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Author:
• Sunday, May 27th, 2012

Kanegae Hideyoshi was born in Harbin, China in 1926 and his pen-name was Mitsugu Saotome. He studied at Keio University’s Literature Department but left before obtaining a degree.

In 1954, Yamamoto Shugoro, the popular Japanese novelist and short-story writer, accepted to be Saotome’s mentor.

Before writing novels about the Japanese Warring States period from the pre-modern to modern times (1868 to 1912), he was publishing period fiction and historical stories in journals.

In 1968 Mitsugu Saotome was awarded the prestigious Naoki Prize for his novel Kyojin No Ori (The Cage Of The Traveller) and in 2006 he was elected chairman of the Japanese P.E.N..

Saotome is well known as a writer of Japanese historical fiction. He claimed that this interest derived from the fact that he was descended from a Samurai of the Aizu-Wakamatsu domain and therefore he had a special affection for Aizu-Wakamatsu, the land of his ancestors.

He was a prolific writer, his novels are very popular in Japan and several of them have been adapted into feature films and television series. Okei was first published in Japan in 1974 and was translated into English in 2008. Unfortunately, Okei seems to be the only novel of all his work which has been translated into English.

Mitsugu Saotome died in 2008 of stomach cancer in the city of Kamakura in Kanagawa prefecture, Japan.

The epic story of Okei is set in the second half of the nineteenth century, in the mountainous town of Aizu-Wakamatsu, during a turbulent internal bloody period of Japanese history. It’s the transitional period between the end of the feudal shogunate, from 1853 to 1867, and the restoration of the Meiji era which lasted from 1868 to 1912.

The shogun had a very strong military power in Japan which relegated the power of the emperor to solely being a religious and political leader. The word Meiji means enlightened rule, which had as its target the combination of Western progress with Eastern established values. The Meiji era saw the disappearance of the Keio period and with it the city of Edo which became the “Eastern Capital” Tokyo and replaced the ancient capital, Kyoto, located in the western part of the country.

Okei, the main character of the novel and the one that stands out against all the others, is a teenage-peasant cooper’s daughter, who despite very strict rules, with class distinctions rigorously enforced, plus the Samurai complex code of honour, falls passionately in love with the young Samurai, Sasanuma Kingo. Her ardent flame isn’t shared by Kingo, being himself in love with Yukiko, the widow of the senior councillor, Jinbo Shuri, who had taken his own life by committing Seppuku (Harakiri) in order to wash his shame, as was the tradition among Samurai when they displeased their master.

The author describes how throughout centuries people had established connections and loyalties to the local feudal lord because his defeat meant the defeat of his clan and how the long established code of manners, loyalties and obedience started to fade from Japanese society and was replaced by new values. Aizu has lived three hundred years of peace before the Westerners violated the eastern land and were hated for it.

Okei, whose character is well developed in the novel, lived a short but intense life. In fact, her forlorn life and death are tragic. She matures too soon due to circumstances which she can’t fathom most of the time. The innocent, hard working, romantic girl becomes more reasonable and acquiescent to harsh reality. She is nearly raped by Edward Schnell when she is asleep in his warehouse loft. Luckily, Henry Schnell, Edward’s elder and wiser brother, who is nearby, comes to the rescue. The two Dutch brothers, Henry and Edward are suppliers of up-to-date arms and canons to the western Japanese. They have dissimilar characters, Edward is frivolous, liking to use Japanese women for his pleasure only and thinks little of them, while Henry is more level-headed, respects them and marries one of them, the widow, Matsuno.

Throughout her life, Okei has to re-adapt. Whether it is due to the war and the starting of a new era in Japan and with it the change of mentalities and new codes, or the emigration to the new world for survival. She has to learn to readjust, like her compatriots, to the American culture in Coloma, California, the El Dorado country, where the big Gold Rush took place from 1848 to 1855, fourteen years before Okei and her rural community arrived in the area.

Until her last breath, Okei was longing to go back to her home in Aizu but realised that her feet took her where she had to be buried, at the site of the old settlement, on top of Gold Hill colony in California.

If only she hadn’t murdered an imperial army officer, in panic, fear and in self defence and especially after the Crane Castle had fallen. She was certain that her deed would be considered a crime rather than an act of war and that is why she could never go back to her beloved Aizu. She realised and accepted that she had to submit to her fate and to the fact that the so far trustworthy, Henry and his wife, who was her mistress and friend, left California for Japan without ever keeping contact with her which is a big disappointment for Okei and a betrayal of the trust she had for them.

Touching in parts, violent and bloody in others, it’s a well documented novel with abundant action. A very colourful epic with vividly intense historical details. A good insight into Japanese and American history of the time.

 

 


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Author:
• Saturday, October 29th, 2011

Alaa El Aswany was born in Egypt in 1957, the only child of an ex aristocratic mother and a well known father from Aswan, in Upper Egypt. His father, Abbas, who received the Egyptian state award for literature in 1972, was a lawyer before becoming a novelist.

