July 21, 2017

Mini-Reviews #3

Torn from TroyPatrick Bowman: Torn from Troy

YA Novel
Pages: 199
First Published: 2011

My Thoughts: Torn from Troy, the first book in the Odyssey of a Slave trilogy, tells the story of Alexi, a poor Trojan orphan. When Troy falls, Alexi is taken as a slave, accompanying Odysseus and his crew through the events of the Odyssey.

The main thing that stood out to me when I read this book was Bowman’s depiction of Troy at war. Not only is this book not at all about the Trojan royal family (only Cassandra – here called “Cassie” for some reason – puts in a brief appearance), but Bowman commits to writing his protagonist as a poor boy who’s lived nearly his whole life in a city under siege. The casual tone Alexi uses to talk about the terrible things he’s witnessed makes sense for the character in a way that I was absolutely not expecting from a book I found in the children’s section, so praise for that. The bruality of Alexi’s world continues after he’s taken as a slave by Odysseus – here called “Lopex” for some reason – although apart from that, there aren’t too many surprises in the narrative.

When I finished Torn from Troy, I figured I would continue with the trilogy, and so I read the first several chapters of the second book, Cursed by the Sea God. Unfortunately, this is where the trilogy fell apart for me. I have a pretty strong dislike for stories where the characters travel from one place to another, only spending enough time to get a superficial understanding of each one-dimensional place before moving on. (Is there a name for this kind of story? Let me know because I have no idea what to call it.) The story of Odysseus’s return home does more or less fit into this category, but the Odyssey plays enough with its structure and has enough other things going on that I think it’s one of the best examples of it.

In the first few chapters of Cursed by the Sea God, however, Bowman’s Odyssey retelling becomes everything I dislike about these travel stories. The characters arrive on Aeolia, an island with a dangerous secret! Well don’t worry, because it only takes Alexi about fifteen minutes to discover the secret and solve the problem. The solution is extremely simple and one of the first things you would think to try, and yet the people of Aeolia have suffered from this problem for years. Thank goodness Alexi came along and was able to solve it with the information he spent five minutes gathering.

This kind of story can work when you’re talking about heroes in mythology, but as a section in a trilogy that until that point had made an effort to be a realistic portrayal of the life of a slave in antiquity, it was very disappointing. There was no depth or complexity to the Aeolia chapters and it took me out of the story completely. But if you’re a fan of this kind of travel story – or if you’re in this trilogy’s target demographic – you’ll probably enjoy Odyssey of a Slave more than I did.

Buy it at: Amazon.com, Amazon.ca

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Shin Toroia MonogatariTakashi Atoda: Shin Toroia Monogatari

Novel
Japanese Title: 新トロイア物語
Pages: 689
First Published: 1997

My Thoughts: (I admit it’s a bit weird to post about a Japanese novel on an English language blog when that novel has not been translated into English. Read on if you’d like a glimpse inside this retelling from another part of the world …)

Shin Toroia Monogatari – the title can be parsed as either The New Story of Troy or The Story of New Troy – follows Aeneas from his childhood to his death, covering both the events of the Trojan War and the quest to build a new Troy. For the longest time, the uninspired cover image, the dry lecture of an opening paragraph, and my mistaken belief that Atoda usually wrote non-fiction had me believing that this novel would be little more than a by-the-book retelling of the Trojan War myth. Now that I’ve finally gotten my Japanese to a level where I was able to read the whole thing (with a dictionary to help me here and there), I was happy to discover how wrong I was. Atoda plays with the story plenty, and for the most part this book was a really surprising, really interesting read.

There are light SPOILERS in the paragraphs below!

My favourite thing about this book, believe it or not, is its Paris. Paris is not usually one of my favourite characters, but I loved him here. His decade-long absence from Troy is made into something of a mystery – did Priam send him away as punishment for something, or did he leave because he wanted to? – so that you’re not quite sure what to make of him when he reappears. And he’s a bit of a jerk at first, flat-out telling a young Aeneas that Aphrodite has only been declared Aeneas’s mother because Aeneas’s father paid the oracle to say so. But as soon as I got to the brutally honest ramble in which he lists all his flaws and compares them to Hector’s virtues, making Aeneas promise that he’ll choose Hector if he ever has to choose between the two of them, I was sold. This Paris is just as imperfect as he usually is, but just having him be aware of it and honest about it really endeared me to him.

