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Sepia Saturday

2015.04W.32

Ready to go!

Ready to go!

I like the intent look of some of these cyclists.

Running ain't always easy or fun

Running ain’t always easy or fun

I’m sure when I run it looks very much like this. The only difference would be that I have modern athletic wear. That’s why I refrain. I don’t call it fun and never have.

Team spirit: NY women's baseball team

Team spirit: NY women’s baseball team

A women’s baseball team from the WWII era.

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His Family

Ernest Poole, author of The Harbor and Giants Gone was the first novelist to win the Pulitzer Prize and he won it for His Family. In His Family, Roger Gale tries to live out his promise to his dying wife to keep his daughters together, to really know each one. Each young woman is distinct and unless they were sisters they’d never cross paths. Set in New York around the time of WWI, the novel follows Gale and his three daughters through a tumultuous era. Deborah throws herself into her work as principal for a tenement school. Edith obsesses over being the perfect mother making sure her children have the perfect childhood and Laura flits about as a “modern woman,” which by her definition means being a fashion plate who dances a lot.

Roger owns a clipping service, not the usual business featured in novels. His perspective of his daughters and life in this era was perceptive and genuine. He cares and yet feels unable to influence or understand his daughters. Life hands them surprises and tragedy, catching everyone off guard. Roger is as shaped by his daughters, particularly Deborah, as they are by him.

Here are a few favorite quotations:

“He saw each of his daughters, part of himself. And he remembered what Judith had said: ‘You will live on in our children’s lives.’ And he began to get glimmerings of a new immortality, made up of generations, an endless succession of other lives extending into the future.”

“Queer, how a man can neglect his children, as I have done … when the thing he wants most in life is to see each one …happy.”

“He had thought of childhood as something intimate and pure, inside his home, his family. Instead of that, in Deborah’s school he had been disturbed and thrilled by the presence all around him of something wild, barbaric, dark, compounded of the city streets, of surging crowds, of rushing feet, of turmoil, filth, disease and death, of poverty and vice and crime.”

Osaka Elegy

osakaelegy3900x506

Directed by Kenji Mizoguch, Osaka Elegy (1936) opens with Mr. Asai, a middle-aged grouch, insulting his servants and wife. According to Asai-san, everyone in his house is stupid and incompetent. He and his wife argue and he threatens to get a mistress. The wife replies “go ahead.” There’s not even a spark of love or kindness in this man or his wife.

At work Mr. Asai is more temperate. He even smiles and laughs. Ayako,  a young office girl, who answers the phones, catches his eye.  Though she wears a kimono at work, while the men all wear Western suits (it’s always telling when a culture has women in traditional dress and men in the more modern) Ayoko embraces modern mores. She smokes, outside of work she wears the new styles.

Uninterested in middle-aged men, Ayoko  has eyes for Susumu, a dashing young salary man, who likes her but isn’t ready to move beyond friendship. Ayako’s bigger problem is her father, who’s embezzled 300 yen from his company. They’re ready to set the police after him. Ayako has to deal with he father’s colleagues who come to the house to hound the family for money. Her cowardly father eavesdrops outside while they intimidate his daughters.

Ayako tries to get a loan from Susumu Nishimura. She’s run out of people to ask. In the end her only hope is an agreement with Mr. Asai, who’s pestered her with offers of money and apartments for some time. She winds up agreeing to Mr. Asai’s terms since Susumu hasn’t committed to her and can’t lend her the money.

She gives her father, who shows little appreciation or concern for Ayako, the money and disappears. She quits her job and goes off to her new gilded cage. Later she meets Susumu in a department store. He proposes and she thinks her life can change for the better. Yet more demands from her ungrateful family lead her away from the marriage she hoped for.

The Criterion Collection offers two insightful essays on Osaka Elegy. In one it points out that the director was haunted by his parents selling his sister into prostitution so they could pay for his education:

A detail of Kenji Mizoguchi’s life that is seldom left out of any biographical note is the fact that his older sister was sold into prostitution when he was a child. The practice was not uncommon among poverty-stricken Asian families, and while horrifying enough, the boy’s future was linked to her bondage. After the death of their parents she supported him, and her eventual marriage to a wealthy patron made his education possible. According to the tenets of Japan’s institutionalized sexism, the sacrifice of the less-valued girl child for the well-being of a son would have been taken for granted. But the themes and meaning of the director’s entire body of work attest that for him at least, it never was. Over his long career, through more than eighty films, Mizoguchi would constantly champion women wronged and discarded: Osaka Elegy, Sisters of the Gion, A Woman of Osaka, A Geisha, and Street of Shame. His portrayal, with merciless depth, of the workings of a society that nurtured male privilege and sanctioned second-class citizenship for women, suggests a sensibility on the cutting edge of giri.

