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The Sword, The Mirror and the Jewel

Tuesday September 14th, cool morning, herring gulls crying, grey skies thick with rain.

I used to think the Studio Ghibli movies were stateless, set in some Cloud Cuckoo land, a Japanese cartoon version of the Fairytale Mediaeval Europe invented by Disney. Then I saw Tokyo Story, a grim and rather repellent Great Movie by Kurosawa, and there was Miyasaki's lost country, right there: the crooked roofs, the jumbled little streets, the causewayed paths between the rice paddies, a homely countryside close by the tumbling haphazard low-rise warren of the industrial city. (reminding me very much of the outskirts of Manchester, when I was a child myself).

I used to think Zelda and Final Fantasy were Stateless fantasies, the seemingly bizarre and arbitrary cod-mediaeval features the product of random, deracinated game-developers' imaginations. Now I know different, and I've just been reminded how far from rootless they are, these landscapes, these eternal pilgrimages from shrine to shrine (or dungeon!); these treasures that we must obtain, at lengthy cost. I'm reading The Confessions of Lady Nijo, an old paperback I picked up on the South Bank bookstalls, on my birthday trip to London, in February. I have a small collection of Heian ladies' writing, but though this one was new to me, I didn't rate it at first glance, just bought it on reflex: it was a late work, two hundred years after Genji, and written (it says here) with the explicit purpose of restoring the lady's family fortunes. Derivative, I thought. Bound to be dilute, formulaic and feeble. I was completely wrong. It's true, Genji keeps coming up in the first three books. Parties are staged to recreate episodes in the incomparable (fictional!) Genji's court life. Courtiers, and court ladies like Nijo, imitate the poems, the actions, the emotions of Murasaki Shikibu's characters. Of course I don't know how much of this is part of Nijo's cunning plan to ride on the classic writer's trailing sleeves, and how much Genjification really happened. It's weirdly modern, though. Then comes the best bit. "Nijo", concubine from childhood to one retired emperor (the indulgent GoFukakusa, who has never really objected to the girl having private lovers on the side), is in a dire predicament over Gofukakusa's conviction that she's having a clandestine affair with another retired emperor, Gofukakusa's brother-enemy. She's lost her protector, and the knives are out at court. You know what, she decides. I'm sick of it all anyway: and sets out one morning, dressed as a Buddhist nun, on a life of pilgrimage. Here's the passage, that prompted this post.

"A sacred mirror made by a god to reflect the image of the sun goddess was enshrined at Koasakuma. It is said that it was once stolen and dropped into deep water. When it was revovered and presented at the shrine, the goddess spoke through an oracle: "I have vowed to save all living things, even the fishes in the boundless sea". Then, by its own power, the mirror vanished from the shrine and reappeared on the top of a rock, beside which grew a lone cherry tree. At high tide the mirror lodged in the top of the tree; at low tide it remained on the rock. . . " Confessions of Lady Nijo, tr Karen Brazell

Nah, it's probably impossible to convey the little thrill of pleasure those words, connecting me to the greater half of Zelda's cultural sources, give me. Never mind

Now I want to see Top Girls, the Caryl Churchill play in which Nijo is a character. Except I think she's a fount of mature wisdom in the play, whereas I just met an engagingly fallible human being.

Speaking of mature wisdom, here's the latest from bar to bar, featuring that grand old man of hellish anarchy and angelic mayhem, Hal Duncan


*Ouch. I just imagined a Lady Nijo tv series, probably hosted by Julia Bradbury, a poetic walking tour (with sea voyages) around Japan. Awful thought!

Oh well, what do I know. Maybe that literary pilgrimage has been big in Japan for decades. The Lady Nijo Trail.

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Aaron White on :

Hello, Ms. Jones! I'm a newfound fan after enjoying White Queen. I really enjoyed this post; I'll be seeking out Confessions of Lady Nijo, and as a Miyazaki fan I'll be watching Tokyo Story (which was actually directed by Yasujiro Ozu) for cultural insights if nothing else. I'm curious why you found it repellant, but I suppose I ought to see it for myself and come to my own conclusions. Take care!

Gwyneth on :

Hi Aaron, thanks for your comment. Tokyo Story, repellent? Did I say that? Let me recalibrate to "bleak and depressing". As far as I recall, it's one of those movies about the sad demise of the dear old traditional family. Always going to be some of us who will mutter, yeah, but people were horrible to their relations just as often in the oldstyle. But it's an excellent movie

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