Monday 04 October 2004

Saigo Takamori and me

Darryl SomersFor much of my life people have been telling me I look like someone else. Someone famous, that is. Or semi-famous.

Like Darryl Somers, the host of Hey Hey It’s Saturday, a TV variety program that ran on Australian television from 1971 to 1999. I draw some (illusory) comfort from the fact that, according to Google, I’m more “famous” than Darryl Somers (who rates less than 300 hits against my 20,000 plus).

Separate photographs of Jonathon Delacour and Rowan Atkinson as Mr BeanSince February I’ve been meeting each week for a language exchange lesson with a young Japanese woman, Haruka. Recently, when her family came to Sydney for a brief visit and we all had dinner together, Haruka asked her younger sister whether I reminded her of someone famous.

Misutaa biin,” Chigusa replied, without a moment’s hesitation, though Haruka actually had someone else in mind. I hadn’t realized Mr Bean was popular in Japan too.

Enid Blyton's NoddyIn my final year at university, my friends called me Noddy, after the Enid Blyton character who lives in Toyland, drives a little red car, and has a friend called Big Ears.

I actually had a friend called Big Ears (his real name was Greg Gibbons), though I can’t recall whether he acquired his nickname because of mine or vice versa. The following year, when we were sharing a house in Glebe with a couple of other people, he gave me a Noddy hat for my birthday (imagine a floppy blue dunce’s cap, with a gold bell on the end). A girlfriend at the time introduced me to her mother, adding that everyone called me Noddy. “Well, now that you mention it,” her mother replied in a refined British accent, “he does look rather like Noddy.”

Separate photographs of Michael J Pollard and Jonathon DelacourBig Ears was the first person to notice a resemblance between me and Michael J Pollard. Nowadays I doubt that many people will recognize Pollard (in the top photograph) or me—with long hair—in the bottom one. Leonard Maltin describes Pollard as “inexplicably popular, though he never seemed to be playing anyone other than himself,” yet in 1967 both he and Gene Hackman were nominated for the Best Supporting Actor award for their roles in Bonnie and Clyde (George Kennedy won, for playing a brutal chain-gang boss in Cool Hand Luke.)

Pollard’s IMDB biography includes some fascinating pieces of trivia:

In 1966, at the age of 27, Michael Pollard was hired as a guest star on Star Trek, playing “Jahn” in the episode Miri. The script called for an actor 14 years of age, but Pollard got the part anyway since his agent convinced the show’s producers that he looked like a teenager even though he was close to 30.

An early career break occurred when Pollard was brought in as a replacement during the first season of TV’s “Dobie Gillis.” Co-star Bob Denver, who was stealing the show as Dobie’s beatnik buddy Maynard G. Krebs, was going to be drafted into the Army and had to exit the series. When Denver was classified “4-F” due to a longstanding neck injury and returned, Pollard’s character of weird cousin Jerome Krebs was quickly written out.

Leonard Maltin describes Michael J Pollard as “this homuncular, elfin character”. Neither of my electronic dictionaries—The New Oxford Dictionary of English and Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary—had an entry for “homuncular” but offered two (related) meanings:

  1. A diminutive human.
  2. A miniature, fully formed individual believed by adherents of the early biological theory of preformation to be present in the sperm cell.

Statue of Saigō Takamori in Ueno Park, from Ozu's Record of a Tenement GentlemanAt 5’11” (179cm), I’m hardly diminutive, but nor am I as immense as Saigō Takamori (西郷隆盛), whom Haruka had in mind when she asked her sister whether I reminded her of someone famous—and whose statue in Ueno Park features in the final sequence of Ozu’s Record of a Tenement Gentleman (長屋紳士録, Nagaya shinshiroku, 1947), which I saw again last week.

It’s about a widow, Otane (Iida Chōko), who has been tricked by her neighbours, Tashiro (Ryū Chishū) and Tamekichi (Kawamura Reikichi), into looking after a homeless boy and who spends most of the film trying to get rid of him. But when he runs away and then turns up again, she realizes she has come to love him. The boy’s father, who has been searching everywhere, finally comes to claim him so Otane decides to adopt another child. She asks Tashiro, a fortuneteller, where she should look for a boy.

“Weren’t you born in the Year of the Boar?” asks Tashiro.
“Yes,” replies Otane.
“Then you should head in the direction of Hongō or Shitaya,” he tells her.
“If it’s Shitaya, then Ueno is in the same direction,” says Otane.
“Saigō-san’s in Ueno,” adds Tamekichi.
“Look around there and see what you come up with,” advises Tashiro.
“Mmm, that bronze statue of Saigō-san,” says Otane to herself.

1946 news photograph of homeless boys climbing on Saigō's statue in Ueno ParkOzu cuts to Ueno Park, ending the film with—in David Bordwell words—“a sequence that at once pulls the film together and opens it onto a broader referentiality. In six shots, Ozu presents a crowd of homeless boys around the famous statue of Saigō… By returning the 1947 audience to the world that awaits them outside the theater, the film presents practical material to test Otane’s lesson of kindness.” (Bordwell’s book, Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema, includes this news photo from 1946, captioned “Homeless boys climb on statue of Saigō in Ueno Park.”)

