“Kogun” and More Japanese Stragglers

It just came up in a conversation with one of my friends, a Japanese jazz musician, that pianist, composer, and big-band leader Toshiko Akiyoshi, wrote a tribute to the Japanese stragglers Hiroo Onoda and Shoichi Yokoi in her piece, “Kyogun” (roughly translating to “solitary soldier”), in her 1974 album of the same name.

(Of course I’m very interested to learn about this piece as I work on my dissertation)

Video below:

Here are her thoughts on the work from and interview for the Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Project conducted by Dr. Anthony Brown on June 29, 2008 (apologies for the format, the Smithsonian transcribes these interviews verbatim, with all of the “ums” and “ers,” and, of course, all hyperlinks are my additions):

You know, sometimes the little things have to be triggers… he was talking about … how proud Duke was of being a black American, and his music [was] based on his race, a lot of ’em, you know: “Black Butterfly,” what have you, “Black and Beige [Tan] Fantasy,” so on, … And that triggered me to, I should look [at] my heritage, ’cause … the normal belief in Japan was, to be Japanese and play jazz was a handicap. That’s the way, that was the normal thinking… [When] I read it I said, “Well, I’m a jazz player; I’ve been playing since I was sixteen years old… I’m not a bad player, I have probably more experience than a lot of young American players, but I have a different heritage.” … Maybe I could try to infuse something; maybe that would be my job.

So, that’s what triggered me, and at the same time, there was a Japanese soldier was discovered in the Philippine jungle. It was nearly thirty years, he didn’t know the war was ended. In fact, I think he has written a book—it’s a very interesting book. But anyway—Lt. Onoda, Second Lieutenant Onoda [Hiro]—and I was writing for the flute piece…. and also at the same time, my father was a student of noh play…he was a student of tsuzumi, which is a Japanese four-headed [drum]. And I always liked the sound, you know. Actually, I like all drums, I guess, but I really liked that sound, and I was thinking it’d be really nice to use that … so I had a tape sent from Japan. This was like a demonstration tape, a demonstration tape for the tsuzumi playing. And they have all kinds of ways of playing; this was the Kanze [-ryū] style of playing [chuckles]. Noh players… It took me … boy, ten years to put them together in one segment… And that was “Kogun”…

At 80 years old, Akiyoshi may have been misremembering things a bit, since I’m not sure that the timeline she suggests quite works out. Yokoi surrendered in January 1972, and Onoda March 1974 (though he was first contacted in February of the same year). Since “Kogun” was released (in Japan) in April 1974. So it seems more likely that Akiyoshi was inspired by Yokoi’s story, not Onoda’s (although she might just have an extremely fast turnaround time in composing), and it seems like it couldn’t have been ten years that she worked with the noh drummers (unless she’s referring to something else taking ten years to “put together”).

Nit-picking aside, it’s a great piece, and a fantastic performance by Akiyoshi’s husband and flutist Lew Tabackin.

Beautiful Mishearings – Guest Post

I’ve just gotten back from a hugely enriching week of supporting several amazing people in creating an opportunity for high-school and junior-high-school students of tsunami-stricken areas of Japan.

Check back here later this month for more details about that experience, but, in the meantime, I’d like to share the first of hopefully many guest posts by Katherine Hollander, librettist for my upcoming opera, “A Lawn in the Sky.” She’s kindly offered to share her thoughts about her experiences in this creative project, and, in the first of these posts, below, she writes about how the working title of the opera came about:


Beautiful Mishearings: How This Opera Got its (Working) Title

In the mid-eighties, so the story goes, the young playwright Tony Kushner was visiting an installation honoring the work of the great choreographer, Agnes de Mille. A video recording of de Mille was playing; she was describing a dance piece she had created, and Kushner heard her say the name of the piece was “A Bright Room Called Day.” But that wasn’t the name of the piece. The name of the piece was “A Bridegroom Called Death.”

Somewhere in that mishearing was a particular magical slippage, a conflation and resonance. Kushner took the name “A Bright Room Called Day” and gave it to a play he was working on—a funny, poignant, sometimes ghoulish little tale about myopic but good-hearted dissidents in the early years of the Third Reich. (I say “little” with real affection for the work, and because Kushner’s other plays are so enormous and overflowing that “Bright Room” feels as intricate and manageable and miniature as a dollhouse by comparison.) Within the cozy and intimate artificiality of the title (which mirrors feel of the apartment in which the play unfolds) stalks the darker image of de Mille’s fatal bridegroom—and death and the devil do, in fact, haunt the play. I always admired the nesting dolls of meaning contained in the title and illuminated by the anecdote.

I can’t claim to do much at the level of this very great playwright, except, perhaps—as all of us do—to mishear. And the story about Kushner taught me to seize on these mishearings and use them for all they’re worth.

A few years ago, when I was living in Madison, Wisconsin (far from my beloved New England), my friend the singer-songwriter Rose Polenzani came and played a show at the coffee house and performance space Mother Fool’s. I’d always loved Rose’s music, and I found her stage presence profoundly compelling. After she had performed a few songs I knew, she began a moody, raw, but delicate tune that had me almost immediately near tears. It seemed to speak so much to the feeling of being askew, out of joint, choosing to be in one place, longing to be in another. The song gathered speed and force and began to circle around a refrain that conjured a strange and beautiful image: “A lawn in the sky,” I thought I heard Rose singing, “a lawn in the sky.” That lawn in the sky—isolated, lonely, and magical; safe, misanthropic and monkish; damaging and therapeutic all at once—seemed to be both where I wanted to be and where I already was.


Of course, Rose wasn’t singing “A lawn in the sky.” But the image stayed with me, and finally, quite a few years later, when Rose released an album that included this masterful song, and I learned its real name: “The Lawn and The Sky.” The central image in Rose’s song is a swing; the speaker seesaws between seeing the grass below and the heavens above. The song still gives me goosebumps—but the image of a lawn in the sky, it turned out, was my own, and mine to keep.

By this point, Simon and I had been working on our opera for some time. The lyrics I really needed to provide were for our protagonist, the straggler soldier who has finally realized that his belief that he is still at war is utterly false. I wanted to find a way for him to express the enormous let-down this realization represents; I also wanted to show him looking at the life he has lived—not from his usual view inside it, but from his new position of being outside it. It occurred to me that the image of the lawn in the sky was the way in.
A lawn in the sky is an impossibility. There is something diminutive and playful about it; it belongs to childhood. But it isn’t real. It’s a game that is over. As our hero sings, “But the lawn was an island. The sky/was the sea. The stars were far/ distant from me.” After I realized the centrality of the image, the words for the aria “A Lawn in the Sky” came to me quite quickly, in a kind of half-overwhelming trance. I knew right away that, for me, “A Lawn in the Sky” was the heart of the opera.

Months later, Simon wrote to me to say that he wanted to move the aria to a more privileged position, to make it more important to the piece as a whole. I agreed. Before we knew it, the aria had given its name to the opera.

I think Rose’s raw, eloquent swinging—her “The Lawn and The Sky”—haunts my “A Lawn in the Sky” in something akin to the way de Mille’s bridegroom haunts Kushner’s bright room. My own feelings of self-imposed exile are there, too, faintly. Another set of nesting dolls, not as magical or powerful as Kushner’s, to be sure, but there nonetheless.

I’m learning that an opera itself can be a lawn in the sky—an artificial, magical, impossible space where we witness hauntings and unfoldings that might resonate with our own. And that might, perhaps, even result in a few new beautiful mishearings.