I was struck by how Ayako’s desire for a progressive, modern life, was strangled. While she could smoke and work, neither of these actions kept her secure or gave her power. Also the movie, while not explicit, was open about sexuality and exploitation. It doesn’t dress up the sacrifice and cost Ayoko must pay. There’s a bold realism in the film that captivates.

 

Sepia Saturday

2014.04W.40 (1)

This week Sepia Saturday invites us to a day at the beach. It’s still a little early for the beach for me and I’m not much of a “beach person” but I did enjoy going through the digital attic of the Internet to find these gems.

postcard beach

1908 Collaroy Beach, New South Wales

1908 Collaroy Beach, New South Wales

Donkey rides available in Black Pool, 1900s

Donkey rides available in Black Pool, 1900s

No date or place given. Found with bing.com

No date or place given. Found with bing.com

Sepia Saturday

sepia may 3

This week Sepia Saturday prompts us to seek out photos of dancers, Greek goddesses or silly poses. I found the photos below on Flickr Commons. Dancers and thespians certainly were ethereal when portraying ancient Greeks. Modern folks are much more earth bound.

Peony in Love

Peony-in-love

Lisa See’s novel Peony in Love is rather odd because about a quarter of the way into the story the protagonist dies. I wondered what was going on and how the story would continue and then I learned that most of the story is the story of a ghost, a hungry ghost.

Young Peony is the daughter of a well to do nobleman, who apparently loves his daughter and encourages her to become literate. Like all females, Peony’s forbidden to interact or even seen males outside her family. She’s eagerly preparing for her arranged marriage when her father hosts a multi-night performance of a Chinese Opera The Peony Pavilion. The women can watch from behind a screen separated from the men in the audience. The first night Peony slips out of the women’s area and encounters Ren, a dashing young man. They talk. They gaze lovingly into each others eyes. They pledge to see each other the next night.

Now Peony’s done for. She can only dream of Ren and after her second rendezvous becomes love sick. She won’t eat or sleep fearing that she’ll never be able to be with her true love. The doctor can do nothing and she wastes away, not knowing till after her family dresses her emaciated body in her wedding clothes and abandons her outside the family compound to waste a way and die outside, that her arranged husband was Ren. Custom demanded that the young girl die outside the family home to avoid bringing bad luck to the family. Sorrow and confusion result in Peony’s funeral tablet not  getting properly dotted with ink so she’s left as a hungry ghost, doomed to wander the earth without peace.

Thus begins Peony’s haunting of Ren and his subsequent wives. Readers learn of the imaginative and rich beliefs the Chinese held about ghosts, how they must be fed and treated, how they can insinuate themselves into the lives of the living despite the clever crooked bridges that keep them out.

Readers also learn about the history of women writers during the thirty years when the Manchus defeated the Ming dynasty. It was a time of chaos and one good thing, perhaps the only one, was that during this upheaval men were so distracted by the political and social upheaval, women were allowed to venture outside, explore their surroundings, gather, discuss and write. Many women, whose ghosts Peony meets, were successful, published authors.

While there were times when I found it hard to care about the “life” of a ghost or what would happen to her ancestral tablet, I do applaud See’s creativity. I was able to keep reading, though I wasn’t as concerned with the ghost heroine as I had been with See’s flesh and blood ones. Still I recommend this novel, which makes the history of China come alive, to any lovers of the genre.

The Most Beautiful

Akira Kurasawa’s second movie was a propaganda film for World War II called The Most Beautiful. He tells the story of a group of young women, teens most likely, who leave their hometowns to support the war effort by working in an optics factory. The factory has had to increase its quota and the girls object to the 50% increase and ask their manager for a 70% increase. From the start the Japanese cohesiveness is evident. While four or five girls’ experiences are highlighted often we see a large group of 50 or more marching, laughing and working together. The group is the star and how they react when one falls ill or leaves is so Japanese. So is the fact that in addition to their work responsibility, they must play volleyball and practice their drum and fife band’s drills. These girls are the Japanese equivalent of Rosie the Riveter, but they’re far more docile and group oriented. I know I would have balked at having to march and play volleyball. The minute the fun is mandated, it loses its fun.

Much of the story is predictable. One girl receives a letter that her mother’s ill and it’s easy to guess that outcome. The idea of self-sacrifice and following the rules is blatant. Yet, I enjoyed the cinematography and did cheer the girls on as they endeavor to meet the higher goal they insisted upon. I was touched by the kind dorm mother and the managers who truly looked after the girls’ well being.

The film has its comic moments, for example at one point the camera focuses on various signs stating rules. We see a sign admonishing the girls not to stand on the roof and another saying they should air out their bedding daily. Next we see a girl playing on the roof as she airs out her futon. Of course, she tumbles off the roof. She breaks her leg and can’t work. It was fascinating, and I think truly Japanese, that no authority yelled at this girl for being a knuckle head. Instead, there’s an outpouring of care. Also, the animated graphs that show the girls’ increase and decrease in productivity made me chuckle as it’s quite dated.

