young girl Shoko, the wife Midori and the lover Saiko revisit the events described in their respective letters, while the male protagonist Misugi remains silent, cradling his gun, a symbol of power and death. ‘Larcher had a big hit at the Aldeburgh Festival with his psychologically disturbing opera’, The Times critic Richard Morrison writes, but fails to mention Inoue’s important contribution. Moreover, Larcher calls his next musical creation Ouroboros, the word for one of the oldest Ancient Egyptian (and later Greek) symbols depicting a snake biting its own tail, representing the concept of eternity and endless return. The 2016 Pushkin edition of The Hunting Gun features a black and white drawing of a snake by Ping Zhu on its front cover. ‘I remember you told me once that each of us has a snake living inside him’, Saiko recalls in her letter and continues, ‘I would wonder about what those snakes inside us were. Perhaps on some occasion they are egotism, and then jealousy, and then at other times destiny’.
If I had to choose one Japanese book it would be Inuoe’s The Bullfight (1949). This superb novella won the author the prestigious Akutagawa Prize, and established him as one of Japan’s most acclaimed writers. On the surface the narrative tells the story of a newspaper editor who agrees to sponsor a ‘Bull Sumo’, thereby getting involved in rather shady deals with dubious characters. But its real art lies deeper, reflecting on the devastating effect of war on human relationships and the national psyche. It captures desolate Japan in the late 1940’s. In an afterword at the end of The Hunting Gun, Inoue writes: ‘I was forty-two when The Hunting Gun and Bullfight were published. They say that as authors mature, they follow the trajectory charted by their first writing – a rule to which, it seems, there are no exceptions. If this is correct then The Hunting Gun and The Bullfight carry within them, alongside their youthful ungainliness, something fundamental from which I have never been able to break free. For this reason I believe I am more fully present in their pages than in any of my other texts’.
I recommend you read his two early works and judge for yourself.
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