volume 38, number 5
Temple UniversityFaculty Herald

Visual Anthropologists Take on Japanese Visual Culture
Richard Chalfen and Lindsey Powell, Temple University Japan, Tokyo

Wooden Dragon by Sean Hamilton (2007)

Koto Performance

Sean Hamilton, Communications major at Temple, joined this year’s summer program having already studied at the Japan Campus for several months. Sean focused on a traditional performance art—the koto—or thirteen-stringed Japanese zither. Videotaping three primary events—a performance, a lesson, and an interview—Sean constructed a 15-minute ethnographic video DVD which explored the music, its instruction, and its place in Japanese society. This was a different topic from Sean’s journal project, though his journal did contrast modern and traditional elements of Japan. The video opens with several seconds of a koto/shakuhachi (bamboo flute) duet being performed on stage before a live audience. The koto sets the rhythm and pitch with slow arpeggios as the flute twists and turns and hesitates then flows through and around the various koto tones.


Koto Lesson

As a guide and informant in the world of the koto, we are introduced to the performer, a Chicagoan living in Japan for 15 years named Curtis Patterson. He is giving a lesson in Japanese to a student in his home: “Pluck it this way [demonstrating], 2, 3, 5 (strings). Now quieter here.” The student responds in words (“hai,” yes) and sounds (mimicking the master’s directions by plucking her own koto). We get a sense of the complexity of the instrument and the steps it takes to achieve anything of note on it.


Koto Discussion

A new theme is introduced: a conversation about the instrument. Patterson’s image appears and the lesson disappears, as he sits next to the instrument in the shade of a Japanese garden, a scene reminiscent of one of our recommended texts, Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows. He talks about his Japanese master’s theory of the fading art of koto; “It was because of the repertoire. It was too old and rigid, she said. It didn’t change with the times.” A conflict is introduced. Patterson introduces the parts of the instrument, an imagined dragon: the head, tongue, eyes, and back.


Koto Demonstration

Given the short time he had to edit, Sean seized upon a prototypical editing plan that could guide his editing decisions. One of the films we watched in class was Dennis O’Rourke’s Sharckcallers of Kontu about the dying art of certain shark rituals. The film used an accelerated cycling of three primary themes which came to juxtapose with one another in predictable ways. Sean did the same with the performance, lesson, and discussion, returning to each when paces changed or thoughts came to a crossroad.


In this way, the film came to a musical, teaching, and discursive climax with revelations about new interpretations of the instrument and repertoire and demonstrations of the more daring pieces in the context of the performer’s private home. Closure comes as the student departs at the front door and says she will be back next week. The film ends on an upbeat note with promises of more unfinished business with the instrument.