The bronze statue of Saigō Takamori, which was erected in Ueno Park in 1898, survived the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, the American firebombing in 1945, and a short-lived decision by the postwar Occupation authorities to demolish it as a symbol of Japanese nationalism and militarism. Saigō, a samurai from the Satsuma domain (now Kagoshima prefecture) in Kyūshū, was a leader in overthrowing the Tokugawa shogunate and establishing the Meiji government in 1867-68. In 1877, disillusioned by the corrupt relationships that the new political establishment had formed with business leaders, Saigō led a rebellion against the central government that ended in his defeat and suicide—events portrayed with laughable inaccuracy in the execrable Tom Cruise vehicle, The Last Samurai.

Saigō’s widow “did not like the statue”, writes Edward Seidensticker in High City, Low City, “Never, she said, had she seen him so poorly dressed”. In the Ueno Park statue Saigō, accompanied by his dog, wears hunting garb; in another statue, in Kagoshima’s Central Park, he is wearing a military uniform.

In The Last Samurai, the Saigō Takamori character, Katsumoto, is played by Watanabe Ken, who matches Saigō’s height, if not his build—for he was anything but “homuncular”. As Ivan Morris explains in The Nobility of Failure, “he would have been an imposing figure in any country, but in nineteenth-century Japan he was a veritable Gargantua”…

Takamori’s physique was inherited from several generations in the Saigō family, his father being a burly man over six feet tall and a powerful sumō wrestler. Takamori is said to have been a huge, wide-eyed baby, and at school he was known for his bulk. As an adult he was just under six feet tall and weighed over two hundred and forty pounds. He had a bull neck (his collar size was 19½ inches) and immensely broad shoulders. People who met him were invariably struck by his large, piercing eyes (the British diplomat Satow described him as having “an eye that sparkled like a big black diamond”) and by the great, bushy eyebrows. A recent biographer adds that he was endowed with huge testicles (idai naru kōgan), though the source of this particular detail is not specified.

My essay in Japanese on Saigo TakamoriI wouldn’t have bothered seeing The Last Samurai had not Haruka suggested “An Interesting Travel Experience” as one our first essay topics. (When we first discussed how to structure our language exchange lessons, I proposed that, in addition to our conversation and reading practice, we should write an essay each week—Haruka’s in English, mine in Japanese—and correct each other’s efforts during the next lesson.)

For her travel essay, Haruka wrote about waking up suddenly on a train in Thailand and, not realizing that the train had been delayed while she was sleeping, getting off at the wrong stop where she met a Thai boy with whom she then had a brief love affair. I wrote about a trip I took by train around Kyūshū in 1997, to take photographs for a web project.

Map of my trip around KyushuI flew into Fukuoka, where I stayed a night, and went to Nagasaki for a couple of days. Then it was on to Kumamoto before heading south through Minamata (where photojournalist W. Eugene Smith had documented the plight of the victims of Minamata Disease who had been poisoned by mercury dumped into the sea by the Chisso Corporation). I spent a few days in Kagoshima whose harbor so strongly resembles Pearl Harbor that it was used by the Imperial Japanese Navy to practise the low-level torpedo bombing upon which the success of the operation depended. I took a side trip to Chiran, to visit the Chiran Tokkō Heiwa Kinenkan (知覧特攻平和記念館), the Special Attack Force (Kamikaze) and Peace Memorial, before traveling down to Ibusuki, at the southern tip of Kyūshū, famed for its sunamushi (sand steam bath). You lie in a hollow scooped out on the beach and a female attendant buries you up to the neck in hot sand—the sunamushi ladies were most impressed that a foreigner lasted nearly 45 minutes! Then I headed north to photograph the hot springs at Ebino Kogen, Mount Aso, and Beppu, before returning home.

On arriving at Kagoshima Station, I’d walked to the Nakazono Ryōkan where I had a reservation. But there was no-one at the front desk.

altTextI called out “Gomen kudasai!” (Hello!/May I come in?).
I heard footsteps. A middle-aged man came down the stairs, took a close look at me, and said, “Ara! Saigō Takamori da!” (Good gracious! It’s Saigō Takamori!)
“Really?” I replied. At that time I’d heard of Saigō but had no idea what he looked like.
“Really,” he said. “There’s a statue of Saigō-san in the Central Park. If you have the time, you should go to see it.”

The next day, when I found the statue, I didn’t see much of a resemblance. But since then various Japanese friends and acquaintances have also admitted that I do look rather like Saigō and who am I to argue? Better to look like Saigō Takamori than Noddy, Darryl Somers, Mr Bean, or Michael J Pollard. Although I can’t match his two hundred and forty pounds, I am just under six feet tall. And while I lack his bull neck and immensely broad shoulders, I do share his cropped hair, large nose, piercing eyes, and bushy eyebrows. And, of course, the huge testicles.

Composite of seven images of Saigo Takamori and one of Jonathon Delacour

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