Alaa Al Aswany studied in a French private school in Cairo, Le Lycée Français du Caire, which was followed by a Cairo University dentistry degree in 1980 and a Masters degree in 1985 from the University of Illinois in Chicago, where he spent 17 years before returning to live in Egypt. Today he still lives in Cairo with his second wife and three children.

Alaa El Aswany is one of the founding members of the political democratic opposition movement, Kefaya (Enough), meaning enough of president Mubarak’s undemocratic, oppressive regime and its corruption. The movement was founded in 2004.

In 2010 El Aswany was named one of the 500 most influential Muslims for arts and culture. He was also nominated for the prestigious 2010 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for his novel Chicago, published in 2007.

Born Muslim, El Aswany is a secular and free thinker. He has written many articles for Egyptian newspapers on political issues, social matters and literature.

Alaa El Aswany had his dental clinic in the Yacoubian building, in the centre of Cairo, but departed 15 years before writing his fictitious novel about the building. He still practises dentistry twice a week in his clinic in the Garden City district of Cairo, in order to stay in touch with people and have discussions with them, which, he says, is very important to him and helps in his writing since he treats patients as a professional dentist but writes about them as a novelist.

The Yacoubian building was first published by a small, private publisher in Cairo in 2002, after being rejected three times by the Egyptian Book Organisation, the omnipotent state-run publishers controlled by president Mubarak’s regime, because of its perceived controversial content.

The novel was translated into 27 languages and became a best seller in the Arab world. In 2006 it was made into a film with the biggest budget ever for an Egyptian film and in 2007 was made into a television series.

The Yacoubian building, constructed in 1934 in downtown Cairo by the Armenian millionaire Hagop Yacoubian, was an architectural paragon of its time. Unfortunately, after years of neglect and lack of renovation, the condition of the building declined.

It is early 1990 when the story begins. The author describes the everyday life of the people who live in the building. Whether these tenants are wealthy, nouveau-riche or poor, they all share the same struggle to survive and the suffering and hardship they are enduring at the hands of the current Egyptian regime.

Most of them have in common the same obsession for sex and decadence, just like the deteriorating building they live or work in, the corrupted leader they have and the iniquitous government that governs them. The run-down building is a metaphor for the state of the country.

There is the well-to-do, 65-year old, retired Francophile engineer, Zaki Bey Dessouki, the self confessed, “scientist of women” who belongs to the aristocracy of a bygone era, the good old days which his sister Dawlat feels very dissatisfied and angry to have lost and consequently gone with it her two children who emigrated. She becomes bitter and takes it all out on her only brother.

Then there is the rich, middle aged, homosexual, successful newspaper editor, Hatim Rasheed, who couldn’t control his sexual urges for the young, illiterate, Abd Rabo, an upper Egyptian peasant, and police recruit, who will prove to be fatal for him.

And there’s another character, the ambitious nouveau-riche countryman, the old Hagg Mohamed Azzam, who wants to be part of the Egyptian parliament in order to gain power and prestige, even if he has to pay a huge bribe. He discovers that he has uncontrollable sexual needs that his old wife could no longer satisfy and has to marry a second wife, the young Soad who becomes his victim.

Also not forgetting the dirty old, chain of boutiques owner, the rich, Talal Chanane and his young lady workers and sex sufferers, Fifi and Boussaïna, nor the corrupted Malak, who earns his living not only as a shirtmaker but also in the commerce of currencies, alcohol, contraband and anything that brings in money, including blackmail.

There is also the young, Taha El Shazli, the son of the building’s caretaker. He is a bright student who’s dream is to join the police academy and marry his childhood girlfriend and neighbour, Boussaïna. His dream is shattered when he is refused entrance to the police academy because of his father’s profession. Saddened and dismayed after realising that money and contacts in the right place count for more than good grades and perseverance, he becomes bitter and cynical and consequently loses Boussaïna for good. He enrolls at Cairo university and, through one of the students, joins a militant Islamic group and dies a martyr in an organised assault on a senior prison officer who was behind his torture and humiliation while he was jailed. With nothing to live for, and therefore nothing to lose, he died more out of revenge, deceit and loss of hope in the whole Egyptian system than for his Islamic belief.

A contrasting array of characters from dissimilar backgrounds, each one with a different life-style and morals, but all of them seeking a better life. They all inhabit the same building without ever encountering one another, each living in his own world, preoccupied with his own problems.

The characters and the seedy building, which is undoubtedly the main focus of the story, as the main title implies and which still exists in the centre of Cairo, are well developed and quite realistic.

The novel conveys a bleak picture of a contemporary Egypt that lost its bearings, but the ending gives a shy ray of hope for the future. A very interesting, good novel if it was not for the several explicit sex passages which belittle the novel’s many serious themes.