I also really liked this book’s version of the death of Achilles. Achilles is killed in the night, and Aeneas has every reason to believe that Paris did it as revenge for Hector’s death. But when Aeneas goes to ask Paris about it, Paris laughs it off as the work of the gods. His refusal to take credit for the best thing he ever does for his city – for the brother he knew was the better person – is excellent, I love it. New favourite Paris.

My second favourite thing about this book will come as no surprise: I really enjoyed the scene where Aeneas visits Helenus and Andromache after the war. The way their excitement at seeing each other again transitions into tension between Aeneas, who believes Helenus is duty-bound to go with him to rebuild Troy, and Helenus, who has put Troy behind him and started a new life, is fantastic. I love how Aeneas seems to think that “You’re a prince of Troy” is the only reason Helenus should need for joining Aeneas on his journey, and how he never seems to fully understand why Helenus turns him down.

Unfortunately, after Aeneas and Helenus parted ways, my enjoyment of the book slowly but steadily declined, to the point where I had to force myself through the last hundred pages. I think the main reason for this is that Atoda’s Aeneas is a pretty empty character. He is “pious Aeneas” but not much else. During the first half of the book, where he acts as our viewpoint character for the events in Troy, he reacts so little to what happens around him that I often forgot he was there. On top of that, it really feels like all of the potentially interesting challenges Aeneas encounters are quickly wrapped up with an “Ah well, I’m sure I did the right thing.” As the story goes on and the more interesting characters are left behind, we enter Atoda’s version of the Latium conflict, where all of the new characters are either completely good or completely evil. It doesn’t help that everyone in this section speaks in such overly polite language that the scene in which Aeneas confesses his love to Lavinia felt to me like some kind of parody. I’ve read a few Japanese reviews of this book and none of them have mentioned this section at all, so it may very well be that it didn’t work for me because I’m not a member of the culture that it was written for – in the author’s note, Atoda does admit that he feels his Aeneas is a modern Japanese man dropped into the ancient world – but I found it pretty tough to get through. (Not that that stopped me from tearing up a little when the last pages of the book started echoing the first pages of the book …)

Although the last hundred pages did diminish my enthusiasm for Shin Toroia Monogatari, overall I did really enjoy it and all the surprises it offered. So far it’s the only Japanese retelling of the Trojan War I’ve found that allows its author some creative license. I’ll keep my eye out for another.

Buy it at: Amazon.co.jp, BookLive (where you can also preview the first fourteen pages in your browser)

February 26, 2017

Ancient Greece and Rome in Tokyo, 2016

While I didn’t do any Trojan War reading in 2016 (a fact both unfortunate and baffling), I did do my best to enjoy the ancient art and artifacts that made their way through Tokyo, where I am currently living. Look below the jump for my photos of and comments about an ancient Greece exhibit at the Tokyo National Museum, a Pompeii wall painting exhibit at the Mori Arts Center Gallery, and a one-woman performance of Greek tragedy at the Akasaka CHANCE Theatre!

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November 27, 2015

Tsukuba’s Daphne Tree

Take exit A3 out of Tsukuba Station in Ibaraki, Japan, walk past the bus loop, climb a flight of stairs and you’ll soon come to what I have taken to calling the Daphne tree.

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November 27, 2015

Ancient Greece at the Royal Ontario Museum

In April of this year, I found myself in Toronto visiting a friend who was kind enough to take me to the Royal Ontario Museum. The museum is one of the largest I’ve yet been to and I’m pretty sure we didn’t even see half of it before our feet started throbbing, but of course the highlights for me were the Gallery of the Bronze Age Aegean and the Gallery of Greece. The ROM, unusual among the museums I’ve visited recently, allows photography in most of its galleries, so I hope you will enjoy my very amateur photos of these priceless works of art.

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November 18, 2015

Heinrich Schliemann at the Ancient Orient Museum

In 2012, when I visited Tokyo’s Ancient Orient Museum (古代オリエント博物館 Kodai Oriento Hakubutsukan) for the first time, I found it to be a small but well-designed museum housing many small artifacts and a few larger replicas. Well, it seems I’m back in Japan, and now that I live much closer I had definitely intended to visit the museum again sometime, but that “sometime” turned to “right away” when I learned they were hosting a special exhibit about everyone’s favourite action hero, Heinrich Schliemann.

