Episode 028: Operating on Guan Yu's Arm
In which we discuss OG anime, board games, and sweeping epics
My stepson watches anime. A lot of it. Which means I’ve been watching anime.
Demon Slayer. So much fun.
And some things really do stay the same: it’s just like I remember when I watched the classic anime Speed Racer as a kid.
****SPOILER ALERT: I still haven’t gotten over the fact that Racer X was Speed’s brother.
Anyway, this foray sent me down a bit of a Japanese art rabbit hole. Started with the classics: old Zen scrolls, tea ceremonies, samurai, wood blocks.
I knew about Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa of course—it’s been on everything from calendars to journals to kitchen towels. But reading further into it, I learned that his daughter Katsushika Ōi was also a fantastic artist who, along with her own important output, may be behind some of her father’s great work!
Operating on Guan Yu’s Arm, completed in 1857, is Katsushika Ōi’s largest work and hangs in the Cleveland Museum of Art.
I am drawn to any ekphrastic art, and this painting is a great example of that. It’s based on a scene from the 14th-century Chinese historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which I have not read but now certainly must.
THE THING that I had to get right in this one was the blood. I mean, yes, lots of people in the painting and great colors and very hip perspective, all of that…but they are cutting into this dude’s arm while he is calmly playing go.
The surgeon's assistant is catching the blood streaming into a pan. Good lord!
So: the incision in the arm, the blood dripping, and the pan. Three levels of blood.
Back to the nonchalant board game… It was very difficult for me to not jam in the cat playing go against Guan Yu…he ultimately made it, but the board was axed somewhere around the third or fourth round of edits.
Finally, the original is not on canvas but instead a hanging scroll with ink, color, and gold on silk. Trying to get its dimensions (55 3/16 x 26 7/8 in.) to fit in a square shape was difficult.
Not as difficult as having your arm sliced open while playing go, but still.
This painting needed a stirring, dramatic, over-the-top theme…something that spoke to the 100-year-long scope and romance of the story upon which the painting is based.
Plus, he’s getting his arm sliced open while wide awake. That’s pretty epic.
I made everything big here:
giant bass drum
even bigger snare drum(s)
grandiose string line
I have no idea how the halting, very quantized organ part came to be. It first showed up during the breakdown starting at 0:49, and eventually made it into the whole beat. A bit out of place with the other instrumentation maybe, but I think it gives the beat real forward motion.
Finally, there is some genuine tension here with the bass and the harmony/melody a half step apart throughout the whole thing. Hooray, dissonance!
If Hokusai really did have his daughter and other students create some of the art attributed to him, it would hardly be surprising.
I was reminded of this in a disturbing Vanity Fair piece from last year:
“The composers have six or seven projects on the go at any point,” he said, referring to lead composers working in television. “The leader sets the ‘tonal palette’ to get them going. And then the minions do the actual writing.”
I guess when you get that famous and/or busy, you just can’t keep up.
Or you get lazy, which is worse.
Or bored. The ultimate crime.
Until next week, thanks for reading Polyester City. If you have any thoughts, please leave a comment by clicking the link above. If you know anyone who likes Music and Art and Stories [and Racer X], which is pretty much everyone, please consider sharing by clicking the link below.