Thursday, July 28, 2011

Climbing Mount Kagu

Among the 4,500 poems which make up the Manyōshū ('Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves'), there is one attributed to the Emperor Jomei (593-641), called 'Climbing Mount Kagu'.  It describes the view from the mountain down towards the land of Yamato: 'Over the wide plain the smoke-wreaths rise and rise, Over the wide lake the gulls are on the wing...'  This translation, like others I have seen, omits the poem's descriptive epithet for Yamato, 'island of the dragonfly'.  The phrase refers to the way a dragonfly's tail touches its mouth to form a ring, like the circle of mountains round the plain of Yamato.  It is an example of a pillow-word (makura kotoba), which Geoffrey Bownas calls in his introduction to The Penguin Book of Japanese Verse (1964) 'a qualifier describing, by tradition, certain nouns or concepts.'  Among other examples connected with actual places are 'rock running' for Ômi' (from the image of water gushing over rocks) and 'spring mist' used to modify Kasuga. Pillow-words are often likened to the Homeric stock epithet, although most of those describe people (ox-eyed Hera, swift-footed Achilles, laughter-loving Aphrodite) rather than places (Mycenae rich in gold).  According to Bownas the comparison fails to do full justice to the essence and purpose of pillow-words, whose 'alliterative or assonantal ring' ensure that the reader pauses on the word being qualified.  'Further, since many of the head-words are place names, it is argued that part of the purpose of the pillow-word in its early use in primitive society was to act as a talisman for the good fortune of the place in question.' He goes on to provide his own example poem in the form of a donnish joke about Oxford's 'Heaven-preserve-it Western By-Pass'.

 Pillow shot from Tokyo Story (

The phrase 'pillow shot' has come to be used to describe the short transitional images of landscapes, interiors and objects that are such a distinctive feature of Yasujiro Ozu's cinema.  There are many examples on the excellent Ozu-San website and a montage on Youtube (embedded below).  The first scene of my favourite Ozu film, Tokyo Story (1953), shows an old couple, the Hirayamas, packing for their trip to Tokyo.  The second takes place in the house belonging to their son, a doctor in the capital.  We do not see the journey itself - instead the scenes are intercut with three pillow shots showing smokestacks (see above), a railway crossing and the sign outside their son's office.  These are more than just establishing shots - as David Desser writes in his handbook to the film, 'careful examination of the exterior shots in the rest of the film reveals that the smokestacks and train station are, in fact spaces "connected" to Dr. Hirayama's, but nothing so indicates that at the start.'  This connection resembles the way that particular words in early Japanese poetry were given associative pillow-words.    

The ear/OAR label specialise in avant garde sounds and environmental recordings; landscape-related examples include Kiyoshi Mizutani's Scenery Of The Border, Francisco López's Trilogy of the Americas and the Phonography series.  In 2007 they released a compilation of music inspired by Ozu's pillow-shots.  A review in The Wire concluded that 'despite the range of idioms on display, from delicate electroacoustic tapestries (Bernhard Gunter) and meditative drones (Keith Berry) to bucolic field recordings (Kiyoshi Mizutani) and frequent uses of silence (almost all), each perfectly serves their respective image. Highlights include Steve Roden's beautiful pairing of chiming guitar and hushed percussive patterns; label owner Dale Lloyd's gently shifting gamelan shapes; and Taku Sugimoto's 'Tengu In Linguistics', where he drops six strident piano notes into a reductive vacuum, reflecting another of Ozu's themes, the eschewal of action in favour of the contemplation of the surrounding space.'  Yasujiro Ozu - Hitokomakura followed an earlier compilation dedicated to Andrei Tarkovsky.  The sequence was completed last year with a tribute to Michelangelo Antonioni.

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