Although the exhibit – titled ギリシア考古学の父シュリーマン 初公開!ティリンス遺跡原画の全貌 (translated by the museum as “Father of Greek Archaeology, Heinrich Schliemann; The First Exhibition of Tiryns Original Paintings”) – featured many small items from countries Schliemann visited and excavated in, the focus was 28 original pages from Schliemann and Wilhelm Dörpfeld’s report on the excavations at Tiryns. The pages belong to the Tenri University Sankokan Museum in Nara, which not too long ago announced that they’d confirmed that many of the penciled notes in the margins were written by Schliemann. In all honesty, I found these pages to be a strange thing to build a museum exhibit around and I’m baffled that they’re being sent around the country. These are pages that have been published and are not all that difficult to obtain. I admit I was impressed by the fact that I was standing mere inches from pieces of paper that Heinrich Schliemann himself wrote on (in English! so I could read it and everything!!), but that’s after many hours spent reading about him/watching documentaries about him/watching ridiculous action movies about him. I’m not sure how much interest this exhibit really holds for the more casual Schliemann fan.

Actually, the way the Ancient Orient Museum presented Schliemann was perhaps more interesting to me than the items on display. WOW they are in love with him. The first room of the exhibition showed three short videos on a loop, and in one of them a university professor from Nagoya raves about Schliemann’s genius. Schliemann’s trench is mentioned, but only because it shows his legacy still lives on at Troy; there is no mention of the artifacts it surely destroyed. This is especially odd when a corner of the museum is currently dedicated to tracking the ongoing destruction at Palmyra, accompanied by an upsetting message about how the residents of the 21st Century have failed in our duty to protect it.

A sign near the end of the exhibit started to talk about how not everyone thinks well of Schliemann, but only mentioned that the famous story of his first encounter with the Trojan War might be fiction before veering back to talk about what an amazing man he was. In the whole exhibit there was not a single mention of Frank Calvert, but there was a comic strip near the entrance that told Schliemann’s life story in a colourful manga style (understandably but still strangely focused on his trip to Japan that one time) (I was so upset that I wasn’t allowed to take pictures of it). It was bizarre to visit this exhibit after reading David A. Traill’s Schliemann of Troy, which presents Schliemann as very much less than perfect as both a person and an archaeologist.

Another odd sign was the one stating that the Trojan Horse appears in the Iliad. Come on guys, that’s a rookie mistake.

One other thing I feel I must mention is that this exhibit felt less like a special exhibit and more like an overlay. Every other special exhibit I’ve visited has been in its own part of the museum, separate from the regular exhibits, but maybe the Ancient Orient Museum doesn’t have the space for that? The Schliemann exhibit was mixed right in with their regular exhibit. Their recreation of Schliemann’s hut, for instance, was the same as their recreation of an ancient house, just with different furniture, and their stela and Rosetta Stone replicas were still in their usual spots. My favourite part of all this was the Egypt room, which maybe wasn’t changed at all from its usual arrangement except for the addition of a sign at the entrance that more or less said, “What did Schliemann think of Egypt during his travels there? Let’s look at these artifacts and imagine what he might have thought.”

Overall I found it to be a very strange exhibit and I’m not sure I would recommend it unless you already have a strong interest in the subject. According to the video in this article, the pages will be travelling to Yokohama and Nagoya next year, so keep an eye out if you’re in the area. I admit I’m tempted to visit them in Yokohama just to see how differently they’re presented there.

Visitors to the museum aren’t allowed to take pictures, but you can find a few photos on the exhibit’s official page and the museum’s official Facebook page. Or you can look below the jump for three useless pictures I took of posters!

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July 14, 2015

I’m back!

It was certainly not my intention to abandon this blog for seven months – especially not after posting an average of twice a month last year, a feat of which I was quite proud – but, unfortunately, it seems that’s what I did. My weak excuse is that the time I usually dedicate to Trojan War fangirling was instead spent trying to watch every play in the Shakespeare canon, but now that that’s finished I hope to be posting here again soon.

In the meantime, I thought I’d share a picture I’ve been meaning to share as evidence for my theory that Greek mythology is everywhere. When I was in a tiny town in northern Japan, I lived in a house that was filled with various items that had been left behind by decades of previous English teachers. One day, as I attempted to clear out some of the clutter, wondering which god I had offended that I should be made to live in such a messy house, I reached into a closet and pulled out this:

… the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, or the last thing I would have expected to find in a closet in a tiny town in northern Japan.