While the film is sentimental and the unquestioning support of the war, troubling to modern pacifists like me, I enjoyed the slice of life, which made me understand wartime Japan much better.

Fill the Void

fill void

The most intriguing film I’ve seen in a while is Fill the  Void, an Isreali film made in 2012, which kept me fascinated on my flight back home. Fill the Void is a quiet, dramatic film that focuses on a Hassidic (some reviewers refer to the community as Haredi, but the distributor calls it Hassidic) community in Tel Aviv.

In this very traditional world, we meet Shira, an 18 year old woman who visits a grocery store with her aunt to get a glimpse of a young man she may marry. Courtship is very much a communal, supervised, discussed activity within this society. She’s pleased with this earnest young man and eager to marry as her sister Esther has. Esther is older and stunningly beautiful, clearly the center of Yorchay,  her husband’s life. However, life takes a cruel turn when Esther dies in childbirth. The Shira’s parents often care for the baby and when Yorchay’s mother announces that he’s considering remarrying and moving to Belgium, Shira’s mother hopes to convince him to marry Shira instead so the baby will always be nearby.

Outsiders like myself will wonder how anyone could even consider asking Shira to sacrifice like this. Shira is shocked at the prospect of perhaps replacing her sister in marriage, but the shock is held at bay as are all big emotions in this society. It’s not that the community denies them, it’s just that emotion is expressed and considered very differently, which makes for a very powerful film. Robert Bresson‘s idea of never letting the characters run wild with emotion so that the audience will feel it more, works here.

What unfolds is a careful, respectful story about characters whose traditions may seem archaic, but truly still work for them. Shira’s torn between what to do. She envisioned a  different life and she’s little experience making such decisions. It’s not a family that disregards her wishes or forces Shira to bend to theirs. In fact, it’s interesting how thoughtfully this community works to see that wisdom and justice prevail in all matters brought before the rabbis.

Directed by Rama Burshtein, an orthodox female director, the power of the film lies in its silent moments and thoughtful characters. It’s a world where people consider other’s happiness and tradition as much if not more than their own. There’s no such thing as a snap judgement in this society which manages to continue in the midst of a world that moves at breakneck pace. I found the acting superb and the view into this rarely seen world fascinating. If you watch it, you’ll realize the beauty of a traditional community that’s easy for us to dismiss.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Community

Throughout China women gather to exercise

Throughout China women gather to exercise

Here’s how it works:

1. Each week, we’ll provide a theme for creative inspiration. You take photographs based on your interpretation of the theme, and post them on your blog (a new post!) anytime before the following Friday when the next photo theme will be announced.

2. To make it easy for others to check out your photos, title your blog post “Weekly Photo Challenge: (theme of the week)” and be sure to use the “postaday″ tag.

3. Follow The Daily Post so that you don’t miss out on weekly challenge announcements, and subscribe to our newsletter – we’ll highlight great photos from each month’s most popular challenge.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

snow flrw “A lovely face is a gift from heaven, but tiny feet can improve social standing.”

Lisa See‘s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan tells the story of Lily and her “old same” or lao tang, Snow Flower. Because the two girls share so many similarities in birth and life experience a matchmaker pairs them as old sames. During the 19th century in parts of China old sames were vowed relationship between two girls, sort of like an official sworn sister.

Lily and Snow Flower both start the foot binding process, a special form of Chinese torture in which girls’ feet would be bound to attract men and show beauty. The book describes this long process and tells us that at the time a mother’s job was to induce pain in her daughters to prepare them for a hard life. The girls were fed special foods believed to support this process. Furthermore, the girls were forced to walk back and forth in their rooms in agony. Some girls’ did die of infected feet as a character here does.

All this was for status and the women did buy into it. Their actual feet became hideous so women wore silk sleeping shoes in bed for their husbands to fondle.

Fascinating and tragic as this practice is, the heart of Snow Flower and Secret Fan is the relationship between the two girls as they grow. In the beginning Lily is in awe of Snow Flower, her social superior. Snow Flower’s ancestry has greater status and she is far more educated and refined than Lily. Yet as they grow and marry, Lily gains status and security, while Snow Flower is victimized by her father’s decline and her husband’s low status. The book intrigued me as a portrait of a far off, exotic arena where women were taken for granted, yet had the the audacity to invent their own written language, nu shu, which they used to communicate with the people they left behind when they got married off.

tiny shoeSnow Flower and Secret Fan is a dramatic, satisfying book that focuses on the trust, conventions and loyalty in another era presenting a different culture with historical authenticity.

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