Sunday 12 September 2004

China Doll

China Doll (Radermachia sinica) in red plastic potI never realized, until I bought a new indoor plant this week, that in England someone with a natural ability in growing plants is said to have “green fingers”. In Australia I’ve only ever heard the American equivalent: “green thumb”. But this morning, while writing an essay in Japanese about my new plant, I found that the entry for gardening (園芸, engei ) in my Kenkyūsha dictionary included:

園芸が上手である be a good gardener; (米) have a green thumb; (英) have green fingers;

米 (bei) and 英 (ei) are the characters used in Japan to refer to America and England respectively; so that 米国 (beikoku) and 米語 (beigo) mean the United States and US English respectively—although アメリカ (amerika) is most commonly used to refer to the country—while 英国 (eikoku) and 英語 (eigo) mean England (or Great Britain) and the English language—similarly, イギリス (igirisu) is commonly used to refer to England.

And sure enough, when I checked my Oxford Dictionary, I found “green thumb” described as the “North American term for green fingers”.

Dead houseplant in ceramic potIn any case, when it comes to having “green fingers” I’m all thumbs. My backyard looks like a jungle but I can kill off an indoor plant faster than most people can say “fertilizer”. I did manage to keep a bamboo tree alive for several years but this photo gives a fair idea of the usual outcome of my horticultural efforts.

I’d been meaning to ask the LazyWeb for advice about which indoor plants might be hardy enough to survive my “care”. But when I found myself walking past the gardening section in K-Mart the other day, I decided to check out their selection and, much to my surprise, immediately found an attractive plant.

China Doll label showing Chinese girl's face in front of a red umbrellaI assumed on the basis of the cute label that China Doll was a brand but it’s actually the popular name for Radermachia/radermachera sinica.

The Burke’s Backyard website (Don Burke is Australia’s most popular TV garden expert) includes China Doll in a list of the ten best pot plants for shade:

China doll (Radermachera sinica) is a Chinese native with glossy, dark green leaves and an elegant growth habit. It does best as a garden plant in the warmer areas of Australia, but also makes an attractive pot plant. China Doll is readily available in 200mm (8”) pots for around $18.95.

That made me feel as though I’d made a good choice, particularly since K-Mart was having a 15% off sale when I bought my China Doll, reducing the AU$12.99 list price to AU$11.04 (that’s about US$7.70).

The results of Google searches for both “china doll” plant and “radermachia sinica” yield a high number of Taiwanese sites, suggesting that the plant is actually native to Taiwan. This site, 石門國小校園植物網, has a page devoted to the plant—including links to ten photographs showing it at various stages of development (in this one it’s grown into a tree two stories tall). The Chinese name is given as 山菜豆. These characters mean “mountain”, “greens/vegetables”, and “beans” respectively and, in Japanese, the first two characters (山菜, sansai) mean “edible wild plants”. (Hopefully, someone who reads Chinese will leave a comment revealing the Chinese pronunciation and meaning.)

Given the experience of this Texas gardener, it appears that my China Doll might have a good chance of survival:

China Doll is often sold as a small indoor plant at many places. This is what happens when you put one in the ground in Zone 9B of southeast Texas! Produces a beautiful tree that is right at home in any landscape, especially tropical or Oriental. It was used quite extensively in southern Florida during the 1930’s but is almost nonexistent in Texas. The binnate leaves having numerous green leaflets are quite distinctive. It would make a beautiful specimen tree. Had I known this it would have been planted in a more prominent place. The tree pictured is about 18 feet in height and still growing. Quite a few years ago it did die back to about 1 foot above the ground when we had an unseasonably cold winter that reached down to 20 degrees F with an ice storm. The tree revived itself by producing 4 new trunks. This winter it went through 5 periods where the temperature reached 27 degrees F and hardly lost a leaf but the trunks are 3.4 to 4 inches in diameter now and more heavily barked than that previous cold winter. Hopefully this will protect it from future bitter cold.

He adds that his China Doll has recently started blooming: “once they open at night the scent is comparable to Night Blooming Jasmine but not as overpowering”. I’m not anticipating that my plant will bloom indoors.

Given the experience of this Alberta gardener, I might be able to prevent my China Doll from growing too tall by turning it into a bonsai plant (though the idea of using China Doll for bonsai seems to have found little favor in the Garden Web Bonsai Forum).

In a lovely post titled Hard Wired for the Aesthetic, Joe Duemer wrote:

I spent the better part of three hours this afternoon making like an elderly Asian gentleman, repotting & trimming my “bonsai” collection. The first edge of fall has transformed the air. It is dryer & cooler, but the sun is still warm & many plants still insist on putting out last spurts of growth. The new lawn, planted from seed at mid-summer, is still green & lush.

When I was living in Vietnam several years ago, the bedroom window of my apartment overlooked the rooftop of an adjoining building, on which a fairly extensive garden, grown in containers, flourished. Space is tight Hanoi & the population density is high, but the Vietnamese are a nation of gardeners & even in the cities they find a way to nurture plants. My desk was situated in front of that window overlooking the neighboring building & I enjoyed watching while, most evenings, an older man came out onto the roof & did a combination of calisthenics & Tai Che, then tended to his plants. I did not feel I was intruding on his privacy—rooftops in Hanoi are semi-public spaces—but I was clearly watching a meditative practice. A practice based on an aesthetic view of the world, not an instrumental view.