On that note!

December 14, 2014

Yukio Ninagawa: “The Greeks” (Screencaps #3)

Following my review of Yukio Ninagawa’s The Greeks, this post contains screencaps from The Gods, which includes “Helen,” “Orestes,” “Andromache” and “Iphigenia in Tauris.” Read on for seventy-two screencaps! Continue reading

December 14, 2014

Yukio Ninagawa: “The Greeks” (Screencaps #2)

Following my review of Yukio Ninagawa’s The Greeks, this post contains screencaps from The Murders, which includes “Hecuba,” “Agamemnon” and “Electra.” Read on for sixty screencaps! Continue reading

December 14, 2014

Yukio Ninagawa: “The Greeks” (Screencaps #1)

Following my review of Yukio Ninagawa’s The Greeks, this post contains screencaps from The War, which includes the prologue, “Iphigenia in Aulis,” “Achilles,” and “The Trojan Women.” Read on for forty-three screencaps! Continue reading

December 14, 2014

Yukio Ninagawa: “The Greeks”

The Greeks

Play
Japanese Title: グリークス (Guriikusu)
Performed: 2000, Japan
DVD Released: 2008
Run Time: 470 minutes (That’s 7 hours and 50 minutes!)
Starring: Mikijiro Hira (Agamemnon), Seiichi Tanabe (Achilles), Kikunosuke Onoe (Orestes), Rei Asami (Andromache), Kayoko Shiraishi (Clytemnestra), Misako Watanabe (Hecuba)

Synopsis: When John Barton and Kenneth Cavander set out to adapt nine Greek tragedies (and the Iliad) into one long play, the result was The Greeks, which tells the story of three families – Agamemnon’s, Achilles’, and Priam’s – over the seventeen years surrounding the Trojan War. The play’s three acts and the tragedies they contain are:

· The War: “Iphigenia in Aulis” (Euripides), “Achilles” (based on Homer’s Iliad), “The Trojan Women” (Euripides)

· The Murders: “Hecuba” (Euripides), “Agamemnon” (Aeschylus), “Electra” (Sophocles)

· The Gods: “Helen,” “Orestes,” “Andromache,” “Iphigenia in Tauris” (all by Euripides)

Director Yukio Ninagawa’s 2000 production of The Greeks, for which he won a Kinokuniya Theatre Award (source), had a principal cast of twenty-seven and was an all-day affair that, with intermissions, ran ten and a half hours (source). This post is about that production’s 2008 three-disc DVD release.

My Thoughts: Apparently I didn’t feel that a Japanese production of Shakespeare was quite obscure enough for this English blog, because today I’m here to post about a fourteen-year-old Japanese production of Greek tragedy. A fourteen-year-old Japanese production of Greek tragedy that’s eight hours long.

Every time I remember that The Greeks exists I am kind of blown away by it. Putting on a performance of it must take so much more work at every level than a regular-sized play. As I understand it, the full play is performed only very rarely, although the individual acts are occasionally performed by themselves. I am extremely glad that at least one full performance has made it onto DVD. Not a word of a lie, this is probably my favourite of the Trojan War-related DVDs that I own. I love that it covers such a long time period and includes so many characters, but keeps a tight enough focus that it all feels like one story. I think Barton and Cavander achieved the tricky balance of staying true to the original plays while cutting, adding, and shuffling just enough to create a cohesive story that’s accessible to audiences who might only be vaguely familiar with Greek mythology. Meanwhile Ninagawa’s production, with its sparse sets and dark colours, emphasizes the brutal world that the characters inhabit.

You can check out my three screencap posts (The War, The Murders, The Gods) for more specific comments, but here are some other general thoughts I have about this production:

· “Achilles,” based on Homer’s Iliad, is the only segment not adapted from an existing play. The first time I watched it, I was impressed by how seamlessly it fits in with the rest; the second time, I realized there are actually two huge differences between it and the other nine plays of The Greeks: not only does it not have any lines for the chorus, but it also has a much smaller female presence than any of the other plays. What’s amazing to me when I say that is that it’s not like “Achilles” doesn’t feature any female characters – Thetis speaks in four scenes and Briseis in one, and for many works even today that would be considered a decent amount. But compared to the rest of the plays in The Greeks, that’s seriously nothing. Smarter people than me have debated the merits of the various female characters in Greek tragedy, but just in terms of number of lines and time spent onstage, I am constantly impressed by how huge these roles are.

