Monday, November 30, 2009

Cherry Blossoms and the Butoh Dance

The emotional impact of any story can largely depend on our own life experiences, and where we now stand along that unfolding journey.  A recent German film, "Cherry Blossoms," besides its good acting and visual gems, has some powerful themes that will be useful to discuss from a story writing viewpoint.

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Here is a summary of our film story to facilitate the discussion.  A married couple lives in a small German town, and the man is nearing retirement from his civil service office job.  Trudi's doctors reveal the results of her recent medical exam; she has a fatal illness.  They suggest she break the news gently to her husband, perhaps while they go on an adventure together, a change of scenery.  Trudi is very dejected; she tells them Rudi doesn't like changes, or travel.  Nonetheless, she coaxes Rudi to take a vacation with her to visit their three adult children.  Trudi had studied Japanese Butoh dancing before marrying, and would love now to visit their youngest son, Karl, who lives and works in Tokyo.  However, not knowing of her illness, Rudi protests that it would be cheaper for Karl to come here, and so they go instead to visit their other son and daughter in Berlin.  The visit is unexpected and their son and his family have little time to entertain the parents, nor does the daughter.  The daughter's lesbian partner is persuaded to drive the parents around town for their sightseeing, and to a Butoh dance performance. The expressionistic dance intertwines graceful movements with the grotesgue, the light and shadows of coming into being, and the ceasing to exist.  Rudi, who has no taste for Butoh, sits on a bench outside the performance area.

The parents soon decide their busy children have no time for them, and leave Berlin to visit a lake resort.  While there, Trudi dies, and Rudi is plunged into despair.  He has depended on his wife all his married life for his happiness.  The children return to their parents' home for the funeral.  They have a dubious, even distasteful, expectation for Rudi's ability to fend for himself without their mother, and are fearful that he will become dependent on them.  After some reflection on the Butoh keepsakes and Japanese travel literature his wife had left behind, Rudi travels to Japan to visit Karl, and to come to terms with his loss of Trudi.  Like his siblings, Karl is busy with his work and wary of his father's despondent and dependent-like intrusion into his life.  Rudi wanders the seamy side of Tokyo, in and out of strip joints, massage parlors, but all in grief.  Often he wears his wife's clothing beneath his topcoat.  Rudi overhears Karl on the telephone with his sister describing his wanderings and cross-dressing, and complaining that it is her turn to be a host to their father.  The next day Rudi wanders into a park, where he watches a young Butoh dancer perform in a remote, sylvan setting.  He starts a conversation with her, and she tells him how Butoh helps her keep contact with her deceased mother.  Rudi returns to the park each day to watch her dance, and she befriends him and helps him find his way around Tokyo.  One day he follows her home, to discover she lives in a tent in a wooded outskirt of the city.

Rudi asks the girl to accompany him to visit Mt. Fuji, the long cherished ambition of Trudi.  The girl cautions him that Mt. Fuji is very shy, and is often lost to misty cover for days at a time.  They go and stay together at a resort near Mt. Fuji, and indeed, one day leads to another as the mountain stays hidden in mists.  During this time in the resort their friendship deepens; he shows her his wife's clothing which he carries in his luggage, along with the momentoes of her Butoh period.  After some days at the resort, however, Rudi becomes weaker, and grows ill.  One night he steals outside and discovers that the mists have risen to reveal Mt. Fuji in the moonlight.  He quickly dresses in his wife's kimono and Butoh makeup, and he hurries to the side of a lake beneath the mountain.  There, he dances his own interpretation of the Butoh, and is joined in the dance by an apparition of his wife.  The next morning the girl awakens to find Rudi gone and hurries to find him dead by the lakeside.  Returning to their room, she finds he has left her a large amount of money in an envelope.  Together, she and Karl participate in the cremation ceremony for Rudi, and afterward each walks off on their own into the city.

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The story has some very good, universal problems that help generate story tensions: growing old; a dependency by one spouse on the other for psychic happiness; a reversal of dependency issues or perceptions of such, between parents and children; and the need for symbols and ritual that satisfy our deep yearning for a spiritual dimension of life.  The use of dance as a ritual form portraying a spiritual dimension of life, particularly the Buhto dance, has a profoundly satisfying appeal.  The symbol of the whitened face mask of Buhto, creating an impassive persona for the dancer, from a coming into being, to a ceasing to exist, is so mesmerizing and beautiful.

The Buhto dance seems to signify the persona and mythology of the Hindu god, Kali, to my mind.  I'd been thinking of additional revisions for one of my short stories, concerning a mountain climbing expedition by an American couple in the Karakorum Mountains, on the borders between India, Pakistan, and China.  In my story it's a minor peak, of religous significance to devotees of Kali, and had included a real or imagined Kali dance sequence at a story resolution point.  At the least, Cherry Blossoms will be a source of further inspiration.  I'll probably revisit the short story in a later blog.
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