I’ve always seen my inability to nurture indoor plants as a character flaw: although I’ve never experienced any difficulty in taking care of a cat, I guess—as Joe’s post suggests—a plant requires a different kind of attention. In the space of a few days I’ve become quite fond of the China Doll so, hopefully, I’ll figure out (or it will teach me) how to care for it properly.

China Doll (Radermachia sinica) in ceramic pot

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Friday 24 September 2004

Tokyo Story

After seeing Tokyo Story (東京物語, 1953) at the UW-Madison campus film society’s Ozu retrospective, the Bookish Gardener asked (rhetorically): “Is it the greatest Japanese film ever made? Is it the greatest film ever made?”

Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane is often cited as “the greatest film ever made”, although it’s not a film that I particularly admire. Even though Tokyo Story is generally acknowledged as Ozu’s masterpiece, it’s never been my favorite. I’ve always liked Late Spring (晩春, 1949) best of all and I have a soft spot for The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice (お茶漬の味,1951) even though, as Ozu himself admitted, “this film wasn’t very well made.”

But I saw Tokyo Story again at the Chauvel Cinema on Monday night—on a double bill with Passing Fancy ( 出来ごごろ, 1933)—and was overwhelmed. This was perhaps the seventh or eighth time I’d seen Tokyo Story—I watched it on DVD earlier this year—and yet, for reasons I don’t understand, I felt as though I was seeing the film for the first time.

The tracking shot in Ueno Park in Ozu's Tokyo StoryOne thing, in particular, astonished me: a tracking shot along a wall that reveals the elderly couple, Tomi and Shukichi, sitting on the grass eating their lunch. They’d come to Tokyo to visit their son and daughter, Shige and Koichi, who are not only too busy with their own lives to spend time with their parents but are finally reluctant to provide them with a place to sleep.

In the scene preceding the tracking shot, the mother, Tomi, decides to stay with Noriko, the widow of their son who was killed in the war, while Shukichi elects to visit an old army friend, saying with a wry smile: “I’ll go see the Hattoris. And I’ll stay there if I can. Let’s go out, anyway. We’re really homeless now.”

“Why had I never noticed that tracking shot?” I asked myself. Or why didn’t I remember it from earlier viewings?

The following morning, on my way out, I plucked David Desser’s Ozu’s Tokyo Story off the bookshelf. Two of the reviews reprinted in the book mention this tracking shot: one obliquely, the other directly. The British director, Lindsay Anderson, notes:

In Tokyo Story, the camera moves only three times from the beginning to the end of the picture, and then with the most gentle discretion; an in this film particularly, the whole concept of “pace” (with which, significantly, Western film-makers are so apt to be obsessed) is ont so much different from ours as irrelevant.

Stanley Kauffmann writes about:

the camera moving slowly past a pavilion in a Tokyo park until, around the corner, we see, again from behind, the old couple seated, eating their lunch—a moment of inexplicable, deep poignancy.

One of the book’s five essays, Ozu’s Mother by Darrell William Davis, discusses the tracking shot in detail:

In a new location, a rare, exterior tracking shot shows the old couple resting on a curb at a temple and reflecting on “how vast Tokyo is” and “we would never meet again if we got lost.” Here the two old people go their separate ways. In a subsequent scene Tomi recalls this was Ueno Park, the site of Kan’eiji, the family temple of the Tokugawa. The Tokugawa name is synonymous with the shogunate, its two-and-a-half-century feudal reign, and Edo (the pre-Meiji name for Tokyo), which owes its existence to the Tokugawa. Formerly “the abode of foxes,” then coming to mark the graveyard of the Tokugawa hegemons, Ueno in the twentieth century served as habitat for the postwar homeless, particularly for migrant laborers from the North (and more recently from Iran) who arrived in Ueno station with no place to go…

The metonymic and retrospective use of Ueno Park is an in-joke based on a simple attribution. We accept it as Ueno Park because it has been so designated by Tomi after the fact, not because it has been specially announced. Instead, it is obliquely hinted at by the reference to homelessness and by the almost surreptitious tracking shot.

Wall topped with funerary markers in Ueno ParkMuch of this strikes me critical oneupmanship, a desire to discover formal or stylistic meanings in the film that have gone unrecognized by other critics. I don’t recall seeing Tomi refer to Ueno Park in “a subsequent scene”; nor could I find that piece of dialog in either the English version of the screenplay translated by Donald Richie and Eric Klestadt—I’ve yet to check the Japanese version in the second volume of Ozu’s Complete Works (小津安二郎全集). Perhaps Ozu associated Ueno Park with homelessness but it’s equally probable that he recalled a beautiful stone wall topped with funerary markers, realizing that he could use it to reveal his elderly couple (and perhaps prefigure Tomi’s death).

What is significant (and miraculous) about this tracking shot is its emotional power, its ability to evoke (in Kauffman’s words) “a moment of inexplicable, deep poignancy”, a purely cinematic moment that immediately had my face glistening with tears.

I’ll be curious, when I watch Tokyo Story again on DVD, to see whether the film (and that particular shot) has the same effect. For all the wonders of DVD—and these days I spend a lot of my spare time watching Japanese movies on DVD—seeing Tokyo Story at the cinema, as part of an audience in a huge darkened space (as Ozu intended), has made me wonder about the extent to which watching movies on a television screen negates the intent of the director, crew, and cast (at least for films which were made in the years before television became popular).

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