· My absolute favourite female character in Ninagawa’s production is Electra, played by Shinobu Terajima. All of the acting in this production is top quality, but Terajima especially throws herself into her character. You can tell by the way she speaks that she holds herself in high esteem and never doubts that she’s right; you can tell by the way she moves and by some of the poses she gets herself into that she’s been living wild for several years. And her facial expressions are all so intense! I really enjoy watching her. It’s also amazing to me to think about The Greeks’ Electra after having read the part in Simon Goldhill’s How to Stage Greek Tragedy Today where actresses talk about how demanding it is to play Sophocles’ Electra. Whoever plays Electra in The Greeks doesn’t just have to play Sophocles’ Electra – an hour later, she has to play Euripides’ Electra in “Orestes,” which may well be just as demanding a role. On top of that, in this production, Terajima occasionally appears as a member of the chorus! And she’s not the only one who appears in multiple segments or plays multiple roles. I really have a huge amount of respect for everyone in this cast. Special mention also to Mikijiro Hira, because I found his Agamemnon surprisingly sympathetic, even when he was doing terrible things.

· One look at almost any of the costumes in this production and you’d know they weren’t striving for historical accuracy. I think they were hoping to evoke an atmosphere of the ancient past, not to recreate a particular era. But things get a little strange sometimes when medieval Japanese or even modern influences slip in – Helen sips a beer and flips through a fashion magazine, Apollo dresses like a character from a kabuki play, the sounds of modern warfare end both “The Trojan Women” and “Orestes.” I don’t dislike these other influences, but I’m not sure why they weren’t used more consistently throughout the whole play. There is one thing about the costumes that I really love, however, and that’s the threads that almost everyone wears, sometimes in their hair, sometimes on their clothing, sometimes dangling from their wrists. Greek characters have red threads and Trojan characters have blue threads, and it does amuse me when everyone is colour-coded, but really I just think they look cool. It’s also interesting to see whose costumes don’t fit this pattern. Helen, for example, never wears anything red or blue at all.

· I love the very fact that The Greeks exists so much that I hesitate to admit there are parts I don’t love … but I do wish there was a bit more to the sets. Ninagawa’s minimalist style is fine in shorter productions, but after eight hours I find I’m pretty tired of staring at the same empty black stage. Some of the tragedies have more set dressing than others, but there are some with hilariously little – I think “Hecuba” only gets a rock. I also don’t love that The Greeks ends with ten minutes of Athena and the chorus discussing the nature of happiness. Maybe my opinion of this will change as I become more familiar with Greek tragedy, because at the moment I’m still not really sure what to make of the chorus. I’m okay with them in all of their other appearances, but as soon as the main characters leave the stage at the end of the last tragedy my desire to watch ten minutes of philosophising definitely takes a hit.

· The above point might lead you to believe that I have watched all three DVDs in a row, but so far I haven’t. I would love to try it one day, if it weren’t for “The Trojan Women.” According to this report from someone who went to the play, following “The Trojan Women” there was a half-hour intermission. I’m not sure a mere thirty minutes would be long enough for me to remember what happiness feels like.

· The Greeks ends with a list of the names of certain Trojan War heroes spoken in unison by the chorus. The last hero named is Diomedes, who neither appears nor is mentioned anywhere else in the play. I’m not sure what Barton and Cavander’s intention with this was, but it always makes me think about how the story of the Trojan War, its beginnings and its aftermath is so huge that even an eight-hour play can only begin to tell it. (You may have noticed that The Greeks doesn’t even include all of the surviving Trojan War tragedies, omitting both Sophocles’ “Ajax” and his “Philoctetes.”) This is not really a comment on The Greeks, but it does remind me that one of the things I love so much about the Trojan War myth is how vast it is.

· I feel like I should apologize for heaping so much praise on something that (I’m rudely assuming) has a language barrier for many of my readers. If you ever have the chance to see a production of The Greeks, I would absolutely recommend it. I definitely see Ninagawa’s production becoming a frequent rewatch for me.

Other Greeks posts: The War screencaps; The Murders screencaps; The Gods screencaps

Buy it at: Amazon.co.jp, CDJapan. Please note that the DVDs are Region 2 and have no subtitles in any language.