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!

A Journey to the Land of Immortals: Treasures of Ancient Greece
(Tokyo National Museum, Ueno Park)

Ueno Park is one of my favourite places in Tokyo, mainly because it is home to something like seven museums, all within very easy walking distance of each other. My fourth visit to the Tokyo National Museum came when I went to check out this exhibit on the first day I was able to.

As you might guess from the exhibit web site (slightly updated to reflect the fact that the exhibit is now in Kobe), this was a very fashionably designed tour through the eras of ancient Greece. Each room was decorated to match its subject matter – for example, you entered the Mycenaean Civilization room through a door topped with the Lion Gate decoration. The first room of the exhibit was especially nicely done – bright blue and white ending with a beaded curtain cut as though to imitate curving ocean waves. Another room that left an impression on me was a smaller, dark room in the Macedonia section that featured a golden crown of leaves with a spotlight shining directly onto it. I had never realized how much something like that would sparkle!

Tokyo will be hosting the Summer Olympics in 2020, which may or may not be a reason why the room about the ancient Olympics was so busy. I skipped most of that room both because of the crowd and because the reenactments they had playing on screens above the artifacts were painfully cheesy (and oddly sparsely populated).

Along with the exhibit web site, you can look at this English description from the exhibit’s stay in Tokyo. The Tokyo National Museum is made up of several buildings; below are three photos I took on the approach to the building this exhibit was displayed in:

The taglines on the poster, from left to right:

“The myths are alive.”

“The beginning of everything, the land of mythology, Greece.”

“Supremely beautiful.”

And here’s a map of the exhibit, kindly provided in English:

(The shop mentioned on the map was selling this Iliad-themed pencil for a shocking 700 yen.)


La Pittura Parietale Romana a Pompei
(Mori Arts Center Gallery, Roppongi Hills)

This exhibit’s sole focus was wall paintings from Pompeii and Herculaneum. An exhibit featuring nothing but wall paintings sounded a little dry to me, so I almost didn’t go. That would have really been a tragedy! There was a great variety of paintings in the exhibit and they were displayed very well. Two rooms stand out in my memory. One featured a set of three large paintings, one on each wall as they would have originally been displayed, with this painting of Poseidon and Amymone as the focal point. Another had three huge and well preserved paintings standing in an imposing row: this painting of Hercules, this painting of Theseus, and this painting of Achilles and Chiron. (The photo links are from this article.) Seeing such large works of art from the ancient world in such excellent condition left a huge impression on me and sparked an ancient Rome obsession that lasted the whole summer.

Also – and maybe this is weird – there is something about the way Theseus’s left hand is drawn that made me want to stare at it forever.

The web site for this exhibit has been deleted, so I will link you instead to the Mori Arts Center Gallery web site. Below are two photos I took on the approach to the museum:

The only room in the exhibit where photos were allowed:

And my ticket and guide, kindly provided in English:

Note that the museum is located on the fifty-second floor!! That these irreplaceable artifacts were on display on the fifty-second floor in a country prone to earthquakes is something I am not going to think about.


One-Woman Greek Tragedy: The Libation Bearers
(Akasaka CHANCE Theatre, Akasaka)

I’d been wanting to see a live performance of a Greek tragedy for years, so I was pretty stoked when I came across this article announcing a one-woman performance of Aeschylus’s The Libation Bearers. How fantastic is my luck that my first live Greek tragedy was one of the ones about the House of Atreus!

The theatre was small – the audience of about forty people sat on mismatched chairs and wooden bleachers – and the production clearly had a limited budget, but the staff were super nice and welcoming and there were a lot of little touches that I really enjoyed. Futaba Sato not only performed the play by herself, she’d also done her own translation, and she even played the lyre at a couple different points in the show. (I’d maybe never heard a lyre before?! It was beautiful!) She began the seventy-minute show with an explanation about Greek tragedy and the play’s backstory. One very nice touch was that she and the staff had prepared libations for everyone in the theatre to drink before she began the performance of the play itself. She said they were a mixture of milk, honey, and grape juice (because she didn’t know if everyone in the audience would be able to drink wine), and joked that it tasted like the Japanese soft drink Calpis. (I love Calpis and it totally did.)

Sato performed the different roles in the play with the help of masks that she could take off the back wall and hold beside her face, but even when she didn’t use them she was able to differentiate the characters enough that it was always clear who she was portraying. I was very impressed with how much she was able to do with so few props (the lyre, the masks, the layers of her costume), a few lighting changes and a staff member beating a drum backstage. She was so calm during the opening talk and so intense in the final moments of the play and in both cases I was amazed by her dedication to her craft. I am very pleased that my first live Greek tragedy felt so special and intimate.

The article I linked above features a photo of Sato holding her Clytemnestra mask. You can also visit her web site or her Twitter. At the time I’m writing this, it looks like her next performance will be a one-woman Agamemnon in Shinjuku.

Below is a photo I took of the poster outside the theatre. The tagline over the broken vase reads “Justice and justice tear apart the destiny of a family.”

These postcards were handed out to everyone who had reserved their ticket in advance:

At Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples in Japan, you can pay 100 yen in exchange for a fortune. Before Sato’s performance, a staff member wearing a laurel wreath went through the audience offering the same kind of thing, only all of the fortunes were quotes from Greek tragedies! Here’s mine folded up as it was when I chose it out of the basket:

Nearly everyone in the audience bought one, and I genuinely loved being surrounded by people all eagerly unfolding their fortune to see what piece of 2,500-year-old wisdom they had received.

My quote is from Euripides’ Heracles, and this translation renders it into English as:

“Winds vary in force from moment to moment and so do the winds of human misery.
Eventually their force, too, subsides.”

And on that note!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: